Leadership Profile: Scott Syphax

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Our region is full of dynamic leaders with wide influence.  Starting today we will be profiling established and emerging leaders who are having a major impact on our quality of life in the Capital Region.  We begin close to home with Scott Syphax, the President and CEO of the Nehemiah Companies and the 2013-14 chairman of Valley Vision's 30-member volunteer board.  He was interviewed recently by Jodi Mulligan, a Valley Vision Project Fellow…

Q.  Few people realize that Nehemiah Corporation is eight companies working across the U.S.  Running that complex of an enterprise is surely challenging.  What aspect do you like most, and why?

The short answer is impacting and improving lives across the country on a daily basis while creating innovative solutions that challenge conventional thinking in community and economic development. Prosperity creation for individuals and community is our core mission.  Our work is about creating both hope and realization of that hope for many who otherwise don’t see better days but for our assistance. Finally, our business model is a social enterprise rather than a traditional non profit. This allows us to be a practical laboratory for marrying best-in-class private sector business processes with the passion of a non-profit. The interaction of these two perspectives make every day interesting and rewarding.

Q.  How do you marry the need to make a return on investment with your community involvement goals?

We start from the premise that doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive.  Our core principle is that a successful solution delivers a high quality result to the client and has a sustainable business model that doesn't require a subsidy.  Our motto is that “if you are hungry, we will feed you a fish for a day. However, tomorrow we will teach you to fish for a lifetime.”

At a minimum, our solutions have to generate a break-even result plus $1, otherwise we, and the populations and communities we serve, are at the mercy of the next government crisis or a change in priority by the philanthropic sector. Usually, we can achieve better results than the minimum. We then create a business model with the best people we can find while leveraging technology and business processes to drive down costs and standardize quality of outcome. Finally, we measure our results against pre-established benchmarks for success and refine the business process for replication by others should they choose.

Some ask why be a non-profit at all? The answer is that the non-profit/for-profit hybrid structure allows us to make a return on capital while not having to turn those proceeds over to private stockholders. Instead, those revenues, or “opportunistic capital” as we call it, are what allows us to innovate, experiment, and implement new programs and solutions without waiting for government or philanthropy to bless it. For the record, Nehemiah will gladly take those dollars, if offered. We just will never depend on them.

Nehemiah’s corporate culture is very strong on self-reliance. It is this self-reliance and the fact that if the market doesn’t like our work, we won’t survive, that makes Nehemiah a very attractive partner for investment by the private sector. They respect our market discipline.

Q.  Why do you play host of Studio Sacramento?

Because there needed to be a forum within this region where the big issues were discussed. Part of the press’s role is to inform the public and to hold the high and mighty accountable. However, another important role, too often lost because of cynicism and the dictum that “good news doesn’t sell," is celebrating what is right, good, and special about our region. There are amazing people and events happening all around us. We needed a table that exposed the tremendous wealth of talent in our own backyard…a place that brought the public into the important conversations that our shaping our lives. We needed a forum where every thought wasn’t reduced to a sound bite and every person reduced to a distorted, one-dimensional caricature. Finally, while we do not shy away from the tough questions or conversations demanding accountability, Studio Sacramento is not about “gotcha journalism.”  We are about understanding and engagement. The show is increasingly considered the program of record for this region.  All of us involved with it are extremely proud of that fact.  I consider my involvement a privilege, and am I very grateful to KVIE and PBS for providing the opportunity.

Q.  What drew you to Valley Vision?  Where is Valley Vision going next?

It is the organization where I have the privilege of learning from some of the smartest people in the region whom I might never meet and get to know otherwise. Working collaboratively on issues confronting our region and our world from a non-partisan, open minded, and data driven basis makes Valley Vision a critical asset to this region.  We are involved in virtually every major regional issue that affects the quality of life of our region.  I'm honored to be chairman for another year.  

Regarding what’s next, I think we are going to focus on elevating the “vision” part of our name.  This will require us to anticipate what the future may hold for all of us, and then to work collaboratively with other organizations to get ahead of that curve.  This is what Valley Vision does best.

Q.  What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?

My family would say that being a husband and father are far more central to who I am than my career or any position, past or future.  

Q. What do you most look forward to creating with Township 9, the large urban-infill project in Sacramento being created by Nehemiah?

My team looks forward in giving Sacramento an urban living experience that it has never had but, once experienced, residents will love it, and it will inspire replication elsewhere. The naysayers have stated that Township 9 is way too nice from a design point of view for Sacramento and that we could provide less, satisfy our residents, and make greater profits with lower risk. We believe that people here deserve the same quality of urban lifestyle enjoyed in other major cities around the world. Our social enterprise model has allowed us over 14 years to pursue Township 9 patiently and with an eye toward welcoming the diversity of the region in all its aspects to participate economically, socially, and creatively in its evolution.

Jodi Mulligan is a Project Fellow at Valley Vision and conducted this leadership interview.