How social enterprise real estate can impact millions of lives

An interview with Pete Dupuis, founder of World Housing - by Grant Trahant

World Housing provides homes to families living in slums in the developing world, fostering communities where families can thrive with safety, security and access to resources that change lives.

Its always interesting how our lives take turns we never expect. PETE DUPUIS felt one of those turns. He is a successful real-estate entrepreneur, but like many in 2008, his path in life was now very uncertain. Pete and his partner Sid Landolt, took a huge hit in revenue, losing millions of dollars, and had to layoff more than half of their employees. Who knew this would end up being an opportunity of a lifetime to impact lives for generations.

   In 2010, Pete was on a normal flight, but what he didn’t know is – he wasn’t sitting next to a normal passenger. It was Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS. 

When someone asks you what World Housing is, how do you explain it to them?

  “To create social change by connecting the world to be a better community”. We do this by providing housing to those we see as the most in need – people that live in and around garbage dumps. Our social change model is relatively simple:  In the developed world we create business partnerships and transfer the financial contributions to a non-government organization who we partner with to build homes.  The homes are then gifted to qualified, deserving people that are surviving by scavenging garbage in dump communities.

  At the core of World Housing is creating social change for our audience.   In the case of the slum communities we serve, it’s about moving a qualified family from complete squalor to a stable home while helping them achieve an independent life through education, nutrition and health care programs offered by our NGO partner.  While receiving a home is just one piece of the puzzle, it often becomes a visible cue that there is hope for a better life.

  At home in the first world, we are about providing a connection for people to see the world differently and empower our business partners and donors to believe they can have a real, measurable impact on others.

Blake from TOMS seemed to spark some of the inspiration to start World Housing. Who are some of the other individuals that really impacted and inspired your decision to start World Housing?

   First of all, without meeting Blake there would be no World Housing.  Blake was not only an inspiration, but opened up a whole new world of amazing new relationships that come with starting a social venture like World Housing.  There are two people we have met along the way that really have made an impact. 

First, Scott Neeson, the founder of Cambodia Children’s Fund is the most selfless, dedicated person I have ever met. He has single handedly improved the quality of life for people living in the garbage dump community in Phnom Penh. Scott’s story is so unique – he went from a life of excess in Hollywood and consciously gave everything up to help people living in a garbage dump.

At the time, Pete had no idea who Blake was, what TOMS were, or that this flight would change his entire life.

Check out the Q&A with Pete Dupuis, founder of WorldHousing, on what happened after he got off that flight.

The turning point for me was him telling me that people that can recognize a solution for a social problem and make things happen will forever be burdened until they try and make positive change. This conversation changed my perspective in what was important in my life. Without meeting Scott, Sid and I would not have the boldness to try a big idea like World Housing.

  The second person may come as a surprise.  Ian Gillespie, the founder of Westbank Developments, took a real risk by sponsoring our first community.  In my opinion, Ian is Canada’s most innovative thinker in the development sector.  His genius allowed him to see the far reaching social impact of applying our one-for-one model to his Vancouver House project.  

It was the first time we saw wealthy real estate purchasers connect with people that live a completely opposite life. The result was over 370 homes gifted and more than 1,800 people moving from a shack to a new home. For me, the real story was not just Ian’s ability to inspire others to see the world differently, but also to live differently.

You actually went to graduate school to learn more about social entrepreneurship, which is very interesting. Can you tell us more about that experience and how it had an impact on truly implementing the World Housing movement?

My return to graduate school was totally driven by the Great Recession of 2008. Sid and I own and operate a successful international real estate company and our business literally came to a complete stop overnight. Like everyone in the world, the economic shock wave took its toll. My anti-depressant was to go back to school and study housing for the poor. The events that occurred were serendipitous, meeting great social entrepreneurs like Blake and Scott to studying abject poverty was a contrast I couldn’t ignore. My thesis became the business plan for World Housing.

Today my academic journey continues as a PhD student at UBC studying social change and slum formation. It’s kind of crazy where life will lead you if you allow it.

Would you recommend graduate school for other inspiring social entrepreneurs?

It depends on your learning goals. My biggest recommendation is to keep learning and build a network of like-minded social entrepreneurs. A Masters degree is an excellent way to immerse oneself in the domain of social entrepreneurship and build expertise.

  Another great option are short intensive programs like Stanford University’s Executive Program in Social Entrepreneurship. I attended this program in February and was blown away by the course content and my fellow students.  There were social entrepreneurs from around the world that came together to learn and celebrate social change.  Sarah Soule the program director has done an amazing job of inspiring new and experienced change agents to build their businesses.

Your thesis seemed to be great research for starting World Housing. How much time did you invest in your thesis and has it been the blueprint you still follow today for World Housing?

  A research-based Master's degree is a fairly solitary, deep dive into a topic.  In my case, the research and writing portion of my program was three years of gathering data, analyzing and writing my thesis.  I was very fortunate because my supervisor encouraged me to become a “pracademic” and apply my learning to a business. So my thesis turned into the business plan for World Housing.  In the first two years it was the blueprint for how we set-up World Housing and a valuable guide for our team.

Can you explain how the “One-for-One Real Estate Gifting Model” works?

Our initial business model was fashioned after Blake’s one-for-one gifting model. shoeless child in need.
When TOMS sells a pair of shoes a corresponding pair is given to a shoeless child in need. We took this model and applied it to the real estate development business, for every condo sold money was reallocated from the marketing budget which funded then construction and gifting of a home for a family living in a slum. Sid and I believe that being adaptable is critical to scaling a business and achieving sustainability. So today we have added “community to community” and individual tax deductible donations so we can expand our market beyond developers.

What has been the most gratifying event you have experienced since starting World Housing?

  This is an easy answer.  Late one night I received an email from Scott Neeson telling me this story: He was touring a wealthy donor from New York through the dump in Cambodia.  This gentleman had never been to a slum and was completely shell shocked at the desperate conditions.  When he got to our community of homes we had just gifted he sat on the edge of the garden to regain his composure and saw one of our new homeowners doing her wash.  Like many that see the dump for the first time he instinctively offered her a significant amount of money.   The woman turned to the man and said, “thank you, but I don’t need it.  I have a loan from Scott to start my bottled water business, my children are in school and I just received this home.  You should donate to Scott so he can give it to someone who needs it”.

  The email made me cry as both Scott and I knew that receiving a home along with a micro loan and education was a tipping point for the woman’s self-esteem.  After years of living in a dirt floor shack surrounded by garbage and crime she had control over her life and belief in herself. 
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