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Interview: Business Tycoon-Turned-Philanthropist Christel DeHaan On How She's Making A Difference In India

Christel House schools serve underprivileged children.

17/02/2017 5:25 PM IST | Updated 19/02/2017 11:06 AM IST

The fact that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty in any country is not lost on any of us. World over, efforts are being made to make education more accessible to children and more importantly, retain them in school long enough for them to be equipped with the right tools to go forward in life. For many reasons, this has always been an uphill task. But, efforts such as those of well-known philanthropist Christel DeHaan have made a difference.

We have a 97% annual return rate. Christel House India kids would love to be in school all year. We inculcate in them a love for learning. Christel DeHaan

This multi-million dollar business tycoon founded RCI (Resort Condominiums International) in 1974, along with her husband Jon DeHaan and was the pioneer of vacation exchange. In 1989, Christel became the company's sole owner by buying out her husband's interest. In late 1996 she sold RCI to a New York Stock Exchange publicly traded company for $825 million. She founded the first Christel House (CH) School in 1998 and these schools are currently located in India, Mexico, South Africa and the US.

Dhanraj, Christel House Art Teacher
Christel with her students - CH purposefully enrol 50% boys and 50% girls. Very few Christel House girls get married right after school as almost all are at college or enrolled in other tertiary programs.

Christel House schools offer K-12 education to impoverished children, in the countries that they are established. A Deloitte study on their efficacy in India shows that because of their longitudinal model—beginning in kindergarten and continuing through grade 12 and beyond— a child starting kindergarten at Christel House is almost four times more likely to graduate from grade 10 than a student entering a Karnataka government school, eight times more likely to graduate from Grade 12 and 19 times more likely to earn a tertiary degree. The study further found that because of Christel House's strong student retention rates and high quality education, it actually costs 40% LESS to produce one Christel House PUC 2 graduate than one graduate in a public school.

As many as 92% of Christel House India graduates are studying, working or doing both. About 77% of graduates pursue university after PUC (pre-university course) completion. And 70% are employed at A-listed companies such as Dell, Microsoft, Northern Trust, Fidelity, KPMG, Accenture, Oberoi Hotels and RCI.

Christel DeHaan was recently in Bangalore on her annual visit to the schools in the country. She then went on to inaugurate India's third Christel House at Naya Raipur, Chhattisgarh. In this interview with me, she discusses passionately her desire to see that Christel House makes a difference in as many lives as possible.

India now has its third Christel House. What is the potential you see in this country's children and what are the unique loopholes you address to get them and keep them in school?

Amazingly, CH children stay in school. We have a 97% annual return rate. Christel House India kids would love to be in school all year. We inculcate in them a love for learning, the importance of building a better life and making a contribution in their communities and country. Our parents attend education classes that include basic money management, conflict resolution, dealing with domestic violence and learning to be better mentors to their kids. And parents are expected to volunteer—that is their way of making a contribution. We purposefully enrol 50% boys and 50% girls. Very few Christel House girls get married right after school as almost all are at college or enrolled in other tertiary programs.

Dhanraj, Christel House Art Teacher
Christel House at Naya Raipur, Chhatisgarh

Transitioning from a multi-million dollar businessperson to a philanthropist—what is it like going from one kind of a busy schedule to another kind?

When I sold RCI I was certain I did not want to return to the corporate world. I wanted to create something that was transformational, inter-generational and of lasting value. The for-profit sector is driven by the principles of creating shareholder value, and the not-for-profit sector is driven by doing social good. As co-founder of RCI we pioneered vacation exchange. We worked countless hours, walked many extra miles and made hundreds of sacrifices. I loved being in the vacation business.

I have long learned that in the end the giver becomes the receiver. And that is a glorious feeling. Christel DeHaan

And now to Christel House (CH)—where I am in the human transformation business—changing the lives of impoverished children so that they can have a seat at the table of life. The difference is that the creation of market capital has been replaced with the creation of human capital. And that is exciting.

Countries world over will need you. How do you make your choice of countries and cities to open your school?

The needs are enormous, and many places and countries would like to have a Christel House. Our expansion is based on the degree of poverty in a given country, complimentary tax and legal structures, availability of technology and access to the travel and tourism sector. From the very beginning, the CH model included the provision that the general and administrative expenses would be paid by me. Our donors need to know that their donation will be spent 100% on the children. The more donors support Christel House, the more children we will be able to serve. Countries we are currently considering for possible expansion include Jamaica, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Tanzania, as well as additional centres in countries in which we are already operating.

Dhanraj, Christel House Art Teacher
At the newly opened Christel House School in Naya Raipur

What is the kind of ground research that goes into the creation of a school, especially since you are entering societies that have their own unique requirements?

Once the threshold decision of where to expand is made, the next consideration is the location of the school facility. We assess a variety of factors, including safety and security for students, staff and property, transportation logistics, availability of infrastructure, proximity to qualified educators, availability of tertiary education opportunities for graduates, and whether there will be a level of support from the local community and/or government. We analyse construction costs and timelines, staffing needs, legal and regulatory filings, and how best to approach the local communities from which our students will be sourced. From the start of construction to the start of school is generally about 12-15 months. Pre-work in advance of this adds another 12-15 months to the process for countries in which we have not worked previously. Timelines are much shorter where Christel House already has a presence.

You handpick all your principals. What do you look for in them?

The importance of highly qualified principals cannot be stressed enough. They are the instructional leaders of the school and serve in the role of CEO. They set the tone and the culture.

In evaluating potential principals, I try to determine the answers to critical questions. Do they set high standards and do they hold their teachers accountable for outcomes? What are the tools employed to measure student achievement? Do they know how to use data analysis as a means of professional development and improved practices? Not every teacher can be a CH teacher, and not every principal can be a CH principal. If educators are technically competent, strive for excellence and are passionate about teaching and learning, they recognise the importance of rewarding good work and celebrating successes.

That being said, finding highly skilled principals and teachers is one of our biggest challenges. Teacher training and preparation in developing countries need much improvement to transition from a rote learning model to one that is focused on critical thinking skills and project-based learning.

Dhanraj, Christel House Art Teacher
Christel with one of her students in India

What are the life lessons you have learnt that you believe must be shared?

Live by the motto, "Care, share and make a difference." Give of your time, talent, energy, and resources to help make the world a better place. I have given much thought to what it means to live a meaningful life. That will mean different things to different people. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th-century American poet, stated: "The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well." These words contain much wisdom. In order to "have it make some difference that you have lived," I believe that it is important to identify a cause which one finds meaningful, and to dedicate time, talent and financial resources to furthering that cause. I have long learned that in the end the giver becomes the receiver. And that is a glorious feeling.

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