Tuesday, June 18, 2024



Why Lenfest protege Keith Leaphart fights for at-risk youth

Keith Leaphart at a recent Wallsome event. March 11, 2016 Category: FeaturedLongPeople
In the 16 years since he created the Lenfest Foundation, billionaire, philanthropist and media mogul H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest has donated over a billion dollars, both through the foundation and from his own personal coffers. From that mass of wealth, Dr. Keith Leaphart hopes to be his single greatest investment.

At 40 years old, Leaphart is just beginning to build a legacy of his own. The physician, entrepreneur and budding philanthropist has been chairing the board of the Lenfest Foundation since 2013 — a position handed down by Lenfest directly.

Lenfest is a reflection of the legacy of his mentor, media mogul Walter Annenberg. Leaphart wants to be a reflection of the legacy of his mentor, Lenfest.

In 1965, Lenfest — then an untried 30-something law school grad working at a law firm in New York — boarded a train to Philadelphia for a meeting with Annenberg, who, at the time, was his boss’ client. The meeting was the genesis of a relationship that would come to make Lenfest a wealthy man. Annenberg soon took the young lawyer under his wing and helped him acquire his first business.

What Annenberg saw in Lenfest was raw potential ripe for the shaping. By the turn of the century, Lenfest was a billionaire in his own right, preparing to follow in his mentor’s footsteps by donating his wealth to the public and his expertise to a worthy ward.

Leaphart would become that ward. When the two first met — as the story has been told plenty of times before — Leaphart was the maintenance man collecting trash in Lenfest’s office. And though he’s only been the chair of the foundation’s board for a short time, Leaphart’s own story served as inspiration for Lenfest’s decision to refocus his foundation’s mission on creating opportunity for Philadelphia’s at-risk youth.

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It’s mid-morning in Philadelphia on March 20, 1989, and bullets are flying outside City Hall. The crack cocaine epidemic is surging, and gang violence is now spilling into Center City from the city’s marginalized communities.

The shootout was the culmination of a fierce gang rivalry between young capitalistic upstarts Junior Black Mafia and bloodthirsty 24-year-old drug lord John Craig Haynes. Haynes’ growing network had begun penetrating a handful of JBM turfs, and the gun violence outside City Hall that morning was the result of Haynes refusing to allow his operation to be absorbed by JBM.

The fight may have occured outside City Hall, but North Philly’s impoverished West Oak Lane neighborhood was ground zero.

In the mid-late 1980s, the drug trade in West Oak Lane was dominated by JBM. Their operation was run on a hyperlocal level by designated leaders, all of whom were mandated to place $1,000 a week into a fund used to launch small local businesses. The outfit could claim its turf by setting brick-and-mortar roots in neighborhoods.

But $1,000 a week is a heavy fee, and it required JBM leaders to ship more product while remaining under the radar. To do so, they would recruit young neighborhood children to be their runners —mules that could transport crack on the sly for a buck or two.

In 1985, then-10-year-old West Oak Lane resident Keith Leaphart was one of those runners.

“They’d pay kids to take a package up the street and they’d pay you a dollar,” Leaphart said. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but you can go to the corner store and buy whatever you want for a dollar.”

"If you don’t have a stable parent, you kind of fend for yourself and get caught up in making bad decisions."
Keith Leaphart

But he was always academically sound, thanks to the guidance and strict rules set by his mother, who was well aware of the environment her son was exposed to and went out of her way to give him as much balance as she could provide.

“Your mom, dad, grandfather, whoever it was making decisions early on get you into a certain position,” Leaphart said. “If you don’t have a stable parent, you kind of fend for yourself and get caught up in making bad decisions.”

Leaphart’s mother — a “hovering mom,” as he puts it — never sent him to his neighborhood school. Instead, Leaphart and his sister were part of a desegregation program that put them on a bus to elementary school in Northeast Philly every morning.

“When I was in school, I could study, focus, then come home and be a regular kid,” Leaphart said. “Get in trouble, have fun, be normal — but have no distractions during the school day.”

By the time he was a high school student at Central High, Leaphart knew he wanted to be a doctor. At the time, it was an entrepreneurial career outside of the government system, and he could do the two things he always wanted to do: make money and help people. But he only really knew of five legitimate ways of making money when he was that age.

“As a kid where I grew up, I knew what a doctor was, a lawyer, a teacher, a policeman and a fireman,” he said. “That was the extent of career options.”

As Leaphart headed to historically black college Hampton University — what he calls “90210 for black kids” — on scholarship, he would have a handful of jarring, eye opening experiences that would come to challenge his focus, resilience and worldview.

Keith Leaphart is climbing out of his car, suspended upside down in a tree with nothing but a cut on his hand.

It was his senior year of school at Hampton, and he was getting a little reckless with a couple of friends. Not anything totally out of the ordinary for Leaphart — he was kind of a “bad boy” in college. If West Oak Lane was one side of the spectrum, Hampton was the polar opposite.

“I got to see what black wealth was like, what affluent black people looked like,” he said. “It was foreign to me. There was affluence there. It gave me a balance.”

A balanced cultural perspective, maybe. But like many young adults exploring their independence in college, Leaphart was losing his personal balance. A year before the car accident, he was kicked out of Hampton for a semester for getting into a fight, losing his scholarship.

His mother’s guiding hand came to the rescue once again.

“She said, ‘Stay down there and work. Don’t come home.’ She did not want me to come back to Philadelphia,” he said. “So, I stayed down there and worked at a supermarket as an overnight stock boy.”

The year before, Leaphart’s best friend growing up was shot and killed in West Oak Lane. His mother didn’t want him to drop out of school and come back to the neighborhood for any reason. But even getting kicked out of school wasn’t enough to set Leaphart straight.

