AS SOMEONE WHO SPENDS HER LIFE helping others follow their passions, Cheryl Dorsey MPP 1992 took time to believe in her own. She was studying to be a doctor at Harvard Medical School—while also pursuing a master’s in public policy at the Kennedy School—when the head of obstetric anesthesia at HMS, Nancy Oriol, contacted her about an article she’d written about the high infant-mortality rate among black families in Boston. A recent Boston Globe series had found that black babies in Boston were dying at three times the rate of white.
“It was happening in the shadow of the world’s greatest medical institutions,” says Dorsey. “That seemed really horrific.” Together, Oriol and Dorsey conceived of the Family Van, a mobile health clinic that would drive around the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods dispensing low-cost prenatal care. There was only one problem: Neither woman had ever started an organization before. At that time, the idea of social entrepreneurship—melding business, nonprofit, and government resources to create a start-up to tackle a pressing social concern—barely existed.
Walking through Littauer Hall one day, Dorsey spied a flyer for Echoing Green, a new kind of nonprofit offering funding and advice to would-be social entrepreneurs. She applied and received a fellowship to make the Family Van a reality. “Becoming an Echoing Green fellow completely transformed my life,” she says—and not only because it eventually made her abandon her plans to become a doctor in favor of addressing health inequities on a larger scale. A decade later, Dorsey became president of Echoing Green. Now she helps dozens of fellows every year achieve their own visions of changing the world.
From its headquarters in New York, Echoing Green invests millions in new ventures; it has funded some 700 social entrepreneurs to the tune of $40 million since its founding. Fellows have included the founders of Teach for America, City Year, One Acre Fund, SKS Microfinance, and Michelle Obama, before she became First Lady. “To become an Echoing Green fellow for someone at the Kennedy School is like becoming a Supreme Court clerk for someone from the Law School,” says Dick Cavanaugh, a former HKS executive dean, who now teaches a class in social entrepreneurship. “It’s a big deal.”
Dorsey, who is also a director on the Harvard Board of Overseers and a member of the Kennedy School’s Visiting Committee, attributes her success to a singular ability to move between the street and the boardroom. “My business card will tell you I am president of an organization, but what I am really good at is being a cultural translator,” she says. It’s a skill she’s had at least since her days as an HKS student. “I was spending my mornings working in the hallowed halls of one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the world, and then spending my afternoons walking across the subway tracks to a different world. My job was to make the distance a little less between those two worlds.” It’s a job she’s still doing today.
Dorsey grew up in an upwardly mobile African-American family in a Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore, and learned the art of crossing the tracks early. “I would be learning to play Bach and Vivaldi in my high school orchestra, and then running home to listen to the Sugar Hill Gang,” she says. Her parents, both public school teachers, were the first members of their families to go to college and held up education as the key to breaking down societal obstacles. “I was exposed to the idea that there were barriers, but that there were tools that people of color could use to overcome those barriers—education being the most important tool in the tool kit,” Dorsey says. She took the lessons to heart, winning admission to Harvard College, after which it was expected she would become a doctor or a lawyer.
Dorsey had different ideas. She spent hours in the stacks at Widener Library, enjoying the challenge of researching complex historical issues, and thought she might go for a PhD in the history of science. “That didn’t go over well at the dinner table,” she deadpans. “It’s hard to tell your family, when all the hopes and dreams are pinned on you, that you are taking such a left turn from what they thought you’d been preparing for.” After graduating in 1985, she deferred her application to medical school and spent two years as a research assistant to the Committee on the Status of Black Americans, a project of the National Research Council in the run-up to the 1988 presidential election. “To be able to study and think critically about structural barriers for people of color was eye-opening,” she says. “It made me realize I was more suited to a career looking at structural inequities.”
Eventually time ran out on her deferral, however, and Dorsey returned to the path her family had set. As a compromise with herself, she applied for a master’s at the Kennedy School to supplement her medical training. “I always had a calling to do something more than one-on-one patient care,” she says. “I showed up at the Kennedy School, and it totally blew my mind. To be able to sit in a classroom next to an environmental activist or a politician from Israel or a public interest lawyer—a host of interesting people who cared about policy—it was just amazing.”
