The Root 100 Close-Up: James Shelton

The U.S. Department of Education's innovation chief works to create equal opportunities for all students.

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But that disparity could be evolving toward something better, he says. There have been discussions in Congress, as well as among Education Secretary Arne Duncan's coterie of top administrators, about creating an education "DARPA," referring to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Defense Department agency responsible for developing everything from the Internet to airborne drones.

"A DARPA for education," says Shelton, with a hint of wonder in his voice, "is something on the horizon."

Shelton has encountered plenty of bumps along the two-mile route from Southeast Washington to his current office at Department of Education headquarters. His college career almost took a nosedive his freshman year, when he flunked a calculus course (not because of bad grades but for failing to attend classes) and lost his scholarship. He was forced to go into a program for working students, alternating semesters in school with six-month stints at a job. Then he scored a summer internship with Exxon, which gave him enough money to stay in school full time. The company also gave him a job when he graduated.

His Exxon experience even gave him a moment of glittering redemption with that math professor who had given him an F in calculus. On a visit to his alma mater, from which Shelton had graduated with a degree in computer science in 1989, he ran into the professor, now the head of the Morehouse computer-science program, funded by Exxon.

The professor described a conversation he had had with an Exxon official. "I asked them why they were doing this," the professor said, "and they said, 'If Morehouse is turning out people like Jim Shelton, then we need to support it.' "

Shelton went on to graduate school at Stanford, earning both a master's degree in education and an MBA in 1993. "I wanted to go into education, but my family insisted I had to make money first," he says. His talent at working on computer systems got him the money, but it also revved up his ambition. He was already up to his elbows in educational activities as a volunteer -- tutoring needy youngsters, serving as a youth advocate, working at a teen emergency center -- but the computer work got him to think systemically.

"I loved the direct service, but how was I going to touch millions of people?" he says.

He has since worked as a partner for a national school-management company and as a consultant with McKinsey & Co., advising corporate executives on business strategy and organizational design. He has also run his own education-related business, setting up charter and contract schools. Before being tagged by the Obama administration, he worked for more than five years as educational program manager for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He and his wife, Sonia, and two sons live near Columbia Heights in Washington.

Shelton clearly knows his stuff, but there can sometimes be an extra note of urgency in his delivery. He calls it being "mission-focused."

He tells about being offered a partnership at a company he had been working for and responding in knee-jerk fashion. "I was literally filling out the partnership papers while having a conversation with one of my mentors in the company," Shelton says. "He was saying, 'You know, at some point you have to stop preparing for something and just do it.' "