Professor's journey for a school is rich in life lessons

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Laura Pincus Hartman stood before a congregation in a church just south of 75th Street, gazing at anticipatory faces.

   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."

   Lessons everywhere

   Hartman's academic career started at DePaul University 22 years ago, and within a few years, she was directing its Institute for Business and Professional Ethics.

   Her focus on business ethics, she said, elicits amused reactions.

   "People say to me, 'Isn't that an oxymoron? There must be nothing to do,' " she said. "I've heard every single line. I would love to change the name of my focus to leadership decision-making."

   Now a Vincent de Paul professor of Business Ethics at the university, Hartman teaches two courses during the school year, an undergraduate course in business ethics and a graduate class in ethics in leadership. She draws on her penchant for networking to connect students with Chicago-area executives, who talk to her classes about ethics and leadership.

   "The students have this extraordinary access to the corporate boardroom," Hartman said, citing leaders like Deborah DeHaas at Deloitte LLP. "It's been unbelievable access, and I love it. For me, I get to meet with them, so it's been wonderful. Basically, you just have to ask."

   She also is co-author of a slew of business textbooks. A frequent book collaborator with Hartman, Dawn Bennett-Alexander, said, "Laura writes everything like it is a law review article -- very legalistic, a zillion footnotes." Bennett-Alexander added that she could still remember their chance meeting two decades ago at a national conference for the Academy of Legal Studies in Business.

   "She was as tiny as she is now," Bennett-Alexander said, "with that big, booming authoritative voice."

   In her books, Hartman and her co-authors have argued that efforts by global corporations to alleviate poverty can be more effective than such traditional means as foreign aid from developed nations or nonprofit organizations.

   "I think Laura's insight is that there are so many problems in the world that we cannot solve unless we get businesses involved," said Leila Janah the founder and CEO of Samasource, which brings Internet-based work to people living in poverty, adding that Hartman has become a mentor and friend.

   Hartman said, "I don't like pure charity or pure philanthropy, when people sort of empty their pockets. Because in the end, you just have pockets that are empty. What I like to find are for-profits that are developing businesses, like in Haiti."

   Family foundation

   Hartman initially went to Haiti to do research, exploring the role that for-profits play in the global economy, but her parents, Ted Pincus and Donna P. Meyers, had piqued her interest decades earlier by spending their honeymoon there in 1961.

   Ted Pincus, who died last year, founded the Financial Relations Board, a Chicago-based investor relations firm, but he also wrote articles, including a newspaper column for the Chicago Sun-Times.

   "He thought he should write an article on Haiti," Hartman said, "so he sprung it on my mom: 'Honey, look at what we get to do!' "

   Born at Michael Reese Hospital on the South Side, Hartman spent part her childhood in Highland Park and then Lincoln Park. She went on to Tufts University near Boston, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology before starting law school.

   She laughs when she talks of her father, recalling his antic of arriving at important events -- including her wedding -- dressed in a gorilla suit. But she grows pensive when she reflects on him, her coffee-colored eyes moistening.

   "My father taught me," she said, pausing for several seconds, "my capacity. He believed that I was capable of doing great things. ... So I've spent my life trying to become the embellishment that he created for me."

   As for her own children, Hartman decided in her early 30s that she wanted to be a mom, regardless of whether she had a significant other. She spent a weekend at her parents' beach house with two books -- one on international adoption and the other on domestic.

   On a Saturday, she called a bunch of attorneys, and three days later, a lawyer called to say that a woman who was eight months pregnant was trying to place with the Chicago Urban League, but that at the time, the organization only placed within race.

   "He said, 'She's black,' and I said, 'That's OK, I don't care,' " Hartman said. "'Does she know that I'm single and Jewish?'... I thought it was odd that people care who they want to be a mother to. I just wanted to be a mom, and I didn't care to whom."

   Three weeks later, her daughter Emma was born on the South Side. Six months later, she met David Hartman. They married and had a biological daughter, Rachel, before later divorcing.

   Once in a while, her daughters accompany their mom to Haiti, where Hartman visits every month or two. Rachel points out friendship bracelets on her wrist she and Emma, 15 and away at camp, taught the students to make during their last time in Haiti.