That was when Oriol contacted her about the article she had written for Harvard Medicine Magazine, and proposed that they join forces to work on what would become the Family Van. To drum up support, Oriol and Dorsey talked to people everywhere they could—from neighborhood churches and barbershops to black-tie fundraisers downtown. “All of them thought it was a completely crazy idea,” says Oriol, who is now dean for students at HMS and one of Dorsey’s closest friends. “Very few people thought we could pull it off.”
For even getting to the point where the van itself became a reality, Oriol credits Dorsey’s organizational skills. “She is a very thoughtful, smart, logical thinker—and I am the opposite of most of those,” says Oriol. “I would have these great visions, and she would say, Here’s the path that ought to get us there.” Every time they talked to someone new, says Oriol, Dorsey not only would send a follow-up and a thank-you, but would continue to scan the news for any mention of the person and send an acknowledgment, along with a soft sell. “She would reach out and say, I see you did X—that’s right in line with what we are trying to do.” After two years, they had raised enough money to buy a van and hire a person to staff it, but that was it.
The fellowship from Echoing Green not only provided funding to make the project more sustainable, but also crucial assistance in refining the idea, starting with the application process. “They were throwing ideas at us so fast and challenging and pushing us; we were doing double-time just to keep up with them,” says Oriol.
Originally, the idea was to offer services directly from the van, but community members balked, saying that was unfair when their neighbors had access to world-class healthcare. So Dorsey and Oriol retooled their model to offer education and referrals to medical services rather than provide the services themselves. “Recognizing that the community leaders were our leaders and our guides was incredibly important,” says Oriol. From the beginning, too, many more men than women came to use their services; rather than turn the men away, they broadened their mission to include all types of health testing and referrals.
Now, 25 years later, the Family Van is the leader among some 2,000 mobile health clinics around the country. An analysis Oriol did in 2008 found that for every dollar invested in mobile health clinics, $36 are saved in prevented emergency room visits and other forms of urgent care. Another analysis, in 2013, found that patients of the van reduced their blood pressure over time, leading to a more than 30 percent reduction in risk for heart attack or stroke. “That’s not happening at doctor’s offices around the country,” says Oriol. “We are helping people take care of themselves, manage themselves better.”
Despite her success as a social entrepreneur, Dorsey didn’t change tack overnight. She still felt she owed it to her family to become a doctor. She was a resident at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, for three years. As she watched children keep coming in for the same problems, she became increasingly frustrated with her inability to help them. “Clinical medicine wasn’t my passion,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine doing it every day. For me my purpose was to make the world more equitable. It’s hard to say that being in the ER at 2 in the morning treating a girl for an asthma attack and sending her back to her neighborhood did that.”
Finally, Dorsey made the difficult choice to leave medicine and face the disappointment of her family. “One aunt at the dinner table called me the village idiot—she said we invested all of this into having a doctor in the family, and now I wasn’t even a doctor,” she sighs. “I was raised Catholic and grew up in a Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore County, so I had a combination of Jewish and Catholic guilt.”
Her family were consoled, at least, when she was appointed a White House Fellow the next year. Positions followed with the Department of Labor, working on implementing family-friendly workplace policies, and with the social entrepreneurial firm Dayna International implementing public health initiatives. As Dorsey began racking up awards and speaking engagements, her one-time backer, Echoing Green, reached out to her to join its board in 1998. By that time, the organization was in trouble. After losing its longtime chairman a few years before, staff and funding had dwindled to the point where the organization was sponsoring only five fellows a year. When one of its two main funders pulled out in 2001, Echoing Green asked Dorsey to see if it even made sense to keep it going. As a consultant, Dorsey meticulously analyzed the organization and its impact, and concluded that it was just too valuable to let die. Echoing Green’s board was so impressed with her report that it asked her to become the president.
Dorsey set to work, immediately raising the number of fellows to 19 and hiring a sophisticated new fundraising team to pay for them. “Cheryl really brought it back to life,” says Sara Horowitz MC/MPA 1995, an Echoing Green fellow who founded the Freelancers Union, which supports and advocates for independent workers. “She made the organization grow up by really building the guts an institution has to have. We are lucky to have someone with a big heart and big sense of moral imperative, but who also gets the bottom-line and gets the strategy.”
