Laura Pincus Hartman, chairwoman, School of Choice Education Organization
Professor's journey for a school is rich in life lessons
DePaul University professor Laura Pincus Hartman has been visiting Haiti for nearly a decade; the 2010 earthquake led to the beginning of her efforts to build L'Ecole de Choix. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune / February 20, 2013)
The pastor had just finished preaching an hour-long sermon from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus healing a woman. Hartman was about to speak for the second time that day at a Chicago church, looking for anyone willing to reach out to students at a school she helped build in Haiti.
She talked of the kids' needs for aspirin, Band-Aids, Robitussin -- anything, really.
"By doing just a small amount," she said, "each of us can make such a huge difference in their lives."
This Sunday afternoon at New Spiritual Light Missionary Baptist Church, with orange eyeglasses perched on her slender face, all sides of Hartman merged: the networker who forges global partnerships, the researcher who also believes in the power of for-profit companies, the board chairwoman of a new school in Haiti responsible for educating and feeding 183 children, and the professor accustomed to speaking in front of a crowd, so much so that she eschewed the microphone offered to her.
"Haiti is really that woman, isn't she?" she said, her voice rising as she referenced the afflicted woman from the sermon by the Rev. Walter P. Turner III. "I mean, Haiti has trials, right? Haiti has rain, trust me. And Haiti has earthquakes."
Hartman has been visiting Haiti for nearly a decade, but the earthquake in January 2010 amplified her efforts and led to the beginning of L'Ecole de Choix, French for "The School of Choice."
The school would not exist were it not for players of social games like "FarmVille" and "Mafia Wars" making small donations by buying special Haiti crops and other virtual goods.
For a little more than three years, Hartman volunteered and then worked in a consulting position as director of external partnerships for Zynga, the company started by her brother, Mark Pincus.
Hartman, 48, helped Zynga engage with nonprofit organizations like Direct Relief International, the World Food Programme and Save the Children before easing out of her position this spring when the company appointed a full-time executive director, Ken Weber, for its philanthropic arm, which became Zynga.org.
San Francisco-based Zynga, also the creator of "Draw Something" and "Words with Friends," went public last year and saw a poor earnings report Wednesday send its shares plummeting 40 percent to close the week at $3.09. Mark Pincus was unavailable to comment for this story.
Those little purchases of virtual goods raised the money for Zynga to fund construction of the school, which cost just over $1 million, in Mirebalais, a city 45 miles northeast of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince to which thousands of earthquake refugees fled. The cluster of 10 buildings was built in partnership with Boston-based nonprofit Foundation for the Technological and Economic Advancement of Mirebalais.
In this past school year, its inaugural one, L'Ecole de Choix students ranged from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. They attend for free and will stay until they graduate from high school. Hartman chairs the board of directors for the School of Choice Education Organization, the Illinois-based nonprofit that develops, maintains, manages and operates the Haitian school.
Mark Shriver, senior vice president for U.S. programs for the nonprofit Save the Children, admires the partnerships Hartman fostered between Zynga and nonprofits, and her work with L'Ecole de Choix.
"She's obviously very smart, very book smart, and I think what's unique about her is that she has taken those book smarts and applied it to a real-life problem, which is Haiti, and applied it to real-life business and Zynga," Shriver said. "What you see with her is someone who not only understands the theory of it but who has been able to actually effect change."
Now, Hartman and her board need to raise operating costs for the school, a few hundred thousand dollars a year. A test on that front comes Oct. 20, when L'Ecole de Choix holds a benefit at the Francis W. Parker School in Lincoln Park, where Hartman is an alumnus and her daughter, Rachel, a student.
Crayon drawings and notes from the students at L'Ecole de Choix have blended into the dining and living rooms of Hartman's lakefront apartment. Inside her seventh-floor office at the DePaul Center, her desk faces a poster depicting a mosaic of red and blue Haitian flags. Everywhere, reminders allude to Hartman's connection with the country.
"I wake up and go to sleep figuring out how to balance my regular life with Haiti," said Hartman, 48. "You know, everyone cares about a variety of things in the world, and the world has so many challenges that we just can't fix everything. This is how I'm doing it."