As CEO of international hedge fund Senvest Partners, philanthropist Richard Mashaal, W’86, has made a career out of betting on the underdog. For him, the belief that the best ideas are those that are undervalued is more than just a business model; it’s an approach that can help solve society’s biggest problems.
Mashaal has invested in many fledgling companies over the years, but his latest venture is a new kind of startup—a mental health clinic designed to help newly released prisoners reenter society in West Philadelphia. Along with his siblings, Robert, W’85, and Joy, C’93, G’94, Mashaal will fund the clinic, which will aim to undercut Philadelphia’s disproportionately high incarceration rates, end the cycle of recidivism, and reduce the related prevalence of issues such as drug abuse, homelessness, and HIV in the community.
The project was envisioned by world-renowned researcher and Associate Professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice Toorjo (TJ) Ghose. Employing interventions that Ghose has used in his work with similarly marginalized populations across the globe, from sex workers in his hometown of Calcutta, India, to the homeless populations of Haiti and New York City, the clinic will focus on peer-led, community-based group therapy that differs from the current one-on-one methods offered in most government-funded facilities.
“It’s very difficult to change the way the government handles these issues even if the current system is failing,” says Ghose. “They are willing to replicate models of care that are proven to work, but they aren’t going to fund new or radical ideas that challenge the status quo―that’s where private philanthropy becomes important. Thanks to Richard Mashaal, we can develop alternative models.”
Mashaal, who came to Wharton from Montreal, Canada, in the mid-’80s, is involved far beyond funding. He also lends his business expertise to the project and uses his connections to help provide other resources.
“During my time in West Philadelphia, I was struck by a dichotomy that exists in U.S. cities, where certain areas are stuck in a cycle of poverty,” he says, “I wanted to help in a way where I could be personally involved.”
Together, Mashaal and Ghose make unlikely but effective partners. “I was skeptical that the private sector could offer real possibilities for social change, but working with a visionary like Richard has really changed my thinking,” Ghose says.
Mashaal sees his involvement as a throwback to his days in venture capital. “Just like I pick a CEO to bet on when I’m starting a company or investing in one, I look for the individuals who are going to succeed,” Mashaal says, “Dr. Ghose has the track record and the enthusiasm to galvanize others to the cause. He has the knowledge, and all of Penn’s resources behind him, so all that adds up to a great outcome.”
Unlike other programs that are focused on helping the younger generation do better than their parents, the clinic will attack the problem at its source. According to Ghose, providing mental health care, employment opportunities, housing options, and other resources to newly released prisoners will significantly reduce the high rates of incarceration and recidivism that destabilize the community.
“When this clinic opens, it’s going to help the people who are truly marginalized,” Mashaal says. “Helping former prisoners become contributing members of the community doesn’t just help them―it helps their children, their neighborhood, and our society as a whole―what better investment can there be?