Thursday, March 27, 2008

Learning from a Social Entrepreneur

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Learning from a Social Entrepreneur: "Learning from a Social Entrepreneur
To improve access to quality education, a real estate developer aims to puts public schools in commercial buildings—and convince investors her for-profit model works"

"Since most problems boiled down to real estate, I decided to marry my vision of improving access to quality education with my newfound belief in the power of real estate development. "The caveat? I'd become an entrepreneur who did well by doing good, not just while doing good.

Too Good to Be True?
I had my first pivotal idea for how to execute this vision in 2000, after working for the New York City Mayor's Office. During that time I had seen plenty of desirable office space left vacant from the dot-com bust while urban schools continued to struggle to find quality locations. I became convinced schools could be built faster and cheaper if integrated into private commercial buildings. In turn, schools could pay market rents and make great, creditworthy tenants, especially when markets went soft—as they were in 2000 and are again today. Also, it seemed any kid or teacher would far prefer to go to school in a swanky office building than in most traditional schools, which to me often resemble prisons.
At first, investors and government officials thought the concept sounded too good to be true, and assumed the catch was either that schools would drive out surrounding commercial demand or that such facilities would compromise the integrity of school environments.

But I thought I had a win-win scenario for all stakeholders. I just needed to show them it could actually work. In 2003, I received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. It was a perfect fit because it brought me the credibility to go from being a commercial developer to an education policy reformer, and allowed me to prove my idea was both possible and scalable. After a year of intense research, I had strong evidence that my concept could indeed create enormous benefits to student achievement, including enhanced teacher retention and increased access to professional role models. During that time, I also co-founded my first urban development company, the Christie Wareck Co., returning to New Haven to begin several downtown redevelopment projects with the hopes of bringing schools into them.

"visiting friends who were struggling to make a measurable impact through the traditional NGO [nongovernmental organization] paths. It was then, witnessing their frustration, that I began to see how well-suited my business strategy was to developing countries under pressure to increase access to quality education with extremely limited financial resources. "

When I raise capital, I live the challenge we social entrepreneurs often face of not being easily categorized by philanthropists and investors. Social venture funds assume we're exploiting students or targeting privileged families, neither of which is the case. Conversely, I struggle to convince mainstream investors, distracted by the compelling social outcomes, that they're investing in a commercial real estate deal, not a philanthropic venture. Luckily, some sophisticated investors familiar with emerging markets do indeed get the point. After all, many of them made a killing through microfinance using similar principles.
Still, several investors have asked if I'd set up a nonprofit to accept a donation for a tax shelter rather than make an investment that could yield robust returns. This is disheartening. It shows how many still assume social and economic returns are mutually exclusive.

The silver lining is that the skepticism of others creates my first-mover advantage to seize fringe opportunities they can't yet see. But I suppose that's what all risk-taking entrepreneurs do—arrive unfashionably early to the party and warm up the dance floor for all those watching but too afraid to get their groove on.

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