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Majora Carter shares six key steps of social entrepreneurship

A pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship, Majora Carter was the 2015 Kelly Distinguised Scholar-in-Residence.
A pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship, Majora Carter was the 2015 Kelly Distinguised Scholar-in-Residence.
Photo by Ashley de los Reyes ’15

Care for yourself. Care for your community. Care for the world. From South Bronx to St. Paul, Majora Carter's message resonates with compassion, hope and conviction. She delivered that message Thursday night at The O'Shaughnessy to an enthusiastic audience that included Joan Kelly ’46, who endowed the Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence program that brought Carter to St. Catherine University.

Well-known as a pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship, Carter's work aims at urban revitalization. Crucial to this work, she said, is the "ability to see things not as they were, not as they are, but as they could be." Throughout her talk, slides showed past, present and dreams of the future from her work in New York City. A mural on a South Bronx building proclaims, "You don't have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one."

Growing up in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City, Carter saw failure all around her neighborhood. "Arson was a big thing," she recalled, with landlords torching their own buildings for the insurance money. Scarred by poverty, drugs and crime, the South Bronx lost 60 percent of its population during the 1970s and 1980s.

"I knew I was a smart kid and could do better," she recalled. "And I was told that by my family and my teachers. So I got out." She went to New York City's best public high school and on to Wesleyan University, "my ticket out."

Answering questions at the end of her formal presentation, Carter talked about the value of a liberal arts education. After college, she had "the feeling that I could do all sorts of things and do them badly and be okay with it until I found something that really did move me." She stressed the power of that "freedom to fail."

In graduate school and broke, she moved back in with her parents. That felt like "a huge defeat." But with education and time and distance, she began to see her neighborhood differently. "Many of the things I had thought to be true about my community were not true," she realized, now seeing the impact of regulations, business interests and policies imposed on politically vulnerable, very poor people of color. And, at that very moment, the city was about to build a huge waste facility on the South Bronx riverfront, adding to the many waste facilities already in the community.

Carter joined a "growing groundswell" of opposition, eventually succeeding not only in stopping the waste facility but also in creating a national award-winning riverfront park and beginning the process of neighborhood revitalization.

The success of that South Bronx organizing, she said, was based on a process of social entrepreneurship. She listed six steps of the process: 

  • Identify market and/or policy need (Who wants this thing?)
  • Design an attractive solution.
  • Obtain "angel" investment. (That could be money, but could also be influence used on behalf of your project.)
  • Launch the beta version of your project.
  • Learn from projects and refine. (Watch how people use the beta version, how they respond to it, and make changes.)
  • Reiterate and expand.

The process fits on a single slide, she joked, but "sometimes it takes years. This stuff is WORK!" Knowing how to do something is not enough. "Ideas are a dime a dozen, actually even cheaper than that. Everybody has ideas, but most don't do anything with their ideas."

The process of getting that park in South Bronx took years. The process of urban revitalization in the neighborhood continues, including green-infrastructure projects, housing and business development, and job training and placement. Carter's consulting work today takes her across the country and even abroad to cities and neighborhoods seeking change.

Carter said that economic diversity is crucial to urban revitalization. "We think that gentrification is like a tidal wave," she said, something powerful and overwhelming that people can't control. That's the wrong way to look at it. Instead, Carter says, gentrification is "more like the sun or the wind. It can be harnessed to provide power as we need it." The real question is how to tame gentrification, to make neighborhoods diverse and inclusive, remembering that, "Poor people like nice neighborhoods, too."

Carter said she was inspired by the "thought-provoking and tough questions" that students posed during her three-day residency. "You are the future," she said, "There isn't anything you can't do."

Carter also praised the "fierce sisters" of the CSJ community for "commitment to the ideals of creating a sustainable, healthy world and backing it up with power, and being hilarious at the same time," adding "I want to be that when I grow up!"

Joan Kelly and Majora Carter

Joan Kelly ’46 with Majora Carter after the lecture. Photo by Julie Michener.

More about Majora Carter

Majora Carter is an urban revitalization strategy consultant, real estate developer, and Peabody Award winning broadcaster. Carter established Sustainable South Bronx and Green For All to implement green-infrastructure projects, policies, and job training & placement systems.

She has built on this foundation with innovative ventures into urban economic developments designed to help move Americans out of poverty. Carter's 2006 TedTalk was one of the first six videos to launch their groundbreaking website.

More about the Kelly Scholar-in-Residence program

The Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence is one of three programs endowed by Joan Kelly ’46 in honor of her late older sister, Bonnie Jean Kelly, who died suddenly while she was a student at St. Kate's.

Joan Kelly was an English major, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate, and credits the liberal arts education she received at St. Kate’s for her success. The Kelly gift also funds annual student and faculty writing awards.

April 10, 2015 by Mary Turck

See also: Alumnae/i, Business, Leadership, Liberal Arts, Social Justice, STEM