Eric Adler, WG’96, Chair and Co-Founder of the Seed Foundation – Social Impact Award
30 January, 2017
category: Joseph Wharton Dinner, Social Impact
This is a how-to story for someone who wants to start something big, fast. Eric Adler, WG’96, created a public boarding school 20 years ago, for kids from economically disadvantaged single-parent and no-parent homes, chosen by lottery without regard to academic talents. Now, with 355 students in D.C., 400 students in Baltimore and 180 students in South Florida, SEED students enter in the sixth grade and board until 12th grade. About 95% of the students at SEED schools graduate from high school, and 94% attend college.
He did all this while winning a fight against pancreatic cancer and then dealing with its complicated aftermath, including 35 surgeries last year.
Eric, within 18 months, you conceived an idea, lobbied Congress to amend a law, raised millions of dollars and opened a public charter boarding school for inner-city youth. How were you able to move that quickly?
Well, the arrogance of youth is incredibly powerful. My Co-Founder Rajiv Vinnakota, and I, we both had this idea for a public boarding school. If we’d been a little older, we might have thought twice about it. But we didn’t. We just did it. We met on February 11, 1997 and agreed, “Let’s open the school in September 1998 and back-map it to today for everything that has to get done.” We wrote it out on this whiteboard and said, “Well, we need a facility starting here. We won’t have the money until here, so that’ll leave three months. OK, so we’ll just build in three months.” Again, not knowing anything was really useful.
We’re on our third school now, and it’s so much harder to do because we have board members we have to bring along with us, and we have schools that already exist that have to be protected. There’s a real freedom in having nothing to lose, and nobody to tell you, “No”. You just go and you do it.
Why were you inspired to start SEED?
Before attending Wharton, I taught high school physics at St. Paul’s, a prep school outside of Baltimore. I taught mostly white upper-middle-class kids who were paying, not kids of color from the inner city who came in with varying levels of academic preparation.
One kid from the inner city had received a scholarship, and he commuted 90 minutes to school. Nobody was at home to cook his meals or iron his clothes, or make sure his homework was done. He had a huge disadvantage, and it showed. That’s when I had the idea. But I didn’t have the tools to do it, so I just tabled the idea.
How did you envision the school?
We thought it would be a private school. Then, we did the math and figured that, to be a sustainable private school, we would need to raise about $300 million, and recognized that we had never raised money. So then we thought, “How do you bring in public money?” Somebody told us about charter schools, that they received about $5,000 per student as a public school. This was just as the charter school movement across America was getting off the ground. And it was during the Newt Gingrich years and a Congress that created schools in the District of Columbia, yet left the authority with the city council to figure out how much each student was supposed to cost, with the stipulation that there would only be “add-ons” to that fee per student, for non-English proficiency and for learning disability.
So we went to the chair of the D.C. council committee on education, Kevin Chavous, to whom we are still very close, and we said, “Councilmember Chavous, we would like to create an add-on for the boarding student, and you are the person responsible for the formula.” And he said, “Fellas, I love what you’re doing here. I love the idea of this boarding school, and I would love to help you, but unfortunately as you know, the federal law prohibits add-ons for anything other than non-English proficiency and special ed.” And we said, “We know, but let’s just say that we could get Congress to change the law.” Kevin looked back at us and said, “Yeah, you boys go get an act of Congress, and I’ll be here waiting for you.”
In other words, he thought it was impossible.
Yeah. So we had made friends with Tom Downey who used to be a congressman from Long Island (and now on our Board of Directors for 19 years). He would take us up on Capitol Hill, and we would talk to anybody who would listen to us. Finally, we persuaded Congress in 1997, to amend the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995 to allow an add-on for our boarding students.
Now we went back to Kevin Chavous, and we said, “Hi, remember us?” And darn it if he didn’t keep his word. He said, “All right, I said I’d do it.” He calls in his aide, a 26-year-old law school grad, and said, “Adrian, I want you to sit down with Eric and write an amendment to the funding formula, which adds money for students in a boarding school.” Adrian, who by the way is Adrian Fenty, who eventually became the mayor of D.C., sat down, and looked across at me and asked, “How the f___ did you talk my boss into this?” My imagination is not good enough to make this up.
We got, first, an act of Congress and then an act of the District of Columbia to amend legislation to fund our boarding students. To this day, that is how we fund our boarding students in D.C. Plus, we raised a lot of private money.
You still had to build a board of directors, hire teachers and administrators, and recruit students. How did you build your board?
