Birth of the ‘brain bag’

Published Jun 2, 2018 @ 6:35 am

A conversation with Quint Studer

Editor’s note: Quint Studer came to Pensacola, Florida, from Chicago about 20 years ago to turn around a troubled hospital. He ended up turning around the whole town.

Culturally, Pensacola is less Florida than it is Alabama: It’s the buckle of the Bible Belt, a beautiful and deeply conservative place that is also among the poorest in the state.

Studer – who isn’t afraid to talk about racism and its contribution to poverty — parlayed his corporate turnaround success into a consulting group that sold three years ago for $300 million. By his own measure, he has invested about $100 million in reviving a moribund downtown and supporting small businesses.

He transformed himself into one of the city’s most influential businessmen and philanthropists, donating more than $1 million to a new YMCA downtown and $5 million to found a new $85 million children’s hospital that bears his name.

Studer’s latest passion in Pensacola – and longest-term project, he says – is child well-being.

Q: To understand poverty in Pensacola, you started a journalism nonprofit to flesh out the metrics and study solutions. What did you find?

Our high school graduation rate in 2014 was 66 percent. Immediately, people blame the public school teachers. Well, that is wrong. I would have said the same thing three years ago: We need to fix our public education system. But then this number popped up that said only 66 percent of our children were ready for kindergarten. So, we started saying, “Is there a correlation or is that just something that happened?”

We started digging. We ended up at the University of Chicago, with Thirty Million Words and Dana Suskind. We brought Dana down and I sat there and listened to her the whole day. She said some things that triggered me. If 85 percent of the brain is developed by age 3, even voluntary prekindergarten is too late. So you have got to go zero to 3. If you go zero to 3, what is the key indicator? Well, it’s words and conversational words with the baby.

Q: And that’s where the Brain Bags come in?

You want to walk in with mom and get her feeling comfortable. Giving her something is a way to open the door. You explain, ‘We’re giving this to you,’ and then you’re talking about the power she has to build her child’s brain. It’s easy to think it’s genetic, but it’s not. You can build a brain.

I worked in a hospital. New parents are very interested in everything, but we’ve never covered brain development. The long-term way to deal with poverty is to get kids ready for kindergarten. Even the University of Chicago considers that as an economic indicator now.

Q: Why moms?

The reality is that in the pockets of poverty many children are being raised by a mom. So we go to mom because that is what it is. Hopefully we get dads, too. Once you get the mom going they can never not do it.

Q: What are your goals going forward?

Short-term, we’ve got to grow small businesses and move wages. Long-term, it’s the kindergarten readiness. I didn’t make it up, but the best time to invest was 20 years ago; the second-best time is today. We’re afraid to do that because we are looking for quick results. I tell people, ‘This is a 15- to 20-year project.’ But it’s a worthwhile project if you ever want to stop the generational poverty that we live in.

Top photo: Quint Studer. Photo courtesy of Studer Community Institute.