José F. Oliva Joins ZSR Board of Trustees Former ZSR fellow’s return to Foundation is like “coming back home”


We are thrilled to welcome José F. Oliva to the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation (ZSR) Board of Trustees!

José is no stranger to ZSR; a few years ago, he was a ZSR intern and fellow, and today he is a respected partner of many of our grantees. His personal and professional experience will add tremendous value to ZSR's efforts to serve the people of North Carolina.

Today’s announcement date holds special significance for José: exactly thirteen years ago, he set foot in the United States, and specifically Greensboro, North Carolina, for the first time. 

José’s mother immigrated to Greensboro when José was just seven months old, in search of opportunities to provide for her family. José remained in Guatemala, where his grandparents raised him. Then, on January 16, 2011, after almost 15 years of living away from his mother, José obtained his green card and was finally able to join her in Greensboro. 

José spoke very little English when he enrolled in Doris Henderson Newcomers School, a Guilford County public school that helps immigrants and their families transition to life in the United States. 

“I was behind in academics compared to my peers,” José says. But he worked hard to catch up, and his efforts caught the attention of district leaders, including then-superintendent Maurice “Mo” Green. 

José was asked to join the superintendent’s student advisory council, an experience that introduced him to public service – and public servants – up close. José remembers being invited as a student to meet President Barack Obama, who was visiting Guilford County on a policy tour. 

“I was late to the meeting because I didn’t have transportation,” José recalls. “I finally found a ride, but I had to stand in the back because I was so late. Mo saw me come in and pulled me up to the front so I could participate. I had never met anyone famous — and here I was, meeting the president of the United States!”

After graduating high school, José attended Guilford College, where he served as the first and youngest Latino student body president and a Bonner Scholar, completing several internships related to addressing social and policy issues.
One of those internships was at ZSR. A year later, as he was about to graduate college, he applied and was selected for the two-year ZSR Fellowship.

“I felt at home in many ways [at ZSR],” José says. “It was exciting to work with influential leaders across NC on all the issues I cared about: public education, democracy, social justice, economic development and the environment.”

Photo caption: José F. Oliva poses with Tom Ross and Joy Vermillion Heinsohn, former and current ZSR executive directors, at the Public School Forum of NC gala in May 2023.

After his fellowship, José took a role with Replacements Ltd., a company based in Greensboro, leading the company’s public affairs and philanthropic efforts. Then, in 2021, he joined Guilford County Schools (GCS), the third largest school district in NC and 50th largest in the nation. 

In his time as deputy chief of staff and chief of staff at GCS, José successfully spearheaded a $1.7 billion school bond information campaign, the largest school bond in North Carolina’s history at the time; led the superintendent’s transition and organizational alignment to improve student achievement at scale; and executed the launch of Better Together, a new strategic direction for GCS informed by more than 200 community conversations with 8,000 total stakeholders. José is the first Latino to serve as chief of staff of a large urban district in NC.

He has lent his expertise to several boards, councils and committees, including ones with the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, Education NC, The Hunt Institute, Duke University’s North Carolina Leadership Forum, the North Carolina Justice Center, The North Carolina Conservation Network, and two advisory councils for the governor of North Carolina and the city of Greensboro.

Photo caption: José F. Oliva speaks at the opening of Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School in October 2023. Photo credit: Guilford County Schools

As a ZSR trustee, José will bring to the Foundation his experience in public service and a deep commitment to ZSR’s mission to improve the quality of life for all North Carolinians.

“There are very few foundations with such a broad mission,” José says. “ZSR has the tools and commitment needed to help make our state a great place for all North Carolinians, especially those who are most impacted by structural and historical inequities. I look forward to working with ZSR staff and trustees to drive positive change here in NC.”

Please join us in welcoming José (back) to ZSR!