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Interview: St. Bernard Project founders on risk-taking

,    /   Mar 29th, 2011Environment, Interviews, National, South

In our risk-taking series, Tulane University and Ashoka U students Katie Smalley and Laura White shed light on the value of risk-taking. By interviewing social innovators about bold steps they’ve taken, they reveal that behavior that appears risky may be the most dependable way to produce innovation, ultimately leading to better solutions to social problems.

Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney were living in Washington, D.C. when they heard about the massive destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Despite having no prior experience in construction, they decided to pack up and move down to New Orleans to help in the rebuilding process. Now, St. Bernard Project is recognized throughout the region as a best practices model for community rebuilding. Below, Zack talks about some of the challenges and rewards they have faced in the past five years.

Dowser: What is the biggest entrepreneurial gamble that you’ve taken that has paid off?
Rosenburg: We are primarily a construction company, but we feel it’s really important to respond to the needs we see in the community. We were noticing that for many, the most difficult times came after they were back in their homes. The mental toll of what they had been through was beginning to sink in, and they were looking for help to heal mentally and emotionally. We were uniquely positioned to fill the void because we had earned a position of trust in the community. In 2009, we opened a mental health clinic adjacent to our main office. This was a huge risk for us, because not only did we have no formal training in psychology or social work, we had no funding for the venture. The clinic, at least superficially, seemed completely irrelevant to what we initially set out to do. However, we had designed our organization to be a one stop shop where people could get their homes back, and we felt it was equally important to help our clients get their lives back together. The program is now fully funded, and we have a partnership with Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center to adequately cater to the needs of our clients.

What is the biggest risk that you’ve taken that hasn’t paid off, or at least seemed that way at the time?
One of the biggest lessons we have learned is in establishing partnerships with other organizations. We spent a tremendous amount of time and energy pursuing funders like Home Depot and Lowes with whom we saw the natural potential for partnership, only to be turned down time and again. On the other hand, we didn’t spend much time at all trying to get DeWalt on board, and now they are one of our best partners. It’s important to know when to say enough is enough and move on to other options. Instead of looking for the most obvious partners in your field, focus on cultivating relationships with partners that have similar values to your organization.

What do you think is the most important factor in taking intelligent risks in social enterprise?
Two things: 1) If an action is essential to achieving your mission or getting to a goal you have set for your organization, that action is not really a risk. Just because something is a long shot does not necessarily make it risky; risk comes from being inadequately prepared or improperly suited to do what you are trying to do. 2) Be creative when it comes to developing a model for your organization. Look outside your field; instead of focusing on the service they deliver, look at their process. Our vertically integrated model was inspired by UPS, even though FEMA and Habitat for Humanity are more closely related to what we do. In a sense, how you do what you do is just as important as what you do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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