Alliance Leader Elyse Cherry, founding board member and CEO of Boston Community Capital (BCC), is more than just an entrepreneurial success. BCC’s capital growth since founding, increasing assets under management by 3500% to close to a billion dollars, attests to her financial acumen. But beyond business success, Cherry’s career also provides a model for how to blend business with values that go beyond the single bottom line. Elyse has created multiple bottom-line success stories, provided venture investments, helped stabilized urban neighborhoods and created a “full life-cycle” workplace.
Driving BCC’s Meteroic Growth BCC began almost 30 years ago with $3500 to invest. As Cherry said to Charlotte Robinson of OUTTAKE VOICES, “we had not enough common sense or gray hair to know you couldn’t do anything with $3500.”
Today, BCC has provided nearly $1 billion in financing to enterprises that help to build healthy communities. That includes affordable housing, lines of credit for non-profits, healthcare centers, day care centers, senior housing, and solar panels on housing and public buildings.
Venture Capital Invested in Social Good BCC even controls community development venture funds which look to invest in companies which create a multiple bottom line: good jobs and community benefits as well as returns for investors. The first fund, founded in 1997, was an early investor in Zipcar, the revolutionary car-sharing service which takes cars off the road, reducing both urban congestion and carbon emissions. That particular investment paid off handsomely for the fund last year when Avis bought Zipcar.
Another of the fund’s intriguing investments is the startup Wegowise, an inventive idea out of MIT. Wegowise offers an extremely inexpensive web-based tool for tracking and benchmarking utility use in residential or commercial buildings. “We were concerned that energy efficiency was becoming a luxury product—available only to those at the top of the income bracket,” says Andrew Chen of Wegowise, “despite the fact that affordable housing, which typically has older housing stock and less money for maintenance, really can benefit the most.” Wegowise currently tracks the energy usage and performance of over 20,000 buildings across the US and Canada — approximately half a billion square feet of residential space, including over 80,000 low-income multifamily units across Massachusetts alone. Tracking and benchmarking energy and water use for affordable housing units here in Massachusetts, the company has identified over $300 million in lifetime energy savings.
Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods But perhaps BCC’s most visible success at the moment is its SUN (Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods) Initiative, which has helped over 450 Massachusetts families facing foreclosure to restructure their debt and retain their homes. BCC has expanded the operations of this highly successful program to Maryland, and is exploring expansion to several other states nationwide. While the loans SUN makes return a profit, Cherry’s motivation goes far beyond that. All the evidence shows that homeownership brings stability to a neighborhood, so SUN’s positive impact touches the whole community, beyond just the individual homeowners.
But Cherry doesn’t limit her commitment to a more just and sustainable society to her workday. She has contributed countless hours to numerous community boards and committees, from Massachusetts Governor Patrick’s Foreclosure Impacts Task Force to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, where she served as chair. She was also chair of MassEquality, an organization promoting equal marriage rights in Massachusetts, at the time the legislature was making its historic determination on gay marriage. A lawyer by training, her community involvement includes years of service on the board of GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders).
Creating a “Life-cycle Workplace” What’s her perspective on the current discussion about the role of women in the workplace, about “leaning in or leaning out,” or whether women or men can “have it all?” Cherry believes that business leaders have a responsibility to create a culture that supports their staffs in leading a full and balanced life, something she has worked hard to achieve as CEO at Boston Community Capital.
But that responsibility is also a business opportunity, Cherry points out. “BCC strives to be a ‘lifecycle’ employer. We’ve worked to create a culture that helps people excel at their work and be accountable to the needs of the organization and the communities we serve. But we also offer new parents (or staff caring for aging relatives) the flexibility and support they need to return to work and to progress toward their own ‘cutting edge’ commitment on a schedule that works for their life circumstances. That flexibility and support has allowed us to attract and retain a dedicated and experienced staff whose contribution to building healthy communities extends beyond the confines of a regular work day. We encourage civic leadership outside the office – such as serving on a non-profit board, volunteering at a local school, or participating on the town’s finance committee. These experiences help strengthen our communities; they also help employees to build personal and professional networks, gain new experience, and enhance our understanding of the changing world in which we work.” A business which builds a culture where employees are valued as whole human beings reaps benefits out of the reach of more traditional firms.
Elyse Cherry and Boston Community Capital are standouts by any measure in the business of doing well by doing good. A glance at BCC’s portfolio will convince anyone that business leaders can deliver benefits for everyone by choosing to focus on the multiple bottom line.