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Commentary: Is Silicon Valley's New Story startup leading Haiti's affordable home market?
Published on October 4, 2016 Email To Friend    Print Version

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Photo: New Story

By Daniella Bien-Aime

We know that bureaucracy can be the death of an organization. And we also know that a new company or group can breathe life into a dying organization or lead us to re-imagine an entire market.

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Daniella Bien-Aime is one of Haiti’s chief brand ambassadors on social media and the lead online content developer for Bien-Aime Post, which highlights and connects emerging businesses, leaders and innovators – from both Haiti and its global Diaspora – through content development and social media. She may be contacted via her blog at www.bienaimepost.com
Many organizations start with good intentions but ultimately succumb to mediocrity. Leaner, more efficient, transparent and results-oriented companies replace them.

In Haiti, one example of the latter is New Story -- a graduate of the nonprofit startup accelerator, the Y Combinator. This Silicon Valley startup is changing how international development should work.

It took New Story one year to build 151 sustainable and affordable homes in Lévêque, Haiti, at a price of approximately $6,000 per home.

New Story is gaining renown in Haiti, thanks to how efficiently and transparently the organization functions.

Defining what transparency should look like in a nonprofit

New Story uses videos and data to document the families who receive the homes and publically display how every dollar is allocated. The company does not use any money from donors to pay for administrative costs. Instead, they raise separate funds to keep the company running. Most generous donors typically add an extra 10% to the total donation for the admin costs.

Many who are familiar with Haiti’s tragic earthquake story often question how New Story can get the rebuilding process right with no international development experience, and yet the American Red Cross with its wealth of development experience and access to large donors was able to build only six homes in five years, while countless people remain in misery.

Although the media has moved on from reporting on the post-earthquake victims, the situation is still challenging for thousands of people.

Amnesty International recently reported that in “the latest data (September 2014) … there were 123 camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) that remained open in Haiti, housing 85,432 people. Conditions in many IDP camps are dire. A third of all those living in camps do not have access to a latrine. On average 82 people share one toilet.”

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Photo: New Story

From a local success to regional impact on Latin America

The New Story co-founders, Brett Hagler, Alexandria Lafci, Matthew Marshall and Mike Arrieta, saw an opportunity to work in Haiti to help transform the homelessness crisis there. The significant difference is that they brought a startup approach to solving the problem. They devised an idea that could scale. They didn’t start building hotels or factories; they focused on helping the people.

It is often said that people will pay you or invest in you if you can actually show good results at building something while providing value. This is exactly what New Story has managed to do.

In less than two years after launching the startup, New Story caught the attention of Elvis Dumervil, an NFL All Pro player with Haitian roots. He recently partnered with New Story to build 58 homes in one of the most vulnerable areas in Haiti, and he is now New Story’s Haiti Chairman. One thing we know for sure -- if New Story’s work had not shown results, this partnership would never have happened.

The inclusive approach in working with the community sets the company apart

New Story’s approach in how they engage the community and the Haitian diaspora is unique. The partnership with Dumervil is significant; born in the United States to Haitian parents, he is familiar with Haiti’s language and culture. Strangely, perhaps, few NGOs have allied themselves with people who have those very qualifications. Matthew Marshall’s response to a Haitian-American reader revealed the difference in New Story’s philosophy of how they work with both locals and the Haitian diaspora.

A reader commented about his experience with the Red Cross after Propublica and NPR broke the story on how the organization collected millions but has few results to show for it. Marshall’s response seems consistent with the Dumervil connection, which led me to invite him to do an interview for the Bien-Aime Post.

Reader’s comment:
 

Gerald G. “I am a US-educated engineer, having received my education from commendable universities located in New York and Washington, D.C. Following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, I submitted my resume to the Red Cross and other notable aid agencies and never received any responses. I indicated on my cover letters that I was a Haitian-American and that I was fluent in French, Creole, Spanish, and English. My engineering background and experience were extensive, having worked at several major corporations (i.e. PdVSA). My references were excellent, describing the co-worker/cohort confidence in my professional abilities. Headhunters and human resources personnel from major US and Canadian corporations were contacting me during this period for high-paying opportunities in my field. Yet, I was never contacted by the Red Cross.”

This complaint is a common one in the Haitian diaspora. A number of well-qualified, educated people with experience of the culture, language and nuances are ready to go back to Haiti to work and help with the rebuilding efforts, but they are rarely selected for reasons unknown to most.

