David Warnock, venture capitalist, foundation head, art collector, doesn’t want your money. He wants your mind.
There’s a new non-profit in town – one with an interesting mission. The Warnock Foundation wants to be a “platform for innovation,” sifting through the sands of social entrepreneurship for truly great ideas – large and small — that have potential to help the economically disadvantaged and move Baltimore forward.
“Our goal is to connect the people with influence and the people with ideas” says founder David Warnock. “We want to create an environment where entrepreneurism can thrive.”
Ok, sounds great, but how does it actually happen? Recently, the Warnock Foundation conducted a survey asking Baltimoreans what they love about the city, what their concerns are, and ideas for how to make it better. We recently spoke with David in his Inner Harbor offices at Camden Partners, a Baltimore-based private equity firm, to find out the results of the survey, how it impacts the mission of the Warnock Foundation, and how he thinks it can make a difference to Baltimore.
You grew up during difficult economic times in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and attended the University of Delaware and University of Wisconsin. You came to Baltimore in 1983 to work for T. Rowe Price. Soon after you took your first steps into community involvement. What was that experience like?
Through a group called Project Raise, which was sponsored by the Abell Foundation, I became a mentor to a young African-American boy named Winzell Hinton. He was 12 years old at the time, a great kid. We were close for several years, but eventually he drifted away, drawn into the drug culture of East Baltimore. One day when he was 15, I got a call from his mother saying Winzell was at the hospital — he’d been shot, and he had shot another boy. Eventually he was sentenced to a long prison term. I felt then, and still do sometimes, that I had let him down.
Did you stay in touch?
No, we lost touch completely. But 22 years later, he called me up out of the blue. He was out of prison, had a good job, and he simply called to thank me and say he’d never forgotten me. It’s something I will always remember, both seeing him lost to the streets and getting that call to hear I’d made some difference after all.
In the meantime, you had taken the lead in some other city service organizations, right?
In 1999 I became involved in the Center For Urban Families, a men’s services program in Baltimore City designed to help fathers in disadvantaged situations. I’ve been its board chair for 12 years now. Our goal is to help men reconnect with their families, whether that involves finding work, beating addiction, resolving child support issues and/or learning parenting skills. Some of these men have been incarcerated, and all are un- or under-employed – both of those things take a huge toll on the fabric of a family. One thing I saw over and over at the center was how some of our public policies actually perpetuate the cycle of violence in the city. Child support for example. A guy coming out of prison, the average guy, a non-violent offender, owes $22,000 in child support – and he has to start paying again, immediately. So in order to reconnect with his family, he has to raise money. The problem is, with child support arrears he can’t get a driver’s license or a bank account. Plus 65 percent of any W-2 income he makes gets immediately garnished. And to top it off, the collection agency gets a percentage of every dollar they collect from him. So what does he do? He goes right back to dealing drugs, where he likely ran into trouble in the first place. These guys need help, and the Center For Urban Families is reaching out to them. It has been a very successful program, one I’m proud to be a part of – we even got a visit from Obama last year!
And out of this came the Green Street Academy?
Yes. A CFUF survey showed us that there was a desperate need for better community schooling. The Green Street Academy was our answer to that. It’s a public charter school for middle and high school students in West Baltimore, and basically it’s an education start-up. It has an interesting approach, combining project-based learning with a focus on sustainability – and trying to giving kids the skills for both academic and workplace success. We have a 125 foot long greenhouse and a tilapia farm, as well as an amazing team of educators.
What’s the connection between the school and the idea of entrepreneurship?
Something that interests me a lot is creating the best possible package, whether it’s for a person or an idea. For example, you don’t just send someone out on a job interview unprepared. They need to know to stand up straight, to look an interviewer in the eye, to speak clearly and be able to sell themselves. These are skills and they can be taught. Sounds basic, but it’s key. And it’s the same for any kind of start up. It’s one thing to have potential, but you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that in a convincing way.