Dorsey took Echoing Green in new directions, expanding its lending to international organizations and for the first time creating focused awards in particular program areas, including young black men and climate change. As a leader, however, she has been hands-off when it comes to the development of the fellows, giving them advice and access without telling them how to develop their organizations. “Funders sometimes prevent more change taking place than they create, because they have preconceived notions about how change can happen,” she says. “If you pick the right talent, back the leader, and then get out of their way to see their vision through, that’s how you change the world.”
Dorsey brings the same philosophy to her role on the Kennedy School Visiting Committee, where she sees herself as an advocate for students rather than a consultant on fundraising or academics. Perhaps learning from her own experience fighting a career path promoted by her family, she has worked to make sure the school doesn’t follow a cookie-cutter approach when it comes to career guidance. “We have traditional ways of thinking about career opportunities—you are going to be a doctor or a teacher or an engineer,” she says. “But it’s your job when you have academic freedom and a surfeit of time and exposure to great ideas to figure out what you are better at than anyone else. And only you can figure that out.”
Each year, Dorsey comes to campus to lecture as a guest speaker in Cavanaugh’s social entrepreneurship class, inspiring students with her unique combination of big-hearted vision and nuts-and-bolts practicality. “Over half the people in my class become entrepreneurs, and I think Cheryl’s inspiration is a big part of that,” says Cavanaugh. “Her message is you can change the world, and you can change the world on your terms—but you have to have a vision.”
Some of those students become Echoing Green fellows themselves. Rohit Malhotra MPP 2013 was a teaching assistant in Cavanaugh’s class, working on a thesis on civic innovation in his hometown of Atlanta, when Dorsey came to speak. He credits her (along with Cavanaugh and Sonal Shah, now head of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University) with giving him the courage to implement his ideas after graduation.
“She gives you a sense you are doing the right thing,” he says. “She reminds you why you went down that path in the first place. When you hear someone who says, ‘I was crazy enough to act on that hunch as well,’ it gives you the inspiration to do that.” After graduation, Malhotra returned to Atlanta planning to create the Center for Civic Innovation, to research innovative ways the city could be improved. He found a huge network of grassroots activists already doing the needed work on food access, education, income inequality, and other issues. “I fell back in love with my hometown,” he says.
Malhotra’s organization created a unique government entrepreneurial incubator called Civic Labs to connect activists, funders, and public officials and implement and test their ideas in the real world. One of its first actions was to apply for an Echoing Green fellowship. “The application itself was like doing a strategic plan,” he says. “You realize all of the things you aren’t able to fill out and start asking some big existential questions.” When the group found out it had been selected, it was at the end of a long, grueling day. “It was 9 o’clock at night when we got the call, and we all cried,” Malhotra says. “We were all standing in a circle, just jumping up and down. We didn’t even think of the money piece of it—it was the validation, having someone say that what you are doing is crazy enough it just might work.”
Since becoming a fellow, Malhotra says, the biggest benefit has been the connection to a wide network of current and past entrepreneurs to both inspire him and help implement his vision. “Those conversations you have at three or four in the morning at the hotel bar—that doesn’t happen by accident; that happens through a very specific design.” Dorsey herself, he says, is the biggest cheerleader, taking an interest in the fellows individually. “Her ability to call up the details not only about your application, but about who you are and what you believe in, is incredible,” he says. At the same time, her demeanor never changes, whether she is talking with a group of activists or making introductions at a dinner with funders. “One second you can be talking about social impact bonds, and the next second you are talking about Drake,” says Malhotra. “But that is who she is. She is very comfortable with who she is, and that’s a very contagious feeling. It makes you comfortable to be around her.”
That ability to move between worlds while staying authentic—to be a “cultural translator,” as Dorsey puts it—is the unique skill that has allowed her to put her passion for changing the world into place. “It’s the skill to be able to move and live and talk and understand and love at all levels at all times without preconceived notions,” says Oriol. “It’s the ability to relate to any other human as a human, and not as a poor person or a rich person. That’s who she is. And that’s why she has succeeded.”
Michael Blanding is a freelance writer living in Brookline, Massachusetts.