May 18, 2018

Q&A: New International House CEO Josh Sevin on what changes could be coming

By Michelle Caffrey, Philadelphia Business Journal

May 16, 2018

Monday was Josh Sevin’s first day on the job as the new CEO of International House Philadelphia (IHP), a nonprofit organization in University City focused on housing more than 1,000 students from around the world in its 14-story building, where it also hosts film screenings, cultural celebrations and other community events.

Coming from the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, where he most recently served as acting executive director, Sevin faces a big task — adapting IHP to a new Philadelphia, where housing options in University City are growing by the day, and so are efforts to celebrate the city's international ties and raise Philadelphia's global profile.

Sevin, a University City resident, has some help. He’s backed by a staff of 41 full-time employees, nearly 30 volunteers and an operating budget that stood at about $4.86 million in 2017. As he steps into his new role, the Business Journal talked to Sevin about how his time at the Economy League will influence his work at IHP, its value in an era where immigrants are often the center of national debate and what kind of changes to its operating model might be in store. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What drew you to International House?

A: After leaving the Economy league, I was looking for a new leadership challenge with a nonprofit, and I was looking for a place whose mission and potential I could really get passionate about. Really, the more I learned about [IHP] and met with the folks here ... it really became clear to me that the institution was ready for some change, and I think it's poised to really have an exciting next phase.

Q: Tell me about IHP’s role in the community and where you see an opportunity to change or enhance that?

IHP, for much of its 100-plus years in existence, has had two primary focuses: one is providing housing and a great welcoming experience for international students from around the globe. That has been a major part to what the International House is ... Then there’s another component, a diverse array of intercultural programming that’s really a big focus for us, whether that’s the Lightbox film center, [or] cultural celebrations like Chinese New Year.

The great thing about a long-standing institution [like IHP] is it’s got a real track record, a brand and accomplishments to draw on. It has always been in both of those spaces, in student housing and cultural programming, where there’s been a lot of change over the decades. Now is a great time to look at those programs and see how International House can best meet the needs of today’s Philadelphia.

While the International House has been focused on international student housing and culture programming, for much of its history, there has been a set of underlying, core principle values. It’s always been about internationalism, welcoming newcomers and immigrants, and increasing global awareness, and being an actual physical space where diverse, international, global parties can come together.

Q: So with the increase now in housing in University City, how does that factor into plans for the future?

When the organization was founded in 1910, people were realizing there weren't enough housing options for international students here. There was complete market discrimination and there was a lot of isolation. The International House was really one of the only options for international students, but shift to today’s Philadelphia, and pretty much all universities and colleges are really aggressively seeking to draw international students and enroll them.

At the same time, we’ve had a couple of decades where there’s been a lot of housing built on campus. You look at where we are, set right in the heart of University City, and look at housing development. There’s been a lot of it. What International House has always provided is a bit of a unique mix in the community, the extra programming and sense of place. Even in that sense, with these changes, it remains unique.

Rethinking exactly what kind of role housing plays for us is certainly part of what we’re going to be looking at. I think the opportunity for us is, this has always been an international hub of sorts so think, ‘Okay, are there other types of hub activities that really meet current needs?' ... A part of where we can go as the International House is not just a hub for international students, but organizations and individuals who are advancing this international goal, using our biggest asset, [IHP’s 14-story building in University city.] Is there a possibility to get a concentration of people who are working on these global issues together to get greater collaboration on some of these things? ... We’re really going to want to look creatively at this real estate, at this asset that’s in such a valuable location, in terms of thinking, how do we maximize the value of this space, this property, to drive that new direction?

Q: Does International House’s work take on a greater role given the national conversation surrounding immigration and globalism?

A: Anybody who works in international issues are feeling how, in many ways, hostile some of the rhetoric or policies that are coming out of D.C. are … Then you look locally and you have Mayor Jim Kenney, who is completely passionate about Philadelphia being a welcoming city … that immigration makes us stronger. It’s a real contrast.

It’s a good time locally because a lot of people really understand how important it is [to be globally connecte.] [At the Economy League] I was working on issues around international business, and people understand it’s a major pathway to growth… There are a lot of good things going on, and I do think there’s a circling-the-wagons feeling with some of the more challenging elements [in D.C.]

Q: How much overlap do you see with what you worked on at the Economy League with this new role?

A: The Economy League only strengthened my understanding and belief of just how important our global connections are to prosperity for individuals and our region as a whole. Whether it’s around the fact that the city is finally reversing decades of population loss — that is largely an immigration story — to ... [getting] on a higher job growth trajectory, [strengthening our global connectedness is] tied to really getting to a higher level of prosperity in the city. The Economy League kept on reinforcing to me how much being a truly world-class Greater Philadelphia is tied into being a global city and welcoming global city.

The issues we really care most about in the long run personally, whether it’s education, job growth, infrastructure, they all require really patient and collaborative civic leadership. Let’s set a vision and not be afraid to consider some possibly challenging approaches to bringing people together. We’re very open to new things.