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Jim Bryson: Business Leadership amid the Ruins

After the earthquake, research firm executive builds a school in Haiti

Jim Bryson
Commissioner, Finance & Administration, State of Tennessee

Vanderbilt MBA 1985

The moment in 1994 when Jim Bryson and his wife, Carol, pulled away from a state-run orphanage in Russia with three adopted children in their laps was both joyful and sad. They had become parents at last, but 20 more orphans stood watching from the steps as they pulled away.

“We wished we could take them all,” he says.

During the next 15 years, as the family grew to four children, Jim continued to build 20/20 Research, the qualitative research firm he had founded in 1986, with offices in Nashville, Miami and Charlotte. He even served four years as a state senator and was his party’s nominee for Tennessee governor in 2006. But he never forgot the orphans left behind.

On January 12, 2010, as a 7.0 magnitude earthquake pummeled Haiti, Jim found himself profoundly moved by the plight of its people. A visit to Haiti four months later provided images he could not shake, especially the number of young teenage orphans who ended up on the street with no education and nowhere to go.

“I began to put these two problems together: There’s a real orphan crisis and there are not enough leaders in the country,” Jim says, “and that’s when I had a vision for a concept where we’d build a school for older orphans.” A return visit later in 2010 cemented an ambitious plan—to transform a national crisis into a leadership opportunity by founding a boarding school for secondary education.

Jim realized his vision in late 2015 with the opening of The Joseph School near Port-au-Prince. The school—which offers a combination of academics, leadership training and service training—named for the biblical figure in Genesis who was separated from his brothers, overcame his circumstances in Egypt to become a leader in pharaoh’s government, then saved his country and family from famine.

Instead of focusing first on older orphans, as originally planned, the school began by serving 31 kindergarten students from surrounding villages. As the children progress, the school will add a grade each year through high school. "We made the determination,” Jim says, “that the best way to impact the students and the country over the long term was actually to give them a very high level of education starting in kindergarten, all the way through."

The curriculum of Joseph School, which opened in a rented house while plans continue to build a facility, will also include Haitian cultural arts and history. “We also have classes in English and French because immersion is crucial to these students being able to function in government and the wider world,” Jim adds. “However, we will not abandon their native Creole as it is the language of the Haitian people.”

Throughout the process of planning and opening the school, Jim relied on voluntary contributions from business people, including attorneys who provided legal help to get the necessary paperwork in order. “The concept of helping orphans get an education and take on leadership roles resonates with people,” he says. “I’m finding there’s a lot of interest in the business community. Business leaders know the value of leadership.”

Jim hopes the school will ultimately help empower the people of Haiti to rebuild their nation while addressing other pressing social problems. “We want to help give them the resources to equip them to solve their own problems,” he says.

“There’s a real orphan crisis, and there are not enough leaders in the country.”