In the beginning, you’re looking for board members, and you’re looking for funders. Glen Lewy, an investment banker from New York, was our first five-figure donor. Raj had gone to college with his son. Glen told us, “I’ll give you $25,000 when you raise $175,000.” We did it in a few weeks. I think that impressed him, and he joined the board.
Another guy, Don Brown, who was our first six-figure donor, is a real estate guy in Washington, D.C. Let me back up. So, this is how you build a social entrepreneurship venture. We met Marc Miller who is a Princeton alum and nobody can milk those relationships like Raj. We sat down with Marc, and he thought that we were kind of nuts, but he said, “What do you need?” We said, “Well, we could really use some office space.” He said, “You know what, I’ve got a client who just took on a bunch of office space.” So he introduced us to Tom Downey, who’s the guy that I mentioned to you a little bit earlier, who took us to Capitol Hill.
Tom put us in office space, and introduced us to his wife, and his wife introduced us to a friend of hers named Anne Fleming, who’s kind of a woman around town. She’s married to a guy named Gordon Peterson who’s a big newscaster in D.C. And Anne was so excited about what we’re doing, because she grew up in an orphanage, so she really cared about this. She said, “I’ve been trying to do something big in D.C. for years, but the city just beats you down, you can’t get anything done. But you guys are getting it done. I’m excited, and I’m going to help you.” By this point, we’d heard a lot of people telling us they wanted to help, so that was nice to hear, but you know, you don’t always believe it. We met Anne Fleming on a Monday. On Tuesday, she called us up and said, “Tomorrow, Wednesday, you’re coming to my house for dinner, and I’ll introduce you to a lot of people.”
So, we went to her house for dinner on Wednesday. She introduced us to her husband (who has been a very close friend to us), and she introduced us to George Allen who had been NBC Bureau Chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He was like this grizzled old veteran. And his wife Anne Allen was the Executive Director of the Cafritz Foundation, one of the largest foundations in town. By the end of the dinner, she was in tears. “I can’t get you money until my board meets in June — will it be OK?” We said, “Yes, that will be OK.” And in the next year, her foundation gave us $1.15 million. A few days after the dinner, Anne Fleming called us and said, “Guys, I’ve got a real estate developer who I want you to meet; his name is Don Brown, a big developer, and a well-respected guy.” He and his two business partners had just sold a significant chunk of their real estate portfolio, so they had money burning a hole in their pockets, and everybody knew it. Anne said, “I’m going to bring you next week to meet Don who’s very excited to meet you.” We said, “Great!”
So we went over to meet Don, and we walked in and Anne was not there yet. Don Brown was less than overjoyed to see us, and we could not understand why. Years later, Anne told us that this was actually how her conversation with Don Brown went:
”Hi, Don. It’s Anne.”
“Hi, Anne. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing great. Don, I really want you to meet these guys. They’re doing something really interesting, and I really want you to support them.”
“Anne, I’m not interested in meeting your guys.”
“No, Don. I really want you to meet them.”
“No, Anne. I don’t want to meet them. I’ll tell you what, here’s how much I don’t want to meet them: If you don’t make me meet them, I will give them $5,000.” “No, Don. That’s not how this is going to work. I’m going to bring them on Wednesday of next week, and you’re going to have sandwiches in your conference room. You’re going to have all of us there, and we’re going to have lunch, and you’re going to listen to them.”
“No, I’m not.”
”Yes, you are.”
“No, Anne. I’m really not.”
“Don, I will see you on Wednesday at noon in your conference room with sandwiches.” And she hangs up on him.
And then she called us and said, “You have an appointment with Don Brown — he’s very excited to meet you.” Anyway, when we met Don, he was grumpy, but he listened for almost three hours. We left, and a week later, he asked us to send him some financial information, which we did. A week later, he called us to make an appointment with his lawyer. We went into his lawyer’s office. Don was there, and he spent 20 minutes telling us what shmucks we were and how our plan sucked and our board sucked. We said, “We know, we want you on our board.” And whatever he said, we would say, “Yes, that’s right. We know, we need to work on that.” And he would respond as if we’d said, “No, that’s totally wrong, we’re brilliant, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I think he just wanted to see if we would sit there and get rained on.
