Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship
NYU School of Law
Introductory Remarks for the Big Ideas Closing Session
A dedication to Jason Spindler by Helen Scott
Helen Scott is Professor of Law and the founder and Co-Director of the Mitchell Jacobson Leadership Program in Law and Business and the Grunin Center for Law & Social Entrepreneurship at the New York University School of Law.
I first met Jason Spindler during his first year of law school in the fall of 2006, when he came to me with a vision of something called "social entrepreneurship" and a plan, which I agreed to supervise as his writing project. During his last year, he applied for and received an Arthur Helton Human Rights Fellowship, and I wrote a letter of recommendation for him in which I said in part:
"I have known Jason since he entered law school, and have been following the development of his projects and his thinking with great interest and growing admiration over that time. Jason is deeply committed to the improvement of the rights of indigenous peoples, and has a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of issues of rule of law, community development and basic human rights." He used the Fellowship and grant to realize his impact goals and launch I-DEV International, a consultancy focused on business strengthening in Africa and Latin America.
On January 15,2019, Jason was killed by an Al-Shabaab terrorist attack at 14 Riverside ofice complex in Nairobi, Kenya. Jason lived in Nairobi, and was at work.
I am sometimes asked "Do you think your students will change the world?" I always answer "some will" and Jason is clearly one them.
The places we focus on in social innovation and impact investing often face a constellation of issues. Economic development is tied to education which is tied to healthcare which is tied to violence and political unrest which is tied to economic development .... It's a reality we have to remember.
As was said in one of the panels I attended yesterday, "we go into rough neighborhoods."
Jason was one of the "boots on the ground" - a thinker and an actor. And we miss him.
Big or Small: What Makes an Idea Powerful?
A dedication to Jason Spindler by Aaron Bourke
Aaron Bourke is a senior associate in Reed Smith's Global Corporate Group, practicing
primarily in the area of private & fund formation and counseling (including traditional private equity funds, venture capital finds, and similar types of private investment vehicles]. Aaron ls a founding member and a leader of the lmpact Investing Legal Working Group (IlLWG).
As I'm sure most people in this room know, on Tuesday, January 15th, Jason Spindler was killed in a terror attack at the DusltD2 compound in Nairobi, Kenya, near the office of I-DEV International, the company that he founded. Through I-DEV International's consulting and investment advisory work, Jason worked tirelessly to help build high-impact businesses and a stronger private sector in emerging markets.
Jason's death was a tragic loss for the impact investing industry and for
I first met Jason in law school here at NYU, where we were both studying for our JD degrees. Prior to law school, I had spent 10 months volunteering for an NGO in
India working on an education project. I knew that I wanted to use my law degree
to fight for a fairer and more just world, but I didn't yet know how to go about doing that. Meeting Jason was something of a revelation. He also wanted to use his law degree to fight for a fairer and more just world, but unlike me, he knew exactly how he planned to do it. He had spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Pew where he had worked on a project to help local businesses commercialize a crop called "tara" so that local entrepreneurs could access and benefit from participation in global markets. He ultimately led the growth of a $7 million locally owned agribusiness in Peru. I-DEV International was a direct extension of Jason's experience in the Peace Corps. He planned to take the model he and others had developed in the Peace Corps and build an entire business around it, working with local businesses in emerging markets to help them improve their operations and access capital.
One thing that jumped out immediately about Jason was that he was full of
grandiose, ambitious ideas. He was extremely creative in the way he was able to
envision possibilities and bring them to fruition. It took unique insight to take his
Peace Corps experience and envision it as the basis for an entire business model. But beyond that, he was very strategic and clever in how he brought I-DEV into existence. Getting a law degree didn't jump out at me as the strategy most aspiring entrepreneurs would follow, but Jason [who had already earned an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Texas at Austin) foresaw that the skills he would develop as a lawyer and the gravitas his legal degree would give him would prove to be invaluable tools in launching I-DEV. Once at law school, Jason went about identifying every possible opportunity and resource at his disposal to make IDEV a reality, and he relentlessly pursued each opportunity. We competed in a business plan competition at the Stern School with his business partner Patricia. He applied for a human rights grant, making the case that I-DEV International promotes human fights because economic self-sufficiency prevents the sort of vulnerability that often leads to human rights abuses.
