Features

Smart Business with a Social Conscience

Like many successful people, the effervescent Wah Chen ’92 zigged and zagged a bit before she found her career groove.

a woman standing in front of a tree

William Wu

Her first job after the College was hosting a prime-time variety show on Singapore national television. For four years she was a reporter and producer for British Hong Kong’s TVB News. She co-authored a children’s book, Sassparilla’s New Shoes, with her twin sister, Ming, and enrolled in UCLA’s graduate business program, earning an M.B.A. in 2003.

And then it clicked. In Chen’s final week of B-school, with her cap and gown still waiting in the box, she inked her first real estate deal: a plan to purchase a 12-story Howard Johnson hotel near downtown Los Angeles and convert it to 198 affordable apartments. “I literally wrote out the deal terms with my now-partners on a napkin; I have it framed,” she says. The four-person team formalized their partnership, InSite Development, that same year.

Since then, as a real estate developer working in Los Angeles County, Chen’s group has helped develop some 1,700 high-quality, low-cost housing units for the homeless and others in need. “Affordable housing development is my calling,” she says simply.

Her efforts can’t come soon enough. In L.A. County alone, a June 2019 government study reported, there are 58,936 homeless people, a 12 percent jump since last year. Neighboring counties experienced even sharper increases. Despite aggressive programs to alleviate the crisis, the study notes, it remains an enormous challenge, affected by economic forces and the interlocking systems of foster care, mental health, criminal justice and the housing market.

buildings under construction

The 14-acre “Kensington Campus” under development in Lancaster, Calif.

COURTESY WAH CHEN ’92

Chen’s largest project to date is taking shape in Lancaster, Calif., a sprawling city of 160,000 in the Antelope Valley, 70 miles north of downtown L.A. In October 2017, Lancaster mayor R. Rex Parris invited Chen and her partners to develop transitional housing — essentially emergency shelters — and permanent housing for the chronically homeless, with extensive social services woven into the project. “They gave us a 14-acre piece of city-owned land and basically asked, ‘Will you do it?’”


The team swung into action, engaging with key leaders, planners and organizations, securing an array of tax credits, rent support, federal housing vouchers and other funding sources, keeping construction on track to open the first buildings this summer.

There was good reason for the city to place such confidence in Chen. “We have been helping develop Lancaster for years,” she says, “working to revitalize its downtown, microfinancing local businesses and building 1,000-plus housing units, including artists’ lofts, senior studios, and family and disability units for the chronically and mentally ill.”

Chen recently guided a Columbia visitor through some of those successful downtown developments, beginning at Don Sal Cocina & Cantina, a popular Mexican restaurant. Don Sal was a key anchor business for The Boulevard, a once-decrepit nine-block stretch that has been transformed into a thriving urban core graced by palm trees and plane trees reminiscent of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. The housing is attractive and human-scaled; the businesses as varied as a dog-grooming salon, a Brooklyn-style deli, an independent bookstore and a movie theater. “We really wanted to create a small-town vibe, where people could walk safely, and go to restaurants and the farmers market,” she says.

“Wah was involved in more causes, more clubs, more things on campus than anybody else,” Garcetti says. “You didn’t have to say ‘Wah Chen,’ ever. You just said ‘Wah,’ and everybody knew who she was.”

Chen’s blend of business creativity and social concern comes as no surprise to her College classmates and friends. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti ’92, SIPA’93 met Chen freshman year in Carman Hall, and they remain close. He recalls the energy and joy she invested in community service projects they worked on together, such as Habitat for Humanity, the Harlem Restoration Project and Columbia Urban Experience.

“When Wah puts her mind to something, it gets done,” Garcetti says, marveling at the range of her commitments, accomplishments and social connections. “I mean, she was involved in more causes, more clubs, more things on campus than anybody else.” She even attained one-name status at Columbia, he says. “You didn’t have to say ‘Wah Chen,’ ever. You just said ‘Wah,’ and everybody knew who she was.”

Achievement and service are trademarks of Chen’s family, too, going back to their roots in China. Her father, Tom, the Shanghai-born son of a high-ranking diplomat under Chiang Kai-shek, entered Harvard at 15; he is now a retired Veterans Administration pathologist. Chen’s mother, Margaret GSAS’73, also Shanghai-born, earned a graduate degree at Columbia and went on to a career in hospital administration. They raised their four children in Millburn, N.J.

“We’re all named for dynasties, except for me,” says Wah, whose given name is Dehua — as in Zhong Hua, which means Republic of China. Her older brother Han’s given name is Dehan, and sister Ming was christened Deming. Kid brother Detang rebelled — he prefers to be called Jay. “We grew up extremely tight-knit,” Wah says.

At the College, Chen had a concentration in history and East Asian studies. As much as she enjoyed her academic work, her energies went in many directions, from playing tennis regularly on the John Jay court with astronomy professor David Helfand to, well, advancing the romantic prospects of fellow students.

a white man and an Asian woman flanking two Asian boys

Old friends Chen and Eric Garcetti ’92, SIPA’93 are godparents to Matthew and Kaison Maruyama, sons of Yoshi Maruyama SEAS’92.

COURTESY WAH CHEN ’92

“She was famous for setting people up,” Garcetti says. “She essentially was a dating app — she would find you dozens of people to date, one after the next. She was the ultimate connector.”


Connection with purpose remains Chen’s greatest talent, suggests her longtime friend Lisa Carnoy ’89, co-chair of the University’s Board of Trustees. “Wah is brilliant, optimistic, a magnet for people,” Carnoy says. “If anyone can bring people together for a cause that matters, it is Wah. She is a force for good in the world.”

For Chen, that means providing shelter to people who need it. “I have a vivid memory of living in Furnald, looking out the window in the dead of winter and seeing people sleeping on the subway grates to stay warm,” she says. “I thought, ‘That looks wrong.’ It’s quite rewarding now, 25-plus years later, to have a small part in helping to alleviate that.

“What I love about real estate development is it rewards scrappy people,” Chen adds. “You don’t have to have gone to an Ivy League school or worked at Goldman Sachs to really have an impact in real estate. I feel like I’ve been nimble and creative, and resourceful enough to find financing. Now my partners and I are able to create something out of nothing.”

Chen named the 14-acre Lancaster development Kensington Campus after her 8-year-old daughter. Wah and her husband, private equity and real estate investor Edward Renwick, have two other daughters, Wyeth, 13, and Rainey, 11; they live in L.A.’s Brentwood section. Chen plans to maintain and improve the properties she develops to keep them profitable and avoid public bailouts, and ultimately, to pass them on to her girls — along with her own forward-looking spirit.

“I certainly hope that my daughters are one day able to set aside any fears, doubts and anxieties and find joy in their work, earn their own privileges, and experience as much as I have been able to after college.”