When Stephen Keppel (MARK ’03) first talked about spending a year after his graduation engaged in service work, some of his friends thought he was crazy to delay his entry into business.
They were chomping at the bit to get out into the world and start earning the big bucks. You’ll set your career back, they said. You don’t know what the economy will be like in a year. Indeed, Keppel’s career path was laid out in front of him, thanks to the professional internships he’d worked hard at each summer with McCann Erickson in New York. So why was he thinking of changing directions now?
It also felt a little scary to commit a year to a world he didn’t know. But it was a good kind of scary. He’d felt that spark before, one ignited on a Sunday evening the year before when the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, came to the Alumni Hall chapel to say Mass. “Father Hesburgh gave this very simple, straightforward, passionate sermon. It really struck a chord,” says Keppel.
“It reminded me that we’re all here for a reason and it is our responsibility as Catholic citizens to find a way to give back. I really identified with that.”
The very next day, he signed up for a fall break service trip to New York. “We learned a lot about poverty and education and homelessness, and I found that instead of it being a drag, it was extremely interesting and inspiring. I really enjoyed being with other students who had a passion for helping others. I fit in with that group,” he says. “But I think that what really got me interested was that it wasn’t all touchy-feely, save-the-world stuff. We met with experts who had a lot of statistics. And we met with entrepreneurs who were trying to solve homelessness and improve education for inner-city kids. That gave me a different view of this world of social good. There are people with real skills making a difference.”
That’s exactly how you can describe Keppel today. His year of service was spent teaching English at a boarding school in Port-au-Prince for The Haitian Project, whose mission is to educate smart and talented kids from the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in the city. Teaching, as it turned out, was not Keppel’s calling — but it certainly led him to one.
He had two skills that went a long way in a place like Haiti, where formal systems are lacking. He was good at engaging with different types of people — and downright brilliant at coming up with creative solutions to challenges. “There was always a problem to solve around the Port-au-Prince campus, whether it was helping the neighborhood get access to water or setting up a septic system for a new part of the school,” he says. “I started a garden club and created a system for trash collection for the neighborhood because one didn’t really exist.”
Before Keppel’s one-year commitment was up, several graduates of the school came to him. They wanted to start businesses. Could he help?
As Keppel worked on business plans with them, he realized the daunting challenges they faced. “These were guys who knew three different languages, were really intelligent and had good ideas,” says Keppel. “But there’s no system to support it — no training, no manual, no funding.”
Keppel’s one year in Haiti turned into two as he returned to form the Economic Growth Initiative for Haiti (EGI), which provides the infrastructure to support new business growth through business plan coaching, local and international mentoring, free legal services and access to seed capital for 10 to 15 Haitian entrepreneurs with high potential.
A point of pride for Keppel is the nonprofit’s registration in both the United States and Haiti. “One of the things I knew I wanted to do with EGI was create something that, sure, had some support and ideas and experience from the U.S., but that was really a Haitian organization,” he says. “We have a Haitian director. We have a separate Haitian board of directors as well. And that really has been a key to the survival and growth of the organization. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of — that we’ve created something that’s good enough and important enough that local Haitians are involved in spending their time, effort and resources on keeping it going.”
The Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship at Mendoza has played an important role in EGI, with one or two MBA students traveling to Haiti to run the Business Plan Boot Camp every summer. “Some MBA students have set up a business plan competition, using EGI as a pilot,” Keppel adds. “The last two years, via this competition, the business school has granted two $5,000 grants to EGI entrepreneurs.”
Keppel led EGI as executive director from 2004-2007 and 2009-2012, and continues to serve as chairman of the board. His experience in Haiti led him to seek a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. He worked for The Economist Intelligence Unit in London before taking a position in 2011 at Univision News in Miami, where he lives with his wife and two sons. At Univision, which is the highest rated TV network reaching Hispanic America, he is vice president for empowerment initiatives in the news division. He oversees projects on health, education, personal finance, entrepreneurship and poverty.
“I am really fortunate to be able to connect with Hispanic communities across the country,” he says. “Through Univision, I’ve met so many amazing, determined, hard-working, passionate and intelligent people. Witnessing their work ethic, innovation and values has made me very optimistic about the future of our country.”