Erik Clemons returns to share his work as founding CEO of ConnCorp, a sister organization of ConnCAT which has acquired and is revitalizing commercial properties in underinvested neighborhoods in New Haven. Their ultimate goal is to catalyze and support a place-based impact investing ecosystem in the city.
Teresa Chahine: Welcome back, everybody. It’s the first episode of the new academic year, and I’m here with a very special guest, Erik Clemons, the CEO of ConnCORP. Erik was one of my first guests about several years ago when I first joined SOM, and he came to speak as the CEO of ConnCAT, a nonprofit that he started in New Haven, and at the time was starting to think about a for-profit idea to invest in the community, which is called ConnCORP. And that was still at the idea stage when we last spoke.
Erik Clemons: Indeed.
Teresa Chahine: So our last conversation, we talked about your work in education and the different layers of impact you were having at the individual, community, state level. And so this time I want to talk about money, because you’ve really shifted your focus to be like, “Okay, there’s only so much we can do with nonprofit social entrepreneurship,” and you believe very strongly that we need to invest in Black communities, not as a development or revitalization or charity case but as a community to be invested in as an economic case. And I feel like that’s a message people aren’t getting right away. Right?
Erik Clemons: Yeah.
Teresa Chahine: So tell us more about ConnCORP and what it does, and what is the mindset shift you want people to have?
Erik Clemons: Well, first thank you for having me, and also for allowing us to extend our conversation.
Teresa Chahine: Yeah, exactly.
Erik Clemons: This is part two.
Teresa Chahine: Part two.
Erik Clemons: Yeah. And I’m just so happy to be here with you.
Teresa Chahine: Me too.
Erik Clemons: And to see you’re still here in New Haven. And not only here in New Haven but rooted in community.
Teresa Chahine: Thank you, Erik. Actually, I have this constant fear that you’ll leave one day, because it wouldn’t be the same without you.
Erik Clemons: So first, ConnCORP is really an outgrowth of the success of ConnCAT. ConnCAT stands for the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology, and it’s really rooted in the idea of building community through the creation of or the manufacturing of beauty that will create dignity for mostly Black people who have been living in poverty and are unemployed and underemployed. And so we have workforce development trainings, two medical trainings, one in phlebotomy, the other in medical billing and coding. But also we started a new training in bioscience, bio pharma called BioLaunch.
Teresa Chahine: Cool.
Erik Clemons: Which is really incredible, because we wanted to train folks and get them prepared for this new economy that’s really blossoming in New Haven around bioscience and bio pharma. So an incredible man—
Teresa Chahine: So that everyone can participate.
Erik Clemons: Exactly. And that’s the idea. How do we find entry into that economy? And so an incredible friend, name is Dr. Craig Cruz, who is a bioscientist entrepreneur professor here at Yale. He and I became friends around six, seven years ago, maybe five or six years, I can’t remember, but it seems like a long time. And he and I have been talking about and trying to be strategic about widening and deepening the Black middle class through the advent of biosciences. And so Craig came up with this idea of a training for Black and Brown people living in underserved communities.
Teresa Chahine: So this is new.
Erik Clemons: This is new. This is new. We just launched it, and a great young man who’s running it for us, his name is Dr. Orlando Yarborough, who did a PhD and postdoc here at Yale. He’s a geneticist by trade, but now he’s running this new initiative, which is absolutely incredible. Have great people on board, a woman named Rebecca Frey and other folks who are in the industry and who are taking on our now soon-to-be graduates. So that’s important to note.
But now ConnCORP was conceived because we really wanted to think about what we were thinking about, but do something about the next iteration of impact for folks who have gone through our medical training programs and our culinary school that was started, and didn’t want those folks to be the working poor, and realize also that folks who have gone through our programs who are now working see the world differently and are navigating their communities differently with a deeper and wider sense of hope.
And so what could we do for folks like that? And so myself and my board chair, and a man named Paul McCraven, who is now chief operating officer at ConnCORP, started this thing called the Connecticut Community Outreach Revitalization Program, ConnCORP for short. This really was a real economic development, economic justice organization that we started to really affect change in Black communities that were languishing in poverty, namely Dixwell and Newhallville, here in New Haven. And so started that organization. Really wasn’t a lot of infrastructure there. It was somewhat fraught. And it was really initially a real estate play. We had our sights on the Dixwell Plaza, which is on Dixwell Avenue, which was a declining plaza. Kind of left to decline, quite frankly, and quite... and still is an eyesore in Dixwell, in the Dixwell community. And so we felt like that place should look better given that Dixwell Avenue is a major artery in New Haven. And so we wanted to do something about that.
