20 Jul 2017
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Pushing the Next Generation Forward

Breaking stereotypes to end the cycle of poverty in Harlem
Re: Anita Elberse
by Deborah Blagg

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Photos by Chris Taggart

“Some of the students I mentor, when they see a young guy in a leadership position who went to Harvard and worked on Wall Street, they assume I come from privilege,” says Kwame Owusu-Kesse (AB 2006, MBA/MPP 2012). “One of the best parts of my job is getting to break that stereotype and expand their image of what’s possible for them.”

Since 2014, Owusu-Kesse has served as COO of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a path-breaking New York nonprofit known for its multifaceted approach to ending intergenerational poverty, in a 100-block neighborhood in central Harlem. “The stories of the families we work with are not unlike my story,” says Owusu-Kesse. The son of Ghanaian immigrants, he was raised by his mother in a distressed Worcester, Massachusetts, neighborhood. “I experienced firsthand the sacrifices parents make to move the next generation forward.”

Owusu-Kesse’s pathway out of poverty began with scholarships to study at excellent elementary and secondary schools, which prepared him for admission to Harvard College, where he earned a degree in economics in 2005. “Education made all the difference for me,” he notes, “which is why HCZ’s mission is so near and dear to my heart.”

Central to HCZ’s approach is a birth-to-college education pipeline of best-practice academic, community development, and health and wellness programs that serve 13,000 children and nearly as many adults. Recently retired CEO Geoffrey Canada, who established HCZ as a one-block pilot program in the 1990s, built the organization around what Owusu-Kesse calls a “whatever-it-takes ethos,” which can be seen throughout the 2,000-employee organization today.

For Owusu-Kesse, this culture means that, on any given day, he might find himself analyzing funding sources with HCZ’s CFO, lunching with a student mentee, strategizing with the director of a pre-K education program, or working on crisis management with city officials in the aftermath of a violent neighborhood incident.

“Don’t ask me about my typical day,” he says. “I never have those.”

Managing Star Performers

Owusu-Kesse’s original introduction to HCZ came in 2008, during a three-year, post-college stint as a Morgan Stanley financial analyst. Chosen from a worldwide pool to represent the firm in a community outreach initiative, he spent a year as Canada’s assistant at HCZ. “I had always planned a career that would bridge private- and public-sector work,” he says, “so it was an opportunity see how that could play out in an amazing, mission-driven organization.”

The experience led to his joint MBA/MMP studies at Harvard. “I was meeting people who were talking a lot about social entrepreneurship and impact investing, and I wanted to explore those from an academic perspective,” Owusu-Kesse recalls. Looking back at his three years in graduate school, he notes, “Surprisingly, one of the business courses that helps me the most in what I do today was Professor [Anita] Elberse’s class Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries.”

Elaborating, Owusu-Kesse says that while he doesn’t manage big-name athletes or Hollywood performers, “I work with a young staff at HCZ that is responsible for shaping the lives of at-risk children. To succeed, they have to be superstars at what they do, every day, and I have to know how best to deploy their talents and motivate them in circumstances that can be discouraging.”

He also cites the value of the HBS case method in preparing him for decision-making in a pressure-filled, rapidly changing environment. “Sometimes adverse events happen, and I have to make quick decisions to protect students’ safety,” he shares. “Solving problems based on limited available information is something we practiced over and over at HBS. I draw on that all the time.”

Tightly Woven Safety Net

Of course, minimizing the chances for adverse events is a big part of HCZ’s mission. “We really try to think of the child and the community as a whole and weave together a set of services so tight that no one within our grasp will fall through the holes,” Owusu-Kesse explains.

Those safety net services include a “baby college” that provides guidance for parents of infants and babies; year-round pre-K charter schools that serve 2,000 students; school-based support and enrichment programs for 11,000 students who attend New York City elementary, middle, and high schools; a comprehensive college-access program; support for students once they are in college; and community-wide health, nutrition, and wellness offerings that target endemic problems such as asthma and obesity. All programs are offered at no cost to families in HCZ’s service zone. Funding comes from a combination of public and private sources: one-third in public dollars and two-thirds from private donors and foundations.

HCZ has captured the interest of government and community-development leaders nationwide and inspired anti-poverty efforts such as the Promise Neighborhood Program, which was launched in 2010 as part of President Obama’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. When Owusu-Kesse talks with leaders in other cities about HCZ’s approach, he stresses the importance of the long view.

“Ending poverty is not something you’re going to see done within an election cycle,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work that has to be carried out by committed people, day by day, block by block, until you reach a tipping point where the idea of kids growing up healthy and going to college becomes the norm, not the exception.”

Owusu-Kesse’s day job can be intense, and one way he unwinds is through music. As DJ K. Kess, he enjoys presiding over music-based celebrations in venues all over the world, including a 2017 New Year’s gig in Panama that drew 1,300 party-goers. “It’s something I do that combines my love of music, entrepreneurial ambitions, and the joy I get from bringing together engaging, supportive, open-minded professionals who like to have a good time in fun places,” he observes.

Closer to home, Owusu-Kesse says, “I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to take a bunch of kids from Harlem to their first Knicks or Yankees game and watch their faces light up. For me, my job isn’t about charity. It’s about bringing to the world the great potential that I know exists in these kids and in this community.”

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Class of MBA 2012, Section F

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