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Michael  Sorrell

Michael Sorrell

Transformative College President & Higher Ed Innovator

Biography

Ranked with the likes of Tim Cook and Bill and Melinda Gates on Fortune’s 2018 list of the world’s greatest leaders, Michael Sorrell transformed struggling Paul Quinn College in Dallas into one of the most innovative colleges in America. An attorney and former White House staffer, Sorrell brought a bold new vision to Paul Quinn, focusing on academic rigor, experiential learning and entrepreneurship. He also pioneered what he named the “urban work college model,” based on Paul Quinn’s dramatic success. Inspiring, straight-talking, and with a compelling and hopeful story to tell, Sorrell received a standing ovation at SXSW Education for his dynamic delivery and groundbreaking approaches to reinventing the future of American higher education. Read More >

When Sorrell took the helm of Paul Quinn in 2007, enrollment had been declining for more than five years and the college was on the verge of being shut down. Today, it is considered a shining model of urban education and most years, has a waiting list. As Fortune noted when naming him to their top 50, “Sorrell quickly set about challenging perceptions, both external and internal, by giving Paul Quinn a bigger vision of itself.” With a rallying cry of “WE Over Me,” and a mission to end poverty, Sorrell led both a movement and a total transformation. He bolstered admissions standards, stepped up recruitment, demolished abandoned campus buildings and, in partnership with PepsiCo, turned the football field into an organic farm that feeds the neighborhood and the Dallas Cowboys. The college was honored as HBCU of the Year, the HBCU Student Government Association of the Year and the HBCU Business Program of the Year and was named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. It also became one of only a handful of federally recognized work colleges, a key component of the school’s reality-based educational approach.

Sorrell has received numerous awards and recognition for his civic and educational leadership. He is the only three-time recipient of the HBCU Male President of the Year award and was named one of America’s 10 Most Innovative College Presidents. He also received Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and PUSH/Excel’s Education Leadership Award, the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and the A. Kenneth Pye Award for Excellence in Education from Duke University’s School of Law. Sorrell received a B.A. from Oberlin, a J.D. and M.A. in Public Policy from Duke University and an Ed.D from the University of Pennsylvania. He was the recipient of a Sloan Foundation Graduate Fellowship, studying as a graduate fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Duke. Before taking leadership of Paul Quinn, Sorrell enjoyed a successful career representing professional basketball players, as a public affairs consultant, attorney and as a special assistant in the White House under Bill Clinton.

A talented and energizing presenter, Sorrell has inspired crowds at TEDx, SXSW EDU, The Aspen Institute and Duke University, and numerous other venues with his vision for education, uniting communities and leading through challenges. His memorable speeches often include his formula for success at Paul Quinn College: Preach hope, practice patience, instill resilience, be entrepreneurial in thought and action and, most of all, lead with love. Read Less ^

Speaker Videos

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Speech Topics

Values-Driven Leadership

How did the president of a small, historically black college serving low income students end up alongside Tim Cook and Bill Gates on the Fortune list of the world’s top 50 leaders? The answer: Michael Sorrell’s transformational brand of values-driven leadership. Taking on the challenge of turning around struggling Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Sorrell — who brought a background ranging from corporate securities law to working in the White House — forged a bold, mission-based vision that fueled an innovation-driven culture. He also developed inspiring, actionable core values that stakeholders — from students and faculty to local residents and the business community — could embrace and champion. Creating an institutional ethos of “Me Over We,” a mission to end intergenerational poverty and four guiding principles, Sorrell literally transformed Paul Quinn into a new model for higher education. In this energizing keynote, he shares leadership lessons that can be applied to transforming any type organization — from the corporate world to healthcare, education and more.

Becoming an Anchor Institution in Your Community

When Michael Sorrell transformed Paul Quinn College, he also transformed the surrounding community. As an anchor institution with a mission to end intergenerational poverty, PQC became a center of community life and a strong voice for the welfare of its underserved, low-income residents. Most dramatically, he turned a football field into an organic farm, creating easy access to fresh, healthy produce in an urban “food desert” with no supermarket. In Dallas and beyond, Sorrell forged innovative partnerships with businesses, creating jobs and training programs for PQC students and gaining institutional support. This included selling fresh, organic produce from the college’s Pepsico-sponsored farm to the Dallas Cowboys. In this inspiring and highly instructive talk, Sorrell shares stunning examples and practical advice to help any type organization — businesses, schools, colleges, hospitals, health centers or community service organizations — become an anchor institution that mobilizes others as the center of positive change in their community. He also empowers individuals and families to step up, get involved and not wait for others to take action.

Confronting Intergenerational Poverty

According to Michael Sorrell, "If you give a student an 'A' education and then you send them back into an 'F' life, you have not really helped that student. Learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum." Today in America, our educational systems are defined by poverty. The majority of students in higher education depend on Pell Grants and students in public K-12 schools rely on free and reduced lunches for their meals. As our country becomes majority minority, these students no longer look like the legislators who are in charge of funding the educational systems that will prepare these students for the future. In this thought-provoking talk, Michael Sorrell confronts the state of intergenerational poverty in our country and its effect on education and society. Bringing the perspective of a college president serving a population in which 90% of students were raised in poverty, he shares bold and pragmatic solutions. Viewing poverty as an "immigrant experience" Sorrell shares how Paul Quinn College’s Urban Work College Model is helping students migrate out of poverty — and how their success story can serve as an inspiration for our nation.

Teaching Students to Dream Bigger: You Can’t Be It If You Don’t See It

As the president of college in which 90% of the student population has known nothing but poverty, Michael Sorrell knows that, without game-changing interventions, "we become the things we’ve seen." "If you go to an under-resourced high school and you ask the students, 'What do you want to be?'" he says, "the valedictorian may tell you, 'I love science and I want to be a nurse.' Ask the same question at a private high school or one in an affluent public district and you’ll hear, 'I really love science. I want to be a doctor.' It’s not that both kids don’t have the same potential. It’s that one of them has been coached to dream small and one has been encouraged to dream boldly." In this inspiring keynote, Sorrell shares real world stories of lives changed by exposing students to what’s possible. "We must inspire our students to see their potential, dream big and truly believe that it’s not where you start—it’s where you finish."

Transforming Higher Education

In 2007, Paul Quinn College was a failing historically black college on a path to shut his doors within 18 months. In 2011, PQC was named the HBCU of the Year. By 2018, PQC had been transformed into one of the most innovative colleges in America with its president, Michael Sorrell, on Fortune’s list of the world’s greatest leaders. In this dynamic keynote that builds upon his breakout SXSW EDU appearance, Sorrell tells the story of PQC, where 90% of students have grown up in poverty. Sharing how values-driven leadership transformed the school from a college to a "We Over Me" movement that pioneered the Urban Work College model, he tells the inspiring story of a college that dared to be great — and reinvented itself with a focus on academic rigor, experiential learning and entrepreneurship. He also provides valuable insights for any organization looking to embark on transformation.

Connect with Michael Sorrell