So we bought one building, which was an old CTown market, and thought we would change the trajectory of the community by buying this one building. That was not a good idea, and so we started thinking wider and deeper and played the long game and said, “Let’s put together a property acquisition strategy, buy the parcels in the plaza,” which were 11, including an iconic historic Elks hall, that’s on the corner of Dixwell and Webster Street. And so for the last three and a half years we’ve been putting together this... we’ve been executing this strategy of acquiring these properties. We became owners of all the properties within the last year and now have put a fence around the entire eight acres and are about to demolish the entire block.
Teresa Chahine: It sounds almost impossible that you could just go in there and buy up all these properties that weren’t even related to each other and create this new neighborhood.
Erik Clemons: It was very, very difficult. And also a point of clarity. So now ConnCORP is now a nonprofit as well.
Teresa Chahine: Oh, really? Okay.
Erik Clemons: But it’s a nonprofit that has business lines.
Teresa Chahine: Because it is a real estate company, right?
Erik Clemons: It is. Well, mainly a real estate company, but the way I like to see it is, it is a... where we do have these business lines that are looking to be profitable.
Teresa Chahine: Right, it’s self-sustaining.
Erik Clemons: Exactly.
Teresa Chahine: It’s not relying on philanthropy forever.
Erik Clemons: Exactly. But it’s for the purpose of helping people, not just for the purpose of making money.
Teresa Chahine: Exactly.
Erik Clemons: Which is really a distinction to me.
Teresa Chahine: Yeah.
Erik Clemons: So... go ahead.
Teresa Chahine: Well, I was just going to ask, why... does it have to be a distinction? Because the vibe I always get from our conversations is that it doesn’t have to be two different things, and that you help people by making money and by developing the community and by helping them make money. You don’t want it to be like a charity case, right?
Erik Clemons: No, exactly. And so if I think about it, if I think about ConnCORP and its businesses, so we have three food businesses: Petals Market, Orchid Cafe, which you know very well, and Orchid Catering.
Teresa Chahine: We just had Orchid Catering in class last time. It was so good.
Erik Clemons: I heard.
Teresa Chahine: I recommend anyone order Orchid Catering if they can.
Erik Clemons: Well, Gideon, who is our VP of hospitality, and he’s just an absolute amazing man, Gideon Gebreyesus. And so we have these businesses. We just opened another cafe called Recess Cafe, which is in the lab at ConnCORP, which I’ll talk about in a minute. And so these are revenue-generating businesses. Now, to your point and to the earlier point, the idea of making money, not just for the sake of making money but for making money to sustain those businesses, and those businesses employing people and being a service to the community is super, super important to me. And that is part of our mission.
Teresa Chahine: And also the concept of... I remember one of the misconceptions at the beginning was why would you invest tens of millions of dollars in this community? If you think about why is that the best use of money for economic development? It’s like people wouldn’t be asking that question in another neighborhood.
Erik Clemons: Absolutely.
Teresa Chahine: That was kind of my point.
Erik Clemons: Absolutely. No, you’re right. And so the project, the large project called ConnCAT Place on Dixwell is just that. It’s an almost $200 million project that we’re in the midst of a race right now for, for the purpose of bringing beauty, dignity, and utility to the Dixwell and Newhallville communities that have not had that.
Teresa Chahine: Yeah, you shouldn’t have to justify that.
Erik Clemons: Exactly. Exactly. No different than what would happen in South Norwalk, as we were just talking about, a huge mall now on the edge of South Norwalk, just for the purpose of bringing utility and service and economy to that particular area.
Teresa Chahine: Yeah. I guess economy is the word I’m looking for rather than money, because then economy is the purpose of money and the purpose of investing.
Erik Clemons: Exactly. And so the idea of our business lines as well as ConnCAT Place on Dixwell, or the lab at ConnCORP, is to create economic infrastructure in communities that have been historically languishing in poverty. That’s really the aim here.
Teresa Chahine: Exactly. What I learned from you is that these neighborhoods have been under invested in due to racism—
Erik Clemons: That’s right.
