Profile: Sean Vereen

As speaker of the senate — the second most powerful person in student government at the University of Rochester in New York — Sean Vereen had already been working hard on behalf of his fellow classmates during the 1998-1999 school year.
But after a number of racial incidents, including issues with campus security and a perceived lack of support for minority student life, Vereen, now a NationSwell Council member, decided that he needed to assume a more vocal role.  “Eight of us got together and said that what was happening on campus was wrong,” he says. “We spent most of the fall and into the winter organizing a protest.”
Their goal? To gain more support for minority students.
Eventually, the planning meetings grew to 60 to 70 attendees. Their opinions led to the creation of a formal list of concerns among the University’s students of color.
As tension remained high on campus, Vereen recalls the president pulled him aside and said, “Look, if there’s something really bad happening, you can call my secretary to set up a meeting and I will clear my schedule within a day.”
So Vereen took advantage of the invitation, he recounted recently with a small chuckle. “I called a meeting with the president, but I didn’t tell him I was going to come with other people.”
Inspired by a scene in the movie, “Malcolm X,” the students dressed up in their finest clothes and peacefully marched in a single file line to the university president’s office. Remaining silent, they filled the hallways and did homework as local media documented the sit-in.
Meanwhile, Vereen and some of his fellow protesters negotiated with the president for an increase in the number of minority students recruited, the hiring of a more diverse faculty and staff and the creation of a diversity mission statement.
Once an agreement was reached, cheerful minority students then led a campus-wide march and rally in the student center that included celebratory singing of “We Shall Overcome.”
Vereen remembers those college days as a time when he learned the power of organizing and the necessity of collaborative work.
“We spent all this time putting the protest together and all of us brought something to the table. Some people were able to get a ton of friends to show up, others were good speakers. Someone like me had the connection with student government and knew the administration really well,” says Vereen.
Dr. Sean Vereen is the president of Steppingstone Scholars, an organization that works with families and schools to provide support for talented underserved students in the Philadelphia area. He is the former associate dean of opportunity and access at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Perspective on Poverty: A Systematized Approach to Improving Healthcare

“When you work in global health, it never feels like you’re doing enough — it’s never big enough, it’s never fast enough. People are dying for reasons they shouldn’t be for reasons that should’ve disappeared from the world 90 years ago,” says Mark Arnoldy, CEO at Possible.
As healthcare continues to be a hot topic of debate here in the United States, Arnoldy is providing an integrative system that delivers care to the poor across the globe.
Nepal is a rich environment… To try and prove that a healthcare system involving government hospitals, clinics and community health works can be successful. The country has enormous demand: 30 million people, of which 80 percent live in rural areas. After enduring a decade-long civil war [from 1996 to 2006], there’s a fair amount of political will and a lot of interest in building a system of universal health care.
Digital connectivity… Is one of the most exciting, new developments in healthcare. Five years ago, in some of these really rural, isolated areas, you couldn’t use a cell phone. Now, we’re running an integrated, electronic health system between our hospital and community health workers using an Android device.
A major, global challenge that people don’t really hear about … In a place like Nepal, there is no registration system for births or deaths. If you’re trying to understand whether some sort of intervention is effective, you don’t know who is living or who is dying. Complicating matters further is that there’s often no national identification system either.
Previously, for instance, a person would go to India for a serious operation. They would be given pamphlets and an x-ray and be expected to keep them and take them to other medical facilities as needed. When people are responsible for paper records, it’s very hard to provide quality healthcare; you can do harm to patients when you don’t have the proper history. Advancements in biometric devices — essentially machines that turn a fingerprint into a secure, digital code — enable us to rethink how we design a healthcare system. With them, we can track patients longitudinally.
It’s almost cliché at this point… But the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder had a profound effect on me. It’s about Dr. Paul Farmer, the cofounder of Partners In Health. It presents a very compelling narrative and challenges people around the question, What does it mean to live a moral life in the 21st century?
Reporting by Chris Peak

