I am often asked how building a center for innovation and entrepreneurship compares to my work in affordable housing. Surprisingly, or not, depending on your vantage point, there are many similarities. Admittedly, at first blush they couldn’t appear to be more different; my work in Milwaukee centered on building quality and affordable housing in some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods while my work at Lafayette is situated on an idyllic campus, populated by some of our nation’s smartest young people. In Milwaukee it was a backdrop of scarcity, but at Lafayette it is a paradigm of abundance.

For all their obvious differences my approach to both were the same: using observation and empathy to drive insights and creating a space for creative collaboration.

Observation & Empathy to Drive Insights

Before I bought my first house I was struck by the surreptitious renovation process many investors adopted. The standard operating procedure included covering windows, reinforcing doors, and avoiding any substantive engagement with neighborhood residents.

To be fair property theft and damage often happens and a natural reaction is to erect barriers. Every landlord of any significant size has a story to share about their mechanicals or copper plumbing being stolen, if not worse. I still vividly remember my first break in, I had proudly opened the door to a recently renovated unit, confident that the prospective tenant would be impressed enough to offer up their security deposit on the spot, when to my dismay not only had someone stolen my kitchen cabinets but also my carpet!

I could have responded like others by building barriers, but that belief is a tacit indictment of the neighbors, and they are rarely the perpetrators of this petty larceny. I would later learn that most homes were targeted by criminals driving around the city looking for covered windows and other signs of ongoing construction. Ironically in trying to protect themselves, investors were putting bullseyes on their projects!

At Lafayette, a similar disconnect existed. DYER espoused a vision of innovation and entrepreneurship but embodied something that was very different from the needs of students. When I arrived, I learned this by speaking with a colleague. He was approached by a student seeking advice on her startup. Laying outside his area of expertise, he encouraged her to contact DYER and was shocked when he followed up to ask how things went. “I went to their website and I don’t think they help with ideas like mine” she responded. Dismayed, he remarked to me, “if DYER doesn’t help students think through startup ideas than what does it do?”

Lack of clarity on the vision of the center was the most common refrain I heard. Like the investors who adopted an insular rehab process, DYER created programs for the benefit of students but THOSE PROGRAMS LIMITED HOW STUDENTS WERE SERVED.

Space for Creative Collaboration

In Milwaukee, I had to take a different approach than other investors. So rather than make my renovations look like construction fortresses, I hired local kids to do odd jobs and walked curious neighbors through the property. By collaborating with neighbors, we formed bonds. It was a litmus test almost. Surprisingly, or not, I had far fewer break-ins over my career than my peers and even found some of my best renters through referrals from neighbors I had engaged while renovating a property on their block.

Upon arriving at Lafayette, I quickly realized my primary challenge wasn’t program creation, it was creating an environment in which students, alumni, and faculty were invested and engaged enough to build with me. This meant moving our physical location to the center of campus, eschewing notions of assumed expertise, fostering relationships, and adhering to a vision that was as clear in its destination as it was fluid in its implementation. It was in this context that Lafayette senior Danhui Zhang ’18 approached me with an idea for a Lafayette Hackathon. For her it was an opportunity to bring to campus one of the most exhilarating, creative, and demanding experiences she had while interning in San Francisco. For me it was a chance to foster student driven, out-of-the-box ideas in a low-risk environment. It was an initiative led by her passion, created for the benefit of the campus community, and supported by DYER’s resources. It is a collaborative paradigm that gets to the heart of our mission.

In building a community, whether a physical space for residents in Milwaukee or an approach for entrepreneurs at Lafayette, success lies at the intersection of empathetic understanding, creative collaboration, thoughtful experimentation, and a collective belief in our ability to achieve greatness.