What Jury Dury Taught Me About Government Innovation


Photo of long voting line via NY Daily News

Originally posted on Medium. 

I left my California beach town vacation early to return to frozen New York for the democratic tradition and right of jury duty. For two days, I sat in a stale room with intermittent wifi with over 100 citizens from across socio-economic backgrounds. Unfortunately, what should’ve been a privileged and proud citizen experience turned out to be a futile, inefficient, and outdated process. I say this not to diminish the importance of diverse citizen juries, but to acknowledge the frustration I saw and heard from my fellow citizens in the room, and experienced myself. At the end of the second day, my peers and I cheered and sighed in relief as we heard that we are free from serving on a jury for the next several years. I was at once thrilled that I was done with what was a dreaded and annoying process, and saddened that most citizens would leave the court house with even less confidence or interest in their government.

“As a country, we haven’t invested in or changed the ways we engage with democracy; we’re interacting with 20th century institutions in the 21st century.”

A graduate student in public policy, I’ve been involved with government since high school. What struck me as I sat in the jury room is that while I’ve interacted with the government in many ways as an employee, student, and engaged citizen, for many in the room, this is one of the only times they’ll interact with the government this year, and they were left sorely disappointed in how it functions. (more…)

Why I Chose an MPA Program

afterlight (1)

Columbia University

“The path is made by walking,” writes poet Antonio Machado. My path has certainly been a winding one–leading from Capitol Hill to a military analysis think tank, from ed-tech in India to a design school in New York. Two weeks ago, I began my newest endeavor–graduate school. A Master in Public Administration degree wasn’t always part of the plan, but after accounting for my experiences and interests over the years, it now seems like it was inevitable.

I’ve been interested in public service and international affairs since childhood, but as I made a shift towards the world of social entrepreneurship after college (which I explained in this essay two years ago) I became determined to pursue an MBA. Business school has become the graduate school of choice for those working in social enterprise. The good and bad (and expensive) reasons to attend any graduate school aside, the thinking goes that a strong understanding of business will enable better business models and management for social change initiatives. As you’ll see on this blog and others, there is a lot of truth to that notion, and many smart, impactful social entrepreneurs with an MBA.

But while working with social businesses in India and New York, I was continually struck by my own lack of knowledge about socioeconomics, despite a BA in Political Science. And I saw how business and its tools–without a dedication to iterating on theories of social change and understanding socioeconomic dynamics–cannot alone solve the complex problems we face. As I explain in this Huffington Post article, “a social entrepreneur can run the most transparent, well-managed, profitable social enterprise in the world, and still not be solving the social problem their business is founded upon.” Furthermore, after seeing social enterprises in action, I realized that policy and social justice, and integration of social initiatives with policy change, is more important than ever. (more…)

Is Experience the New Graduate Degree? (Huffington Post)

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post


With news that the graduate Stafford loan rates will increase next year, and New York Times headlines like “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk,” you don’t need to look far to see that the higher education experience is broken. While MOOCs and other initiatives attempt to mend a failing system, some organizations like Watson UniversityEnstitute, and Experience Institute are hoping to create an entirely new educational system through experiential learning and personal development.

recent Pew study backs up the notion that more experience in education is desired. According to an Atlantic article about the report:

It found that, yes, a third of college graduates who majored in social science, liberal arts or education regretted their decision… But overall, when asked what they wish they’d done differently in college, ‘choosing a different major’ wasn’t the top answer. The most popular answer, given by half of all respondents, was “gaining more work experience.’ Choosing a different major was the fourth most popular response, after ‘studying harder’ and ‘looking for work sooner.’

Not everyone learns best in a traditional classroom. Experience Institute (Ei), which welcomed its first cohort last year, encourages its students to establish their own classrooms by undertaking three apprenticeships or independent projects while also completing five modules of curriculum designed specifically for the program. Ei’s curriculum is taught in the form of meet ups that take place in Chicago in-between apprenticeships and cover community building, self-awareness, storytelling, operations, and design thinking. The yearlong program offers the graduate school experience at a much cheaper than the norm price tag of $13,000. (more…)

We are the problem, and we create the change

What follows are very incomplete thoughts and reflections on some recent readings. I would love to hear your ideas and feedback. 

The world is a system made of systems, all inherently living–what Donella Meadows defines as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”

As I’ve come to better understand systems thinking and social change at a cursory level, I’m realizing that change starts within each of us. As we are part of systems, we are part of the problem, and therefore we are also part of the change. That change begins when each of us realize that we create both sides of the equation.  (more…)

Question of the Day: Leadership in Context

I read and think a lot about skills leaders need in today’s world and in the future. But working with students in resource-poor communities in India, I wonder if the skills needed to be a leader here and a leader in a more privileged context are different. Which skills are the same? Which are different? Are leadership skills universal regardless of context? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Read about Question of the Day posts here.


Over Memorial Day weekend I attended the five day StartingBloc Institute in Social Innovation at Babson College in Boston. The other future fellows-around 100 in total-were passionate, diverse, and genuine.

The main focus was on relationship-building and creating what has become a tight-knit community of young leaders who want to make the world a better place through social enterprise, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship. Never before have I found a community where everyone was so open about their goals and fears, and where enthusiastic support for individual goals and opinions came so naturally.

The relationship-building activities were supplemented by a case competition for ReWork, lectures, and interactive skill-building sessions.

Here are some takeaways from some of the featured speakers: 

Mitchell Wade, of StartingBloc’s Board, is the founder of Institute3, a think tank for practitioners obsessed with sustainable growth, one of the topics he spoke about. 

  • We are all passionate about change, changing the way things are done and the way issues are viewed. But the only change that matters is the change that happens when you are gone and the change that happens with other people. 
  • Institutions create space for community.

