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The Return of Judith Rodin

The former Penn President just joined the Hilco advisory board. Here’s why she’s excited about the Bellwether District in Southwest Philly

The Return of Judith Rodin

The former Penn President just joined the Hilco advisory board. Here’s why she’s excited about the Bellwether District in Southwest Philly

When Southwest Philly native Judith Rodin was president of the University of Pennsylvania, she was continually bothered by what she calls the “unsightly gateway” to our beautiful city: the spewing, sprawling Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, which dominated the landscape on the way to town from the airport.

“It was cringeworthy as we were trying to recruit world-class students, for all the local universities, and I’m sure all of the businesses in Philadelphia, as well,” Rodin recalls. “But it was never something that we had the capacity to do anything about.”

Today — four years after an explosion closed the refinery for good — the newly-denuded site is on the verge of becoming the Bellwether District, Hilco Redevelopment Partners’ ambitious multiuse industrial project that is expected to break ground this fall and eventually bring 19,000 jobs to the area. Two-thirds of the site will hold delivery warehouses; the other one-third — the side closest to Penn’s Pennovation facility — will be office and light manufacturing spaces for biotech and other similar companies.

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in Southwest Philadelphia
The old PES refinery in Southwest Philadelphia, now being redeveloped as the Bellwether District by Hilco. Elvert Barnes / Flickr

Rodin, who left Penn in 2004, is a newly-appointed member of HRP’s advisory board, a role for which she is uniquely qualified. A research psychologist by training, Rodin spent a decade as Penn’s most city-focused president to date, building the foundations for University City’s resurgence as a biotech and innovation hub, while also raising Penn’s stature and endowment. She then went on to helm the Rockefeller Foundation, where she helped create the fields of resilience and impact investing.

I caught up with Rodin last week as she prepared to join HRP’s advisory board, to talk about why she’s excited about Bellwether, how it’s a continuation of her vision for the city, and what she sees on the horizon for Philadelphia. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Roxanne Patel Shepelavy: I’m sure you are offered many jobs and board opportunities to offer your expertise. Why did you agree to become an advisor to Hilco?

Judith Rodin: First of all I grew up in Southwest Philly, and my father in South Philadelphia. So the area is very precious to us and something that we cared deeply about in our family.

When I was president of Penn, I came back to Philadelphia and I felt that both South and Southwest Philly had clearly started to deteriorate. Despite all of the sports development in South Philly, it didn’t have the kind of job opportunities and economic development that some of the other areas of the city had, and Philadelphia was never included when anybody talked about the major economic energy cities in the United States.

And so when I met the people from Hilco, and I realized what site they were talking about, and their track record, and their capacity for transformation, it really was extraordinarily interesting to me. And I said to myself, finally.

Hilco is reimagining and remediating and redeveloping this obsolete industrial site. What they’ve demonstrated in other developments is that they really do community sustainability, environmental sustainability, and economic sustainability.

This is such an amazing opportunity for the next stage of Philadelphia.

When you were here, besides the work you did in West Philly, did you have a vision for the city writ large, and the role that it might play in some of these industries that are really coming up?

Yes, absolutely. My view at Penn was that, to be a great global university, you have to make a commitment to your local communities. And I hope that that’s what I’m most remembered for.

We did three things that really are so relevant for this: We created a council of all of the university and college presidents who had never met formally in any way that was really around: What can we do for and with Philadelphia?

We joined the Chamber of Commerce for the first time. Penn is the largest private employer in Philadelphia, so that was about, How do we help work with the other employers to create an economic vision for the city going forward?

And then I created Innovation Philadelphia, and hired Rich Bendis as our first economic director. The idea there was really: Could we get more of the tech companies that all of the universities were generating to stay in Philadelphia? We saw a little success, through University City Science Center or other adjacent centers. But lots of them said to us, There’s no ecosystem. The reason I’m moving to Research Triangle, or whatever, is that there’s a whole ecosystem around this. And I got that.

So now, the ecosystem has evolved. What John Fry is doing at Drexel, what my successors did at Penn and other universities, it’s all really taking off. And particularly in the life sciences, there’s a lot of innovation and a lot of companies both staying here or being attracted to Philadelphia because they see what we have here.

But there is still not enough space. And there is still not enough of an ecosystem where you could have more of that on one campus. So the 250 acres of Bellwether dedicated to innovation were particularly appealing to me. And now I better understand the 750 acres for the light industrial and logistics facilities — if we can not only innovate small companies in the biosciences, but really have land and property for them to develop manufacturing capacity on the same site, that’s going to be truly amazing.

Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote recently about the dilemma of getting the planned 19,000 workers to the site when there is not yet a public transportation plan for the site. As she said, “Given the reduction in carbon emissions from closing the refinery, what a shame it would be if increased congestion at those intersections added to local air pollution.”

