On the Education Frontier

Wharton alumni chart new territory while changing young lives.

By Sharon Crenson

Eric Adler, WG’96, was a high school physics teacher with eight years of experience when he traded life in front of a classroom for a student’s seat at Wharton.

Within two years of graduation, he was back before a room of expectant preteens, this time under entirely different circumstances.

Rather than introducing affluent prep schoolers to inertia and velocity, Adler faced potential street gang members, many of whom – at age 12 – were already badly behind in school. Each looked to Adler for a second chance. Each hoped they’d find it at the nation’s first inner-city public boarding school, the brain child of Adler and business partner Rajiv Vinnakota.

Both men fled well-paid consulting jobs to give the kids a radically different educational opportunity.

“Management consulting didn’t have the entrepreneurial feeling I was looking for, and I didn’t feel I was doing important work,” Adler says now. “It’s not quite the same thing as standing in front of a physics class and watching a kid go ‘Oh my God, I get that!'”

So Adler joined a small coterie of Wharton alums who have used their degrees in the service of education. Among them: George Weiss, W’65, who has spent $20 million of the money he earns in investment management to send poor kids to college; and Ed Marcum, WG’01, who recently took the reins of a nonprofit that supports education in Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, and Guatemala, as well as San Francisco.

There are others as well. Jason Green, WG’02, is co-founder and senior vice president of development of BEST Education Partners, a private company that partners with charter school boards and public school districts to enhance learning and increase academic performance. Helen Frame Peters, PhD’79, serves the other end of the educational spectrum as dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Business.

And more and more Wharton MBA students are tutoring Upward Bound kids, a group of students from low-income families or from households in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree.

Susan Cespuglio, a second-year MBA student and co-president of the Wharton Tutoring Club, says more than 70 MBA students expressed an interest this year, more than double last year’s number. The upturn allowed the club to pair high schoolers with tutors who have expertise in particular areas the younger students have trouble with, rather than simply assigning tutors randomly.

“It feels really good,” Cespuglio says. “Maybe it’s just because of the way I was raised. I know how lucky I am, and it feels really good to help.” But Adler, Weiss, and Marcum are unique in their reach, having dedicated themselves to the very poorest, most disadvantaged children they can find.

According to the 2000 census, approximately 1.56 million U.S. residents ages 16 to 19 were not high school graduates and not enrolled in school. That’s about 10 percent. Underdeveloped countries are far worse off. The World Bank reports that only 67 percent of Tanzanian children have access to primary education, a number down from 93 percent in 1980.

Adler, Weiss, and Marcum are out to change those numbers for the better.

Eric Adler, WG’96

For Eric Adler, being the best teacher he could be just wasn’t enough, even with tutoring students on the side to prepare them for the Scholastic Aptitude Test and serving as dean of students at a prestigious private school. Adler drove himself hard, but he was always bothered by the feeling that if he hadn’t, maybe nobody would have noticed.

He longed for a career with what he calls the “perfectly delightful” symmetry of success that reflects effort.

“There was something about teaching that just wasn’t like that,” he says. “Eventually, the entrepreneurial bug got the better of me.”

He dreamed of developing residential real estate but hadn’t the faintest idea how to pursue it. Investment management seemed a more realistic goal, so Adler spent the summer between his first and second years in the MBA program working for a firm specializing in bond management for individual investors. His work researching the potential impact of a flat tax was interesting, but nothing like what he saw the investment managers doing. He came away from the experience thinking such a career would be a nice way to earn a six-figure salary but not enough to really engage him.

He turned instead to management consulting, another popular choice for Wharton grads. He lasted about a year at Dean & Co. in suburban Washington, DC. Something was still missing.

How could he make his experience teaching and his MBA work together?

Adler snapped his experience and his MBA together with the idea of starting a foundation to open inner-city schools. A mutual acquaintance introduced him to Rajiv Vinnakota, a fellow management consulting refugee who was tinkering with the same idea.

The two men met for a Roy Rogers’ dinner and talked for three hours. Vinnakota had already spent several months researching the possibilities, so in February of 1997, he and Adler arranged a weekend meeting with a handful of interested parties.

