Stephanie Barfield can remember feeling as if she had come to a fork in the road and had to make a significant choice when she was a college student: a career in business or education.
A former camp counselor, she loved volunteering with kids, and had opportunities to do so through her multicultural education courses at UVA. Yet at that point in her life, a job in education seemed limited by a pathway to teaching—and staying in that role until retirement.
Barfield recalls a pivotal coffee chat she had with Teach For America when she was grappling with her looming decision. The hard work she put in to get into the Comm School, followed by her efforts at McIntire as a Marketing and International Business concentrator, meant something to her: She loved business and wasn’t ready to abandon it.
She would have a college internship in banking at Lehman Brothers that offered her a full-time position. Barfield took it, but with the idea that it wouldn’t be a long commitment. As such, that role would not signal the end of her interest in education.
“It wasn’t until after I left Lehman when I was exploring jobs that I found a financial analyst position at a small but growing charter network in New York now called Success Academies. I thought, ‘Oh, I can actually still stay connected to an area that I’m really passionate about and also do work that I’m interested in.’”
Barfield would spend nearly a decade working in nonprofit education organizations across the city. “I tell everyone that I did everything except for teach and fundraise. I really got to understand how businesses run in an area that I’m really passionate about,” she says. “I never could have imagined that I would be able to merge both of those interests.”
The result of those interests eventually brought her to Guild, a career opportunity company that began with a focus on making education benefits and skilling accessible and equitable to as many people as possible. The company has since evolved to increase its focus on career opportunity, connecting education and skills to economic and career mobility. They now include career support for employees of their employer partners across different industries, age groups, and learning needs.
And though she joined on as a Team Engagement Director with its Member Services team in 2022, Barfield moved into a new role in early 2023, assuming a completely unscripted position as Director of Employee Opportunity.
In bettering the lives of others through education, her title encapsulates both what she endeavors to achieve for her colleagues at Guild as well as what the organization aims to provide for those they serve through their employer partners, and ultimately, for society.
It’s Barfield’s personal experience that has shaped her views about the distinctive power of learning.
“My parents spent a lot of energy and time investing in my education from a young age; that was a really high priority in my household,” says the Washington, DC, product. As she met more people and matured, she came to understand that financial disparities prevented others from having the same types of support for their own future. That lesson led her to gravitate toward courses in equity and social justice, and she dedicated herself to volunteering, tutoring at UVA, and helping others to succeed.
Later, in 2011, she enrolled at Princeton University to earn her M.P.A. in Public Affairs and Domestic Policy. Though Barfield had no expectation of working in government, she considered the program a way of exploring avenues to enact change through social impact work.
It all led to her strong interest in seeing more people acquire access to high-quality education. “That’s still a big part of why I’m a part of mission-driven organizations now,” she says.
Guild connects learning institutions and providers with employers, who in turn provide their employees with tuition-free education and skills training ranging from high school completion programs and college degrees, to short-form certificates and assistance in earning master’s degrees, among other options. But Guild’s horizons are extending beyond those programs.
“We’re thinking about our work differently, and asking how education creates opportunity career pathways to propel folks into the middle class,” Barfield says.
In her role, she’s focused more internally, probing questions about creating new avenues for advancement for those at Guild. “I just stepped into this role in February, when we also announced our first Chief Opportunity Officer and formed our team with the purpose of eliminating the wealth gap by creating cultures of opportunity for historically and marginalized communities at Guild as well as at our partner organizations,” she says, admitting that it can be daunting.
“It’s a really big goal. We talk about BHAGs: Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. There’s no playbook for this work. My boss often reminds me that nobody’s done this before. We’ve just got to try some things and see if they work or not,” she says, explaining that one of her biggest projects at the moment is to develop the company’s opportunity framework. The effort aims to provide an overview of the actions her team has decided are central to building the aforementioned cultures of opportunity, determining measurement systems for their actions, and guiding the organization to further advance its tenets.
“Everything I Really Care About”
These massive challenges Guild faces are exactly what is energizing Barfield about her position. She calls it the perfect mix of what she’s most interested in: creating opportunity, giving resources to those who haven’t had access to it, equity, and, of course, business.
That latter concern has also made a difference for her, as this role represents the first time in years that she has supported a for-profit organization. “To be able to work at a B Corp and have my core work be mission aligned and critical for the company’s overall goals takes a lot of what I learned at McIntire,” she says, pointing out that her third-year Integrated Core courses made her the professional she is today.
“Now, I’m at the intersection of policy, business, and social impact, and I would have never imagined that was possible when I was a UVA student—because I just didn’t have the language back then,” she clarifies. “I’m really excited to be in a place where I get to do everything I really care about.”