Marcel LeBrun: Building a Community | UNB
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Summer 2022

Cover Story

Building a community

ALUMNI NEWS MAGAZINE | Summer 2022

 

As CEO and co-founder of the company, Radian6, Marcel LeBrun was on a plane almost every week, logging over 100,000 miles (160,000 km) of air travel per year. Then, in 2011, his business career reached its apex with the sale of Radian6 to Salesforce.com, based in San Francisco. It was one of the biggest deals in Maritime history, worth nearly $350 million in cash and stocks.

Marcel, who graduated from UNB in 1992 with a bachelor of science degree specializing in electrical and computer engineering, stayed on for a while with Salesforce but by 2015, he knew he’d had enough of the hard-driving, entrepreneurial lifestyle.

Now when he gets up in the morning, Marcel puts on comfortable work clothes and heads to a warehouse behind a Fredericton church where he enjoys building – not companies or computer systems, but tiny houses that carry with them the hope for better lives and brighter futures.

As the founder and driving force behind the 12 Neighbours Community project, Marcel is a living testament to the power of one.

“Marcel is literally a Godsend,” says Marla Bruce, who lives in the second tiny home built as part of the 12 Neighbours project. “A year ago, I was homeless. Now I have a home, I’m not on the street and I have peace because every place where I stayed before was temporary. Here there is very much a sense of community. Marcel has a heart and a passion for what he is doing.”

The 12 Neighbours project is taking shape on a large tract of land on Fredericton’s north side. There’s no landscaping yet, so the terrain is rough. But the tiny houses on the property are very neat and tidy, facing each other in what will be the first cluster of 12. Eventually, there will be close to 100 of the micro homes.

The houses all have solar panels on their roofs and nifty front porches where people like to gather and chat. Inside, they are marvels of modern, compact engineering with living rooms that double as bedrooms, well-equipped kitchens and three-piece bathrooms. Construction will start soon on a social enterprise centre where there will be a cafe, retail shops and workshops. There also will be community gardens.

Marcel LeBrun

Marcel says he thought long and hard about how to give back to his community and how to help people, especially those struggling with poverty and homelessness. He travelled widely, mostly in North America, looking at different ventures and experiments designed to lift people out of difficult circumstances.

“How you treat people is key to them being able to rewrite their identity narrative. That’s why we chose to do this community because we are optimizing for that dignified experience where they can say, ‘This is my own place, and I can come and go as I please.’ That is a key thing.”

“I have spent a lot of time since 2015 meeting with people in various circumstances, learning from them and they blew me away,” he says. “I remember meeting a gang member in Los Angeles. He was 40 years old and had spent most of his life in jail. He said, ‘I have always wanted to change my life, I just never thought I could.’ He had been in a gang since age nine and felt he didn’t have a choice in the circumstances he was dealt. I won the zip code lottery, the parent lottery, the race lottery – lots of lotteries. He won no lottery. But as soon as someone offered him an off ramp, he took it.”

Marcel says his research started to change his thinking, particularly about the “misdirected” investments by society where, despite good intentions, nothing really changes for the disadvantaged. Something was missing from the typical prescriptions for help. Marcel wanted to try something different, something that would build permanent change. The 12 Neighbours project is his answer.

He started by spearheading a 12 Neighbours video series which featured 10 stories in 10 different cities about people who were having a positive, transformational effect in their communities. The project in Fredericton is his attempt to synthesize the best of what he learned from all those places and projects, applied to the needs of the New Brunswick capital.

Fredericton may look prosperous and bucolic on the surface, but the capital has the same issues as so many other cities: overcrowded shelters, struggling food banks and soup kitchens, collections of tents for people who have no other place to go. In the past few months, rents for some low-income rentals have soared and the waitlist for subsidized housing units with NB Housing is about 6,000.

“A lot of our systems provide support when someone showcases their deficits. Then, as they progress towards success, the supports fall away,” Marcel says. “In business as you succeed, investments increase. How can we structure things so people can unlock benefits as they succeed as opposed to having to showcase their deficits?"

“In all the places I visited, I found that a poverty of circumstances leads to a poverty of identity. When someone experiences circumstances long enough, they start to identify as those circumstances, not, ‘this is what I’m going through,’ [but] ‘this is who I am.’ A poverty of identity leads to a poverty of circumstance. So, you have this vicious cycle. If all you do is address the circumstances, but you don’t address the identity narrative, the circumstances come right back.”

Marcel says the tiny homes project is about helping people achieve independence by changing the identity narrative. He wants residents of the 12 Neighbours community to realize they have value and skill, and already people living in the first tiny homes on the site are working together to build wooden picnic tables for sale.

“How you treat people is key to them being able to rewrite their identity narrative,” Marcel says. “That’s why we chose to do this community because we are optimizing for that dignified experience where they can say, ‘This is my own place, and I can come and go as I please.’ That is a key thing.”

Marcel hasn’t completely walked away from the business world or forgotten the skills that allowed him to be so successful. He coaches a few younger CEOs in some startups, and he remains involved in UNB’s Technology Management and Entrepreneurship (MTME) program.

The 12 Neighbours project is moving along very quickly, thanks to Marcel. He and his crew of helpers, including his two sons, can build two houses per month.

“That’s a startup skill - execution and speed,” he says.

He didn’t blink when the city ordered him to build a large concrete conduit across the road at the site and the concrete makers said it was too cold. He had the job done indoors.

“Then our guys said, ‘Well, how are we going to get it out of the warehouse.’ I said, ‘I don’t care – pour it and we’ll figure that out.’ We figured it out, dug a hole, dropped it in and got it done. Otherwise, we would have had to wait until the spring, and we might only have our first house now. It’s just being able to really push and everyone you’re working with loves it.”

“The word ‘philanthropy’ is often interpreted as someone who gives money. But the Greek roots of the word ‘philos’ and ‘anthropos’ mean to love humans. What I have discovered is spending money is the easy thing, spending yourself is the hard thing. The 12 Neighbours project is how I can best spend myself.”

In 2011, the UNB Associated Alumni presented Marcel with its Alumni Award of Distinction. In 2016, he was awarded an honorary degree by UNB. The citation noted that Marcel is a great promoter of the Maritimes. “Having helped to build the first tech company in the Maritimes to go on the NASDAQ and having illustrated that we can ‘do it from here,’ he clearly continues to be an inspiration and an innovator in both regional and wider contexts,” the citation states. Marcel is putting a new spin on the idea of philanthropy. He’s not the kind of philanthropist who will simply hand out money in hopes of having a wing in a building named after him.

“The word ‘philanthropy’ is often interpreted as someone who gives money,” he says. “But the Greek roots of the word ‘philos’ and ‘anthropos’ mean to love humans. What I have discovered is spending money is the easy thing, spending yourself is the hard thing. The 12 Neighbours project is how I can best spend myself.”  

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