Interview with Nina Schwarzschild (MBA 1990)

Our Social Enterprise Alumni Mentor, Nina Schwarzschild (MBA 1990), is an independent real estate development consultant. Her clients include both for-profit and non-profit developers replica watches of affordable and market rate housing in Massachusetts. We asked Nina to share some of her thoughts with us about both her career and social enterprise. Here is what she had to say:

The Harbus: What attracted you to working in the nonprofit sector?

NS: My experience before coming to business school was real estate-related, and involved both nonprofit and for profit work. I knew that I wanted to use business school as a means of opening up doors to do more for-profit work. After school, I worked for a for-profit real estate company; however, I subsequently worked for a non-profit developer and then switched back to working in the for-profit sector.

I care a lot about contributing to society – I couldn’t be happy if I wasn’t making an impact. Personally, I do not feel that I am making a huge sacrifice by working in social enterprise, despite the fact that I am not pursuing more financially lucrative opportunities. It is too easy to be seduced by how much money you can make, and what you can buy with all that money. Of course money is one way of measuring your impact and success //, but it won’t necessarily make you happy. It is important to identify what is meaningful and what makes you happy and then to pursue that.

The Harbus: Describe your work as an independent affordable housing development consultant.

NS: Currently, I am working on five development projects, three with non-profits and two with for-profits organizations. One of my current projects is a 20-unit new apartment building that the YWCA of Greater Lawrence is developing. The apartments will be targeted to teen mothers and their children and to survivors of domestic abuse and their children. The YWCA acquired the site, which is located in downtown Lawrence, MA, last fall and asked me to put together the financing and to help coordinate the design and construction budgeting process. The architect is currently completing schematic drawings of the building, and I am meeting with both equity and debt partners. If all goes well, the development will take 2.5 years to complete – from concept and site acquisition through construction and lease up.

Harbus: Why did you decide to become an independent consultant? How do you source clients?

NS: I have been a real estate developer for the past fifteen years, and have been an independent consultant now for a year and a half. I chose to be a consultant because I wanted personal flexibility. I work as hard, or even harder, than when I was employed by a developer, but I have more flexibility. I am much more driven by the project rather than by my role in an organization. My consulting practice is completely relationship based. Even if I am competing with others for the work, I almost always know someone quite well who is part of the project.

Harbus: How does your role change when you work with nonprofit vs. for-profit clients?

NS: It does not really change. My role depends on what capacity the developer has internally and what capacity they want to outsource. For example, the for-profit contractor that I am currently working with doesn’t need help with construction. Based on my knowledge of the local real estate market, I am advising him on the project’s design. I am also facilitating the local zoning and permitting process. However, with other clients I will work exclusively on the financing, but not on the design or construction components.

Harbus: Do you have any thoughts on transitioning between the for-profit and non-profit sectors?

NS: Focus on what transferable skills you have and what skills can be leveraged in a different environment. It’s easier to move between for-profits and non-profits if you stay in the same industry. You may encounter differences in terms of culture and values, and you might have to deal with people’s hiring biases; however, fundamentally the skills are the same.

Harbus: What was the most important thing that you learned in business school?

NS: The most important thing that I learned at HBS was critical thinking and problem solving skills. More so than the content of the cases, I learned how to approach a business problem and how to see the big picture. I liken it to the difference between reading something in a book and being able to figure it out.

These skills have become increasingly valuable to me. When I first graduated, much of my work had to do with accomplishing specific tasks. However, ten years out, my clients engage me specifically to think strategically and critically for them, and then to direct them or figure out what must be done.

Harbus: What helped you decide to pursue a career in social enterprise?

NS: My desire to work in social enterprise stems from family values and what I learned when I was really young. My parents were fairly liberal, and I was introduced to social awareness and commitment to social justice at a young age.

I do not believe that everyone has to pursue a career in social enterprise; I have a lot of respect for classmates that pursued other paths. In addition, there are many ways to introduce social enterprise into your life: as a fundraiser, board member, or donor. There are also other ways to make a commitment to social good: through workplace policies, offering free education programs to workers who otherwise would not have the opportunity, and building a strong relationship between the workplace and the larger community.

Harbus: Do you have any specific advice for women?

NS: Real estate tends to be a male dominated field; however, you do not have to be a man to be successful. I would advise women to be themselves Women do not have to act like men in order to compete – they have an opportunity to compete in a different way. I feel that I bring my own warmth and personality to professional interactions.
I think it is important to seek out colleagues and mentors that are both male and female – so that you have a network. Women’s professional organizations can also be supportive. I have joined an organization called the New England Woman in Real Estate, which has an affordable housing group. The main purpose of the group is to network with women in the industry; however, I always enjoy our meetings which are warm, friendly, and joking.

Harbus: Do you have any general advice for students?

NS: It’s important to develop self-awareness and to be honest with yourself. You are going to have to make sacrifices, so you should determine what you really like to do and then pursue it. Students should spend time thinking about what type of role and environment they enjoy, what is important to them in terms of family, and community. I think that many students are successful in their jobs, but when you are good at what you do, it is easy to get caught up in it. Business school is the perfect time for students to stop and think about what really matters to them and how to incorporate these preferences and values into the choices they make.

This profile is part of a semester-long series that highlights the lives of HBS alumni involved with nonprofits, socially oriented for-profits, and government. Each featured alumni is a participant in the Social Enterprise Club’s mentorship program, which currently facilitates interactions between 35 mentor/student partners. For more information about this program, please contact Ted Hill at