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Inner-City Dreams

Eric Adler '86

My high school taught me what a preparatory education should be. My graduate school gave me the skills to build a business to deliver that education to poor children. But Swarthmore taught me why I should devote my life to such a project. Like so many of us, I became who I am at Swarthmore. 

In my senior year, I wrote two theses: my Engineering 090 project and an economics thesis titled "The Causes of Economic Inequity in America." While my friends at other colleges were breezing through their final semesters, I must have pulled a dozen all-nighters in a four-month period. I found myself engrossed in the study of how various groups have fared economically in America and elsewhere, and what problems stood between them and economic justice. Fifteen years later, I am working full time on a project designed specifically to address the issues I studied in my thesis. Here is how I got here:

Swarthmore and its Quaker values have played a critical role in my life. I attended not only a Quaker college but also a Quaker high school. I am married to the most wonderful Quaker on earth, Suzanne Myers Adler '97. (Score another one for the Quaker Matchbox!) Suzanne's maid of honor and the godmother of our daughter is Nora Taylor '97, also a Quaker. In my junior year, Will Saletan '87 invited me to join his radio comedy show, Swarthmore Adult Movie Theatre. We did sketches and political satire. We thought we were the funniest thing in the entire world. Today, we hear the tapes and realize that we weren't really all that funny at all. But Will lives just a few miles from me and is our daughter's godfather. It turns out that being funny isn't the most important part of doing a radio comedy program in college.

I grew up in a middle-class home, played lots of soccer, and fooled around with various mechanical and electrical devices and science kits. I happily attended suburban public schools through the eighth grade and then moved to Sidwell Friends, a well-known Quaker high school in Washington, D.C. My experience there impressed me deeply; I realized that the quality of one's education could make or break a life.

I arrived at Swarthmore determined to develop my interest in mechanics and electronics, and majored in engineering and economics. I knew that the first thing I wanted to do after graduation was to teach high school. I wanted to help provide to others the very successful high school experience I had enjoyed.

My first job after Swarthmore was teaching high school physics at St. Paul's School in Baltimore. I loved my time there and stayed for eight years, eventually becoming dean of students. But I had an entrepreneurial itch that I needed to scratch. So, in 1994, I headed to the Wharton School to earn an M.B.A. I received the phone call from Lisa Lee-yes, our Lisa Lee, Swarthmore Class of '81 and now director of alumni relations, who was a member of the Wharton School admissions staff back then-informing me that I had been admitted to Wharton. I remember thinking that the only way I could have gotten in, with my college grades, was if there was a Swarthmorean on the admissions staff!

After Wharton, I took a job as a management consultant. However, helping enormous corporations to operate a little more efficiently, although honorable work, just did not seem as important as teaching. And yet, I had these business skills, and I wanted to put them to work toward a greater good, so I decided to start a social venture. Because I believe that education is the answer to nearly every social ill and that social problems are concentrated in our inner cities, I decided to build schools for the inner city. I realized that college-preparatory boarding schools for inner-city children, most of whom would be statistically expected to drop out of school, could prepare them instead for admission to America's most competitive colleges and universities.

Six years ago, my business partner, Raj Vinnakota, and I launched the SEED (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development) Foundation, whose mission is to open and operate such schools. Five years ago, we opened our first school, right here in my hometown of Washington, D.C., which serves as a model for others we intend to open, perhaps all across the country. The SEED School of Washington, the nation's only public college-preparatory boarding school, is located within the urban neighborhood from which many of its students are drawn. In these five years, we have seen inner-city children grow from immature preteens to secure and self-disciplined young men and women. Next year, we will send the first couple of dozen of them off to college. And these students were not creamed off as the most promising among thousands from the inner city; we accept applications from any poor children who want to attend, and choose our students by lottery. The SEED School is proving that inner-city children, no matter how difficult their circumstances, can be prepared for their rightful share of the American dream, if we only care enough to do it.

The process has been grueling. Raj and I have worked many 100-hour weeks. We have raised nearly $35 million in capital, more than $20 million of which has come through cash gifts and the rest through tax-exempt bonds. We still have millions of dollars left to raise. We have successfully lobbied the federal and D.C. governments for $7.3 million of annual operating funding and have developed 175,000 square feet of finished space in four buildings on the school's 19-acre campus. As you read these words, we have 300 students living and learning and eating and sleeping on our campus, becoming who they want to become.

We have been treated generously by donors, by our incredibly committed faculty and staff, and by the press. The recognition we have received has been beyond my wildest imaginings: The SEED School has been featured on broadcasts such as ABC News Nightline and the PBS documentary program Life 360. Raj and I were honored to receive the Use Your Life Award on the Oprah Winfrey Show. (The next day I received a call from a woman in California who said: "I saw you on Oprah yesterday. My house is on the market, and I am coming to work for you." And she did!) Recently, Raj and I were named "2002 Washingtonians of the Year" by The Washingtonian magazine. We have also been named fellows by the Echoing Green Foundation and have received the Manhattan Institute's Outstanding Social Entrepreneur Award. Most surprising of all, the cover of a recent Wharton Alumni Magazine featured not some corporate raider or Internet mogul, but a social entrepreneur who builds schools.

What is it about Swarthmore that changed me, and helped me become the social entrepreneur that I am today? First and foremost, it was the focus on academics. Swarthmore allowed me to see that concentrating on the life of the mind is important. Second, it was the lack of grade inflation (or, perhaps, the existence of grade deflation!). In a world all too accepting of poor quality, it is exciting to have been nurtured by a place that calls mediocrity to account. Swarthmore helped me to see that if I am to accomplish anything important in life, it will not be by coasting.

But the other extraordinary influence that Swarthmore had on me was to surround me with kind role models. I remember as a student once reading an interview with a young alum who said, "It took me a couple of years after Swarthmore to realize that the rest of the world really is out to get me." I particularly remember Curt Lauber (the varsity soccer coach), Fred Orthlieb (my Engineering 090 adviser), and Paul Rabideau (my economics thesis adviser), each treating me with great kindness and respect, despite moments in which they could have cut me to shreds. Kenneth Gergen and Kaori Kitao handled me with kid gloves when I made the mistakes of enrolling in social psychology and art history courses I had no business attempting. Coming of age in a place devoted to kindness and decency is a precious gift.

Even Eugene Lang '38, one of Swarthmore's most generous donors and, at the time of my graduation, chairman of the Board of Managers, treated me with incredible kindness. The day before I graduated, he granted me a meeting after a cold call, without knowing what I wanted. In fact, I didn't know what I wanted either, beyond the fact that this man was a stunningly successful entrepreneur who worked with technology, and I just knew that he was the sort of person I should meet. And so I did. Fifteen years later, he would grant me a second meeting to discuss the SEED Foundation and allow me to try to interest him in supporting it. In the end, he declined, but  in turning me down, he offered some of the kindest words of encouragement I have ever received. In that moment, Eugene Lang showed me the difference between not supporting and not caring.

I carry Swarthmore's lessons about kindness, hard work, and academic study with me to this day. They affect me not only as a social leader, but as a husband, father, and friend. All of us who graduated from Swarthmore are lucky to have had the experience of attending a special little college. To the extent that we are able to accomplish good works, the whole world is lucky that we went to Swarthmore.

Eric Adler is co-founder and executive director of the SEED Foundation, which creates college-preparatory schools for inner-city children.