Alumni Spotlight: Talia Milgrom-Elcott (2001; New York, Paris)

March 2, 2022

Cleary Gottlieb alumni often reflect upon their time at the firm with fondness and gratitude.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Founder and Executive Director at 100Kin10 & Starfish Institute, shares some of her thoughts below.

Why did you choose Cleary and when were you with us?

I chose Cleary because I loved the seriousness with which it took its international presence. A real and serious intellectual NY firm that loved and valued international offices. No one else had a strong NY and Paris connection and I knew I wanted to spend some time in Paris. Also I could tell from the interviews that “my people” were there - people who loved legal problems and legal thinking; who loved law as a tool but also cared about justice. I split my summer between New York and Paris in 2001.

What skills did you learn or experiences did you have at Cleary that have served you well?

Three things stand out to me: (1) You really want to surround yourself with people from whom you can learn. I’ve carried this into every environment. (2) People in the firm saw their careers as long – some beyond the firm. I loved this view of one’s career as a lattice vs. simply being a ladder. I appreciated that openness. (3) There was an enormous amount of mentoring. People in leadership took time to mentor us as young associates. I have tried to honor that and embody it as I progress in my own career.

What drew you to the NYC Department of Education and then Carnegie?

After law school, I took a legal fellowship for a year at “Jobs with Justice” and then clerked in the Second Circuit. I realized then that the practice of law wasn’t where I wanted to make change. Lawyers get to problems once they’re fully blown, and I wanted to get at problems at the root. I continue to believe that we won’t solve poverty or inequality if schools can’t be engines of mobility and the American dream. When schools work, they are that. They fuel this country to be one of limitless possibility. And when they don’t, they perpetuate inequity and feed distrust and a feeling that nothing can ever change. At the time, the NYC Department of Ed chancellor was a lawyer, and I was intrigued by the chance to make an impact in the biggest school district in the country. I was there for three years and I left feeling hopeful about education. It was a time of incredibly energy. There were fewer teacher vacancies, lots of new schools. At Carnegie Corporation, I led an education portfolio with grant makers. We asked ourselves “How do we get and keep great teachers and principals in our highest-need schools?” Sadly there is no silver bullet, but we do know that great learning and growth happen when teachers are supported, classrooms are vibrant and joyful, and students feel that they belong and can succeed.

You then co-founded and are Executive Director of 100kin10. What prompted you to create this organization?

In January of 2011, in his State of the Union, President Obama put out a call for “the addition of 100,000 excellent STEM teachers in the next ten years.” We knew that the fastest-growing sectors were in the STEM fields – science, tech, engineering, and math, and that people with STEM degrees got significant pay differentials (today, it’s 25% for men and a whopping 33% for women)! And even a decade before the pandemic, we knew that almost all the world’s most pressing problems would require STEM-based solutions. We also knew we couldn’t reach President Obama’s goal alone.

This goal was bigger than what any one organization could do on its own. We needed to create a way for diverse organizations to work in concert and allow each organization to contribute their own resources and assets to this shared goal. We grew from 28 organizations to over 300. We kept everyone connected and invested and learning from each other. We created ways for people to partner and innovate collaboratively. Ten years is a long time, but the network effects of connection, inspiration, learning, and innovation – and the pull of that big goal – kept momentum sustained.

What do you enjoy most about this effort?

We are here to solve this particular challenge, but in doing so we are proving that it is possible to solve big, hard challenges.

What’s the biggest misconception about a project like yours?

That everything has to be perfect. We made a lot of mistakes and we showed them all. Total transparency. You can check them out yourself at We all learn best by doing and sharing.

Are there any legal issues you needed to consider?

A few. And I reached out to former classmates and colleague when that happened. We knew the field would need to create content that would be shared so interesting IP questions as we created mechanisms for co-investment in shared product. We worked with the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard to come up with creative solutions.

What has surprised you?

I was surprised at how much a big goal mattered. We do a lot of good things in the impact sector, but we don’t always see those efforts adding up to change. A big, audacious goal like the one we were working toward mobilizes the best in each of us to contribute. People were working against the odds, but we did it.

What advice do you have for a young Cleary associate who may want to pursue a similar career path?

Surround yourself with great people to learn from. You can learn in every environment you are in – and from surprising people. Do work you are passionate about, that’s going to light you up. Don’t be afraid. Find the job that only you can do.

What is something you wish you knew earlier in your career?

I wish I knew earlier why it was helpful to sweat the small stuff. It’s not because it matters, per se. It’s because in the process of sweating it you learn things. You get to mastery. You understand parts and how they connect. You become trustworthy – someone who people rely on. As soon as you gain that, you can stop sweating the small stuff. I also wish I knew earlier when to let it go. To go from independent contributor to manager – you need to let it go. Lastly, the difference between persuasive influence and positional influence. You don’t have to be in an official position of power or be “in the room” to make a large impact.

Your 100kin10 mission was accomplished in 2021. What’s next?

Even having prepared 108,000 new STEM teachers, we still have a shortage. And decades of racism and exclusion have left too many of our children, especially our Black, Latinx, and Native American young people, too far from inclusion in the STEM fields. Knowing that, we decided to set our next goal based on the experience of young people. In the fall of 2021, we launched the unCommission, a massive experience of storytelling and listening in which 600 young people, 80% people of color, shared stories about experiences in STEM while in K-12. A deep vein than ran through the stories was that kids needed to feel they belong in STEM and can succeed, and that their teachers were the key to making that happen. We are taking these stories in and are going to announce our next moonshot goal later this year.

Is there anything our Cleary alumni community can do to support you?

I’m in a million alumni circles but there is no one else’s emails I read. There is something so beautiful about this big wide open stance Cleary takes with its alumni. I love that the firm has wide open arms, from summers to retired partners and everyone in between.

We are always looking for new corporate and philanthropic partners to support STEM learning and the work of our partners. We hope you’ll make your own commitment and join us in this next 10-year goal. Everyone has an interest in students – these are your future tech stars, energy workers, health care workers, manufacturing designers, climate scientists, and even lawyers. We are all in this.

Learn more about Cleary’s global alumni network here.