The Carissa Project

You might not know the name Carissa Phelps, but she is easily the most impressive – and inspiring – private equity pro I’ve ever covered. Not because of the deals she’s done or the fortunes she’s made, but because she was willing to walk away for the sake of a far greater cause.

On the surface, Carissa looks like a lot of other young go-getters. She spent last summer interning at Weatherly Capital Group, and this past June graduated from UCLA with both a law degree and an MBA. She immediately took a job in the alternative assets division of the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement System (LACERA), because “that was what I thought I was supposed to do.” Her plan was to spend several years putting in her dues and building her bank account, before moving onto something more fulfilling. It would be a typical story, except that Carissa realized after just two months at LACERA that her future needed to be brought into the present. So she resigned. Not because she’s a flighty free spirit, but because people’s very lives were at stake. And Carissa should know, because she was once one of those people.
 
From Motels To Dorms
At the age of 12, Carissa was abandoned by her mother at a juvenile detention facility in Fresno, California. It was nearly 60 miles from where Carissa had called home, and where she had been acting out due to parental abuse and neglect. The facility wouldn’t take her in, because she had not committed any crime. So she slept in the lobby for three lonely nights, before finally wandering off into a strange new world.

youngcarisaShe was immediately offered aid and comfort by men who wanted something perverse in exchange, and she had few options but to accept. “I was a target to be sexually exploited,” Carissa says. Before long, she was one of the many child prostitutes living and working in a section of Fresno known as Motel Drive.  

This was Carissa Phelps’ life for the next several years. A parade of indecency that local officials either pretended didn’t exist, or were okay with so long as it didn’t spread into more respectable neighborhoods. The police would come every now and then, but only to round up the girls and then release them back to their pimps the next morning.

Not surprisingly, Carissa eventually had enough of a track record that she was accepted by the very same juvenile system that had previously rejected her. She soon met a counselor who told her she “had potential” – a commonplace compliment for so many of us by our elders, but a revolution for Carissa. She began working harder on her studies, and eventually beat every odd by getting accepted into community college. From there it was Fresno State (math major) and, then, UCLA.

“I knew that at some point I wanted to help do something about Motel Drive… In law school I studied community economic development, and in business school I studied entrepreneurship,” she says. “What I really learned was a new language and how to develop a network.

But Phelps told few people about her background. She says that “no one would have cared” at law school, and her group of B-school friends only heard small snippets leak out over time. One of those friends, however, was classmate and budding filmmaker David Sauvage. He convinced Carissa to let him film a documentary about her life, which would include interviews with everyone from her mother to juvenile hall counselors to prostitutes.
 
A Need to Act Now
Part of the filming took place while Carissa was just beginning at LACERA, and it was traumatic. “Just driving back there was so hard” she says. “My defenses were still so high, because it’s the same open-air sex market that it used to be. At one point I had to leave my car and ride with the cameraman.”

Before long, Carissa realized that she needed to make a drastic change. She quit her job, and embarked on a community revitalization plan for Motel Drive. “This documentary might become my 15 minutes of fame, and there’s nowhere else on earth where I could make more of an impact.”

nowcarissa Carissa’s first phase is essentially due diligence. She’s talking with people who are homeless in the area – both veterans and newcomers – and trying to reconnect with the community at large. She also plans to speak later this week with city and county officials on issues youth face when they’re homeless, including situations in which kids are turned away from shelters.“I’m approaching it as a child exploitation issue first, rather than barging in and saying I want to redevelop the neighborhood,” she explains. “But, obviously, the neighborhood needs to be changed… There is no way that a family would ever go shopping there or even drive through there, the way it is now.”

So the second phase is redevelopment, and Carissa plans to raise $20 million for a for-profit community development corporation (CDC). She has forged some big-name friendships so far, but still needs help — which is part of the reason I’m bringing this story to the attention of you, dear reader. Not only does her project require investment (which it does), but Carissa also is requesting any advice from people who have experience with community development, real estate private equity and/or other relevant areas. For example, she is still trying to determine the best financial structure for her fund.

You can contact Carissa at carissa@carissaproject.com, or through me. You also can read more about her and see some of the documentary clips at http://www.carissaproject.com/.
 
She has already accomplished so much with so little. Imagine what she could do with something…