Then he turned to his lawyer, a well-known attorney. Now his lawyer spent 10 minutes telling us what losers we were. At the end of all of this, Don turned back to his lawyer and said, “So, what do you think I should do?” So the lawyer said, “I don’t think you should give them $25,000 because whatever you give them, you’re putting your money at risk.” Don turned back to us and said, “I’m going to give you $500,000 — $100,000 now, and the rest of it when you ask me for it.” Then he leaned across the table and said to us, “Now, don’t f___ it up.” And he got up and left.
That was our first six-figure gift. That all started, I wish to remind you, because we met a guy named Marc Miller, and one thing led to another, and that’s how we got on the map. Once Don gave us money, everybody gave us money. And you were able to raise that money with only a piece of legislation, a charter school application and a plan?
Yes, that’s all. I just think that Raj and I were comfortable waking up every day with 20 things to do, and we only knew how to do 10 of them, or maybe five, right? I think that’s the definition of entrepreneurship. I want to do something big. I don’t know how I’m going to do it — that’s OK, I’ll figure it out.
What’s the benefit of lower-income kids being in a boarding school?
Well first, there are some disadvantages. In a day school, at 3 p.m., everybody leaves and gets away from everybody else, including the kids who don’t get along with one another. In our school, they may be roommates.
Now, the downsides are worth it, because we own the clock, and we offer services to our kids 24 hours a day with everything they need to be successful in the classroom. You know, for years, the way I described why SEED is important is to say, “A child who falls asleep in front of the TV at 2 a.m. with an open bag of potato chips and goes back to school the next morning in the same rumpled clothes is probably not going to learn. And neither is the student to his left or to his right.”
We know that our students have eaten breakfast, have eaten dinner, have had a supervised study hall and have seen a therapist if they need to talk to an adult about whatever’s on their mind. They have been able to work with friends on homework, and have all the things needed around the clock to be a successful student. So it’s worth it, but it’s not easy. It’s expensive, and it’s complicated, and it’s not easy.
Why won’t the student on his left or right learn anything?
When we first started SEED, one teacher said something to me that opened our eyes. He said that we have so many girls and boys in inner cities who are being labeled as learning-disabled, and here’s why — Because all their teachers did was to say, “You in the front row, you read the first paragraph of the textbook, and then you, next to him, the second paragraph,” and all the teacher is going to do is move down the rows. So you as a kid, and this is ninth grade, are sitting midway in the second row and you’re functionally illiterate and you haven’t admitted it to
anybody. What has to happen?
You have to disrupt the class.
Right, you have to get thrown out of class. You will get thrown out of class every day if you have to. You are not going to suffer the humiliation of not being able to read that paragraph. And when I learned that: oh my God. Nobody ever sat down with these kids one on one and said: “I want to ask you to read to me now, it’s just going to be me, and nobody else is going to hear. If you can’t, that’s OK.” Nobody’s done that for these kids.
What were some of the initial challenges? Did you think of throwing in the towel?
We had challenges all the time. A challenge on the finance side: We used tax-free bonds to finance the campus, but it was underwritten by a letter of credit, which in the end was written by Bank of America. Getting that was unbelievably difficult because we had no operating history, right?
On the education side, the kids came to us with greater needs than we had imagined. We thought that, if we offered this great environment with three meals a day and great teachers, the kids would immediately be able to perform at a high level, and it wasn’t like that. Kids had other things in their lives, Their needs were much greater than we imagined. It just turned out to be harder to do than anybody in America has ever thought, and you’ll hear that from everybody who has been working in education reform circles.
What role has Wharton played in your life?
I can’t imagine having to run SEED without it. I mean it. It wasn’t just the connections; it was the education. Prior to Wharton, I taught high school for eight years. I didn’t even know how to read an income statement or balance sheet. I took Richard Shell’s negotiation class. He said, “Everything in life is a negotiation. Anytime, anybody wants anything from anyone, even something as basic as respect or information, the parties will be negotiating, whether or not they realize it.” Understanding this framework gave me a sustained competitive advantage. Wharton made me a problem solver, an entrepreneur.
I remember one instance. Wharton had been in a dark period; it had been ranking fifth or below. Our year, it began ranking No. 1. It was announced on a Friday, and by Monday morning, people were selling T-shirts. I remember thinking, “How come I didn’t think of that?” I became a different person in that moment. I never want to not do something because I didn’t think of it. And I ran my business in a completely different way from what I otherwise would have.
How has your battle with pancreatic cancer and its aftermath, informed your work?
I wanted to have a career from a fairly young age, where I would have no regrets. I feel lucky that I have been able to do that.