Ensembles of Change: A Wall Street Winner Champions "Systems Entrepreneurs"

Wall Street vet Jeffrey C. Walker and this writer share one thing in common—we both played in our middle and high school music bands. And not just any instrument, either. For yours truly, it was the alto horn, a smaller tuba or euphonium featured in British-style brass bands. For Walker, it was the mighty sousaphone, which he played in jazz ensembles, wind ensembles, marching bands and more.

Collaborating in these ensembles while creating something greater than any of the individual parts was transformative for him. And while Walker ultimately never became a musician (for the record, neither did I), he transferred these lessons to the business world, and is now bringing them into the social change arena, where he focuses nearly all of his time.

Walker co-founded and served as CEO of CCMP Capital, the $12 billion successor to JPMorgan Partners. In a recent TEDx talk, Walker explains that he was always on the lookout for partners—entrepreneurs he could back to bring their ideas to scale. This led to smart bets on companies like JetBlue and Office Depot.

Since 2007, Walker has reduced his focus on business to dedicate most of his time working in the nonprofit enterprise space. He serves as vice chair of United Nations Envoy’s Office for Health Finance and Malaria, as well on such boards as New Profit, Lincoln Film Center Society, and Berklee College of Music. He moves his charitable contributions through the Walker Family Foundation, and also co-authored The Generosity Network: New Transformational Tools for Successful Fund-Raising with fundraising veteran Jen McCrea, senior research fellow at Harvard's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations.

In a recent talk I had with Walker, he considered his work with McCrae to be just another ensemble—a philanthropist and a fundraiser, each with a unique perspective, coming together to tackle problems. Walker explained to me that his overall charitable strategy is to support "systems entrepreneurs," individuals who can help lead "the umbrella of activity to go after issues."

Unlike social entrepreneurs, who've drawn buzz and philanthropic support for striking out on their own with innovative projects, systems entrepreneurs look at the bigger picture, one in which many pieces need to come together to make change happen. Walker describes systems entrepreneurs as a new kind of change agent harnessing data, research, innovation and policy change through a collaborative model.

Some systems entrepreneurs that Walker mentions include Phyllis Heydt, who works on global health with Community Health Workers, and Shruti Sehra, a managing partner at New Profit, a philanthropy venture fund in Boston, who facilitates diverse collaboratives that bring together social entrepreneurs with other players to "fundamentally reimagine the future of learning in America." 

How did Walker come at a systems approach? Well, part of the story involves his experiences last decade as executive-in-residence at Harvard Business School, where he focused on social enterprises and collaboration, as well as working with fellow financier turned philanthropist Ray Chambers on a U.N. collaboration to tackle malaria. "Deaths from malaria have plummeted from some 1.2 million annually to under 300,000 annually," Walker said. Through New Profit, Walker has also worked with social entrepreneurs at Teach for America, Year Up, and Health Leads, a national healthcare organization that connects low-income patients with health resources.

New Profit's CEO Vanessa Kirsch has long been associated with the social entrepreneur movement. But in recent years, she, too, has come to focus increasingly on what it takes to create systemic change. Along with Walker and Jeff Bildner, Kirsch authored an article last year in the Harvard Business Review titled "Why Social Ventures Need Systems Thinking." They argued that the work of social entrepreneurs "is more complex than ever and requires a set of tools and a framework designed to address the complexity inherent when innovations are integrated into existing systems like school districts, welfare agencies, health departments and corporate structures."

To many advocates, of course, this insight will sound like old news. While the social entrepreneurship world may now be growing attuned to the fact that systemic challenges related to social inequities require systemic responses, plenty of veterans working for social change have known this for decades. 

Meanwhile, drawing upon his lifelong passion for music, Walker is also working with the Grammy Music Education Coalition in an attempt to bring music education back to kids across America. So far, Walker says that they've brought music classes back to 75,000 kids in New York City. This work is consistent with Walker's interest in changing entire systems, not just backing a handful of organizations—in this case, music organizations.

Walker notes that one quality of a systems entrepreneur is that he or she has a "managed ego." You need that to play well with others, whether in a band or in making social change. Oh, and by the way, Walker has been meditating for some four decades and, like the music ensemble, hopes to bring tools of mindfulness to the systems entrepreneur, as well as to systems like education and healthcare. The Walker Family Foundation's grantmaking has supported places like the David Lynch Foundation and Walker himself chairs the advisory board of the Contemplative Science Center at his undergraduate alma mater University of Virginia.

Speaking of UVA, Walker also told me about the Compassionate Schools Project, a partnership between the University of Virginia and the Jefferson County Public Schools, a collaboration that brings together mindfulness, yoga, as well as social and emotional learning. The project describes itself as the "most comprehensive study ever undertaken of a 21st-century health and wellness curriculum in an elementary or secondary school setting."

Sounds right up Jeff Walker's alley.

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