Toyota Executive Goes Back to School--as the Principal

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Tellis Bethel, chief diversity officer and group vice president of Social Innovation, Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) wanted to experience first-hand what it’s like to head up the West Dallas STEM School.

Ever wonder what it’d be like to be the principal of a school? There’s the long way: change careers, earn a master’s degree, become an instructor, qualify for certificates, and take dozens of exams.

And then there’s the direct route: enroll in Dallas Independent School District’s (DISD) “Principal for a Day” program. In the spirit of “genchi genbutsu,” which means “to go and see,” Tellis Bethel, chief diversity officer and group vice president of Social Innovation, Toyota Motor North America (TMNA), wanted to experience first-hand what it’s like to head up the West Dallas STEM School.

And so, he stepped into the shoes of Principal for a Day, a program created by the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) to foster understanding and closeness with local partners. Bethel, in his full-time role, oversees TMNA’s strategic partnerships, philanthropic efforts, and diversity and inclusion activities. He’s passionate about advancing equity for all and directs Toyota’s initiatives for expanding access to opportunities and creating a culture of inclusion that strengthens both communities and TMNA.

But on this brisk fall day in West Dallas, Bethel took time to play a different role: principal at the West Dallas STEM School, where the Toyota USA Foundation first kicked off its Driving Possibilities initiative. The Principal for a Day program allows community leaders to become a school principal for a day to help foster connections between businesses, organizations and schools. It provides valuable insight into the education system while also providing students with real-world perspectives and inspiration for their future endeavors.


Toyotas Social Innovation team sat down with Bethel to ask him a few questions about his experience, what it meant to him, and what it means for Toyota:

Social Innovation team: What was it like to be Principal for a Day at the West Dallas STEM School?

Tellis Bethel: It was an incredibly rewarding, humbling and energizing experience. As I went throughout the day, I saw so much hope and excitement in the eyes of the students. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the current issues we face, but the students reminded me that there’s great promise and hope for the future. The kindergarteners and first graders I spent time with have boundless energy and enthusiasm to learn. Encouraged by their dedicated—and innovative— educators, they have a solid start towards a future of their choosing putting them, one day, in the driver’s seat of their careers. I have so much respect for educators who, day in and day out, are giving their all to help these students succeed.

SI: Toyota launched Driving Possibilities last year, and this year, announced four new sites. It all began here with West Dallas as the model. What does this support mean for Toyota?

TB: The Driving Possibilities initiative, whether in West Dallas or in any of the communities we activate across the country, reinforces our commitment to being a good corporate steward. It’s aligned with our Toyota culture of improving the communities where we work and live and creating opportunities and pathways to success. One important feature of Driving Possibilities is that we don’t simply enter a community with a pre-set plan. We listen, we partner and we collaborate, joining in the collective goal of enriching these communities and supporting access to education. And that access includes more than STEM education. Critical wraparound services   are part of a holistic approach that supports the whole student, including transportation, access to healthy food, literacy programs, and more.

SI: You met with the West Dallas STEM School principals and educators. What commonalities apply to Toyota or could be applied to other organizations for this type of work?

TB: In meeting with the school principals, it quickly became apparent that we both share many common goals—one of which is to meet and exceed the needs of our customers. We both strive for continuous improvement, as both the private sector and our education systems continue to evolve. With our work in West Dallas and Driving Possibilities overall, we’ve just scratched the surface. So much investment is needed, and we welcome and encourage involvement from other corporations and community organizations to ensure the sustainability of our collective efforts.

Bethel interacts with students at the West Dallas STEM School as they learn about eclipses.

SI: What’s a personal highlight from this experience?

TB: It was so exciting to see kindergarten students taking their first steps toward coding. That’s the kind of hands-on learning we need to help prepare them for the jobs of the future. And they had so much enthusiasm and curiosity to explore coding. This is a skill that will certainly serve them well throughout their schooling and feeds their curiosity. I was really struck by their curiosity.

Another great moment was working with the first graders as they learned about eclipses. With Dallas an ideal spot to witness next April’s full solar eclipse, the WDSS teachers are making sure the students are ready!

SI: Can team members get involved with the West Dallas STEM School?

TB: Absolutely! We invite all team members to participate in volunteer activities at the West Dallas STEM School. Volunteerism is a strong part of our unique Toyota culture and, with the West Dallas STEM School in particular, it allows team members to be part of our Driving Possibilities initiative. Similarly, with Driving Possibilities launched in other locations and more on the way, there will be volunteer opportunities at those communities across the U.S. as well.

Tellis Bethel, chief diversity officer and group vice president of Social Innovation, Toyota Motor North America (TMNA), with Marion Jackson, principal of the West Dallas STEM School.