Ted Gonder, of MoneyThink and fellow University of Chicago alum and StartingBloc Fellow, gave an invigorating final session on “smashing fear.” 

  • You have to realize the assumptions going into any situation, and detach emotions from expectations.
  • If I’m not at least a little scared to do something, it’s probably not worth my time.
  • There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that others will feel comfortable around you.
  • Fear is forget everything and run, or face everything and rejoice.
  • Release the FOMO (fear of missing out) because you’ll never know what you’re missing out on. So enjoy what you have now.

Cheryl Heller, a designer and brand strategist, ran an interactive session on collaboration and designing for change. 

  • Communication can be designed to get the results that you want.
  • What’s more important than your idea? Relationships.

Cheryl Kiser of Babson, Anne Kelly of Ceres, and Michael Levett of Citizens Democracy Corps, led a discussion on CSR.

  • When do you change systems and when do you work within a system to affect change?
  • You don’t just want to work for a company that has social impact. You want to work for a company with POSITIVE social impact.
  • Companies should be pre-competitive, and be proactive about the impact they have in communities.
  • You can’t have corporate social responsibility without individual social responsibility.

Here are some of my main takeaways from the StartingBloc experience: 

  • I’ve been fortunate to be a part of several communities of aspiring leaders, most notably Junior Statesmen of America and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. StartingBloc, out of any community, understands true relationship-building. It began with a transformative session with Scott Sherman, and continues with an entire community of fellows worldwide that will support any other StartingBloc fellow, whether or not they have met. StartingBloc has also created incredible brand loyalty. 
  • There are a lot of young people who don’t care about making money or climbing the corporate ladder, but truly care about using their skills to help other people and make the world a more sustainable and better place. If they do want to make money or work for a corporation, they want to do it through social enterprise, or working for a company with a positive social impact. But because many young people are not taking traditional career tracks, I wonder what that means for the skills-gap for when/if these same individuals do try to apply for more traditional jobs. 
  • While I am still skeptical of entrepreneurship for the sake of entrepreneurship, most of the budding entrepreneurs at StartingBloc were thoughtful with game-changing ideas. In addition, I think many fellows were motivated by the concepts of intrapreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking.

What does it take to be a leader?

Young Professionals in Foreign Policy hosted a wonderful event recently on future foreign policy leaders. It featured young professionals whom have already made a huge impact in their careers, including, Ronan Farrow, Special Advisor for Global Youth Issues, U.S. Department of State; Josh Rogin, Staff Writer (author of “The Cable”), Foreign Policy Magazine; and Alexandra Toma, Executive Director, The Connect U.S. Fund. 

The discussants led a conversation with the audience on what it takes to be a leader.

Josh Marcuse, Chairman of YPFP, offered my favorite advice of the evening.

Leadership is about always asking “is there a better way?”

Entrepreneurs do this by working outside the system to address an issue that existing institutions and products are not. Intrapreneurs ask this question within the system they work, to improve processes, products, and outcomes. 

I wholly agree with this view of leadership, and I think it’s an important mindset and skill for everyone. (Of course, it should always be asked with tact, and not at an excessive burden to productivity). 

There are ordinary leaders, and there are extraordinary leaders.

There are ordinary leaders in everyday life and work. They achieve and make possible small, but important successes on a daily basis, take pride in their work, and set positive examples for their communities. There are also extraordinary leaders, the “Bill Gates, Hillary Clintons, and President Obamas” of the world. Not everyone can be extraordinary leaders, but anybody can be an ordinary leader. 

Within this important distinction, it’s noted that one type of leader is not better than the other. Actions and character create leaders, not hierarchy. 

Here are some other key takeaways from the event:

  • Tack to truth. A Deputy Director from USAID told several moving stories, all with the conclusion to always side with truth professionally (and personally), even at huge risk to career or reputation. 
  • Just start doing something. Leaders have the audacity to start. Often, the first step to solving a problem is not wasting time determining the best solution, but just starting something, anything.  
  • The only way to learn is to lead. 
  • Leaders must show a path worth following.
  • Change is about individuals, not organizations. This is something President Obama recently mentioned in a speech. 
  • There is still meritocracy of ideas. The best ideas will often win, so if you have a great idea, advocate for it, and have it heard. 
  • Network for your idea. The best way to network is to find your passion or your start-up concept, and “network” with individuals around that idea as opposed to networking just for yourself. It shows your passion, and it’s easier to start conversations and connect with the right individuals. 
  • Be genuine. 

Christiane Amanpour on Leadership and Ambition

Christiane has two very important points in this interview

The first is that from day one of her career, when she was an intern and then entry-level, she worked hard to show her commitment and prove her worth. She showed a willingness to do anything or go anywhere, and did not complain even when work assigned to her was below her experience level. This is really important for anyone from day one of a new job, and especially those in intern or entry-level positions. The first tasks assigned are tests of the employee’s abilities and where first and often lasting impressions are made. Even if you are asked to do the most menial of tasks, you do it with a smile on a face and the same work ethic you would for your dream project. You won’t ever get an opportunity to work on your dream projects if you can’t prove that you are a team-player and willing to reach both above and below your job description and ambitions to support the mission. 

Christiane also talks about characteristics of leadership. She speaks of Nelson Mandela’s courage, and specifically his belief that the other side did not have to be crushed in order for his side to succeed—it was not a zero-sum game. He knew that he had to understand the story of the other side and have empathy in order to know how to best reconcile with them. The ability to recognize that the other side also has a story is vital. Even if you disagree, an understanding of the others’ views provides greater perspective for your interactions with them. This skill can be applied to not just peace processes but also workplace conflicts and competing businesses. Though not easily attained, nor sufficient for solving all challenges in and of itself, as Christiane notes, it is a true sign of leadership.