Creating an environment for success

Andrea Pizziconi's work starts from the premise that students learn best in an environment which inspires them.

Andrea Pizziconi [2003] believes higher education is the engine for the emerging world’s economic and social development and that the learning environment is crucial to any students' success. She is currently working with universities and governments across Africa to put her development experience in the US into action on a new continent.

“It's a human rights issue when you think about the psychological impact on students living in dilapidated facilities not to mention the millions of students who don’t get the chance to go to school at all because of a lack of facilities,” says Andrea.  Her aim is to create a climate of success for these centres of excellence so they can support the next generation of young Africans to transform Africa’s economy upward.

Although she came to the business of university real estate by a circuitous route, Andrea's interest in the importance of learning environments stems from an early age when her mother taught at an inner-city school in upstate New York. During that time often visiting her mother at work, Andrea became very sensitive to the quality of her surroundings. “The buildings where my mother worked were very run down. They were uncomfortable in every way,” says Andrea. 

“This all seemed to have an impact on the students and their behaviour.  It’s logical.  If these youth are given so many negative signals from their school and community environments, they come to the conclusion that they aren’t valued,” she adds. “It’s no wonder they start to rebel against school.” Many teachers in urban schools have run-ins with students; sometimes violence escalates and, over time, it drives even the best teachers out of the system.  Such was the fate of her mother, which left Andrea reflecting deeply on how these oppressive and derelict school environments push young people to act out.

New York City

Andrea entered Yale with the intention to pursue a career as a classical singer. But her path shifted after two summers in New York City interning for Mayor Rudy Giuliani's chief counsel Denny Young, who remains her mentor today. Giuliani’s approach was to transform New York into a more attractive city by fixing negative environmental factors. “It was about building self esteem for New Yorkers. Tourism was down. The city was dangerous. People didn't feel proud to be New Yorkers,” Andrea recalls.“Giuliani and his team showed the city could be well managed, clean, safe and pleasant, which turned New York’s entire quality of life around.”

Young sought a young person’s fresh perspective on old issues, so Andrea’s job was to come up with new ideas for managing issues like graffiti and finding better sites for public schools. For example, Giuliani wanted to remove new graffiti within 72 hours to remove the incentives for “taggers” to leave their mark. Andrea needed to find a way to pay for this work so she drafted a programme to have companies put their logo on the city’s sanitation trucks in exchange for “adopting a neighbourhood” to keep it graffiti free. 

The issue with public schools is that they often are located on undesirable sites in challenging areas. “Few spoke about how these negative environments impacted the students’ performance,” says Andrea. Moreover, her mother’s experience had convinced her that schools should be in vibrant areas and buildings that had strong businesses nearby so that students are exposed to constructive role models and environments. “Kids are sponges and learn from signals and people in their environment, positively or negatively,” she says.  But, like the graffiti programme, she needed to figure out how to pay for these new schools with private capital. 

Yale’s revitalisation of New Haven

At her exit interview for the internship, Andrea said she was not considering a career in government to pursue the schools issue, but Giuliani told her to go into the private sector instead. “He said if you want to make a difference in the divide between the ‘haves and the have nots’ become a real estate developer.  They are the ones who ultimately make the greatest impact, for better or for worse.  See if you can build projects that share resources more equitably.” he told her. “I thought it was an awful suggestion at first. Real estate developers are usually greedy and unethical,” says Andrea, “But I wanted to level the playing field socio-economically. And his comment offered a more pragmatic way to go about it.”

Coincidentally, Yale, led by Vice President Bruce Alexander, was looking to regenerate New Haven and had bought significant property adjacent to the campus.  Alexander sought a young perspective for the team to represent student and community interests. In a twist of fate at the beginning of her junior year, Andrea made a casual comment to her Dean regarding an Italian restaurant in NYC she felt would do well at Yale, which led her to Alexander who then asked her to find other shops and cafes that would enhance New Haven’s offerings. Her job was to travel to other cities and entice attractive businesses to New Haven; to engage the New Haven community to ensure Yale’s development decisions represented the community interests and, of course, to make sure Yale made money on its projects—impact investments balancing social and economic needs.  Until she graduated, Andrea became immersed in this redevelopment project, doing real estate deals for the university to attract these businesses.

Soon Yale’s investments were truly transforming New Haven. So instead of pursuing music after graduation, Andrea joined Alexander full-time as a full-fledged developer representing Yale on various projects. “Our projects were really making an impact on people’s lives,” she says, “I had spent my whole life preparing for a career in music, but I had to follow my passion for doing good in this new pragmatic pro-market way to see what impact I could make.”

