Conversations on Passion: Dr. Karl Reid

Conversations on Passion is an interview series with those who have found and are living their passions in some form. If you'd like to be profiled or know someone who would be a great fit, send me a note at


I've known Dr. Karl Reid for many years, beginning when I started at MIT and he served as my first academic advisor. Since then, I've watched him grow and change others in ways that I can only hope to do one day. From continuing on to receive his Ed.D. in education while heading the Office of Minority Education at MIT, to affecting change on a national scale in the education system for minorities, Karl has been incredibly passionate about helping others and a true mentor to me. I'm very humbled that we were able to sit down a few months ago and discuss his thoughts on passion and his path that led him to where he is today.

What is passion to you?

Many years ago, I worked for IBM as my first job after college. After six years with them, they offered many of us a chance to take a package to leave during a downsizing effort. In the process they provided us with career planning guidance, and while considering what I was going to do next, there was a book I read entitled, “Do What You Love, and The Money Will Follow” I think that phrase embodied in the title answers your question: Passion is doing what you love.

Passion to me is that which consumes you, that which when you are not intentionally thinking about it, you're thinking about it. I think about dating someone for the first time when you're constantly thinking creatively about ways you can be with that person. When you’re always thinking about an idea, a concept, or a person, that's passion to me.

Some describe it as your “avocation” – the things that you believe in and want to pursue, as opposed to a “vocation”— the things that enable you to eat. Ultimately you want to get to the point where your avocation and your vocation come together. That to me is what passion is.

What are you passionate about?

I feel that I'm called to create access and opportunities for people, particularly in education. Many many moons ago, I went to a church conference and one of the messages was based on Proverbs 31: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” I just felt like that was my calling; to use the gifts that I have to create access for college and opportunities for education for people who are marginalized, people who are not spoken for, for those who may not see opportunities before them. So I feel like I'm always a champion for those who don't or can't speak up for themselves. I've been privileged to have the best education and to have a wonderful family and parents who gave me both inspiration and aspirations, and I just feel a responsibility to represent and serve. Education helped hone that in me. I realized that education is a channel to create access and opportunities, so that's my primary passion.

You say primary, which means you believe that you can have a secondary and tertiary passion...

Absolutely, I think one can have multiple passions and you put it right, they could be secondary and tertiary interests. For instance, I get hyped about making connections between those who don't feel they're powerful with those who have proven themselves in a domain. Also, once I became a Christian (and now it's been almost 34 years), I developed a related passion for people to grow spiritually, to know what their purpose is. So it's again creating access and opportunity, in this case to help individuals mature enough spiritually to pursue and fulfill their God-given purpose. As an engineer, I believe everything has a purpose. And purpose is something that you never really achieve, but you always know when you encounter someone who’s fulfilling theirs, who’s doing what they feel called to do.

And I believe you can't have a sense of purpose, unless you believe, in a God. Because you have to believe in some sort of divine order, that you're placed on this earth for a reason. A reason that could explain why you have the interests you have and the experiences you have, whether good, bad, or ugly.

Some of my recent discussions around passion approached not only the “What are you passionate about,” but also the “Why are you passionate about it?” What are your thoughts on that?

I'm always asking the “why?” or the “so what?” question. This is one of the reasons why I left the software industry and returned to MIT as an administrator. I decided to pursue my passion and get back into education. I remember walking up and down the exhibit hall of a large software conference, and I was overhearing the pitches from everyone from booth to booth and they all sounded the same; it was almost as if everyone was replaced by automatons. I felt at that point that nothing was unique or novel any longer. I had no passion for the work I was doing. At the end of the day I asked myself, “What good is it if I sold another piece of software?” There are so many other needs that required my skills, and I thought that my gifts were not being utilized.

So how did you make that shift? How did you go from being in software to being in education?

I didn’t just quit. It was a gradual process that began years earlier. When I was with IBM, I become a Junior Achievement volunteer and taught a 7th grade class on basic economics once a week. At the same time, my wife and I were teaching youth at church. So we were always somewhat connected to education and I think it was the realization at that point and subsequently later, that I really enjoyed education. When I decided to accept the payout at IBM, they asked me for the five things I've done in the last five years that I fully enjoyed and at which I was very successful. It became clear after doing this exercise that the common thread through all the things I enjoyed was education. So that was the start; it was a seed that was sown.