On Saturday, they brainstormed ideas for a prototype, a public boarding school in the inner city. They imagined a place where students would escape the streets to find safety, three square meals a day, a warm bed, and a hot shower, all designed to better prepare them for small classes where teachers would offer the kind of individual attention rarely available in America’s overcrowded, underfunded city schools.

On Sunday of that same weekend, the group drafted a business plan. Their goal was to open a school within 18 months.

By five p.m., Adler and Vinnakota were left alone, staring at a white board full of ideas.

Could it be done?

Yeah, but it would take somebody full time. Maybe two people.

They looked at one another. “You in?” one of the men asked. “Yeah, I’m in,” came the reply.

They raised $2 million in private money in a little more than a year. They renovated a building in less time than they were told it would take to get a permit. They talked to absolutely anyone in the Washington area who would listen. They secured a public charter that entitled the school to taxpayer funding, plus an amendment to the charter law that would allow additional funding for schools keeping students overnight. With extra federal dollars for students qualified for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, the school Adler and Vinnakota were putting together had about $23,000 a year per pupil.

They opened the doors to 40 seventh-graders in July of 1998. A lottery determined the lucky few.

Today, 230 students grades seven through 11 call the SEED Public Charter School in Washington, DC, home. About 60 faculty and staff, including psychologists and a librarian, work with students ten months of the year. Kids who have relatively stable homes are allowed weekend visits with family, while those from more troubled environments spend those weekends with friends.

The most talented students can help tutor their peers or take on extra assignments, while those who are struggling may take an extra math or English class each day. All of them face something called the “ninth-grade gate.” Nobody is allowed into high school classes without first proving their abilities in every skill necessary for academic success. About half make it by the time their age says it’s time for high school.

“If you think staying back a grade is tough, try being 22 years old and unable to read,” Adler says. “Let’s get over ourselves and disappoint some kids now, when they still have time.”

The school also brings in celebrities to speak to students. Another component program sponsors trips to places like New York, all in the name of broadening student experience.

“It teaches you about self discipline, how to handle yourself when you’re away from home, how to handle yourself in different situations,” says 11th-grader Thomas Anderson.

Running it all is complicated. The SEED Foundation has raised $20 million for capital projects like the school’s soon-to-be-completed four-building, 170,000-square-foot campus. The school itself receives and manages public funding, and Adler and Vinnakota have also arranged more than $14 million in tax-free bond finance through Bank of America.

It’s a job Adler says he never could have managed without a Wharton degree.

“When I started, I didn’t know the difference between the word ‘marketing’ and the word ‘advertising, ‘” he says. “Wharton has been everything, and you can quote me on that.”

Now 38, Adler has finally found the career he yearned for, and the recognition that goes with it. Both Oprah Winfrey and Nightline have featured the SEED School. Winfrey’s “Angel Network” donated $100,000 and arranged donations of new dormitory furniture and 300 Gateway computers.

Adler hopes it’s just the beginning. “We hope that someday we will have more than just this one school,” he says. “We hope that we will have many, many students either in this city or in cities across the country.”

Ed Marcum, WG’01

Nestled in a cluster of African shade trees in Luandai, Tanzania, a new rectangular mud and brick building has become the most celebrated structure of the Ndekai Primary School.

It houses not a classroom, but a latrine.

Global Education Partnership, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit now run by Ed Marcum, WG’01, worked with Luandai families to build the structure. A first for the village, the latrine was what locals said they needed most to improve their school. After all, learning to read comes after basic survival, and unsanitary conditions can spawn many infectious diseases still rampant in parts of Africa.

GEP programs are not gifts or loans to the communities they serve, and they are not wholly run by aid workers. Rather, the organization partners with local communities. Residents themselves decide what their schools need – whether it be textbooks, or chalkboards, or a bathroom. GEP helps organize things and provides 50 percent of the funding through international donations. The rest of the money and labor comes from the communities themselves.

“We as development workers . . . should be able to pack up our tents at some point and go,” says GEP founder Tony Silard. “True development occurs when the development worker leaves, and the people say, ‘We did this ourselves.'”

Marcum met Silard, a former Peace Corps teacher, when Marcum worked for the Council on Foreign Relations helping local officials formulate strategies to promote international trade.

Marcum already had a pretty varied professional life, having spent a couple of years traveling the world on the minor league tennis circuit. It didn’t take much for him to join GEP, filling a position in development which he now says he knew little about. Soon, he started thinking about public policy school to flesh out his skills. Wharton quickly emerged as an even better fit.