Sounds a lot like venture capitalism…
It is. And the foundation will provide a kind of boot camp for social entrepreneurs. Taking a great idea and polishing it up – that means making sure it’s workable, that it’s sustainable in the long term, that the owner has thought about potential problems and that they understand the market for it. All those things need to be in place before you have a viable project and before any significant funding can happen. That nurturing process is an important part of encouraging new growth of any kind.
Why start your own foundation, when there already so many in town?
Our goal is to foster ‘thought leadership’ as opposed to having a large grant-making budget. Our purpose is twofold: to foster dialog about the issues that stand in the way of Baltimore reaching it’s potential — for example, our survey, my Ignite Baltimore talks and our blog. Additionally, we are committed to helping start-up social entrepreneurs with advice and capital.
So tell us about the survey.
You know, for me, the most remarkable aspect of the survey was how many people wrote to thank me for asking their opinion. They appreciate just being asked! So I guess that’s social good number one …. Back in September, the Warnock Foundation launched a survey on social media (including Baltimore Fishbowl) called Speak Up, Baltimore in order to collect data that we’ll use for our new publication, The Baltimore Innovation Journal. Almost 700 people responded to questions about Baltimore – how Baltimoreans view their city –what they regard as its biggest assets as well as its biggest obstacles, and also what ideas they had for making it a better place.
What were the findings?
We found that across the board, people felt that we have the potential to be a great city. That our cultural institutions, our hospitals and our universities were enormous assets. And interestingly, the number one asset people named was our neighborhoods. But unfortunately, there is a culture here of low expectations – for example, more Baltimoreans identify their city with The Wire than with the Ravens! That was really surprising.
Any insights as to why?
Obviously there are many reasons. But what stood out is that our respondents across race, income levels, sex and age identified political leadership as the main thing holding Baltimore back. In fact, African Americans cited that as the number one problem in higher percentages than whites.
I read an editorial on the Warnock Foundation website comparing Nashville and Memphis — two cities in Tennessee that currently seem to be experiencing very different economic trajectories.
Nashville has recently been experiencing a kind of rebirth, and the reasons for that can be applied directly to a city like Baltimore, where we have some real strengths – like healthcare, like great universities –but don’t always make the most of them. Nashville, in addition to playing on their strengths – music of course, and health care management – has invested $72 million in 21 businesses so far this year. Memphis, and I’m not bashing Memphis, has not made that kind of commitment to the future, and it makes for an interesting comparison. Nashville also has a tradition of successful entrepreneurs funding and advising the next generation of leaders. We have the seeds of that growing in Baltimore now, and that includes an exciting emerging tech community.
Last year you wrote an editorial to the Baltimore Sun pointing out that the new Exelon tower going up in Harbor East was an opportunity for Baltimore to gain a piece of iconic architecture that would enhance the skyline for years to come. You suggested an international design competition. I guess that didn’t happen.
Yes, and I suppose that goes back to the question of political leadership and strategic thinking. A world-class building design could have been a win-win. Great PR for Exelon, and a chance for the city to literally enhance its profile and also its prestige. It’s just one example of how visionary leadership is important. Instead of scraping along day by day, we need to be looking ahead for opportunities to enhance Baltimore’s future. We settled for tax breaks for developers – a quick fix, when we could have made a lasting statement about our great city. It’s an opportunity lost forever, from lack of political will and vision.
What keeps you fired up about Baltimore City?
The short answer? Winzell Hinton. The longer answer, is that Baltimore has amazing people and a great future.
You are a trustee of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and looking around your offices, you seem to be a pretty savvy art collector yourself. Since we were talking about iconic pieces, is there one iconic piece of art you would love to own?
Oh wow, that’s hard. Well at the BMA, it might be the Blue Nude by Matisse, or maybe one of Matisse’s drawings of his daughter, Marguerite. You can so clearly see the love he had for his daughter in those drawings, and being a father myself with a daughter, I appreciate them. Out of any piece in the world? Probably Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Matthew.
Well, it shows St. Matthew at the moment of his death, and it looks like he’s of two minds about the whole thing. For me, the painting is about losing faith, which, for St. Matthew would have been even more serious than losing his life. If you lose your faith, you fall into the abyss, and it’s all been for nothing.