This Is What It’s Like to Run for Public Office

Frustrated by the feeling that his community wasn’t represented, Craig Caruana ran for City Council in New York City under the slogan, “Neighborhood First.” He failed to unseat his incumbent opponent, but that didn’t deter his focus on community affairs. Today, as the director of veterans programs at America Works, a for-profit venture that pioneered a “pay for performance” model in social services, Caruana helps lift veterans out of homelessness through employment.
As part of NationSwell’s weeklong focus on local governance, Caruana, a NationSwell Council member, shares how he knew that local office was a position worth pursuing.
How do you know you’re the right person to run for local office?
I remember people coming up to me and saying that I should run for City Council. That’s a really powerful thing that can go to your head quickly. If that happens enough and you can look at yourself objectively and say, “There’s a real widespread concern. Can I do this? Can I do it successfully?” then you should go ahead. But if you’re just someone who’s watching TV and getting angry and you say, “I’m going to run for office,” that might not be the best path. There’s got to be more to it than that.
A candidate should reflect the population’s wishes. A candidate can’t impose his will on people or explain why they’re is wrong. If you’re considering running for office, you should be asking, “What are people saying needs to happen, but isn’t?” That’s a really difficult question to answer. It’s one thing if someone in your neighborhood is saying something, but on the other side of the community, they’re saying something different. You want to make sure that it is a concern that’s large enough to warrant you running for office.
Some say that you shouldn’t run for office if you haven’t been part of the fabric of your community. How did you first get involved in community organizations?
Civic organizations are the basis of the democratic process. They’re organized, they’re not political, and they’re looking after your community. If you want to get involved and make your neighborhood better, joining one is the best way to do it. If you’re someone who wants to get involved or looking to volunteer, join your local Kiwanis club, which I was a member of. I was also a member of the Juniper Park Civic Organization, whose main mission was keeping the park clean and enforcing park rules.
MORE: Want to Run for Local Office? 6 Things to Know
What was cause for worry when you ran for local office?
There’s a ton to worry about when you run. You have to know the logistics of how to run. One of the main reasons why people don’t win their election is because they never get on the ballot. Understanding the political process is very, very important. You have to know how you’re going to get on the ballot, who can be a support network and help you run a successful campaign, how much money you’re going to need and how you’re going to raise it, and campaign finance laws. You also have to understand that there’s a lot you can’t control. There’s going to be a lot of noise going on around you, and you have to make sure you don’t get distracted by it.
Why was that not enough to dissuade you from running?
Most of us who run for office really are in it for the right reasons. You have to be a true believer — in yourself and in the message you’re selling. You have to believe that if you get elected, you’re going to make a difference and the difference is going to be so great that you have to be in the elected position and not your opponent.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

Using Technology to Create a Smart Curriculum

NationSwell Council member Chris Rush is making the dream of personalized learning a reality. As the co-founder of New Classrooms Innovation Partners, Rush is working with schools in 10 states to customize students’ schedules and tailoring the curriculum to their learning methods. Here, Rush discusses how his efforts are reshaping the future of education.
Why do we need to rethink the way schools work?
The role of a teacher isn’t something that’s set up for success. Maybe the job is just too hard. Maybe it needs to be retooled in another way. You put 30 kids in a room that are all coming from different starting places and have different supports at home. You give every child a textbook, and you’re supposed to meet the student where he or she is. Let’s reimagine classrooms in a way that could help educators to be more successful.

Chris Rush gives a tour of the New Classrooms offices to middle school students.

New Classrooms really got its start back in 2009 at School of One. How does its model differ from a regular classroom?
We are rescheduling every kid and assigning teachers and different third-party activities based on what they did the day before. Think of it like the Pandora music service, but for learning: Every day it gets a little bit smarter. If you tend to be working well with this group of five kids and this teacher on rainy days, we realize that. Or if you’re coming from gym, you might be hyper and need some independent time. Or before English class, you might need to work in a group. Picking up on all of those types of patterns makes it smarter and smarter. At the end of the day, you’ll come back to your main teacher and answer five questions to see whether or not you were successful. And if you were, we will record all those things, so you can get more like it. And if you weren’t, we give all the attributes of the day a thumbs down, and you start the whole process all over again.
Bill Gates, a key funder of New Classrooms, visits Middle School 88 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Even though this is ed tech software, you’re insistent that the platform isn’t a virtual classroom. Why?
A lot of other online learning platforms customize the “what” of student learning, but it doesn’t allow you to personalize the “how,” “when” and “where.” We can create a sequence that fits with students’ learning patterns. Some need to try it themselves until they get stuck, then really get the most out of being with a teacher; other children won’t touch it independently unless there’s a teacher who already showed them. So, for us, you don’t just log in. It’s technology-powered, but it’s not experienced on the computer. It’s sort of like when you go to the airport. Certain planes can only be on certain gates, and certain crews can only be on at certain times because of delays and weather conditions. But what you do is scan your ticket, look up at the big-screen television, head to the gate and go. All the other stuff is done for you behind the scenes.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
Homepage photo by Darris Lee Harris.

