For the past two years, Blair M. Duncan, WG’85, L’94, has volunteered as the Club’s General Counsel. He likes his role, saying, “I get an overview of the organization and an opportunity to work with Kenny [Beck, President of WCNY] and the team members who are committed to strengthening the resources of the Wharton community here in New York. They take a long-term view of enhancing the role of alumni — an example being their announcement to donate $100,000 to the School.”
In his everyday role, Blair serves as Executive Vice President, Administration and General Counsel for the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ). He joined UMEZ in 2003 as General Counsel, as part of the management team.
UMEZ is a not-for-profit economic development corporation that serves a community with over 600,000 people in Upper Manhattan. UMEZ was formed in 1995 with $249 million in matching funds from federal, state and city governments. Along with nine other Round 1 Empowerment Zones nationwide, UMEZ was given a 10-year designation through 2005. Of those ten zones, UMEZ is the only organization that still operates. It does so by making commercial loans to businesses, not just providing grants to cultural organizations and workforce development initiatives. UMEZ has been committed to social-impact investing in Upper Manhattan for over 20 years.
UMEZ has cumulatively leveraged $1.1 billion of outside private capital for Upper Manhattan, invested over $240 million, and created or retained 10,000 jobs. On the revenue side, UMEZ has sustained its budget through loan income.
Economic development through business loans
UMEZ provides loans for large real estate developments. Initiatives like the Victoria Theater redevelopment currently under construction in Harlem could not have been funded with conventional financing alone. Blair explains, “UMEZ makes low [interest] rate loans — $1 million to $15 million — to close the capital gap (which covers 5% to 10% of project costs) in return for the developer’s commitment to hire locally on the construction side and tenant side.”
In addition, UMEZ makes small business loans to retailers and restaurateurs — $50,000 to $250,000 — which generate jobs in the community. Working with microlenders Grameen Bank and Accion, UMEZ also provides capital access to hairdressers, childcare providers and cleaning service businesses.
Grants for cultural organizations in Upper Manhattan
Beyond business loans, UMEZ provides grants to cultural attractions such as the Apollo Theater, El Museo del Barrio and Morris-Jumel Mansion. These organizations attract not only visitors, but also new residents who want to live in a vibrant, diverse community. In turn, visitors and new residents spend money there, helping local businesses thrive.
Investing in human capital development
UMEZ also focuses on demand-driven workforce training that will support local businesses and institutions. Sometimes, it provides both capital and training. Last year, UMEZ funded a restaurant in East Harlem, and then provided employee screening and job training to identify cashiers, dishwashers and porters.
Mount Sinai Hospital, New York-Presbyterian Hospital and other hospitals are major employers in Upper Manhattan and always need more healthcare workers. UMEZ partnered with these healthcare workers’ union to train potential employees for these hospitals. UMEZ trained over 100 residents for clerical and administrative, dietary, building services, housekeeping, and community health roles. Recently, it launched a second phase to provide similar entry-level and career advancement opportunities for 75 more community residents.
Path from Wharton
After graduating from Wharton, Blair worked at a New York City commercial bank for several years before attending law school at UPenn. He worked for two New York City law firms before becoming the General Counsel of a community hospital that was a catalyst for economic development in Harlem. He returned to the private sector to work in the corporate law department of a global investment bank, and then in 2003, joined UMEZ.
Blair sees Wharton as a lifelong resource: “A couple of years ago, I was at an alumni reunion and attended a lecture by Professor Richard Shell. Sitting in class reminded me of my days at Wharton, but this time, I was sitting in the front row. The lecture was on making personal assessments about success, and coincided with an opportunity for an expanded role at UMEZ. Professor Shell’s book Springboard also provided a helpful framework to think about my career transition from law back to business.”
Equally important, he draws on WCNY’s small-group Speaker Series for subject matter experts to help develop his career and to generate ideas.
“After a career of dealing with intangibles, I find it rewarding to see the physical results that contribute to the livability and sustainability of our community. To see a restaurant opening, knowing that we are able to help entrepreneurs create businesses and jobs — or to witness a 350,000-square-foot mixed-use tower underway.”