Teresa Chahine: ... and that’s why they’re dilapidated. And it really took a private company and a private effort to say, “It doesn’t need to languish like this. Let’s revitalize it.”
Erik Clemons: That’s right. That’s right. And that’s really, for me, that’s really the crux of the matter. How do we aggressively address poverty, and a poverty that not only has decimated, in my opinion, a neighborhood or two neighborhoods especially, but a poverty that has also allowed people not to really think differently about what could be possible, other than what they see. And so poverty... It is not only the scarcity of resources, but it also, there’s a psychic pain that comes with poverty. And I know this to be true because I was once living in poverty as a kid, and I saw the symptoms of poverty every day on the faces and in the hearts of people that I lived in proximity to in my neighborhood. And so the question is, how do we change not only the circumstances of the people who are living in poverty but also the minds and the hearts of those people, while at the same time hopefully addressing the minds and the hearts of people who have everything.
Teresa Chahine: Yeah, exactly. It changed the way both see the world.
Erik Clemons: That’s right. That’s right. And see each other.
Teresa Chahine: Exactly. And see themselves.
Erik Clemons: That’s right.
Teresa Chahine: Speaking of seeing themselves, I want to ask you about your personal trajectory, because I remember learning that you started off working at USPS and then served as a volunteer on the board of a youth NGO and then became its executive director and then started ConnCAT, became the CEO, and now ConnCORP, and for a while, maybe considered going to seminary, right?
Erik Clemons: I went to seminary.
Teresa Chahine: You did?
Erik Clemons: I did. I graduated with a degree in theology and ethics.
Teresa Chahine: So you’ve been asking yourself the question over the years and decades of, “What is my role in the world, and how do I want to shape the world?” So how has your understanding of your role evolved at different stages in your life, and how are you thinking about it now that’s different maybe than it was five years ago?
Erik Clemons: Yeah, great questions. These are conversations you and I have all the time since we met.
Teresa Chahine: Exactly.
Erik Clemons: I’ve always, even as a youngster, although I couldn’t think critically about it, but I’ve always been thinking about the human condition and what part the human spirit has in creating the human condition. And so I didn’t do well in school when there, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t smart and I couldn’t learn. I hated school, but I loved to learn. I just didn’t see school as having something that I would be interested in. And quite frankly, we were so poor that we always had to move because we were being evicted from everywhere we lived. And my mom did the best she could. She’s an incredible, incredible woman, but it was very, very difficult being a single parent with three children. And so we were always moving.
And so my academic career was always uncertain. And so I focused on what would be certain, and that was trying to educate myself. And so, Teresa, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I read it to the extent that I could understand what I was reading, but I was always captivated by word construct and how words can evoke feelings and emotions and dreams. And so I’m always thinking about those things. Got a job at the postal service, and I worked there, a very noble job, and worked there for 16 years, but always thinking about what could I do differently, and what more can I do as it relates to contributing to the world? And so I went to school and I went to community college first and found out I had some ability. And then I applied at Southern Connecticut State University. We had moved to New Haven, we being my wife and my four daughters, and then went to school full-time, and I worked at the postal service full-time. And I graduated with a degree in sociology.
I was 34 years old at this point and had some dreams of going to law school. And so a dear friend of mine who you know, Rick Brooks, whose wife, Heidi, works here, teaches here at SOM. Rick is a dear friend of mine. He and I grew up together in Norwalk, Connecticut. And he was a law professor at Yale at the time. And he and I had kept talking about how to and when to apply to law school. And so when it was time for me to do so, I went to UConn Law School, to their open house, my wife and I, and walked out of UConn Law School, and across the street was Hartford Seminary. And my wife looked at me. She said, “You need to go there.” And so I agreed, of course. And so I went in there, I applied, and now I have a degree in theology and ethics, and was going to do a PhD in systematic theology at Boston University School of Theology, but I chose to go and work in community at the organization that you mentioned before.
Teresa Chahine: I do see you doing a PhD one day, not full-time because you have too much going on, but when I was introducing you earlier, I almost said, and here I have with me, Dr. Erik Clemons, it just felt like that’s what I should be saying. So at some point that’s going to happen, I think.
Erik Clemons: Yeah. Thank you. The closest I have is an honorary doctor from Albertus Magnus.
Teresa Chahine: Well, there you go. So I can call you Dr. Erik Clemons. Okay, cool.
