Beyond the Beltway
Inspiration to innovate trickles down to the 5Cs
It is not often that government captures our imagination. President Barack Obama may not have saturated the economy with jobs, but he has inspired me to change the way I think about the private sector’s role in delivering social services. Along with the President’s proposed financial year 2012 budget, the administration allowed agencies to issue contracts for “pay-for-success bonds,” with up to $100 million for pilot initiatives across areas such as education, juvenile justice and childcare.
Pay-for-success bonds aim to enhance the performance of government services, allowing private investors to pay for the start-up costs of an innovative take on a social program. The government then repays the investors based on social improvement, but only if the program meets the desired social target. Crippled by the risk that early interventions will not elicit the desired outcomes, the public sector largely focuses its resources on treating the symptoms of social inequality rather than the underlying causes.
Who are the social innovation bad-asses behind pay-for-success bonds? Jonathan Greenblatt recently joined the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation as its director, replacing Sonal Shah, who resigned in August after founding the office in 2009.
After graduating in 1990 with a degree in economics from University of Chicago, Shah took a year to trek through Kenya, Mozambique and India. She later spent six years at the Treasury Department, taking roles ranging from an attaché in Bosnia sent to restore the central banking system to a debt negotiator for African nations. Goldman Sachs eventually tapped her to develop their firm-wide environmental strategy, and afterward she directed Google.org’s development initiatives.
Jonathan Greenblatt traces his commitment to public service back to then-Governor Clinton’s 1992 campaign in Arkansas, which led to a job as an aide in the Clinton White House and Department of Commerce, focusing on post-conflict economies. Greenblatt later co-founded Ethos Waters with Peter Thum CMC ’90, and went on to serve as vice president of consumer products after Starbucks acquired their firm.
While Shah and Greenblatt represent just a fraction of the fervent leaders working across the public and social sectors on innovations like pay-for-success bonds, we should also look to our peers at the Claremont Colleges. Harvey Mudd’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World has applied their technical expertise to harnessing solar energy, which powers the secondary school and hospital in the village of Ngomano, Kenya.
Young alumni offer us examples in which leadership and a willingness to take the road less travelled literally pays off. Each year, Pilgrim Place, a local retirement community, offers two $10,000 Napier Awards for Creative Leadership to graduating seniors at the five Claremont Colleges. Last year, Jacob Cohen PO ’11 won for his work with the Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans, launching the Raise Your Hand Campaign, which engages high school youth to form a collective voice and advocate for solutions to lessen the achievement gap.
Aside from providing us with an exemplar to follow, alumni across the Claremont Colleges are eager to share their own career paths. In the past two years, four Claremont McKenna students – including myself – have interned with Taryn Benarroch CMC ’05, the TEACH campaign project director at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). As one of her former interns, Hannah Lauber CMC ’12, reflected on her time at ED: “Taryn challenged me to think outside the box about my own professional path and to be open to unexpected opportunities. Working at ED helped me to better understand the relationship between the different players in the public sector, and encouraged me to think about how I could improve those relationships by fostering communication and development of shared goals.”
Just as the Obama administration has bolstered social innovation, the 5Cs and each student body have a responsibility to promote social sector work. Individually, the colleges should strive to break down their own institutional barriers between their alumni office and career services center, and give students more opportunities to learn from alumni who have prospered in the social sector. Finally, students, particularly upperclassmen, should share their knowledge with their peers interested in careers within the social sector. The social sector has captured my imagination, and I hope it inspires more 5C students to follow in the footsteps of the alumni who have gone before us.