What’s Next in the Fight for Gender Equality?

Two months after women rallied for equality on seven continents, Carla Goldstein is bringing the ideals celebrated that day to female leaders. As chief external affairs officer for the Omega Institute and cofounder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center in Rhinebeck, N.Y., she’s helping scores of women reclaim a more authentic self. NationSwell spoke with her about how women can take charge in the direction of the world.
What goes on at the Omega Women’s Leadership Center, which you co-founded?
Our main focus is on helping women, as they gain more power, to use their leadership to transform the way that power is actually used. One of the consequences of gender inequality is that pretty much all of the power systems were designed without our input, participation or needs in mind. Power operates through dominance, when what we really need are human beings who are interdependent. We need models of cooperation, not conquest. The fundamental question for us is: How do we bring women’s needs, voices and perspectives into the systems that govern how we all live together?
The Center has a three-pronged approach to rethinking power: personally, relationally and globally. How do you alter the current structures?
One of the fall-outs of gender inequality and this culture of hyper-masculinity that values results and reasoning is that we’re cut off from multiple human intelligences: that of the body, intuition, relationships. Women particularly have a challenge of living in a constant state of adaptation. That can render an inauthenticity: We’re saying the thing that’s going to let us keep our jobs; we’re doing the thing that fits in. It can be challenging to bring our own values to the table with the kind of fierceness that’s called for. Our curriculum follows four Vs: values, voice, vision and voyage. At the personal level, what we’re teaching is a process to clarify their values and identify when their voice aligns with them. Similarly, vision is so often predetermined by others (like their families or their companies), so we help women bring in their own authentic, unique visions of what their life should be like and the world should look like.
Where would you speculate your drive for social justice comes from?
Now that I have children, I see they carry this inherent shock when they learn that the world operates on the dominance model. When I was a kid in the Sixties, I had parents that explained to me, “Well, yeah, it works this way, but it’s wrong. And we can change it.” A lot of kids don’t have that message. When it comes to dominance, we either learn that it’s just the way it is and to get up as high on the ladder as you can, or that it’s wrong and to do what we can to change course.

Are Maximizing Financial Returns and Maximizing Social Outcomes Mutually Exclusive?

Best friends Scott Thomas and Sammy Politziner have shared a lot of experiences: being college classmates, teaching in New York City public schools, working on Wall Street and volunteering for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Inspired by that moment and a desire to be “part of the solution,” says Politziner, the pair founded Arbor Brothers, which provides money and coaching to nonprofit organizations dealing with growing pains. NationSwell spoke to the two members of the NationSwell Council about how nonprofits can adapt to changes in the social service sector.
Talk about the “second-stage gap”—after an idea’s seed funding runs out, but before the organization has proven results—that you’re trying to bridge.
Thomas: There’s a lot of incubators, fellowships, business plan competitions. At the other end of the spectrum, traditional philanthropy is really risk-averse; a lot of folks get paid every day to find those things that are really proven solutions. Between this throbby start-up area and this staid, traditional funding lies this big chasm. That holds true for even the most talented entrepreneurs. Take the example of Wendy Kopp and Teach for America: She was scrambling to keep the lights on at TFA in years three and four. We used to joke, “It shouldn’t be that hard to change the world.” If you have a good idea and that passion to develop it, someone should be there to help you across that funding landscape.

