With a focus on inclusive housing for people of all abilities and incomes – and a ‘think big’ approach – social entrepreneur Micaela Connery set up The Kelsey in 2017. The San Francisco-based organisation now has 240 homes in its pipeline and is aiming to develop a model that could be replicated globally.
About Micaela Connery
Tell us about educational and career background
Because of my cousin Kelsey, my background has been always focused around disability and inclusion. As a high school student in West Hartford, Connecticut I founded a company – Unified Theater – that delivered performing arts programmes in schools for young people with and without disabilities.
I was also heavily involved in theatre and the arts personally and started college in New York thinking I was going to do the professional theatre track. I quickly realised I didn’t want to pursue that professionally and that what I enjoyed most about theatre was the community element and the way it brought people together.
So, I ended up moving to the University of Virginia, where I did a self-designed major in service, community and social policy. I was really focused on the intersection of volunteerism, social services and political organisation.
After that I worked professionally for five years on Unified Theater, expanding its reach to over 100 schools in the country and building up to a team of six people. Unified Theater has since been acquired by Kids Included Together and continues to run programmes in schools.
As I left Unified Theater, I began to realise people like me were investing tonnes of time and effort and resources into supporting young people with disabilities but that we don’t invest the same amount when they became adults. And so I went to graduate school quite explicitly to focus on housing for people with disabilities and how to meet those needs.
Just before starting my public policy degree at Harvard I travelled to Ireland for the first time. I have Irish heritage and had always wanted to go. I spent four incredible weeks in Ireland and fell very much in love with a lot of the culture and community that makes Ireland what it is.
It was interesting because when I was doing disability inclusion from a policy perspective at Harvard I realised quite quickly that a lot of finance and business operations went into housing development. I decided I wanted to do a business degree and learned about the Mitchell Scholar programme. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get my MBA, get back to Ireland and also go back to a community where there is so much about neighbours looking after neighbours.
The MBA programme at UCD was beneficial in a few ways. Because I already knew what I was going to be doing afterwards I had opportunities throughout the programme to the coursework and focus on projects that specifically applied to The Kelsey. In one of our business model analysis classes, I was able to do the final project on tinkering with our business strategy and input output model. My final capstone project with our strategy professor was the full business plan for The Kelsey.
Tell us about The Kelsey and your role there
The Kelsey is a non-profit with the mission of accelerating and advocating for housing that is inclusive of people with disability of all incomes. We are building houses within communities that are a mix of housing for adults with disabilities, affordable housing and middle income housing all mixed in one community development. One of our huge needs and desires is not to isolate or segregate based on people’s income or ability.
In parallel to building our housing communities and raising the money to do that, we also advance policy advocacy and community organising and awareness that support those goals.
I started The Kelsey in San Francisco. When I was in Harvard I began laying the groundwork there and then I was travelling back and forth between Dublin and San Francisco when I was doing my MBA. I moved out here full time in the summer of 2017 after finishing my programme and bootstrapped for the first six months.
We closed our first round of seed funding from the Chan Zuckerberg initiative in March 2018 and since then I’m proud to say we have 240-plus homes in our pipeline with projects in San Jose and San Francisco and we've raised and unlocked over $18m of funding and will get close to $60m by the end of this year between our philanthropic funding, private lending and public subsidies. We're also advancing some exciting policy initiatives.
I'm the founder and CEO and then we have a team of five. I'm pretty proud to say that we are a very lean team and look at maximising the impact by pretty focused operations and good strategic partnerships.
Was there a defining moment that shaped what you're doing now?
For me the person who has shaped almost everything I do now is my cousin Kelsey, who had multiple significant disabilities.
Kelsey and I were the same age and came from the same type of family and had similar things we loved to do, yet the opportunities that were available to me and the opportunities that were available to her were not equal. And so, for my whole life that lens of disability and inclusion has been central and fundamental to everything I do.
What is your leadership style?
I would first describe my leadership and approach to work in general as aspirational, supporting my team to look for what is possible and always striving towards that aspiration versus inspiration.
Inspiration is sometimes touchy-feely and looking at something in the past. Aspirational is saying, I see something bigger that is possible. It sometimes feels slightly out of reach but is something we can all drive towards.
