1993 Woman of the Year, CEO finds purpose in urban revitalization work – NCAA.org

Features Corbin McGuire
When Nnenna Lynch thinks back to winning the 1993 NCAA Woman of the Year award, the specific memories are vague. And not just because it was nearly 30 years ago.
Her life was a “whirlwind” at that time. A Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford, Lynch flew back from England to receive the honor.
“It’s one of these things that I appreciate much more now with some age and maturity,” Lynch said of being selected as Woman of the Year. “To be called out and identified and celebrated as some sort of exemplar of a woman student-athlete is quite an incredible honor.”
Lynch earned the honor through her work at Villanova, where the distance runner was part of five NCAA championships and graduated summa cum laude with a sociology major and business minor. She also engaged with the local community in several ways at Villanova, including helping in the Campus Ministry soup kitchen in Philadelphia, serving as a member of Athletes Against Alcohol, and speaking at local hospitals and youth groups.
Her contributions as a runner and student and through community service led to another unexpected honor: being named a Rhodes Scholar. Though she didn’t know anything about the program, a Villanova professor urged her to apply. That interaction set off a chain of life-changing events.
Lynch discovered a career field through her time at Oxford that aligned with her life’s mission to help others. Specifically, her career has focused on “urban revitalization and creating social and economic mobility” and has included stops on Wall Street, real estate development and as an advisor for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Most recently, she founded Xylem Projects, a real estate development and investment firm.
“It was when I was in graduate school at Oxford that I discovered the field of economic development, and that really was what set me on my path. While economic development is a pretty broad umbrella, a key to economic development is real estate and what you do with real estate and how it works and functions,” she said. “Especially in neighborhoods that are in need of urban revitalization, it’s a lot about, ‘How do you activate that real estate in a way that will help create a thriving community?'”
From a young age, Lynch knew she wanted to help underserved communities. A born-and-raised New Yorker, she grew up near Columbia, where her father was a professor, in the Morningside Heights neighborhood. The neighborhood is also close to Harlem. For Lynch, seeing the juxtaposition of the two communities during her childhood during the 1970s and 1980s sparked a host of questions she needed to answer.
“It probably started growing up, my awareness and interest in social issues. When I got to Villanova, it was really a matter of, ‘What am I going to study and how am I going to use my little bit of extra time to do things that I think are worthwhile?'” Lynch said. “I knew I wanted to work at addressing what I saw. I just didn’t know what that meant or how to do it.”
Her time at Villanova helped point her in that direction, starting in the classroom.
“I chose sociology because I was really searching for a major that would help me understand the world. One thing I did know entering college is that a meaningful life really entailed engaging with the world in a way that created opportunity for other folks,” she said. “I was really interested in urban revitalization, and I was interested in social and economic mobility … and I was really searching for something that could help set me on that path. So I landed on sociology. I chose to do a business minor with no more than an inkling that this could be important, and as it turned out, it is quite important.”
While the academics side of her Villanova experience led her to this point in life, Lynch said being a college athlete provided extremely valuable development in ways she’s carried with her.
“Some of the basics, like perseverance and time management, of course, but being an entrepreneur, there’s no clear playbook for being an entrepreneur, and it requires a healthy dose of perseverance and resilience. And certainly those are qualities that I was able to cultivate as a student-athlete,” Lynch said. “The biggest opportunity that college athletics provided was really an opportunity to grow, and not just an opportunity to grow but an accelerant to that growth. When you’re a student-athlete, of course your time is in high demand, and you’re pursuing your sport at a really high level so there’s a maturation that comes with that and an opportunity to really push yourself and test your mettle.
“When I think about what it provided for me, it was like this enormous gift of self-development through this four-year period.”
A seven-time All-American whose athletic career included an individual NCAA championship in the 3,000 meters in 1992, Lynch takes more pride in what her teams were able to accomplish. Most notably, Villanova’s women claimed four consecutive cross country championships — a streak that would grow to six after she left, which still stands as the longest such stretch in the sport’s Division I history.
The accomplishment also underscores what Lynch said is a “less obvious” lesson college sports can provide: the “importance of community.”
“The importance of surrounding yourselves with people that help and support you, that was probably the big (lesson),” she said of her student-athlete experience.
Now, she’s doing her best to create that opportunity for others through Xylem Projects.  
“When I call myself a mission-driven developer, what I’m really talking about is making those decisions through the lens of, ‘How can it positively impact people, individual human beings and communities?'” she said. “We know that the built environment has an enormous impact on people, on individual communities, and it’s really a matter of being rigorous about what are those levers and then making decisions about those levers through the lens of impact. For example, what you build, how you build it, how you program that space, the financial structures you use, the partners you work with, all those decisions are decisions that any developer makes, but I’m making the decisions through the lens of, ‘How does it impact both the people that will use that space but also the surrounding community?'”

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