Celebrating Twenty-Two Years of Community Impact
Today, on April 1, 2021, as Laureate celebrates its 22nd anniversary, we look back at our journey – from where it all began in Baltimore, our community impact, to Laureate today. To honor this milestone, we asked distinguished writer, proud Baltimorean, and longtime Laureate friend, Christy Macy, to help document this journey.
Laureate Emerges on the Scene
“I still remember the first time, back in the late 1990s, when Doug Becker took me to downtown Baltimore to see the future site where his company, Sylvan Learning Systems, would make its global headquarters,” remembers Paula Singer, a top executive of the company at the time and now CEO of Walden University and Laureate Online Partners. Most of what Baltimoreans now know as Harbor East was then a desolate place indeed. No stores. No towering apartment buildings. No four-star hotels. No corporate headquarters. “There was only one restaurant there at the time,” recalls Singer, “and I kept stepping over broken glass and piles of refuse as Doug shared with me his vision for the new building and our work ahead.” At the time, Sylvan’s headquarters were located in Columbia, Maryland. But the company, which would change its name to Laureate Education, Inc. a few years later, was soon to make its big move to Baltimore.
By the mid-1990s, Doug Becker had established himself as an innovative thought leader and entrepreneur in the field of education, expanding student access to tutoring, academic coaching, and test preparation through his fast-growing company, Sylvan Learning, Inc. One particular international trip, however, inspired him to look more broadly in the field of higher education. Upon his return, he told his staff that while there are growing opportunities for young people in the rising middle class as well as working professionals to attend college in the United States, those opportunities are not available in most of the rest of the world. “I want to make sure those individuals living and working in developing countries have those same opportunities to be successful,” Becker said. His plan: to create a global network of universities that would address this emerging demand to provide underserved populations with accessible, affordable, and quality higher education – in new and innovative ways.
While establishing an international reach and impact over the years, Laureate also planted deep roots in the city of Baltimore. Being a good neighbor and promoting community engagement opportunities reflect the company’s commitment to being a force for good. As a result, Laureate and its employees have had a real and positive impact on the broader Baltimore community, in both small and significant ways.
An Economic Engine in Baltimore
Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s Mayor in the late 1990s, explains what he saw as Sylvan’s critical role in the economic turnaround of the city’s eastern downtown area. Baltimore had just won an Empowerment Zone grant designation, Schmoke recalls, but there was a lot of skepticism about its impact on the city. Plenty of planning, he said, but no action. “Sylvan’s decision to relocate its headquarters downtown gave us a huge boost in confidence and made believers out of a lot of city skeptics.” It was the first company to move its headquarters downtown in more than 20 years, he said, which had a tremendous economic impact. “This move was also a strong psychological uplift for the community,” the Mayor adds.
While Laureate has supported hundreds of important causes and organizations, its most significant investment, made over more than a decade, has been to the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation (IYF), and in particular their YouthActionNet program. During its tenure, the program provided training, resources, and a dynamic network of peers to young social entrepreneurs in over 90 countries. Laureate invested more than $12 million to enable thousands of young social entrepreneurs, including many Laureate students, to expand and accelerate their progress and impact.
In 2006, Doug Becker became Board Chair of IYF – a position he remains in today. In addition, Steven Tom, Walden University’s Chief Transformation Officer and SVP, Student Experience, joined the Board of IYF in 2021. To this day, many current and former Laureate and Walden employees serve on boards of local, national and global non-profits and social enterprises.
A Commitment to Employee-Driven Outreach
As part of Laureate’s overall commitment to Baltimore city, the company launched the Sylvan/Laureate Foundation in 1999. Its mission was to not only support best practices in education and training around the world but also deepen its engagement in the city where Laureate’s employees live and work. Through its grants, the Foundation began supporting innovative educational initiatives in Baltimore’s K-12 schools. A key focus was enhanced teacher training, research, and professional development.
It soon became clear to Sylvan/Laureate Foundation Executive Director Kelly Hodge Williams, however, that Laureate employees wanted to get more engaged in supporting the local community – a commitment that Laureate fully encouraged. In response, multiple initiatives were introduced where employees could volunteer in local Baltimore City Schools to paint walls, clean classrooms, make other physical improvements, and perhaps most importantly, build and nurture ties with the local community.
Working more strategically, the Foundation began to work with Laureate employees to expand opportunities to mentor and tutor students. Later on, employees began matching their technical skills with organizations that needed that expertise. “The Sylvan/Laureate Foundation wanted to offer both our money and our human capital to support the Baltimore community,” explains Williams. Since 1997, the Foundation has invested more than $25 million in local and global organizations and individuals.
After two years heading up the Sylvan/Laureate Foundation, Williams decided to expand her civic reach and founded Business Volunteers Maryland (BVM), whose mission is to inspire volunteerism and motivate citizens and businesses to connect with and support non-profit organizations in the city. Laureate was fully supportive of her new organization. The Sylvan/Laureate Foundation was one of BVM’s founding business partners in 2003 and made an annual donation of more than $20,000 a year. In addition to building partnerships among businesses and non-profits, BVM trained volunteers as board members and then matched them with appropriate organizations. Laureate executive Paula Singer served on BVM’s board for over seven years, and many Laureate staff became increasingly involved in its outreach activities.
Walden University has over the years become a model for how to promote employee volunteerism in Baltimore. “Early on the company recognized the importance of having a social mission, and that you could do well and do good,” says Paula Singer.
