It started back in nursery school.
That's where Dana Weeks met Xanthe Jory and Marya Gilborn, future educators and entrepreneurs who would one day dream of founding an arts-focused school for children in the South Bronx. Some 15 years later, Weeks reconnected with her childhood pals as a Stanford undergrad. Earlier this month she helped their dream come true as a member of the winning National Social Venture Competition team from Columbia Business School.
It was shared values and a series of coincidences that brought the Columbia team together with Jory, who earned her Masters of Education from Harvard, Gilborn, who has an MSW from Hunter College, and a third Stanford classmate, Gabe Esparza, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Columbia team member, Lee Swedowsky, grew up with Jory and Gilborn, a connection he discovered when he met Weeks in Cluster A last fall.
But it was NSVC board member and Columbia student Sarah Scrogin who brought the parties together: a dual degree Teacher's College/MBA, she had met Xanthe through educational channels and encouraged her to enter the competition, which matches social venture entrepreneurs with MBAs. Their clear partners would be Weeks and Swedowsky, plus a third Columbia Business School student, Catherine de Laura, whom Scrogin knew from the Social Return on Investment class they were taking together.
Once the team was assembled, "It was Xanthe's idea and our belief that they could make it happen" that drove the process, said Weeks, who is also the newly-elected president of the GBA.
Their joint business plan for the Bronx Charter School for the Arts won the NSVC $25,000 Grand Prize for the Medium-Growth Category. A public charter elementary school founded on the principle that arts education is essential to learning and human development, the Bronx Charter School for the Arts now has the critical seed money and credibility needed for the final push to open its doors in September 2003.
The proposed school also won a major victory last month when its charter won state approval, passing the particularly stringent series of curriculum, accountability, and other requirements set down by the New York State Board of Regents.
The school is slated to open in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the south Bronx, a poor, predominantly Hispanic community where 46 of households earn less than $10,000 a year. Because most students live below the poverty line, state aid will constitute the main source of the school's operating revenue once start-up funding is secured: New York State has already committed a state education grant of $450,000, disbursed over three years. In-kind contributions will also help the school to run important programs such as a health clinic.
The curriculum and most of the staff are already in place. The Bronx Charter School for the Arts plans to expand from 160 students in 2003 to 280 in its fifth year of operation.
Initial capital expenditures of about $400,000 are needed for set-up, lease and equipment. The entrepreneurs are currently pursuing a number of education-oriented foundations and funding sources to raise the remaining start-up cash. If enough can be raised, the building will be purchased instead of leased. The school will continue to raise money each year for special projects, including arts discovery field trips throughout New York City.
The school's educational mission is to enable children to both learn and express themselves through the arts: music, drawing, design, performing arts, photography and more. The broader mission is to give kids in tough urban areas a lasting foundation of learning, self-esteem and hope for the future. Measuring the dollar value of achieving this goal was perhaps the most challenging, and fascinating, component of the business plan.
The NSVC required all teams to report the SROI - social return on investment - of their project: a quantitative measure of what the project will give to the community served. "In our case," said Weeks, "the savings go to the taxpayers." De Laura took the lead on this aspect of the plan, examining the value of keeping kids in school, off the streets and out of jail, and how much money that would save the state. "It was hard to quantify the value of a second grader staying in school until graduation, but we crunched the numbers, used NPV and came up with a dollar figure," Weeks said.
Weeks said that winning the competition and helping to launch the school was particularly gratifying for the individuals involved. "Almost everyone on the team is from New York and/or from the community the school will serve, so it's a great story of people coming back and giving back," she said, adding, "We all went to school during the dot-com boom and had so many friends who got involved in start-ups that have now fizzled. It was great to come in now with this very different kind of start-up."
But, says Weeks, "The real applause goes to the entrepreneurs and the NSVC for making it all happen."
Columbia Business School will host the NSVC next year, which will mean brand-new opportunities for Columbia MBAs to get experience not just writing, but also evaluating business plans. According to Andrew Bauer, Columbia Business School Co-Director for the NSVC, "Columbia is going to get students involved for the first time in the process leading up to the competition, including students doing the first screening and getting principal investors," said Bauer.
Columbia Business School faculty heading up the 2003 NSVC are Professor Murray Low, Director of the Columbia Entrepreneurship Program, and Cathy Clark, Adjunct Assistant Professor in Management and the Social Enterprise Program, both through the Eugene M. Lang Center for Entrepreneurship. Low and Clark were also instrumental in guiding Columbia teams this year.
Hosting the NSVC is expected to bring Columbia Business School additional prestige, as well as potentially high-profile press coverage. Last year's NSVC winner was featured in Business Week and Fortune magazines, so keep your eye out for more Columbia MBAs making headlines.
What is a Charter School?
Charter schools are independent public schools, designed and operated by educators, parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs and others. They are sponsored by designated local or state educational organizations who monitor their quality and integrity, but allow them to operate free from the traditional bureaucratic and regulatory red tape that hog-ties public schools. Freed from such micromanagement, charter schools design and deliver programs tailored to educational excellence and community needs. Because they are schools of choice, they are held to the highest level of accountability - consumer demand.