As an early-education leader and mother of two, Jesse Ilhardt dreams of a world where all children grow and learn in the context of play and nurturing relationships.

Why you should listen

Building on firsthand experience as a preschool teacher, teacher coach and program leader, Jesse Ilhardt co-founded VOCEL in 2013, a nationally-recognized, science-informed and community-driven early learning organization, and was named the Executive Director in 2021.

Across these roles, she has combined intellectual horsepower, creativity and business acumen to develop innovative programs for parents and educators, lead high-impact teams rooted in compassion and cultivate champions of young children.

Ilhardt loves learning about people’s experiences with early education and facilitating mainstream discussions about complex brain science, to inform our collective work and elevate young children’s ideas and experiences. She has presented at events hosted by numerous national and local institutions including Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, A Better Chicago, The Collaboration for Early Childhood and the Illinois Association for Infant Mental Health.

Her entrepreneurial nature carries over to her personal life where you can find her visiting the newest foodie hotspots, and curating adventures -- big and small -- with her family and friends.

Jesse Ilhardt’s TED talk