The Aequo Fund

Ernst Valery

“I lived in Haiti as a kid. I never had my own room because my entire home was open to the community. My upbringing consisted of my mom being a mother to everyone. She was the person people depended on. 

There were always a bunch of people in our house. I wondered why we couldn’t be like other families with just our single-family eating dinner together. Mom took people in for the weekend, the week, or months at a time because they’d fallen on hard times. My brothers and I got used to it as it became apparent that she wasn’t going to stop. 

At first, the people who stayed with us were random people, but over time, I got to know them because they hung around for support. Mom got very involved in their lives and eventually taught them how to build wealth for themselves. She’s the one who taught me that handouts aren’t what people need. They had to be invested in so they can create full lives for themselves and their families. 

As I grew older, I started to see the value of community and of looking out for each other. I began realizing that people looked out for my family due to the love and support my mom showed them. Not once did she expect anything from anyone. She taught me how to love by literally building an entire community around us. 

Nurture has a lot to do with the person you become. Because my mom was like this, I developed a way of helping others often. Even when I was in university, I would always share my notes. I went to Cornell where you don’t share your notes, you watch the other person fail. I saw it as a community of people graduating, so I wanted to bring everyone else along.  

When I was 22 years old, I completed an undergraduate degree at Cornell in urban and regional planning with a concentration in international relations. I received a Master's Degree in policy analysis and public administration and was accepted into a Ph.D. program. Shortly after the acceptance, my mom sat me down and told me, ’You’re smart. We get it, but what’s this Ph.D. gonna do? We’re immigrants. You have all these ideas so why don’t you go out and get something done?’ 

My problem was that I couldn’t get anyone to invest in me. Nobody would give me a dollar. Meanwhile, I had classmates whose ideas weren’t great, but they were white males and they came up with investments. Even if I only slightly messed up the way I presented an idea, I didn’t get any money. I explained all of this to my mom and she very quickly understood. She asked me if I could do anything with $25,000.00. I told her that was enough, not realizing what she would do next. She pulled up her mattress and underneath was $25,000 cash from her savings. She handed me the money without hesitation and encouraged me to be humble, start small with my own hands, and to be inclusive no matter what. 

The responsibility immediately resonated with me so I went out and within six months I was successful at flipping my first row home. I never looked back. It evolved from flipping homes one-for-one to looking into our value system of development without displacement. We want people to stay in their neighborhoods. 

As a development company we now own over 3,000 units. We build new construction, renovate complete units, many row homes, some as small as 500 square feet. While we are considered a development company, I see us as an innovation company and community partner. We respond to what the community needs as opposed to the prescribed idea of going into a city trying to sell you my product. 

My development approach has always been to be a part of the community, to contribute, and ultimately to serve. I’ve learned that by working this way, Baltimore starts to open up. There is a tough outer shell here. Once you prove that you’re not just here to extract, that shell breaks. A commitment to Baltimore means being here. It’s not coming into the city, mining for gold and then leaving town. 

In an effort to give back more, we recently launched the Aequo Fund. The Aequo Fund was established to level the playing field by providing capital, access and support to black, brown, women, and immigrant developers so that they too can be part of shaping our cities and neighborhoods. Aequo means to level, to be equal. We want people to be able to afford homeownership. We build community and generational wealth by offering equitable economic growth in the housing arena. The fund embodies everything my mom was all about because we don’t give hand-outs. Giving hand-outs doesn't build wealth, opportunities do. Investment means that I believe in you and I’m giving you equity. Ultimately, our goal is to change the way development is done. We want to change the intent and the culture surrounding it by empowering people. 

What makes this country great is the ability to come here, work hard, and set up opportunities for future generations to thrive. 

My hope for Baltimore is that it becomes the platform where you are valued and supported just by being here. The more you champion this city, the more it supports you. The more people improve themselves, the more the city will support them as well. Regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or color, Baltimore has to recognize that when someone has been marginalized, we need to offer more resources so everyone can be on a level playing field. We also need to see more developers of color and women developers; ideally, developers who think in a value-system way. If we can do that, we can change the overall development approach for our city. That’s what the Aequo Fund is all about.”

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