Erik Clemons: But it’s so interesting that I’ve been steeped in education, being a education fellow at Aspen, and I’m a member of the state board of education, and I’m a trustee at Quinnipiac University, yet didn’t do well in school.
Teresa Chahine: Well, I think the schools you were in were not designed for you to thrive.
Erik Clemons: That’s right.
Teresa Chahine: It’s just totally different. And that’s what you’re trying to change, right?
Erik Clemons: Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to change. And it’s so interesting you said that because I would imagine even now that young people like me, they can feel something’s very wrong in this place. They don’t know what it is. And it is that, right, that some schools, if not most schools, and some teachers who are in front of these children, who’s supposed to be teaching them, don’t even like the children and definitely don’t like the neighborhood that they are teaching in. And so there needs to be something to be done about that as well. But yeah, so those are some of the things that I’ve been trying to address, whether it is at ConnCAT or ConnCORP or just being in community, having conversations with people. I’m trying to be in authentic relationships with people to the extent that I can deeply understand what the issues are and what the beauties and the hope is as well.
And not just Black folks who are experiencing poverty, but also White folks who have everything. How can I be a bridge or acquire a language to speak to both in a way that is convincing and in a way that brings people together? Because I believe that no matter how much we talk about race in a very divisive way or even in a way of unity, or whatever we talk about within the public square, if we do not come together, we will all lose. And the worst thing is people who think they’re winning, but they’re really losing.
Teresa Chahine: Yeah. So if you were going to imagine a totally different future in terms of thinking about what needs to happen and what would it look like if everything you’re saying came true. Let’s say you built the ConnCAT Plaza at Dixwell and help create jobs, bring money into the community, change people’s perception of what is possible, and then fast-forward 20 years, let’s say, what would it look like for this to happen, what you’re describing?
Erik Clemons: What would it look like for this to happen? First, there needs to be funds, resources, devoted to the work that we are endeavoring to do, in Dixwell especially. I think in the end, Teresa, what I want? It is not for people who have nothing or very little to have everything. If that’s the case, that is the ideal situation, that all people have everything. But in some, what’s most important to me and what I think is justice is that those who have nothing have enough, and them having enough has nothing to do or doesn’t take away from people who have everything. And there be some common understanding of both positions, no matter race. And not only a common understanding but a common language between those two opposites, poles of living and existing in the world. That’s the ideal situation for me. But in order for us to do the work that we endeavor to do, we have to raise funds, we have to raise awareness, and we have to bring people together in a way that speaks to people’s ability to be courageous enough and vulnerable enough to be with each other.
Teresa Chahine: Can you share with us a little bit about how you’re doing that? So I started off saying we’re going to talk about money, remembering that you have tens and now I’m realizing hundreds of millions of dollars that you’re raising in order to invest in this community.
Erik Clemons: That’s right.
Teresa Chahine: So how are you doing this, what you just described, raising money, bringing people together, developing a common language? What does that look like?
Erik Clemons: Yeah, it’s very difficult because I’m working, and not just myself, but I have an incredible group of people who work with me. And we’re working on the capital stack for this project, especially, where there’s tranches of debt, there’s a tranche of philanthropy, there’s equity, there is state funding. The state of Connecticut has been very generous to us and continues to believe in what we are doing. The city also. And so it is... every aspect of my talking with people is not only for the aim of raising money but raising awareness and bringing people together and bringing people closer to this ground zero that we call Dixwell Avenue. And you do this at the level of comfort of those people. And so it’s not just about fundraising for me, it is about awareness raising as well.
Teresa Chahine: That’s true. Once you raise awareness, the funds will come.
Erik Clemons: Exactly. And only way to do that is to be in relationship with people. And the way to be in authentic relationship is to be credible and honest with people. And so it’s always that daily, those conversations, those nuances of relationship, addressing the needs of people, all people, and addressing the fears of people while working to get to a place of hope.
Teresa Chahine: Yeah. And it’s really the process itself that makes the difference.
Erik Clemons: That’s it.
Teresa Chahine: A lot of people are always asking how they can replicate or scale the outcome itself, which is that economic development, the change in awareness and attitudes and mindsets. But I don’t think the outcome can just be copy-pasted or multiplied. I think you have to go through that process. And I think that it has to happen at the community level, places like Dixwell, all around the country and the world. The community has to go through the process of having those conversations, building those relationships, building the awareness, and then the investments will come.
