Laura Pincus Hartman has tackled the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with the authority and determination of a CEO and the unbridled gusto of a rock star. “When I’m in Haiti, I feel like I’m doing the greatest good,” says the sister of Zynga founder Mark Pincus. There, she’s helped fund the L’Ecole de Choix school and leveraged the Zynga gaming community to raise $1.5 million for relief after the 2010 earthquake. (Zynga has also used Mafia Wars to raise over $875,000 for Direct Relief International, which provided relief to Japan after the earthquake.) She also aggressively pushed for-profits to think about the deeply impoverished country and its people in a meaningful and strategic way. “I became interested in the nature of profitable partnerships, specifically with the base of the pyramid consumer,” says Hartman, who’s also a professor of business ethics at DePaul University. “Can we create a market where for-profits can bring meaningful synergies to developing economies? Real, strategic philanthropy?”
Fast Company spoke to Hartman about metrics, Haiti, and the dignity of choice.
Do you feel that we’ve reached a tipping point where we can change things for women and kids in poverty?
Honestly, I think you don’t need to identify a turning point in time. We trust numbers and metrics more than trends. I believe that the more that we’re able to take information and communicate it on a broad scale the more people share it. We’re a much more communicative populous today than we were ten years ago. And this is very encouraging.
What is the impetus behind your consulting work?
I believe that my little niche in the world is that I can convince for-profits that they can have an impact on poverty and serve their financial strategy, and that they should do it because it will serve their strategy. If I can sit in front of a CFO, I can demonstrate how partnering with people in developing economies will serve the bottom line.
How did you begin?
As an academic, I’d dabbled and tried things and tested theory. I would say that the first partner where I said “this is actually going to work” was a woman named Amanda Tucker, a young woman who was so impressive at Nike. Nike let me in–this is the late 1990s–and taught me the value of transparency. They let me go see their factories in Vietnam, right after all their challenges. They were willing to let faculty go in and generate ideas. I did a book called Rising Above Sweatshops: Innovative Responses to Global Labor Challenges. It’s not all glowingly positive, but I had the time to outline the challenges they face and their responses to stakeholders. One of the problems Nike was having was that kids would lie about their age to stay atwork. Because it was better to have a job even if you’re underage. How do you discover someone’s real age if they don’t have any identification? And how do you solve the problem that taking away their employment causes? These are hard issues. I wanted business students to understand that businesses have to make really tough decisions.
From the moment I touch down, I feel like my voice actually gets heard. I feel like when I’m there, I’m worthwhile. I feel like my actions have a purpose and an impact. I can demonstrate, often within hours, what we’ve purchased with even the smallest contributions to L’Ecole de Choix. In about a week, I can show you the children using it, and within a month I can show you how we’ve assessed their learning with it. I can show you that they have learned something pretty remarkable. When I can get a metric and see the value of the work that I’m doing, that’s the work I want to do.
But some metrics are more troubling than others.
One of the things that has been most devastating to me about what I’ve seen is restavek, one of the worst forms of child slavery in the world. The word comes from the French and Kreyol, which means “to stay with.” I think it emerged from a very well meaning intent, which was to take care of children when their parents couldn’t take care of them. But in the Haitian context, the child is often sent away because the parents can’t afford to feed the child, the child will die, or the parents are dead. When they are sent away, often it’s to a violent, even sexually abusive environment, where the recipient, often not a family member, will treat the child like a slave. It’s a horrendous, torturous environment. And it’s been painful for me to see. I’ve been working with members of the Vincentian family, which is the overarching religious family that represents DePaul University, and they have opened schools in Haiti for children who are restavek. For many, it’s the only opportunity they’ve had to be educated.
Do you serve the restavek population?
Our school is a different environment. Most of our children are survivors of the 2010 earthquake. A good third of our community still have no housing, and most or all have not had the opportunity to go to school before. Our children are between pre-K and fourth grade. They only spoke Kreyol. We are giving them an education that far surpasses what might have been available. They are learning three languages, English, French, and Kreyol. It’s called L’Ecole de Choix because we’re giving them that dignity of choice, that they have the same choices my children have. They should be able to choose what they want to be when they grow up. They should be able to choose what they want to eat–our meal is the only meal they may have all day. They should choose what they’re interested in studying. Listen, I delayed the opening of the school for a day because the doors hadn’t been installed on the bathrooms yet–the only working toilets they may have ever seen! I wanted to give them the dignity of choosing privacy. It was worth it.
You make it sound almost easy.
Hey, I get frustrated. We recently got these school packs and personal care packs donated to us–toothbrush, toothpaste, and washcloth. The Navy brought it over and we gave them to the students to give to their families. We found that many of the parents had sold them. These people are living with nothing. I need to learn from the desperation, because it’s important to acknowledge. I don’t talk about this as a charity or a philanthropy. I’m not here to rescue or to “help” them. I’m here to help them help themselves.