It took a near-death experience — the final straw in a series of events that moved him to make a personal adjustment.

“I ended up splitting two telephone poles. The car ended up upside down in a tree. There were four people in the car. Everyone thankfully lived and were able to walk away,” he said, sighing heavily. “That was crazy. It woke me up.”

Leaphart needed to get focused. A semester after the accident, he graduated with a 3.0 GPA. He came home to Philadelphia, enrolling in a preliminary bio-med program at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

It was a more “traditional environment,” he said — meaning, out of 51 students in the program, Leaphart was one of three who were black. But the environment allowed him to find his long-lost drive again. He placed third in academics and was accepted into PCOM as a full-time medical student.

Keith Leaphart is coming close to realizing his childhood dream of being a doctor. But the times have changed, and instead of veer off the path he set for himself, he decides to pave that path a little wider.

“In 1980, being a doctor was actually a good thing. You could make money being a doctor,” he said. “And you could help sick people. I realized when I got out of college that that wasn’t the physician I could be. Doctors weren’t independent or entrepreneurial.”

Leaphart decided to pivot, shifting his aim toward a career running a hospital. To do so, he would need to study business — and that’s what he did. At the same time Leaphart was pursuing his medical degree, he was also pursuing his MBA.

Even that wasn’t enough. Leaphart still needed to money to pay his tuition. At the end of his first year in the dual degree program, after already paying tuition, he landed a scholarship. In 1999, at age 24, Leaphart put that scholarship money toward launching a commercial cleaning franchise with his sister and brother-in-law.

His major account? Suburban Cable, owned by Gerry Lenfest (but soon to be acquired by Comcast).

How did Leaphart — to Lenfest, a janitor on the surface — earn the billionaire’s admiration? By attempting to upsell him.

“The days he was in his office, we would chat,” Leaphart said. “I said to him one day, ‘Mr. Lenfest, we also do residential cleaning. We’d be happy to clean your home.'” What the young Leaphart didn’t know was that Lenfest and his wife Marguerite notably lived quite modestly — they cleaned and maintained their own home. “He sat me down and said, ‘Why are you dumping my trash?’”

Leaphart told him he was pursuing a medical degree and MBA on top of owning the cleaning business. A mutual respect and admiration began to develop.

“They both genuinely like each other. It’s really not deeper than that,” said Lenfest Foundation President Stacy Holland. “As a result, the younger one is really deferential and respectful and is deeply curious about Gerry’s journey, and Gerry is deeply curious and respectful about sharing his wisdom and his knowledge with [Leaphart].”

After Lenfest officially sold Suburban, Leaphart said there was no real reason for him to maintain a connection with Lenfest. He became a resident doctor at Jefferson Hospital, and would call upon Lenfest for donations every now and then — but other than that, there was an eight-year gap in their friendship.

When Keith Leaphart is finishing his residency in 2007, the people he wanted to help in the neighborhoods “[do] not even have health insurance.” The doctor he wants to be, he can’t be. So, Leaphart considers a run for Congress.

His exploratory committee was funded by none other than Lenfest. But when he met again with Lenfest to ask for money to support an actual campaign, Lenfest had another plan in mind.

“He said, ‘Sit back down. I need your help. I want to find a way to help kids who look like you,’” Leaphart said. Lenfest made the 31-year-old his executive on loan from the Lenfest Foundation to the City of Philadelphia for 18 months, focusing on best practices for citizens re-entering society from the prison system — ex-offenders who couldn’t get a job because of drug-related felonies.

“One of my main goals was to serve as an advocate between what the city was trying to do and advocating the issue in the business community,” Leaphart said. “Gerry would set up a room with all his peers and I’d be the guy to say, ‘More than likely your kids probably used drugs in college, too. It’s a reality.’”

But bureaucratic red tape and business-as-usual prevented actual change from happening. Leaphart decided he’d rather be in a position to hire ex-offenders himself. He ended up buying Replica Creative in 2009 with a $600,000 loan from Gerry Lenfest.

Bureaucratic red tape and business-as-usual prevented actual change from happening. Leaphart decided he’d rather be in a position to hire ex-offenders himself.

“One day after I bought my business I got a call from the CFO of the Lenfest Foundation,” Leaphart said. “I didn’t know what the call was for.”

The call was to let Leaphart know that the Lenfest Foundation was restructuring to place a strong focus on creating opportunity for at-risk youth, and Lenfest wanted Leaphart to be involved. In 2013, he became the chair of the foundation’s board of directors.

Holland said that in his capacity as chair, Leaphart is the “main champion” of what the Lenfest Foundation is trying to do – spend itself down while building the city’s civic infrastructure through urban youth.

“Keith is very passionate about giving back to the young people in the city, but he also has a futuristic view,” Holland said. “This isn’t just about doing something good for young people. It really is about building our next generation of citizens.”

Through the Lenfest Foundation, Leaphart can help kids who grew up like him understand that there are more than just the five careers he knew growing up. He can help kids who don’t have the parental guidance he had when he was their age. He can show them that there’s meaningful work and opportunity beyond what they see in the neighborhood.

He can give them a taste of the experience he’s had, even after Gerry Lenfest is gone and his foundation has effectively deployed all of his money.

“He’s made over a billion dollars in philanthropic investments. He may not be here to see it, but his biggest pay off and return will be me being able to help others. That will be the biggest part of my legacy,” Leaphart said. It’s the same impetus that’s driven him since he dreamed of becoming a doctor as a child. “Make as much money as I can, so I can help as many people as I can. That’s really what it’s about.”

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