But Silard didn’t let the educational detour interfere with his own ideas for Marcum’s future. Soon after the MBA was finished, he offered Marcum a short-term consulting job, then used the window to woo his protege into taking over GEP full-time.

The two men seem to share a certain outsized optimism about changing the world, bit by bit. Global Education Partnership is their vehicle.

The organization works with communities to provide low-income youth with all kinds of educational resources and skills to bolster their employment potential. Not only does GEP work on primary school projects, it also runs young adult programs on how to manage small businesses, look for work, and use computers. “One of the things that really excites me is the clear need for the services we provide,” Marcum says.

The programs include:

  • Entrepeneurship and Employment Training, which teaches income statements and balance sheets, business development plans, and profit management to low-income youths. GEP partners with other nongovernmental organizations and with microfinanciers to help students find startup capital.
  • Educational Resource Development and Capacity Building. This 50-50 partnership program assists primary and secondary schools with their most pressing needs, such as the latrine building project in Tanzania. Capacity building workshops help community residents create multiyear school development plans.
  • Curriculum Development and Teacher Training. GEP developed a five-volume series of lesson plans, reading materials, and entrepreneurial exercises for distribution to schools and community organizations worldwide.

Also in the works is a plan to organize East African safaris in which travelers who want to sponsor community projects can time their trips to include dedication ceremonies for the finished product. Donations for these matching projects can be a little as $1,000 and give the donors a chance to see up-close the good their money does. (For information, see our sidebar “How To Get Involved” on page 22.)

The partnership element is key. Aid recipients must contribute their own money and time to the projects.

“GEP is acting as a catalyst for development,” says Maria Msemo, a local GEP director in East Africa. “[The communities] can do another project by using the methodology of GEP.”

Marcum’s MBA is helping ensure the model thrives. Already he has taken the tough step of letting some staff go to reduce costs. He also retooled the floundering curriculum project, which got off the ground while Marcum was at Wharton but then failed to meet revenue projections.

More recently, Marcum clinched the kind of corporate sponsorship deal he was never able to land before attending Wharton. Peet’s Coffee agreed to introduce a line of holiday gift packages featuring coffees from some of the countries GEP is active in, such as Kenya and Indonesia. Sales proceeds will go to fund projects in those countries. Marcum pitched the deal as a new product line for Peet’s, rather than as a straight act of corporate philanthropy.

“Wharton definitely provided me with a way of thinking that was more marketing oriented,” he says. It also gave him the confidence he needed to supervise 18 employees scattered from the San Francisco Bay area to Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, and Guatemala.

Marcum, himself just 33 years old, is also working with a group of first-year Wharton MBA students on a consulting project for GEP. Perhaps the experience will even lure someone into the non-profit sector, though Marcum admits it’s a tough choice for someone coming from a peer group where so many are headed for more lucrative careers.

But if Marcum’s enthusiasm is any gauge, it can be a rewarding choice.

“Knowing that you are coming into work each morning to tackle really serious problems, to me, makes the job worthwhile.”

George Weiss, W’65

While Marcum gave up the high pay a Wharton education can deliver in favor of spending his days helping the poor, George Weiss, W’65, fulfilled his own drive to make a difference by earning the big money and giving away lots of it, along with much of his spare time.

Weiss has sent 148 underprivileged students from three different East Coast cities to college.

“Businessmen like to see results,” he says. “My goal is to have ten cities . . . to help lots and lots of kids.”

Weiss is a money manager whose eyes first opened to the power of taking an interest while he was a Wharton undergraduate. His fraternity hosted a Christmas party for 12 inner-city kids, a gang called the 12 Apostles. They struck up a friendship with Weiss, who played basketball and pool with them while he finished school. He also looked them up when he came back to Philadelphia for homecoming.

Somewhat surprisingly, all 12 graduated from high school. Weiss remembers clearly what one of them told him: “George, we couldn’t have dropped out and looked you straight in the eye.”

Weiss says he was so moved, he vowed then and there to do something big if he ever had the money. Now, he does. Though he’s shy about disclosing the figure, Weiss estimates he has spent more than $20 million of his own money putting kids through college.

