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Investments focused on innovation and community transformation
Larry Jennings is the Senior Managing Director of ValStone Partners, a private equity investment firm he co-founded in 1998. With a focus on alternative investments, ValStone specializes in sectors such as debt and direct real estate. ValStone’s completed transactions boast an aggregate value of over $1.2 billion, and the firm’s current assets under management sit just below $500 million. Prior to launching ValStone, Larry was a principal of Carnegie Morgan Partners, an investment banker at Legg Mason Wood Walker, and a senior financial analyst with Maryland National Bank. Over the course of his career, Larry has completed in excess of $10 billion in transactions. He has decades of experience working with real estate workouts, distressed credits, the sale and leaseback of public real estate assets, and energy contract negotiations. An active philanthropist, Larry serves as a trustee for Carnegie Mellon University, Roland Park Country School, and Baltimore School for the Arts. He is also a Sinai Hospital board member and chairman of Morgan State University Foundation’s Investment Committee.
Q. You’ve remained very active in your alma mater, Carnegie Mellon. What do you value about the school?
LARRY JENNINGS: What I love about Carnegie Mellon is it’s very good at the things it does. It doesn’t have a law school, it doesn’t have a medical school, it doesn’t have certain functions, but the things that it is in are very good. For example, I think in the last ten years Carnegie Mellon has had more Tony Award winners than any other university. And like Hamilton, which is a big Broadway play right now, if you look at the co-lead and some of the actors in Hamilton, they were recent Carnegie Mellon students. [It has the] oldest drama department in the United States, and everybody knows about the computer science elements and the business school, but I think Carnegie Mellon at its core is all about innovation. It’s kind of the scrappy upstart and I think it’s the only university in the top 25 that was founded after 1900. Harvard’s like 300-plus years old, Stanford’s 200 years old. Even if you think about Emory and places like that, they’re 100. It’s sort of like [Carnegie Mellon] has crashed the party a little bit in the whole university world. I love it because it’s innovative, and it’s not only innovative in technology—it’s innovative in design and fine arts and things like that.
Q. You played a big role in establishing Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Rwanda.
A. The Rwanda campus came about as an idea. Pradeep Khosla, who’s a good buddy and the dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon, went to a conference in Sub-Saharan Africa and came back and we had a conversation. He said, “We have to do this campus in Rwanda. Rwanda is becoming like the Singapore of Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s the fastest growing GDP and population in the world.” And then he says, “I’m going to make a presentation.” He educated me little bit. “I’m going to make a presentation at the board meeting and it will be dead on arrival. People won’t even know where Rwanda is. They won’t ask any questions, and I need you to stand up and say, ‘this is a great thing for us to do, will be transformational for the country, transformational for the people there.” I drank the Kool-Aid, literally, and got involved, and was a big spokesman at the board level for the project. Since then, I was obviously in Rwanda. Rwanda is an amazing place. It feels like Bermuda 50 years ago. It feels clean, it’s safe, the people are industrious—they have traffic lights. It has a fairly high elevation so it never really gets hot there. And I can tell you that the first graduating class we had, a couple of years ago, I mean the excitement of the families and the people involved was magical, so I’m pretty happy to be involved there.
Q. Tell us about your work in the local community. Did you grow up here?
A. Park Heights, obviously. I grew up mostly on Oakley Avenue, which is south of Sinai Hospital. When I was a kid, Park Heights was amazing. We had Princeton Sports. We had great delis. We had supermarkets. We had, I think, three movie theaters. It was an amazing place and it’s gone through Hell in the last 40 years. It’s gone from having a population of 16,000 people to a population of 30,000—a very challenged socio-demographic mix.
The issue we had with Park Heights is really Park Heights is 20 neighborhoods. What people consider to be the footprint of Park Heights Renaissance is 1500 acres. To put that in perspective: Central Park is only 750 acres, so the Park Heights boundaries that we’re trying to fix is twice the size of Central Park, and it’s really 20 neighborhoods. When people think of Park Heights I immediately think, “Are they thinking of West Arlington, or are they thinking of Cylburn, or are they thinking of Central Park Heights?” It’s really 20 neighborhoods, and what we’re really trying to do is stabilize the neighborhoods that are kind of stabilized, fix some of the areas, and the ones that are just completely dysfunctional—we have to transform them. That’s our biggest challenge. Our biggest challenge is it’s a huge geographic area and it’s really dealing with 20 different neighborhoods that have 20 different problems.
Q. What are your feelings about the current state of minority representation in business?
A. I think the bigger issue with minority in business issues is that it’s not being transferred to corporations—meaning that I think everyone wants the government to solve problems, and the bigger spend if there were better diversity problems on the corporate level… Because, I mean, the city of Baltimore has a billion-dollar budget. If you look at someone like Lockheed Martin, these companies are $30–40 billion companies. And my biggest issue is that I don’t think we’ve been able to transfer or get these corporates as the buy-in, which is part of Baltimore’s problem I think.
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