Lenfest protege's next role

Keith Leaphart, newly named chairman of the Lenfest Foundation, at his design and print firm. Leaphart and philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest's ties run deep.
Keith Leaphart, newly named chairman of the Lenfest Foundation, at his design and print firm. Leaphart and philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest's ties run deep. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)
Posted: April 15, 2013

Keith Leaphart is very much like the squad of superheroes on the life-size action poster behind his desk:

He has two identities, one he uses when engaging educators about at-risk youth and the other comes to life when hosting parties.

He takes big risks, such as the time he invested $5,000 of his medical school scholarship money in a cleaning business.

He saves the day: Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons hired Leaphart in 2006 to promote a sneaker line that failed to launch in Philly. He pulled off a series of sold-out soirees.

So despite the rarity of such experiences in the philanthropic world, it makes sense that the 38-year-old rehabilitation physician-turned-printing company exec was chosen in February to complete H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest's term as chairman of the Lenfest Foundation, a 13-year-old powerhouse in Philadelphia. It's not a paid position, but it's a mighty one, and it certainly puts the Overbrook Farms resident in the same company - as though he weren't already - with the city's most affluent movers and shakers.

"It's a big honor and a big responsibility," Leaphart said of his term that ends in June 2015. "I'm looking forward to it."

His mission as head of a new board is to dole out $80 million to programs that will help the region's poorest children have a meaningful future.

That means improving early childhood education opportunities and developing vocational programs through community colleges for high school graduates. Leaphart also is passionate about reducing recidivism. Having grown up in a difficult neighborhood as a latchkey kid, he knows he's lucky to be where he is today.

"Sometimes I see these men and I think if I wasn't in this suit . . .," Leaphart said. "I mean, I could be them."

The path that led to this position started back in 1998 when Leaphart, then a 23-year-old medical student, was in and out of Lenfest's West Chester Suburban Cable office every night. He was dumping the trash of the top executive.

One day, Lenfest struck up a conversation. What was a seemingly smart kid like Leaphart doing cleaning office buildings? Leaphart confided he was pursuing a dual degree in medicine and business - not to mention he co-owned the cleaning company. Lenfest was "immediately taken by him."

"Keith and I are the same in that we are both like four-eyed cats in a fish market," said Lenfest, 82, also one of the owners of Interstate General Media, which publishes The Inquirer. "That means we see a lot of opportunities."

In this dynamic duo, Lenfest plays the Bruce Wayne character - an American millionaire philanthropist - who is a mentor to Leaphart, the Robin. He's the younger partner, also passionate about improving people's lives, and the two share a mutual respect.

It is a relationship that allows each to do what he would have trouble achieving alone: When Lenfest wants to help city officials on a topic outside his expertise - quality-of-life issues for African American men released from prison - Leaphart will represent him. And when Leaphart needed to raise money for a mobile health unit at St. Christopher's Hospital during an internship, Lenfest gave $150,000.

Leaphart said Lenfest "is an anchor. He can open up doors that I couldn't get in to. He empowers people. He gives you an assignment. No hand-holding, no babying or coddling. If you do it well, you are rewarded. That is the key with him."

Nonetheless, Lenfest's support is no substitute for Leaphart's ambition.

About 15 years ago, Leaphart became known for throwing must-attend parties much like GenXers Nicole Cashman, the grand dame of the public relations firm Cashman & Associates, and Tommy Up, owner of the trendy Northern Liberties burger joint PYT.

Cashman's niche was the city's upscale fashion crowd, and Up targeted hipsters; Leaphart's events drew African American professionals in their 20s and 30s.

Often held in moody Old City lounges or strobe-lit Rittenhouse Square clubs, the parties were packed with celebrities: NBA stars Allen Iverson and LeBron James, actor Idris Elba, and the music world's Floetry, Jill Scott, and the Roots.

The former Philadelphia Daily News "Sexy Single" may have been an unknown in political circles when he formed an exploratory committee in 2007 to run against U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, but to many others, he was the Diddy of Philly.

"Keith has always had a strategic mind, a higher vision, and a very good business acumen," said friend and occasional business partner Algernong Allen. Over the years, the two have thrown several events together, including fund-raisers for U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) and President Obama.

"What he is exceptionally good at is networking. He uses his organizational skills to bring very influential people together."

Leaphart grew up in a rowhouse on West Oak Lane's Pittville Avenue. His mother, Ethelyn, worked as an administrative assistant at the Free Library of Philadelphia. His father, Frank, an electrician, left when Leaphart was a baby, but the two are still close.

"He was always very determined," Frank Leaphart said about his son. "He always had so many things going on at once and he taught himself how to do everything."

In the 1980s, the neighborhood wasn't suffering from the crime it has today, but there were plenty of chances for Leaphart to get into trouble: When he was 10, he ran drugs on the block for local dealers for a dollar. Of his teenage crew he called the Four Horsemen, two are dead.

"I was on a fine line," Leaphart said. "The best decision my mom ever made was not sending me to the neighborhood schools."

He went to a private elementary school, then to A.M.Y. (Alternative Middle Years) Middle School at 13th and Susquehanna.

"Keith was one of those kids that transcended his social clique," said Dennis Dorfman, guidance counselor at what is now called A.M.Y. at James Martin.

Leaphart graduated from Central High School in the Class of 251, and went on to attend historically black Hampton University in Virginia to study biology with plans of becoming a doctor. There he learned wealth didn't necessarily mean "living in a big house in Mount Airy," but having the freedom and resources to do what you want.

He eventually decided he wanted to be CEO of a hospital - there was more money in that. In 1998 he enrolled in a joint program at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and St. Joseph's University, eventually earning both a medical degree and M.B.A.

During that time, he noticed the social scene for young black professionals was scarce, so he started throwing parties with different groups of friends who call themselves Rainmakers, the Ratpack, and the Super Friends.

In 1999, be bought Genesis Commercial Cleaning with his sister and brother-in-law and worked there for two years.

Over the next decade, he and Lenfest grew closer.

While Leaphart worked as an intern at St. Christopher's Hospital for CEO Jeff Green - a position Leaphart nabbed by chatting up Green's wife at a medical school event - he called on Lenfest to help the hospital.

Leaphart moonlighted for seven years at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital. During that time, he also served as an "executive on loan" from the Lenfest Foundation to the Nutter administration to create programming for men who had served time in jail.

By 2009, Leaphart realized the medical profession didn't match his entrepreneurial goals. Over the years, Leaphart, now a married father of two boys, 6 and 15, did business with a lot of printing companies to promote events. He became interested in digital marketing, so he approached the owners of the design and print firm Replica Creative. Lenfest helped him secure the bulk of the $850,000 to buy it.

Leaphart moved Replica into the renovated 4,200-square-foot space at 18th and Chestnut Streets in July. On the first floor, Leaphart hosts happy hours to promote the work of local photographers such as Daily News man-on-the-street shooter "Big Rube" Harley, Whitney Thomas, and Hugh E. Dillon.

Downstairs is Leaphart's office, where, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Cashman was just leaving after discussing the goings-on of the Power Shift, an organization that grooms the next generation of Philly's entrepreneurs and tastemakers.

For about an hour, he gave of his time until politely getting up, picking up his new BlackBerry, and huffing it two steps at a time upstairs. He had to switch his Sixers hoodie for a suit and tie for a programming meeting at City Hall.

If only he had a Batmobile.

Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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