Erik Clemons: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And what I don’t want to do, especially in this conversation, is paint the picture that this community is desolate, without leadership and without spirit. There’s huge spirit—
Teresa Chahine: Exactly. Yeah.
Erik Clemons: ... in Dixwell. Beautiful people who care deeply about their community and about humanity. And so what I’ve learned is you can’t judge a community based on sections of that community and how it looks. But sitting with people, talking with people, failing in those conversations, failing miserably, quite frankly. Presenting the project more than I presented myself was a huge failure. And I talk about that readily. And just being open and honest with people, to the point where they accept you. And never thinking that I even wanted to be accepted, but I realized I did, by people, and it made the work even easier and it made the conversations even easier with them, but also with other folks who don’t live there. Because I felt like I could be a credible witness to what is happening in community, especially Dixwell and Newhallville. A credible witness. And if I’m a credible witness, then I can definitely be a credible reporter when I talk to other folks about the power of these people in this community.
Teresa Chahine: And social innovation, they call this process that you’re describing “sensing,” because it refers to just going into a community and using all your senses to learn and listen and just also open up and present yourselves.
Erik Clemons: I never heard of that. Well, isn’t that interesting.
Teresa Chahine: It’s so funny because we were just talking about how it’s the process that has to be replicated in different settings. And I was just reminded while you were describing this process of when I was in Indonesia in February and I met with a social entrepreneur who does very different work. Her goal is to create sustainable food supply chains to help preserve indigenous plant species in Indonesia. So she lives in Jakarta, the capital, but she goes to remote islands like Papua, because Indonesia is thousands of islands. And she meets with indigenous people whose livelihood depends on nature. And so she works with them to understand their relationship with nature and to help create these sustainable food markets to support their livelihoods and nature. When I went to meet with her with a faculty member in Jakarta who had invited me there, that faculty member asked her, “Well, how do you deliver your vision to them when you go to these remote islands and meet with indigenous people? How do you deliver your ideas?” And she said, the social entrepreneur replied, “You’re asking the wrong question.
I don’t go and present my ideas and deliver my vision. I go just to do sensing, just to listen and learn and be present and create connection. And I can’t have a predetermined agenda, especially when you’re working in such a nature-centered environment, where people’s survival depends on sensing nature, being aware of what’s around them, the threats and everything.” And so humans are nature. So they will sense you if you go there with an agenda. And you won’t be able to build trust with them.
Erik Clemons: Such a great point.
Teresa Chahine: And that’s exactly what you’re describing right now. It’s like, first connect as humans.
Erik Clemons: That’s right.
Teresa Chahine: Instead of having your slide decks and your flip charts and everything.
Erik Clemons: Yes.
Teresa Chahine: And then the existing assets, the community assets, not just nature or buildings, but also knowledge, social capital, cultural capital, everything. Then it will all come into place.
Erik Clemons: That’s so true and so profound. What I’ve learned is assumptions will get you to accusations. And also what I’ve learned, which is probably the most important thing that I’ve learned, is through helping or thinking I’m helping someone else, I’m discovering myself. And I think that’s what your friend was talking about. There’s a lot of self-discovery in the work that I do.
Teresa Chahine: There really is.
Erik Clemons: If in fact you are honest about the work you are trying to do.
Teresa Chahine: It’s so true, Erik. And a few episodes ago we had an SOM alumna named Daisy Rosales on the podcast, and she quoted an aboriginal activist from Australia who said, “If you are coming here to save me, then go home. If you are coming here because your liberation is tied to mine, then let us work together.” Right?
Erik Clemons: Amen.
Teresa Chahine: And that’s exactly the case. It’s also about your salvation, not just the people you’re working with.
Erik Clemons: So true. So true. And I had to be honest about that fact, that my salvation is tied to my trying to help people. And so a victory in helping people is also, in some, a victory for me.
Teresa Chahine: And I think what you were describing earlier of not just people who live in Dixwell but people who don’t and have everything, it’s like they don’t have everything actually. In order for them to thrive, everyone needs to thrive.
Erik Clemons: That’s right.
Teresa Chahine: And that’s your vision.
Erik Clemons: That’s what the vision is.
Teresa Chahine: Thank you so much, Erik, for doing this work, and thanks for taking the time to come share it with us.
Erik Clemons: Thank you for creating space to talk about the things I care about.
Teresa Chahine: Thank you. I always manage to make it about more than just money.