Don’t bother looking for a pair of pants in Sheena Wright’s career wardrobe: a zebra-patterned dress, backup for workdays that segue into work nights, hangs on her office door at the Abyssinian Development Corporation, and this afternoon she resonates corporate chic in a snazzy black dress and animal print stilettos.
Her hair is a bevy of carefully tousled locks. Just plain locks as opposed to dreadlocks, she elucidates; she claims no ties to Rastafarianism. The tiny diamond cross on her necklace is the truer clue to her religion. Not that there is a dress code at Abyssinian, the nonprofit development arm of the historically activist Abyssinian Baptist Church. The corporation is the agent of change that brought Harlem its first Pathmark supermarket, the Thurgood Marshall Academy public school, and, more controversially, plans for a 19-story condominium tower.
Ms. Wright joined the church 16 years ago as a single parent seeking a spiritual education for her 2-year-old son; now its longtime pastor, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, is also her boss (besides creating the development corporation in 1989, he has returned to his role as chairman of its board). Not a conflict, she says. Their shared mantra: change, preservation and sustainability are not mutually incompatible. Not in Harlem, anyway.
“His vision often guides what happens here,” she says, sipping lukewarm coffee from a cardboard cup beneath a portrait, purchased from a street vendor, of Malcolm X with Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the congressman who preceded Mr. Butts as pastor of Abyssinian. “When you lead an institution that’s been around for 200 years, you develop specific ideas about the sustainability of your community’s culture and roots.”
Hiring Ms. Wright, on whose watch the corporation has doubled in size and increased its operating budget to $12.4 million, was one of those ideas.
“I think the board was looking for someone with a background as a corporate lawyer and roots in Harlem; Columbia University has a 50-year plan, and they’re no joke, they’re a force to be reckoned with,” she says of her alma mater. “It would be great if our community had, say, a seven-year plan. The market forces are moving so quickly: now they’re calling everything south of 125th Street SoHa, for South Harlem. I’m like, what? SoHa? Is that what we want for ourselves, to be like SoHo? It’s not appropriate or fair. It’s not going to be healthy if we end up with a lot of rich people, public housing and nothing in between.”
MS. Wright, 38, cultivated her dressy style involuntarily during the five years she spent as a mergers and acquisitions associate at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz after graduating from Columbia Law School in 1994: the firm’s no-pants rule for women was still in full force.
“We tried to rebel,” she recalls, “but even the women partners were against pants. I believe I was just the second black woman to work there as a lawyer in the history of the firm. I had grown up in the nonprofit world, but my mother told me I should take a job in the for-profit realm because there were things I could learn there that I could bring to my community.”
Ms. Wright’s mother, Debra Fraser-Howze, a perpetual community activist (she used to stage sit-ins on the stoop of their block’s thriving crack house in an attempt to sabotage commerce) and the self-propelled founder of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, turned out to be right.
“I became very interested in economic justice issues, particularly community development as an extension of civil rights and access to equity in communities of color,” says Ms. Wright, who was raised in the South Bronx and moved to Harlem with her mother and older sister when she was 15 (the family unit had dissolved after her father went to jail for attempted manslaughter).
Short stints structuring private equity funds and investments at a boutique law firm and serving as general counsel for a minority-owned software start-up (Crave Technologies) followed her departure from Wachtell.
Ms. Wright joined Abyssinian in 2002; her promotion to chief executive within six months was part of a prescribed transition. She replaced Karen A. Phillips, the corporation’s founding president and its first employee in 1989. Abyssinian now owns or has developed $500 million worth of Harlem property, a significant amount of it blighted residential buildings acquired through the city and requiring major repairs.
“It is really, really hard to do this work,” says Ms. Wright, who lives on 143rd Street with her husband, Gregg Walker, a vice president at Viacom, and their three sons, a block from the brownstone where she lived as a teenager.
“Investors had typically looked at Harlem and our community like it has no value, like it was just bankrupt,” she adds. “We saw good things here and wanted to knit our neighborhoods back together the way they were before crack and AIDS destroyed them.”
Her latest project involves gutting the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino on 138th Street for a 19-story condominium tower that will also contain retail and cultural space. The 116 condos could range from $200 to $600 per square foot; 20 percent are earmarked as low-income housing.
“It is ludicrous for anyone to accuse us of building market-rate housing or pushing through projects that the community does not want,” she insists, stung by criticism that Abyssinian is overstepping its mission. “We’ve never done any project that the local community board did not approve; all our housing is 100 percent affordable, there are just different degrees of affordable. To build 100 percent low-income housing you need a ton of subsidies: try going to the city and state for that level of funding and believe me, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.”
Ms. Wright does not seem, superficially or certifiably, crazy. Just on a mission. “Mother Teresa, that’s who I wanted to be when I grew up: this powerful woman who didn’t take no mess from anyone!”