When I jump on opportunities they’re always with those aspirational goals in mind and not getting overly mucked up in and around what people say. Affordable housing and disability inclusion are perhaps two of the areas where people are quick to talk about all the barriers that exist. Focusing our work on what is possible, we can start to push aside the pre-existing assumptions of where things can’t happen. That has been pretty central to how I approach our organisation and how I work on our team.
What has been your biggest achievement?
Our project in San Jose is tracking to be both a landmark inclusive housing project and one of the fastest developed affordable housing communities we’ve seen in our region. A lot of that is because we focused on achieving some early wins and lining up opportunities in sequence: acquiring a really amazing site, locking down $11m in city funding very early after acquisition and then closing $5.3m in funding with Google at the end of last year.
In 18 months, we went from having this idea and a passionate community of over 300 residents in our region saying we need this type of housing to now having a site, having a lot of our early funding lined up, and a plan and the right partners to achieve on that.
But, I think I’ll really feel I’ve achieved something when people move into that building.
What is most important piece of advice you’ve received or would give?
One piece of advice I was given and continue to think about is to hire really good people and to pick them based on their skills, their smarts and their passion for your mission and not necessarily for a check box of items on a job description.
Hiring people who can do a lot of things and want to do things for the mission you’ve lined out has been measurably impactful in allowing us achieve our goals at The Kelsey so far.
The leaders I really admire from a business standpoint and from a social and community standpoint are people who take big steps. If you’re not going to do it big and try to achieve what you set out to achieve, why do it? Don’t be measured and small in how you approach what you can do. I take that from my religious views – we’re put on this earth to do great things and it’s your job to jump into those things and take risk and put yourself out there to do them.
It’s such a cliché, but, go big or go home. We could have built three units of housing in a small community at The Kelsey but that’s not what we set out to do. We’re trying to build a model that can be scalable. It wasn’t really worth trying to move the needle if we couldn’t move it a way that would actually create sustained impact for people and communities.
How important is ongoing learning to you?
As someone who has recently invested in two graduate degrees, formal ongoing learning and continued education is something I obviously value. I’m also always looking at what people are doing in very unrelated businesses. I’m always trying to learn from entrepreneurs who I think have built very good businesses or people who have changed social programmes or created scaled impact to see how I can apply what they’ve done to The Kelsey or to my own style as a leader.
Going forward, what are your aspirations?
Since I’ve started working in disability inclusive housing I feel with such certainty that I will always be doing work related to this issue. Obviously my immediate goals and foreseeable future will be directly as part of The Kelsey and bringing this organisation to scale and executing on our first communities. This organisation will give me plenty of work and fun and learning and opportunity that has an impact for many years to come.
I think my ultimate goal is to create funding sources and policy that allow disability and inclusive and mixed income housing to be the norm in cities across our country. It’s possible to create communities where all people of all types and all abilities and incomes can thrive and that’s the work I want to be doing for years to come.
How has your degree benefited your career and/or personal life?
I met my fiancé in Dublin while doing my MBA. He’s American and was visiting on holiday. Our first ‘date’ was hiking in Wicklow. So, I’d say the time in Ireland had some nice personal outcomes too!
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit School?
I sang in Rathmines church folk group the whole time I was doing my MBA. I also joined the ‘Green Road’ sessions (invited by my adopted Irish mom and dad, Terry and Bob) at O’Rourke’s in Blackrock. I loved being both able to sing and feel part of the community while a student.
What are your main interests outside work?
I love hiking and camping. When in Ireland I would get to Glendalough any time I could.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
I pretty much live with my laptop. I pull long hours, but I love that I can have the flexibility to write a proposal from a train car or work on a slide deck from a tent in the woods.
Who’s your favourite writer and/or what’s your favourite book?
I’ve been loving memoirs by women leaders lately. Becoming by Michelle Obama and Untamed by Glennon Doyle were two recent favourites.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
I love the Grateful Dead, my dad is a big fan and I grew up with Jerry always playing in my house.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
I love making homemade garlic and herb pizza dough and making homemade pizzas with all the toppings – feta, basil, home-roasted tomatoes, prosciutto, spinach, ricotta. Especially fun to do over a campfire.
Where is home and why?
I moved eight times before the 7th grade and have moved quite a bit as an adult too. As we moved, we always came back to our family home in Rhode Island and I lived there during and after college too. So, San Francisco is home now but Newport, Rhode Island is my hometown.