StartOut Founders Over 45: Jennifer LeSar is tackling the housing and homelessness crises in the Golden State (and beyond)
By John Kregler, StartOut
This April, we recognized StartOut founders over 45 to show that entrepreneurship doesn’t care who you are or where you are in life, the only thing that matters is your passion for your ideas and the roadmap to get to where you want to be.
For many in our community, the journey isn’t an easy one. Prejudice and biases in business make it harder for minority founders to get started. Our vision is to create a world where all entrepreneurship is available to everyone, which is why we joined forces with AARP to support founders over 45 with 12-month scholarships.
For our final feature, we got to speak with Jennifer LeSar (she/her/hers), the founder and CEO of the Global Policy Leadership Academy. Jennifer’s a serial entrepreneur with a real estate and housing development background. Her goal is a big one — to end the housing affordability, and homelessness crises in California and beyond — and her startup is teaching people how to address it.
In her quest to further the mission of GPLA, Jennifer connected with StartOut’s mentor program and matched with another serial entrepreneur, Garrett McClure.
“It’s important for me to help inspire, nurture and support other queer founders and entrepreneurs and work to support a shift in this social dynamic. Being part of the queer minority in a straight world is challenging. But as a founder and entrepreneur in the white male-dominated world of venture capital and business, it can be even more daunting and intimidating,” said McClure.
Jennifer, how did you become interested in entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is just in my DNA. My first company was Amazon Painters, which I founded in college with other women athletes. We painted faculty residences in the summers — not just interiors but the whole houses — and hauled around giant three-story ladders. It was fun and a great way to start. I got an MBA to hone my business skills to implement my dreams to deeply imprint and impact on making the world a better place. The Global Policy Leadership Academy isn’t my first company, and I doubt it will be my last, but it’s undoubtedly my most scalable and impactful company. We seek to connect and build a global practice group for leaders and influencers working on the world’s most intractable crises.
My core company is called LeSar Development Consultants, which shares the mission to address the issues of housing affordability and homelessness.
How did you get involved in housing insecurity issues?
Well, it’s somewhat of a fundamental issue for me. I grew up moving every year as the daughter of a military and foreign service family. I realized early on that our reasons for leaving our homes weren’t driven by economic or domestic disruption, like many other families. It also made me realize that any physical place can be emotionally secure as a home, and people deserve that security.
Today, we have a massive homelessness crisis, and we’re not making nearly enough progress. The goal of the Global Policy Leadership Academy is to teach local leaders how to find their voices and confidence to build community support to build the housing we need for all Californians, including those currently unhoused.
We realize the housing crisis is so immense that we’re not going to end it one city or transaction at a time. After 2017 when home prices rose substantially, we sent out a newsletter invitation for a first cohort and got 60 applicants for the academy. We plan to host over ten academies reaching 400 leaders and influencers this year. We are building a statewide community of practice to keep our graduates connected.
Is your focus just on California’s communities? Do you have plans to expand past that?
Of course. Housing affordability and homelessness are now global issues. We are currently wrapping up in Vienna, Austria, where we will be bringing a field study cohort in September to learn about their social housing model. We connect leaders across cities, regions, states, and countries to surface and elevate the best models for housing our world’s population in sustainable, healthy communities.
As my home state, California is close to my heart. I want California to be able to retain and grow our workforce here, support our culture of innovation, and preserve our rich cultural diversity. We have to enable people to continue to live in their communities in which they have family, social and cultural roots.
Our housing policy leadership academies aren’t just for technical people. Our cohorts include all of the critical actors in the housing eco-system — so developers, planners, elected leaders, community activists, renters rights activists, human services workers, everyone — to have a place in the conversation.
What business model have you adopted to help with that goal?
We have a teaching methodology that starts with building on what people know, their lived experiences, and their work and community service skill sets. Our curriculum is an adult learning methodology that engages the learner at technical, leadership, soft skills, and personal transformation levels, building skill sets in all of those domains while simultaneously helping each person create a diverse network that they really can’t get anywhere else. Any leader working on any intractable problem — even beyond housing insecurity — can use our model to grow personally and be more impactful.
The transformational part of the individual is sort of the magic behind what we do. We help leaders connect their personal experiences and values to seeing themselves in the larger world as part of the overall social transformation needed so that we can live in an equitable world.
Trade associations or advocacy groups have singular and limited missions. Our mission is to help people understand the plurality of views so that they can be most effective in promoting strategies that benefit us all.
How did you join StartOut?
I don’t remember who introduced me to StartOut, but I remember feeling like I finally found an entrepreneurial home where I could belong, and that would embrace all of me. I wouldn’t need to pretend that I am a woman or part of the LGBT community. You can bring your entire self to the table without explaining anything. StartOut fills a void, a space that is missing in the accelerator and VC world.
I’ve worked and succeeded in the corporate world, but not in the ways that I should have been able to — the gender, race, and LGBT bias are enormous barriers to equal opportunities for success. So in StartOut, I see mentors and advocates leveling the playing field for all of us.
My StartOut mentor has been incredible every step of the way. We had an instant bond that I think shocked us both. I’m so grateful to have been paired with someone responsive, understands what I’m trying to do, and can offer an objective point of view. You don’t always get to have those connections in life, and I’m thankful StartOut helped us get here.
What keeps you and your company going as someone who’s dedicated their life to entrepreneurship and helping others?
Everything we do is about impact. Are we making the world a better place in a scalable way? Are we creating dents in the issues and models that other people can use?
I’m energized by mentoring, reciprocal mentoring, teaching others — and opening doors of opportunity so that we can all realize our genius. I’ve always taught in some capacity in my career. I’ve trained people to access financing and helped with technical research projects because I like helping people learn. I always believe you can make the complex understandable. We can use complexity to alienate people or make it understandable and help people feel empowered.
I hope my work helps lift us all to thrive in a truly equitable world every day.