Just about the time I left IBM and went to work for another software company, I read a book by Jonathan Kozol called Savage Inequalities about the disparities in education. Kozol wrote case studies of five school districts, of some wealthy schools like Riverdale, NY compared to very poor districts like the South Bronx, all in close proximity. I remember getting angry as I read this book, asking myself how America could allow these inequities to exist. It was Mike Murdock, who wrote The Assignment, who wrote that you know your assignment based upon what gets you angry and what gets you upset. And Savage Inequalities got me upset.

That was in 1991, it took seven years to leave the software industry to return to my alma mater, MIT, to run the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program, a high school enrichment program for talented students, and it took another three years to start my doctorate in education. So my transition was gradual, but the seeds that were sown and had germinated to the point when I knew “I couldn't not” do it. I took a 30% pay cut and tightened the belt and never looked back.

You moved into education, and at this point it seems like you're looking to grow. It's not just being in education, you want to do more.

That was in 1998 when I returned to MIT. We had a successful year, one of my favorite years as Director of the summer enrichment program, but soon afterwards, I began to see patterns. One of the patterns was that there were no New England kids in the program that first year. The other pattern was that those who had applied from New England were not strong; they just couldn't compete with those coming from New York, Texas, Florida, and California. So we began a Saturday engineering academy for local high school students, and then a summer middle school program to serve as feeders for MITES.

In addition, as I began taking classes in my doctoral program, I decided that focusing on black males was where there was real need given their under-performance across all academic levels; I had real passion for this demographic. So I pursued not just creating access and opportunities for all underrepresented groups, but specifically I felt that I could improve the outcomes for black males. That's when I started the Freshman Seminar for males at MIT, based on what I was learning in my doctorate program.

Still, at that point, I started to see that on a good day, I was working with 350 young people at MIT, but there were 1,000 underrepresented students at MIT, 7,000 in Cambridge, and 55,000 in Boston. So I was only scratching the surface. I just felt that I needed to do something where I could bring all those skills to a national scale to have a broader impact, which is why I accepted a position at UNCF.

This path is an awesome journey, but I imagine somewhere along the line, things didn't really go to plan. Can you share a time when you “failed” in your passion?

Oh, there are a lot of times I’ve failed! I question, and it remains to be seen, whether or not moving to UNCF was the right move for me. I was on a path toward establishing a brand and a mission of being a national voice for black males and student achievement when I worked at MIT, and while finishing up my doctorate. Moving to UNCF gave me both a credential and experience with a national non-profit organization. It gave me an opportunity to do a lot, and I learned a significant amount about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and some of their struggles. I learned about creating national pipeline programs, raising money, and building connections with national foundations like the Kresge, Ford, and Lumina Foundations and others. But I think I'm just coming back to the trajectory I thought I was on in 2008 when I left MIT, because I suppressed a lot of that while working for UNCF.

Out of need or for another reason? Because you can obviously only do but so much...

That's correct; I had a lot of responsibilities with UNCF. Two years ago, I received a performance review that said, “Karl's scholarship on African-American males in STEM is not the core mission of his job.” In other words, I was being critiqued for doing what I thought was my purpose.

I think I paid in terms of my own passion and interests for being at UNCF a little longer than I should have. So in that regard, I think that was a bad decision, at least to stay as long as I did. And I wonder if I lost 3-5 years from that trajectory I thought I was on at MIT. It remains to be seen if this was a good lesson, or the wrong path, or something I should take to heart and learn from. It was a very painful two years in a lot of respects.

However, I've just accepted a position as the Executive Director of the National Society of Black Engineers, which I think should put me back on the path I initially planned.

Are there any tips that you have for others to help them along in their journey to finding their passion?

I would recommend that if they come from a religious background, to read Mike Murdock's book, The Assignment. Each chapter begins with, “You know your assignment when...” or “You know your assignment if...”. One of the chapters is entitled, “You know your assignment when people celebrate you and not tolerate you.” The book will help anyone start to put together a framework to understand their purpose and passion.

Secondly, recognize that your passion is not going to become clear all at once. I'm 51 years old [now 52], and it's probably in the last four or five years that things have become very clear to me.

The third tip is to write like you’re doing, Ryan. I believe a writer is someone who has a disciplined mind. Often times, new revelations come to me while I’m writing (or speaking about what I’ve written).

Finally, find mentors—people who know and love you and who can reflect back what they see in you. Doing so will help make your passion and purpose clearer, and give you the courage to pursue it!