These big ideas are what drew me to Jason. For a young law student with a desire to make a meaningful change in the world, Jason was inspiring. The sheer confidence with which he pursued his vision for I-DEV International made me feel like I too could find ambitious and creative ways to use my legal education to make positive change. It was as if he embodied the "big ideas" that seemed so central to the fields of impact investing and social entrepreneurship - the use of business as a too1 for social change, the ability to straddle worlds between the board room and the village, and the ability to see opportunity where everyone had assumed there was none.
As the years passed, however, and as I've reflected upon Jason's life in the wake of his tragic death, I've come to a new understanding of what Jason's example means to me and what it has to offer to the world. Having now been in the professional world for 10 years and worked to build an impact practice at my firm day-by-day and piece-by-piece, I realize with hindsight how much the younger me overemphasized the "big idea". Our industry loves to celebrate entrepreneurs, and rightly so. But as much as we should celebrate the accomplishments of entrepreneurs, doing so can create an impression among the inexperienced that change only occurs when visionary entrepreneurs have that fabled "ah ha!" moment I remember thinking as a law student that in order to be a part of the impact investing world - something I had come to covet - I would have to have an "ah ha!" moment of my own. I wanted to will the proverbial lightbulb to go off in my head, as if that's an end in and of itself, something you can seek out and find by merely putting your mind to it.
If you read the testaments to Jason on social media in the wake of his death, the thing that immediately stands out is how genuinely beloved he was by everyone he knew. Yes, you read stories about his unique vision as a founder and entrepreneur, But mostly you read about how devoted he was as a friend, how he went out of his way to make people feel better when they were down, how he brought a sense of fun and adventure to everything he did, and most of dl you see a huge smile on his face in every single picture. He was someone who relished human connection and sought it out in everything he did. As I think back now on what made Jason such an irnpactful person, 1 realize that just as much as the "big ideas," it's about the smaIl things - the qualities that your parents tell you cultivate, Iike compassion, humor and curiosity. These are the basic building blocks for meaningful human relationships, but exercised repeatedly and consistently, day after day, they are a force just as powerful as any "big idea."
In 2005, I was living in Rajasthan, India and volunteering for an NGO called Seva
Mandir. My friends and I decided to go on a trip to Dharamshala, a small city in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Dalal Lama and the Tibetan government live in wile. We arrived and went for a walk to get our bearings. Walking down narrow streets among the temples, we couldn't help but notice that there were an awful lot of Tibetan monks walking about For all we knew this was normal, but we sensed that there was a certain buzz in the air, so we decided m ask if anything was going on. It turned out that once each year, the Dalai Lama gives a speech at his temple in Dharamshala, and by pure coincidence we had arrived on the very weekend that he was set to give his annual speech. The speech was open to the pubIic, so we went to a local shop and bought radios that would transmit the speech in English. I remember siting in his temple, which was outdoors with a stage framed by soaring Himalayan peaks, cedar forests and hawks effortlessly gliding through the air. We received butter tea, which just tasted to me like a mug full of melted butter. Finally, he arrived and we all stood. He walked right past me and up to the stage. It's been a long time since that day and sadly I've forgotten much of what he said, but one thing has always stuck in my head. He said something to the effect that wisdom requires two components: The first is intelligence. The second is compassion, your commitment to treating other people and other living beings the right way. You can't have one without the other and claim to be wise.
This is the same lesson that Jason's Iife can teach us. Yes, Jason was often the smartest guy in the room, the guy who seemed to come up with big ideas on a daily basis. But if that were the sum of who he was, he wouldn't have had a fraction of the impact on the world that is so evident from the outpouring of emotion after his death. Jason's Iife is a testament to the explosive power of a big idea carried out day after day in a way that honors and celebrates the small things that make life so meaningful and, yes, so fun.
A big idea is meaningless unless it results in action. Throughout his life, Jason was
able to motivate others to turn big ideas into action. People were inspired to join
him not only because of his innovative ideas, but because he was a master at
cultivating genuine, meaningful relationships. He treated people the right way, and he never lost sight of this core principle no matter the scale of the challenges that he took on. He was truiy wise, and we would be wise to follow his example.
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