Yes. I knew Inga when I was in Philly and she’s worked so tirelessly on the environmental part of this. One of the underlying goals here is connectivity. And I mean this physically, as well as economically and socially. Hilco has strong ambitions to finally connect that part of Philadelphia to the rest of the area through new transit routes, new streets, new mechanisms of both pedestrian and bicycle travel. That’s critical to really be able to gain all of the benefits that this opportunity provides. They’re not the only actor who can make that happen or not — I know that both the city officials and the governor’s office are quite interested in this project, that they’ve had several meetings and a lot of verbal commitment. Let’s see how that goes. I guess that’s one thing that worries me.

You know, if you’re looking at a through line for me, after Penn, I led the Rockefeller Foundation, and we essentially created the field of resilience. We had an initiative called 100 Resilient Cities where we worked with cities on all six continents to build their capacity.

One element of environmental resilience is the type of environmental remediation that is proceeding in the development of [Bellwether]. That’s already producing, even with the remediation still in progress, a reduction in carbon emissions. Hilco is also going to raise the street level of many areas in the site that are vulnerable above the 500 year floodplain. That’s a resilience strategy.

But the work that Rockefeller did on resilience also focused enormously on economic and social resilience. And I really see this project as having that same focus.

That brings me to another through line I wanted to ask you about: Your most recent book is called Making Money Moral. Does it feel to you like HRP is a company that’s trying to do that?

Before I answer that, let me just say that the book before that was called The Resilience Dividend, and it became required reading, I am told, for all the people in HRP developing this project.

Rockefeller coined the term “impact investing” in 2007. The view was that you could still make money and do it in ways that were socially and environmentally responsible. That was the bottom line concept of double bottom line investing.

There isn’t enough money in philanthropy or governments or development aid to address the needs of the world. So unless we bring along the private sector, which is where the trillions of dollars of capital exist, we’re not going to achieve the kind of sustainability goals that the UN has laid out for the globe. I see in HRP the kind of company that’s committed to that double bottom line outcome. They want to do well, they want to do good and that really matters to them and to me.

Let me ask you about that. This many years later, there is a lot of pushback on the idea of the double bottom line. Do you have hope that our capitalist system can ever embrace this idea in a way that makes a huge difference?

The answer is yes. I think that for many reasons. One, for the last 10 years or so, there’s been an increasing drumbeat of questioning whether the Milton Friedman notion that only shareholders matter is really the way forward. And that’s come from a variety of quarters, not only civil society, but many corporate leaders themselves.

We’ve also seen in the last 10 years way more activist consumers who say, We don’t want to buy the products by companies that we think are bad actors. That idea of the activist consumer is very real, and it’s influencing companies, not only at the shareholder meeting, but really in how they’re thinking about doing business.

And then the third and major thing that I really saw in writing this book was that it’s the investor community that is really pushing a lot of this transformation. Let’s start with private equity — which is where venture capitalists raise their funds, largely from pension funds, or sovereign wealth funds, and the like — those asset owners are pushing more responsible investing. So the money managers have to listen; the companies they’re investing in, therefore, have to take note, because many of the asset owners are saying, We’re not going to invest in companies anymore that don’t do X, Y, or Z. So that’s one real push economically.

And the other is on the public equity front. There are now so many impact bond funds or ESG bond funds in public equities. And we’re seeing the general public vote with their wallets, in terms of what they want to see changed. Not every company has the capacity or the will to make this transformation. But there are enough to have tremendous transformational impact, both on our climate and on our planet.

The other thing that I’m spending a lot of time on right now is leading the Grand Challenge on Climate Change, Health & Equity for the National Academy of Medicine, on the impact of climate change on human health. This idea is very much front and center here as you think about our cities, truly all of our country, where the climate change rhetoric has often been to do this for your grandchildren. But if you look at the impact on health, you should do this for yourself right now, because the health impacts [of climate change] are humongous.

What is the “Grand Challenge?”

We are going to try to reduce the carbon footprint of the U.S. healthcare system, which is among the largest emitters. Nobody realizes that. But after food systems and transit and energy, healthcare is really out there, both in terms of the manufacturing supply chain, and what goes on in the medical system. And so we have all of the CEOs and actors represented in that initiative, and they are hard at work on decarbonizing the U.S. healthcare system. And these are mostly for profit companies, which are willing to do this work.

Do you still spend a lot of time in Philadelphia?

Quite a bit. I don’t have a home there, but I’m in Philly very often. I teach one section of a course at Wharton, an MBA class on leadership. In each session, a CEO interacts with the teacher for three hours over their leadership experiences and their leadership. It’s really great. It’s so much fun. And the students are amazing.

Before we end, I just want to say that I both love, and love that you include in the official timeline of your life’s accomplishments, the fact you won a statewide smile contest in third grade.

That is true. The American Dental Association had a smile contest. And my school — I went to Longstreth Elementary [in Southwest Philly] — entered me, and I won.

That’s amazing, congratulations.


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