These days, there’s so much emphasis on numbers. How do you develop an outcomes-focused culture?
Politziner: We don’t believe changing someone’s life is a math problem. We have seen the philanthropic space, once somewhat unconcerned with numbers, swing maybe too far towards them. At Arbor Brothers, we’re quantitative by nature, but we recognize that a lot of changes cannot be measured quickly. We shouldn’t not invest in something simply because we can’t see the change right away. That said, the leader can’t just say this change is so far down the line, we shouldn’t bother to track indicators along the way.

How do you find the most promising leaders?
Thomas: There are a bunch of intangibles that we consistently mull on when we look back on the really successful organizations. One thing that we’ve grown ever more focused on is what Jim Collins talks about in “Good to Great,” this notion of deep humility. The really great leaders are so humble about how hard the problem is to solve, how long it’s going to take to find something that works and how many times they should expect themselves to fail and to struggle. If you’re the kind of person who’s never been wrong in your life or you’re not interested in learning from the failures of others, it’s really hard to get where you need to go fast enough.
What book would you recommend for someone to better understand your approach?
Thomas: “Leap of Reason,” by Mario Morino, a former software executive turned philanthropist in the [Washington] D.C. area. His Venture Philanthropy Partners, on a much bigger scale than Arbor Brothers, has really set the standard on what it means to help an organization with high potential become high performing. His book really distills what it means to be focused on outcomes—not just the philosophy, but the systems to make sure it persists over time.
What philanthropic trends excite or disappoint you?
Thomas: Speaking personally, there’s a tension between the perception and reality around social-impact businesses. Having spent some time with a couple, I personally have yet to see an organization that both achieves meaningful financial market returns and meaningful social outcomes. The tension between are you maximizing profits and are you maximizing outcomes has never been truly resolved. People’s hand-waving over that challenge leads to a lot of wasted time and money in this area.

Powered by Ad Dollars, Nonprofits Get a Boost

The work of charities relies on government grants, foundations and a limited pool of individual dollars. At EcoMedia, his in-house organization at CBS, NationSwell Council member Paul Polizzotto tapped into an alternate stream: corporate advertising budgets. With EcoMedia, CBS redirects some $80 million in profits to nonprofit programs, helping 30 million Americans affected by the most urgent social issues of our time: the environment, health and education, and better lives for veterans. NationSwell met with Polizzotto at CBS’s headquarters in New York City to talk about a better way for business and charities to work together for social change.

What first attracted you to social entrepreneurship?
I wonder if there was some sociological survey conducted, if it would show the growth in social entrepreneurship comes from people raised by hippies. My parents were products of the ’60s, raising kids in the ’70s. I grew up in Manhattan Beach, Calif. My parents were entrepreneurs themselves, with a swim school open half the year. My parents were incredibly compassionate and generous people. Over time, we took in people who had run away: Eventually, we had 22 people living in our apartment. And we didn’t have any means. Essentially, I kind of turned my parents’ way of life into a business model.

How did that happen?
I grew up surfing every day in the very polluted Santa Monica Bay, and we were sick all the time; the bay’s gotten a lot better, but back then, it was pretty bad. I noticed that the contract cleaning industry was washing pollutants and detergents right into the storm-drain system, which goes into the bay. I said, “Whoa, I am surfing in that!” And besides, it’s illegal. It’s a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. At 25, I set out to come up with a way to work on the issue and protect the environment. My zero-discharge business grew, and, essentially, we legalized and legitimized an industry and set a new standard: Either get legal or get out.

After that, how did EcoMedia get its start?
Around the same time, I started to learn about a lot of nonprofits doing remarkable work on environmental regulations. I knew there were a lot of great projects that needed a little bit of gap financing to get off the shelf. I created EcoMedia originally as a nonprofit, in the late 1990s, to fill those gaps by winning grants. But what I found was that we were winning money, and other deserving nonprofits weren’t. It was a zero-sum game. I was competing against nonprofits I thought were doing very important work. I looked for ways to keep doing what I was doing and accidentally stumbled on the advertising world. I thought, “Hey, maybe there’s a way to create an ad model to fund nonprofits, a way to create this entirely new revenue stream coming from ad spends.” I got involved with CBS in a joint venture, and in 2010, we were acquired. We’ve since become the fastest-growing division at CBS.