He founded “Say Yes to Education” in 1987, promising 112 underprivileged sixth-graders from one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods that, if they could make it through high school, he would pay for college. Weiss also did more than promise the money. His gift included tutoring, counseling, SAT preparation, and summer programs. He has since branched out to help kids in Hartford, CT, and Cambridge, MA, as well as Philadelphia. He even has a toll-free number kids can call to talk to him directly about their problems.

Penn has been an enormous help as well. The University has provided medical and dental care, tutoring services, and other support.

Weiss himself intervenes when he sees Say Yes kids going astray.

One year, after a student from the original Say Yes group was stabbed, coordinator Randall Sims did some investigating and figured out that at least 17 of the kids Weiss was sponsoring were dealing drugs. Weiss came to Philadelphia one weekend and visited each of the teenagers at home. In many cases, their absentee fathers even showed up. Weiss estimates that 14 of the teens quit dealing.

“I don’t think just throwing money at them really works, it’s the emotional tie,” he says. “You have to get in their face. I don’t necessarily mean in a bad way, but you’ve got to be there.”

Of the 112 children Weiss originally sponsored, 62 percent graduated from high school, compared to 43 percent from the same census tract in 1990. Weiss figures the group could have done better if he had inter-ceded earlier. Today, he makes the Say Yes promise as early as the kindergarten.

“What we have learned is that by starting them younger and younger, we have reduced teen pregnancies from 50 percent down to just one pregnancy,” he says.

Also, Say Yes has added some restrictions to help hold down the academic dilly-dallying of changing majors and going to summer school to make up for lazy work during the school year.

His efforts have cost Weiss more than money. They’ve brought plenty of emotional pain, too. A handful of kids have died violently. One loss in particular- a young man named Walter Brown- hit Weiss particularly hard. Brown lived in a group home after being severely abused by his mother. He died in a car accident.

But Weiss also sees positive results. Recently, while visiting the Say Yes office in Hartford, one of his college graduates stopped by with her three-week-old son. She and Weiss chatted about her and her husband preparing to buy a new home.

Weiss started to cry.

“That’s what it’s all about, leveling the playing field,” he says.

Doing Well and Doing Good: Social Impact Management

Eileen Stephens, WG’03, is one of many students continuing the Wharton traditions of leadership and innovation through her work encouraging MBAs to become more involved in the area of nonprofit management. Before coming to Wharton, Stephens worked for a private-sector medical supply company. It was through that experience that she began to understand the needs of the rapidly aging population, and how nonprofits will play an ever-increasing role in addressing these challenges.

During her first year at Wharton, she became active in Net Impact, a network of emerging business leaders dedicated to using the power of business to create a better world. Since then, Stephens has worked with her classmates and faculty to promote greater discussion of nonprofit management issues in the curriculum. Now the Net Impact group is working with dozens of other student leaders and clubs to establish the Social Impact Management Initiative (SIM), which seeks to improve the ethical leadership, social impact, and strategic partnerships of nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike.

SIM involves research, curricular initiatives, volunteer opportunities, and partnerships across Penn and the local community. On October 3, 2002, SIM was officially launched with a symposium that included keynote speakers Stephanie Bell-Rose, president, Goldman Sachs Foundation; Wayne Silby, founder of Calvert Social Investment Fund; and Ira Jackson, director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Business & Government and current president of the Arthur M. Black Foundation. An alumni panel included Eric Adler, WG’96, founder and executive director of the SEED Foundation; Vanessa Lowe, WG’98, a financial and programs analyst for the CDFI Fund, an arm of the US Treasury that invests capital in financial institutions operating in, or for the benefit of, underserved communities; and Wendi Teleki, WG’98, a program officer for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector lending arm of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

SIM’s director of alumni relations, Bernadette Ryan, WG’04, notes that the initiative aims to influence both the student population as well as the alumni network. “SIM offers the opportunity to have a long-lasting impact on the MBA culture and, by extension, the alumni network by incorporating social objectives into the curriculum,” she says. “Ultimately, we’ll be alumni, too.”

SIM participant David Levin, C’03, W’03, WG’04, agrees. “Students who help develop the SIM initiative during its early stages will make a powerful contribution to society through the conduit of business education,” he says. “These efforts epitomize the entrepreneurship, creativity, and impact of social innovation.”

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