“Volunteerism is increasingly important these days, because millennials, in particular, are searching for greater purpose and meaning in their lives,” explains Williams. “They want to create a more decent and equitable society.” Organizations like BVM and companies like Laureate and Walden University, she says, offer employees the experiences they want to improve the lives of those living in underserved communities.
Laureate’s employees continue to bolster that social impact vision both locally and globally. As just one example, in 2018, more than 230,000 students attending Laureate’s universities volunteered their time and resources to support more than 250 community-based social-change projects. That same year, 250 Laureate employees volunteered in Baltimore city schools as part of the company’s Global Day of Service. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic meant that in-person volunteering was no longer possible, Laureate employees continued to donate their time virtually, and the Laureate/Sylvan Foundation donated over $100,000 to Baltimore schools – ensuring they could continue to enable and empower local elementary and high school students.
In the more than 20 years that Laureate has partnered with BVM, the company has contributed approximately 16,800 hours of direct service and pro-bono consulting volunteer time. Fourteen Baltimore City Public Schools and more than 7,900 students have benefited from Laureate’s social impact focus. In addition, through its many programs and initiatives, Laureate employees have infused over $2 million in time and talent back into the Baltimore non-profit community.
Measuring Laureate’s Impact
While the commitment to work for social change has always been part of Laureate’s mission, the company wanted to integrate those values more deeply in all aspects of its work and institutions.
In 2015, Laureate decided to take a number of innovative steps to deepen its commitment to not only prepare its students for success in the global job market, but also engage them in promoting social change in communities where the company had established its institutions of higher learning. To highlight those efforts and over the next few years, Laureate began to publicly honor its students and professors who were using their skills and ingenuity to create “significant and enduring change” in the underserved communities within the company’s global network. These awards showcased the wide range of student and faculty-led initiatives – from opening a clinic in Recife, Brazil that supported families dealing with the Zika virus to providing access to clean water for remote villages in Malaysia and other countries.
To formalize its social impact commitment, Laureate partnered with B Lab, a non-profit that certifies businesses for their positive impact on people and the planet. After having successfully undergone B Lab’s rigorous set of assessments across all dimensions of the Laureate network, Laureate became certified as both a B Corporation (B Corp) as well as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC). A PBC is a new class of companies that are required by law to create a general public benefit by having a positive impact on society. “Laureate was seen as a trailblazer, as the first public benefit corporation to be publicly traded on a US Stock Exchange,” says Jose Guzzardi, who formerly worked with multinational companies certifying as B Corp’s. “It brought amazing visibility to the movement, demonstrating that companies can and must be a force for good.”
“Laureate should be proud of its accomplishments,” adds Guzzardi. “They have demonstrated that the private sector has a critical role to play in improving access to quality higher education, and that for-profit companies can have a positive impact not only on their shareholders but on their employees, the environment, and the communities in which they operate.”
Carrying the Mission Forward
At the end of 2017, Doug Becker stepped down and Laureate welcomed Eilif Serck-Hanssen, who had been with the company for over a decade, as its new CEO. “Our commitment to quality provides us with a powerful opportunity to make an enduring impact,” Serck-Hanssen says. Making quality higher education accessible to students and being at the forefront of education innovation has been a priority for Laureate – and so is making a positive contribution to the local communities it serves.
Serck-Hanssen recalls a 2019 visit to the Beechfield Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore city that reflects that dual passion.
As part of a Global Day of Service initiative, Laureate’s Baltimore-based employees had been busy decorating the school’s hallways and cafeteria, renovating the bathrooms, fixing up a new teacher’s lounge, and creating a new room where kids can be calm and “decompress.” Serck-Hanssen’s guide, Principal Kelly Carideo-Graves, talked to the CEO about the challenges she faces. “We are located in a high crime and drug trafficking neighborhood and serve some of the most underserved children in Baltimore,” she explains. When they walked together out to the school playground, Serck-Hanssen immediately recognized it was unsafe. Damaged and eroded equipment lay everywhere. “Every morning we have to come here to pick up whiskey bottles and drug paraphernalia,” Carideo says. “I have no safe place for my three- and four-year-olds to play, so they have to stay indoors.”
When the two of them returned to the auditorium after the tour, the CEO took the stage and shared “I am so impressed with the work you are doing here, Laureate, our employees, and our partners will donate $50,000 towards the renovation and reopening of your kids’ playground.” The teachers and volunteers jumped up and down in excitement at this unexpected offer.
A few months later, Principal Carideo was presented with a check at a Laureate corporate town hall meeting. In addition, she was told that Walden University had given her a free online doctoral degree learning program. It was an emotional moment. “You have no idea what a positive impact Walden and Laureate have had on this school, on our community, and on me,” she says.
The Mission Continues
In January 2020, Laureate announced it would explore strategic alternatives for each of its businesses to unlock shareholder value. Now, as it enters its 23rd year, the company is focusing on its remaining institutions in Peru and Mexico. According to Serck-Hanssen, this represents a new phase for the company with exciting new opportunities. “We are really proud of all our institutions – both past and present. For those who leave us, we know they begin their new chapter in a stronger position than when they joined Laureate,” Serck-Hanssen explains. “We also hope they leave the network with an unbreakable desire to impact their local communities. That’s the Laureate way, and it’s a legacy that lives in all the countries in which we have operated since 1999.”
As for Peru and Mexico, Serck-Hanssen says Laureate plans to ensure continued growth, more community impact, and making good on their promise. “We have a lot of work to do. Our institutions in Mexico and Peru are premium brands, with a prestigious history of high-quality outcomes. Our students have trusted us with their education, and we plan on delivering for them and their community.”