Where do you see yourself in the media landscape?
I have a very different view, because I’m not from media, advertising or technology. But all of what I’m doing now is squarely in that space. I remember having a conversation with CBS, and they said they thought their ability to improve communities came from content. I said, “I don’t think so: I think it’s your distribution.” I think content’s largely overrated. Look at health: Never before in history has more information been available to more people about what’s good and bad for you. Yet we’re not as healthy as we were 30 years ago, as it relates to health conditions like obesity and diabetes. You think you’re doing your job as a media company by getting the word out, but we’re not seeing the desired impact.

What’s an example of a campaign you thought was particularly effective?
A dear friend of mine, who has since passed, created a surf school to help kids with disabilities and military-service men and women suffering from PTSD, called the Jimmy Miller Foundation. To see how the sport of surfing, which gave so much to me, is being used as therapy is pretty remarkable. We do quite a lot to fund their work. Others that matter to me are putting solar panels on Miami City Hall, the first big city hall in the United States to be powered by them, and in my own hometown of Los Angeles, in the port, there’s a marine terminal controlling all the ships coming in and out of the port that we made energy-neutral. And we send kids with subsidized breakfasts and lunches home on a Friday afternoon with backpacks full of meals for the weekend. There are so many projects, it’s innumerable.

In a Divided America, What’s the First Step in Erasing Prevalent Stereotypes?

In a recent experiment, elementary-school age girls and boys were told a story featuring a “really, really smart” gender-neutral protagonist. Then, they were handed four pictures — two men and two women — and asked to pick out the character from the story. By age 6, girls were significantly less likely to pick the pictures of their own gender, the study concluded. NationSwell Council member Amanda Mortimer is trying change the narrative. As the director of production at The Representation Project, she’s pointing out the stereotypes in our culture and teaching young people to overcome them.
Has there been a time when you’ve been affected by [stereotype] images from pop culture?
I grew up in the 1980s playing with Barbie dolls and watching Disney movies—experiences that taught me the ideal woman must have unnaturally long legs, a tiny waist and large breasts. It might not have been possible, but that was the ideal. As a teenager, when I leveled out at 5’3”, I had to reconcile cultural notions of beauty with realistic ones and, at the same time, learn to celebrate and embrace all of the other skills and traits that make girls great.
What inspired you to change the narrative?
In addition to limiting the gender narratives I absorbed as a kid, I was also part of the generation of girls who was told they could be anything and do anything they wanted. Together, these two narratives create a lot of tension: You can be President of the United States, but you should look like a swimsuit model. I didn’t realize how much these stories were hurting me and other women until I saw the documentary Miss Representation by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. It wasn’t that the documentary revealed compromising images of women I had never seen before, but it connected the dots for me in a powerful way between the limited ways girls and women are pictured and the limited ways women are represented in positions of power and influence.
Last November, our country bared its divisions by race, class and geography. Do you think there is still time to repair our ideas of one another?
The short answer is yes. Years before working in news and documentaries, I worked on political campaigns. Elections always teach us something, and this past presidential election gave us all a lot to think about. The truth is, we are experiencing one of the most extreme periods of economic and social inequality in our nation’s history; people are experiencing vastly different circumstances and opportunities in America today. Sometimes, the fear of economic insecurity can be manipulated and turned into a fear of others. But I believe we are all a lot more similar than we are different and that we actually all want the same things for our children and our parents. In order to move forward, we’re going to have to focus on our common humanity more and on our differences less. That said, I’m not sweeping centuries of structural racism and inequality under the rug. We still have major work to do to acknowledge, reconcile and make reparations for our history of racism and oppression in America.
In your mind, what’s been the most successful way The Representation Project has done that?
Our work is all about awakening minds and raising consciousness about stereotypes that are so pervasive in our lives we sometimes don’t even recognize them. Once you are aware, you can be educated about the costs and consequences of these messages, and then you can start to change attitudes, behavior and, ultimately, culture. We believe that media is both the message and the messenger, so we do a lot of work through media, especially film. We’re working on a third documentary now that will expand the conversation about how our values shape our culture, with a deeper look at how inequality is experienced in America in terms of race, class and gender.
How do you train the next generation of children not to be swayed by what they’re seeing?
Last summer [The Representation Project] held our first annual Global Youth Leadership Summit and brought together an incredible group of youth from all walks of life. The program of experts and celebrities taught these kids how to recognize limiting stereotypes in their media, explained why they are damaging and then taught them how to have conversations about those limiting narratives in their own communities.
Homepage photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

How Do You Make a Good Idea Even Better?

