Connie Yeh

The Wall Street Dropout

dsc3433.jpgIn 2013, taking measure of Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project will require less speculation and more observation. As once-gauzy plans come to fruition, a health clinic will begin taking patients and a business park will emerge from shipping containers. And, if Connie Yeh succeeds, a preschool will open in a former church building on the corner of Ninth Street and Bridger Avenue.

Many eyes will be on her effort as she sets out to accomplish an unorthodox mission. How will she, using the ample resources of the Downtown Project, design a private preschool that represents a meaningful and significant departure from traditional models? It’s especially intriguing because the 30-year-old director of education initiatives for Downtown Project has no background in education.

Yeh was in New York trading derivatives at Citigroup in 2011 when her Las Vegas cousin, Zappos CEO and Downtown Project founder Tony Hsieh, paid her a visit. Hsieh, who believes that curiosity and capability trump conventional training, talked Yeh into leaving Wall Street to help, as she put it, create a community from scratch. Three months later, she and her husband, Don Welch (also a former financier, now in charge of the project’s small-business team), left Battery Park City for Downtown Las Vegas.

“I did well in school,” Yeh says, explaining the fit. “I was a test-taker, very book-smart, and I think after going to college and working, it made me realize those aren’t the qualities that make you successful later on—it’s the creativity and critical thinking and public speaking and a lot of the nonacademic skills. It’s not what you get on a test that matters, but who you are as a person, and how the educational environment shapes you.”

This is the philosophy underlying Yeh’s approach to Ninth Bridge, the working name of the school. Her assignment is to enhance the educational choices within walking distance of the Downtown Project epicenter on East Fremont—adjacent to the new Zappos headquarters in the old City Hall. It’s part of the project’s overarching goal to attract creative-class professionals and businesses to the long-stagnant urban core. Yeh has spent the last 18 months visiting schools, reading research on early childhood education, surrounding herself with experts and immersing herself in alternative approaches to education such as Montessori and the YouTube-based Khan Academy, which emphasizes creativity and the self-guided use of technology.

“We really want to focus on collaboration and community and experiential and hands-on learning,” Yeh says, giving the example of gardens, where children can learn math by counting seeds and measuring soil. To facilitate this approach, the building is being designed with elements such as sliding-glass walls between classrooms and doors opening from classes onto gardens.

Yeh will begin with the preschool for children 6 weeks old through kindergarten and gradually add grades through high school. The 80- to 100-student preschool will be tuition-based and accept applications from the community, and is expected to include many Zappos employees’ children after the company makes its own move Downtown in the fall. Yeh doesn’t yet know how students will be selected if applications exceed capacity.

“First come, first served?” she wonders.

Add that to the list of things for her to figure out between now and August.

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