   "To see all the children, it's really broadened my whole life," said Rachel, 14. "Now I kind of have a whole different family down there."

   Always school time

   Over the course of a recent Wednesday, Hartman's downtime was nonexistent, and her focus on L'Ecole de Choix was single-minded.

   That meant several stops throughout Chicago, first at the Cosi across from Francis Parker, where she met with Lorin Pritikin, the language and cultural studies department chair at the school, to establish relationships through letter-writing and online collaboration between students at Parker, the Young Women's Leadership Charter School on the South Side and L'Ecole de Choix.

   She briefed Pritikin on the situation in Haiti, on how the literacy rate is a little more than 53 percent, on how half the kids do not attend school (about half of Haiti's schools were destroyed in the 2010 earthquake) and how the average teacher there has a sixth-grade education. Educators at L'Ecole de Choix, she said, have college degrees and teaching certificates and are paid a living wage, or several times more than the $110-per-month average in the country's schools.

   She filled the rest of the day by meeting with two DePaul colleagues who have worked with her on Zafen, a microloan program partly financed by DePaul that Hartman helped launch; discussing brochures she had designed on her computer for the October benefit with staff members at Palmer Printing, who were donating about $14,000 of their services; and catching up with Consul General Lesly Conde, an honorary chairman of the benefit, at the Consulate General of Haiti in the Loop.

   It's the kind of networking that she made happen when she got into the U.S. Embassy at Port-au-Prince by helicopter days after the earthquake, when Haitians and Americans flooded the building with their families, believing they could get help.

   Overhearing that kids there were in desperate need of Pedialyte to avoid dehydration, she called a friend who worked at manufacturer Abbott Laboratories, which had already sent cases of the vitamin- and mineral-enriched fluid to Haiti. Through a series of phone calls, Hartman helped make sure Pedialyte reached families at the embassy.

   "She wants action, and she understands how related things are at a basic level, and how she can impact that," said Bennett-Alexander, her frequent co-author. "Her mind is not filled with compartments like geography, race, religion, et cetera. It is filled with interconnected tunnels."

   Funding a school more than 1,800 miles away is not without its stresses. Her family members have contributed, including Hartman's sister, Susan Sherman, and Sherman's husband, David. A Zynga spokeswoman said Mark Pincus and his wife, Alison, will personally match up to $300,000 in donations at the October benefit.

   "It's a weighty responsibility," Hartman said of keeping the school operating, "one that is front of mind, all the time."

   She does it, though, without compensation, sometimes paying for things students need -- eye ointments and eardrops and de-worming medications -- out of her own bank account. She does this for the 183 kids in Mirebalais because "you realize, you're sunk. You're in. Once you go down, you have to help. You get committed."

   As for dedicating so much of her life to a school, Hartman pounds her fist on a table, punctuating her words.

   "I believe that education can bring justice," she said. "And I believe that education can give these children choices that the rest of us in many other parts of the world have naturally. I think choice allows us dignity."

   - - -

   Laura Pincus Hartman, chairwoman of the board of directors for the School of Choice Education Organization and the Vincent de Paul professor of Business Ethics at DePaul University

   Family: Daughters Emma, 15, and Rachel, 14. Brother Mark founded Zynga, the social gaming company. Father Ted was a well-known Chicago business columnist and investor-relations expert. Sister Susan Sherman is a veterinarian.

   Education: Bachelor's degree in psychology at Tufts University and juris doctor at the University of Chicago Law School

   Languages: French, some Creole

   Eats: Sushi in the back room at Roka Akor and duck-fat-fried chicken at the Slurping Turtle, both in River North.

   Marked characteristic: A dash of salt and pepper at the front of her hair. "My junior or senior year of high school, I started getting this gray streak. I've never gotten rid of it."

   If she could change something: "I think impatience is a strong value, but every so often, I'd like to be able to have some patience when I need it. Sometimes I think my frustration is a bit too visible, and it doesn't always serve me well."

   On "Draw Something": It's her favorite Zynga game. "There are very few times in my day where I can just breathe and just have fun."

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