Digital technology is unleashing potential across the global economy. As CEO of the Gramercy Fund, NationSwell Council member T. Trent Gegax is trying to identify which early-stage companies in web services, social media, biotech and education technology software are poised to harness that energy. NationSwell spoke to Gegax recently about how he’s picking investments at the outset of a third industrial revolution.

I’ve heard some venture capital firms say they have a thesis they play out in their portfolio. In those terms, what’s Gramercy Fund’s “thesis” for what you choose to back?
It comes down to a strong personality, an individual who’s both extremely confident and extremely coachable, someone who knows what they don’t know and is assured in what they do. Investing in people — a real solid founder that we trust — is first and foremost what we look for. Second, it’s marketplaces that are compelling or interesting. Timing is the third element, and probably the hardest. If you’re too early, you’re Friendster or MySpace, not Facebook. Knowing the market sometimes that requires a crystal ball. I said no to Kickstarter because I wasn’t sure if the timing was right for crowdfunding projects. I still kick myself on that one.

Besides confidence, what other qualities do you look for in founders that indicate they’ll be successful?
A single-minded obsession with the problem they’re trying to solve. Basically, having the passion for the business that a baseball player has for the game, who gets to wear funny uniforms and play for a living. We look for founders that pinch themselves because they can’t imagine getting paid to do something they love so much.

How do you coach these founders?
I learned early on, being a board member on companies, that when I said, “You should do this or that,” the CEOs never took my advice. They really shut down. I quickly learned that recommending ideas and options was more effective, couching statements as, “This worked for others,” or “Have you thought about this?” It’s also important to be an ear that listens and doesn’t automatically try to solve the problem that the founder is talking about. Sometimes, founders want to talk to a shrink, and they don’t really want to hear answers. They just want to have an ear to spill into. And finally, always tell them they’re not alone, because a founder in trouble is one of the loneliest people. I can give them context, that these are the problems that everyone’s had and gets through. It’s the Churchill line, “When you go through hell, keep going.”

Founders can be extremely lonely in those dark moments, but if they’re successful, it can also be extremely glamorous. Why do you choose to work behind the scenes, supporting these other ventures?
I’m a former reporter, and I covered the early days of the Internet, war and presidential elections back in the ’90s. I love having a front row seat in history, being the first to see things and investigating whatever I’m seeing. It’s not a big jump between being a reporter and investing. I probably take five to seven calls a week looking at new businesses. It’s hard for me to say no, just because I never know when the next Kickstarter’s going to come. I’m terminally curious. This moment in time — the third Industrial Revolution, from analog to digital — is a transformation. There’s more opportunities than meets the eye. I tell you, it’s exciting. The big risk is if I bet on a bunch of bad ideas and the fund goes to zero, but so far, we’ve had some decent exits and nice markups.

What book would you recommend to someone who wanted to understand your work?
The book that really taught me how startups work and how difficult it is to succeed in this area is Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.”

What innovations are you eyeing as opportunities for growth?
This isn’t breaking news: the combination of artificial intelligence and sensors of all sorts capturing data everywhere around us is creating the opportunities for automation that we can’t even begin to understand yet. (That’s why you have so much talk of the impending domination of our robot overlords.) Also, in transportation, transforming how we relate to vehicles will transform cities. I’m a bit of an urban planning geek, and you can imagine automated vehicles in the future literally changing the cityscape: street parking, off-ramps, the opportunity to bike and get around.

What do you wish someone had told you when you first started this job?
There’s an old saying in journalism, “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source on it.” I didn’t take that to heart with some of the very initial investments. I was new and didn’t know much, so I erred on the side of being a little too trusting. That didn’t last long: my journalism expertise kicked in after I made a few mistakes in my first few investments. You always fall in love with an idea the first time you hear it. Now, I always sleep on it.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

This article has been edited and condensed for length.