George G continues…

"I wanted to work in Haiti and make a direct contribution that would benefit my people. I guess that I was not foreign enough or not considered a ‘viable’ expat. Perhaps the Red Cross was only interested in using Haiti’s misery as a means to satisfy its own debt relief. If the proof is in the pudding, the Red Cross baked a lemon (six houses). So, for all of you who say that it was not the fault of the Red Cross because they just could not find qualified Creole-speaking personnel…. Hogwash! Myself and other Haitian-Americans/Canadians tried, and we were never given the opportunity to get to stage no. 1.”

New Story’s co-founder, Matthew Marshall, responds to Gerald G.:

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Below is a brief write-up of my interview with Matthew Marshall. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. We got right into the most important questions, which are job creation and how the startup has managed to have such an impact in so short a time.

DBA: Tell me how you and the team at New Story started building these homes in Haiti.

Matthew Marshall: Just a brief background about our work in Haiti. We started working in Haiti with Mission of Hope, roughly around November of 2014. It’s when we started funding homes and building in Lévêque, which is now complete with 151 homes. We started working there and pretty much funded all those homes in approximately eight months. And from there, we started working in El Salvador and Bolivia. And now we’re working on building two more projects in Haiti. We will continue to work with Mission of Hope, who has been an amazing partner on the ground. They’ve been in Haiti working for about 20 years now. They have done incredible work in Haiti.

DBA: Do you know how many jobs have been created since New Story started building these homes in Haiti?

Matthew Marshall: In the Lévêque area, I would say roughly 35 – 45 construction jobs from the local community. Not only do they learn a new skill, but they also get to provide for their families. What’s awesome is that these men and women have the skills they can now use in other construction work. They have also helped build in other areas around Lévêque. It’s all in close proximity.

DBA: What happens to these men and women whose job assignments are done after the homes are built? Where do they go?

Matthew Marshall: They still work, and they get rehired locally for the next project that the local construction companies are hiring for.

DBA: How are you able to blend the startup culture you have in the US (San Francisco/Atlanta) with your work in Haiti? The startup world is all about speed, efficiency and execution. Yet Haiti has difficulty moving fast because of the infrastructure challenges.

Matthew Marshall: We’ve been blessed with the partnership we have with Mission of Hope because they do work with speed, efficiency and execution. But that does not mean we have not had challenges. For instance, when we started building in Lévêque, we started to build farther into the property and hit bedrock at a shallow depth, which affected how foundations were being poured for the homes. We definitely ran into some challenges. It’s just a matter of allowing those experts on the ground to make the best decisions.

We’ve been able to work quickly because the local contractors are very experienced. They’ve built many, many homes as part of different infrastructure projects. They’ve seen the issues that normally come up. They know the best suppliers to work with and the ones who are reliable. We have to rely heavily on them. Obviously, building a physical product like a home is different than building software, so we had to be patient. We wanted the homes to be of the highest quality, and to ensure that they are going to last really long and be sustainable. We definitely had to be patient, but that is part of the work.

DBA: Do the families own their homes?

Matthew Marshall: Yes. They do. They own the land and the home.

DBA: What has been one takeaway for you and the team after building these 151 homes and moving towards building the 300 more new homes for the next project New Story just landed? Do you anticipate these homes to be completed in one year?

I think it’s going to take a little longer than just one year, just because of the sheer number of homes we need to build. In terms of takeaways, first, when we started New Story, we thought we were building a one-off home. We didn’t really appreciate the entire community aspect. But as we started to fund more and more homes for families, we started seeing the community aspect.

Now we think holistically about the community, not just funding homes, but thinking: What’s the best layout for each home? What the optimum design and yard space for each home? How can we bring in other local partners? For example, in Lévêque, we are actually working with an agricultural training non-profit to work with families to learn about: what are the best crops to plant? How do you rotate your crops? How do you water your crops? All these things have been the biggest takeaways. And we’re applying them in El Salvador and Bolivia. We’re thinking more holistically about a community, rather than just funding a home. Also, our vision has expanded. Our big vision is to build a thousand communities in ten years. And that stems just from our first project in Haiti.

Here’s what we do know. After the earthquake in 2010, the Haitian government gave a company a contract to build 20,000 homes for the victims, and no one knows what happened to that money or where the homes are. I only wish that New Story had gotten that contract because of the immediate impact we see in Haiti. All the same, New Story has cornered the housing market while raising the standards of quality and dignity for Haitians.

Your turn!

How do you think the Haitian diaspora can work with New Story to help build more homes in Haiti? Do you think, based upon New Story’s success, you can get the company you work for to fund one or several New Story homes in Haiti? If so, you can reach out to New Story directly here.
 

 
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