25 Mar 2016

Putting Faith in a Good Education

Microloans to ‘edu-preneurs’ are having a big impact for Christian schools in developing countries
Re: Greg Avis (MBA 1984); Chad Keck (MBA 1976); Tom Volpe (MBA 1976); Tony Blenk (MBA 1976); Scott Cook (MBA 1976); Peter Wendell (MBA 1976)
by Jill Radsken


Photos by Nancee Lewis

The kind of private schools Chris Crane (MBA 1976) invests in have cement floors, no glass in the windows, cramped quarters, and just enough food on hand for the students to eat.

“I see mothers labor in the hundred-degree heat and high humidity to save so their daughters can become an aruaba, ‘a woman who goes to work in a business suit,’ in the West African language Twi,” says Crane, founder of Edify, a nonprofit that provides micro-enterprise loans to faith-based schools in Africa and Latin America. “I’m honored to serve parents like that.”

Since launching in 2009, Edify has assisted 1,100 private faith-based schools, loaning each a minimum $5,000. Founded and run largely by locals who grew up in these disadvantaged communities, these schools use the money for improvements (such as a computer lab) or expansion, and are able to pay the loan back by charging working poor families a modest tuition of 50 cents to $1 per day.

“Education is a human right, in my opinion,” says Crane. “The lack of access to good education in developing countries is one of the greatest problems in the world today.”

Crane’s passion for global education came after a successful run as president and CEO of COMPS InfoSystems between 1992 and 2000. During his leadership, the small regional print-publishing firm that covered commercial real estate became a national electronic database publisher, with 420 employees and coverage in 50 of the top real estate markets. With support of HBS alums Greg Avis (Summit Partners, MBA 1984), Chad Keck (Needham & Co., MBA 1976), Tom Volpe (Prudential Volpe, MBA 1976), and Tony Blenk (Everen Securities, MBA 1976), Crane led the company in acquiring 13 companies, raised four rounds of venture capital, and took the company public in an initial public offering.

He sold COMPS InfoSystems six weeks before the market started to crash in March 2000. After taking a couple of years off to relax and regroup, Crane got a job offer to become CEO of Opportunity International, the world’s largest faith-based micro-finance group, with operations in 28 developing countries.

“At first, I discouraged them. I said, ‘I’m a for-profit guy. I don’t know anything about nonprofit,’” he recalls.

But Crane quickly realized that the global nonprofit was making corporate-like decisions—orchestrating loans, setting up partnerships and lending alliances—and it needed someone with his business acumen to execute them.

“I was a 50-year-old person when I got that call about social entrepreneurship, but I stepped onto the playing field,” says Crane, who is now 63. “My initial reluctance was overcome by my daily Scripture readings in seeing the many commandments by God to serve the poor.”

Crane led Opportunity International until 2009, after growing private revenues by 30 percent, compound annual growth rate, and increasing its client base from 375,000 to 1.5 million. He also walked away from his other angel investing and board activities with a clear focus and confidence to start Edify. Funded largely on donations, the organization provides the funds to help build simple cement-block classrooms with a $10,000 loan and serve students such as 14-year-old Delphine, who lives in Ghana, where public schools are underfunded and resources lacking.

“Her mom put her at Omega School there, and she’s blossoming in English and math. It’s going to change her life,” Crane says.

Based in San Diego, Crane has formed a partnership with the University of San Diego to bring American educators to his “edu-preneurs” in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Peru, Rwanda, Liberia, and Burkina Faso, to help improve the learning environment. He hopes to scale Edify, from affecting nearly 400,000 children currently to 2 million children in the next decade.

It’s an ambitious objective that draws from countless lessons learned at HBS. As the first generation in his middle-class New Jersey family to attend college, Crane remembers the lessons and friendships as having lifelong impact.

“The professors were like watching great conductors of an orchestra,” he says, recalling classes with professors Steven Star and Philip Thurston, and classmates Scott Cook (cofounder, Intuit) and Peter Wendell (cofounder, Sierra Ventures). “I’ve used the techniques I learned at HBS every day in the last 40 years.”

His Christian faith has also been crucial in forming Edify’s mission, and Crane believes the organization’s success has the power to overcome the culture of corruption found in many of the countries it helps.

“Education is the pathway out of poverty,” he says. “We believe in God, integrity, peacemaking. Character is extremely important. We don’t want to train smarter corrupt people. Without changing the values, the country will be the same in 50 years.”

But Crane sees the possibilities for the future every day, especially during his twice-yearly travels to see the schools that Edify supports in action.

“I used to have thrills when doing multimillion-dollar business deals,” he says. “Now, when I make a $10,000 loan, it’s a jewel.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1976, Section G

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