Cambridge

Andrea wanted to explore the idea of mixed-use schools that existed side by side with businesses where students would have access to strong opportunities and role models. But this concept of co-location had never been done intentionally as a strategy.  And it needed the support of educators, who wouldn’t easily trust a real estate developer unless she had more credentials in education reform. So Andrea eventually applied to the University of Cambridge and the Gates Scholarship.  She sought to prove how much a school’s location and facilities impacted student achievement and teacher retention and why privately managed mixed-use facilities located in vibrant commercial environments were optimal learning environments.

In 2003 she started an MPhil in the Department of Land Economy.  After doing extensive fieldwork and research her conclusions far surpassed even her initial instincts. During her time at Cambridge, she met a trustee of the department, Jeremy Newsum, the CEO Grosvenor, the UK’s most prestigious property company. “It's a 300 year-old private company. There’s nothing like it in the US. They can take a very long-term view on their investments,” says Andrea. At the time Grosvenor was looking at investments in the university sector. Newsum asked her to advise them on their university strategy due to her experience at Yale. “I thought if they were asking me to do this at the age of 24, clearly there must be a larger opportunity that most people are missing,” says Andrea. “Investing in universities is a great strategic way to invest in cities.”

Africa

After her MPhil at Cambridge and her time with Grosvenor, she headed back to the US and established her own urban development company that would also invest in mixed-use school public-private partnerships (PPPs).   Then a friend from Yale who had created a non-profit organisation in Sierra Leone was very badly injured in a car accident. Just before the accident, she had asked Andrea to visit her and try to help the University of Sierra Leone recover from the protracted civil war there. After the accident, Andrea felt a moral obligation to keep that promise.  In 2005, when she visited, she met with the University’s Vice Chancellor, Aiah Gbakima, who badly needed investors to redevelop the university. He was keen for Andrea to do the project and even showed up at her office in the US to encourage her.

“Few students had access to university there and the university buildings had been neglected for decades because of the war. It would have been precocious to think I could just step in and pull it off,” she says.  Then one day Andrea was at an event with the UK's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and casually mentioned the project presented to her.  He implored her to give it serious consideration noting that higher education was an area where the US and UK still prevailed over China and other countries trying to gain influence in Africa through other means and by investing in Africa’s higher education system, she could make a profound social and economic impact on the continent. Soon Andrea got a phone call from the British Consulate in New York offering her support if she took Africa on. But, still unconvinced she could manage the risks of developing in Africa, Andrea was already en route to law school to wait out the looming real estate crisis in the US.  Then Gbakima also called her to persuade her to give law school up in favour of their project. “I was three weeks away from starting law school, but the signs were all pointing me to give it up to do these projects in Africa instead.  And, frankly, given the state of the US real estate market in 2007, Africa suddenly didn’t look as risky.”

Thus began Africa Integras, the private investment company Andrea now manages through her development company, The Christie Company, in partnership with two multinational companies, Broll Facilities Management and AECOM.  The idea is that they invest in university PPPs to build not only classrooms and dormitories but also the commercial facilities universities need to create a high quality of life for their students. Whatever is built is eventually given back to the universities to create their own endowments tostrengthen their operations.   Africa Integras was launched with an early backing by a group of investors including Lord Joel Joffe, Nelson Mandela's former lawyer, and Credit Suisse.  In 2009, Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative contacted  Andrea to recruit Africa Integras to Rwanda. President Kagame was aggressively reforming his country but over the 50 years up to the genocide, Rwanda had only graduated around 2,000 students total. “Rwanda’s significant needs and scarce resources make PPPs a very viable solution,” she explains.

Andrea has learnt a lot of lessons in the last few years. Now she looks not just at the needs and demand for education but also each country's capacity for successfully closing PPP investments. “Even if your team can deliver, you can’t advance unless the government or university has the ability to deliver as well.  It’s very much a partnership,” she says. Africa Integras has now expanded its interests to other countries with more universities approaching them every month. Andrea says she cannot imagine another career with the same social impact.  “We have a pipeline to construct facilities for 20,000 more university seats. This will yield more than 150,000 university graduates in the next 30 years. That's a game changer for these countries’ long-term economic development.  It’s hard to imagine making a bigger impact doing anything else.  It really encapsulates the Gates idea of thinking big.”