For this year’s U.S. Strategy Challenge winning team, giving back to the clients of their Roots & Wings nonprofit partner was the real victory.
"Have you ever thought about what happens to children that are never adopted and spend their childhoods in foster care? As one of those kids, Natasha (not her real name) was placed in 24 separate homes and attended 16 different high schools over her 12 years in the New Jersey foster-care system. When she finally aged out of the program, she was relegated to couch-surfing and nights on park benches; Natasha had nowhere to go, no one to rely on, and was only 18 years old."
As Michael Kennedy, a Vice President in Fixed Income, recounted Natasha's story, a hush fell over the crowded audience gathered in the auditorium on a bright May afternoon. Kennedy and his three teammates had quickly captured the rapt attention of the Morgan Stanley employees, nonprofit representatives, and other guests attending the final pitch of Morgan Stanley's annual U.S. Strategy Challenge pro bono program.
As part of the 10-week Strategy Challenge, this team set out to help Roots & Wings solve a critical strategic question: Where should the nonprofit provider of housing, counseling, and education opportunities to youth who have aged out of New Jersey's foster-care system, establish its urban housing pilot program? In contrast to its existing suburban locations, Roots & Wings sought a more urban location for its young adult clientele, like Natasha, who needed more direct access to public transportation and nearby institutions of higher education.
The challenge, in fact, reflected a pressing need for the many candidates on Roots & Wings' long waitlist for their residential program. Committed capital for the expansion had been secured through private donations, and the organization was ready to move ahead with the initiative as soon as the best location within the four candidate cities -- Elizabeth, Hackensack, Jersey City, and Newark -- could be identified.
"We knew that finding that 'best location' required hands-on fieldwork in the four candidate cities, to obtain data specific to core categories, including transportation, safety, education, and housing," says Tophe Farney, a Vice President in Legal and Compliance. "But for all the disparate sources we had to approach, we realized that our most important consult would be with the Roots & Wings clients themselves, who would ultimately take up residence in the city that we recommended."
When the team met with three Roots & Wings clients, what they had to say surprised and moved them.
"When we brought up the subject of what they thought was desirable in their potential neighborhood, I fully expected the kids to say a shopping mall, or a movie theater," says Christina L. Esposito, a Senior Associate in Investment Management. "Instead, they simply asked for a safe environment. To me, that spoke volumes about the quality of their lives up until now, and made me realize that what we as a team were doing would be life-changing for these otherwise forgotten kids."
Other team members noted that it was the strength and resiliency of the Roots & Wings clients, despite their circumstances, that made an impression. "Imagine being 18 years old and not having a dedicated support system," says Kaitlin Cassara, a Research Associate. "When I spoke to the kids, I could see that they really wanted to overcome their rough starts in life to make something of themselves, and then help others in similar predicaments. These conversations made us all resolve that we were going to do whatever we could for these courageous young adults."
On the day of the finals, the team was confident that they had a comprehensive and analytically sound presentation that reflected their exhaustive research. In the end, they had determined that Jersey City -- specifically its Journal Square neighborhood -- would be ideal for the Roots & Wings pilot urban expansion. Its PATH transportation center, relative safety, abundance of public higher education options, and ongoing revitalization efforts had yielded a top score among the candidate cities, and the Roots & Wings administration was already making plans to bring the recommendation to its board of directors for consideration and approval.
When Roots & Wings was announced as the winner of the Strategy Challenge, the team was elated -- and inspired to continue its involvement with the nonprofit whose mission they had come to believe in and support. Some team members have agreed to stay on as informal advisors, with plans to expand the organization's social media presence, increase fundraising efforts, and help launch the expansion into Jersey City.
In retrospect, the team agrees that one of the most profound takeaways from the experience was a deep sense of gratitude, despite their collective 1,000+ hours of work above and beyond their Morgan Stanley day jobs, spilling over into their nights and weekends. Specifically, gratitude that their efforts would empower these resilient young adults with the promise of a bright and meaningful future.