Carol Thompson Cole: Building Bridges to Help Her Hometown

It’s times like these when we look to experienced leaders to guide us out of a crisis. Carol Thompson Cole, FC2 Trustee and President and CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP), is one of those leaders. She’s spent her entire life bringing her District community together, bridging divides and tapping into the rich resources our city already has to solve problems. “Our economy is going to be very different coming out of the coronavirus pandemic,” she says. We need to be strategic about a response, use data to identify where needs are greatest and build cross-sector partnerships to deliver the response.

Carol is laser-focused on improving outcomes for our most vulnerable youth. There are 160,000 children and young adults in this region who are either not in school, not employed or at risk of dropping out. VPP’s goal is to lead the effort to cut that number in half. To that end, DC non-profit Raise DC is joining VPP and becoming a part of the VPP team. VPP & Raise DC have been collaborating since 2014 and this move will strengthen their joint efforts to improve conditions for young people in the Greater Washington region.

VPP is a 501c3 philanthropic investment organization that uses a venture capital approach to invest in nonprofits and governments to strengthen organizations like Mary’s Center, KIPP DC and Urban Alliance to improve health and education outcomes for young people.  VPP Is also helping to create long-term systems change through cross-sector partnerships. Everything VPP does is data-driven and evidence-based.

Two weeks ago VPP released its 2020 Capital Kids Report, which quantifies barriers facing at-risk youth so that philanthropic investments can be well-targeted. The Report findings help pinpoint where we need to focus as a region—including during and after the coronavirus pandemic—which is critical as leaders throughout the community support DC, Maryland and Virginia children and youth in this difficult time.

Maybe Carol sees herself in a lot of the youth she now helps. She was born and raised in Petworth and is a proud graduate of Theodore Roosevelt High School. Her neighborhood was “truly a village that embraced children, helped us dream and made sure we could realize our aspirations.” Carol is grateful for the foundation her village built for her.

But her family was not immune to the city’s problems. When she left for college, her parents moved the family to Silver Spring to find more affordable housing and better schools for her five younger siblings. As a member of the Board of the Washington Housing Conservancy, she is today helping to think through similar housing affordability issues.

“If there is one thread in my life,” she says, “it is to make this community better.” She’s always believed that the District has the resources it needs to make it the best place to live, work and do business. We are a wealthy city with pockets of great poverty. “We just haven’t figured out how we can align those resources and work together to solve problems.”

There are few who could say they’ve had as strong and persistent a presence in the District’s journey as Carol, and from so many vantage points. Her first job out of graduate school in the mid-1970s was working for the House District Committee. When the city won Home Rule, she worked on DC programs from Capitol Hill. She had a stint at the Urban Institute doing housing research, that would take her to HUD to do community economic development. Then in 1979, she went to the District government where she held several senior leadership positions including City Administrator under Mayor Marion Barry. At that time she was the youngest person to have held that position and to this day she is the only woman.

In 1990 she wanted a private sector experience to learn how business people operated. Her government experience demonstrated a need for public-private partnerships. “I literally just crossed Pennsylvania Avenue to work for RJR Nabisco at the Willard Office Building, and it was like I went across the world.” Her portfolio focused on corporate governance, the environment and education. She was amazed at how siloed the public, private and philanthropic communities were. Businesses used a different language and approach to solving problems—an approach she thought her city could benefit from.

She continued building bridges across sectors. President Clinton appointed her to be his Special Assistant on the District of Columbia and she managed the Federal DC Interagency Task Force to promote long term financial stability, economic growth and opportunity for DC. Federal Agencies and District agencies like the Departments of Transportation worked together to coordinate and leverage efforts to increase funding to the District and strengthen its programs. She invited local DC business, government and civic leaders to the White House to increase the understanding of Federal Officials on issues facing local Washington and to find ways to support the city as its largest employer. When her city came close to bankruptcy in the late 1990s, she helped design the DC Revitalization Act, which laid the foundation for the city’s economic renaissance.

She brought all of her skills to bear when she took the reins of VPP in 2007. She combines dedication to public service with a private sector eye for investment returns. She understands people, their emotions and their deep connection to each other in our community. She knows how to respond to challenges with poise and thoughtfulness.

Now that her city is in the midst of a deepening economic crisis, she is even more dedicated to helping young people who will be disproportionately affected by the downturn. And now more than ever we have to be smarter about our investments and about building cross-sector partnerships.