Profile: Byron Auguste (AZ ’87)

“The world’s biggest problems cannot be solved by one sector.”

Byron AugusteFor this profile, Byron Auguste (AZ ‘87), the global leader of McKinsey’s Social Sector Practice and co-founder and board chairman of the Hope Street Group, was interviewed by Ashley Bittner (FL ’06), joint MBA-MPP graduate student at The Wharton School and Harvard Kennedy School. Byron also serves on the board of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pacific Council on International Policy. He was also appointed to the White House Council for Community Solutions in 2010 by President Obama, and was elected a Successor Trustee of the Yale Corporation in 2011.

While receiving a doctorate in economics from Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar, Byron worked as an economist at the African Development Bank, LMC International, and taught international trade and finance at Oxford University’s Foreign Service Program.

Bittner: Tell me about your career path.

Auguste: While completing my graduate degree in economics, I did a project at the African Development Bank, funded by USAID. I was planning to go back to the AfDB the following summer to work on Angola’s economic reconstruction, specifically on regional economic integration. When the Angolan cease fire fell apart, I found a job as an economist in the private sector, and then later at McKinsey. If it weren’t for the Angolan civil war, I might have followed a very different career path.

Bittner: How did you come to McKinsey & Company?

Auguste: I began working at McKinsey & Company in the Los Angeles office. I developed expertise in the high tech sector, in everything from semiconductor equipment to software to IT services to Internet business. I had the chance to work on how technology trends were reshaping the global economy. I also led a couple of  strategy projects for a city and a public school system, which were eye opening experiences. My work at McKinsey opened new doors and provided opportunities to make a difference. In 2007, I was given the opportunity to lead McKinsey’s Global Social Sector Practice, and I moved from Los Angeles to Washington, DC to do so. Along the way, I got ever more deeply involved in public issues, co-founding Hope Street Group as a non-profit and serving on the board of the Hewlett Foundation.

Bittner: What does McKinsey’s Social Sector Practice do?

Auguste: We concentrate on innovative work with our clients to tackle major societal problems or opportunities to improve social outcomes in education, public health, and poverty reduction. We try to understand and help create conditions to scale up successes. Often, convening and involving institutions across the public, private, and social sectors is critical. It’s a global practice, with about one-third of our work in the United States.

Bittner: I know that the Social Sector practice has done work in education both in the United States and abroad. How is this work influencing education reform?

Auguste: We are focusing on better “delivery,” or systems management. Clear strategies are important, but executing an approach with consistency is usually the harder challenge. For example, rather than loading up more initiatives, it can be more powerful to focus on streamlining – doing a few important things really well. We try to focus on what’s most effective, while putting the least additional burden of complexity on teachers and system leaders, and giving them better data and tools.

We publish research on what we’ve learned from global education systems. The good news is that many school systems have dramatically improved their performance in the past 20 years. The bad news is that too few of them are in the US.

There is too little innovation in education, and too little scaling of the innovations that do prove their worth. There is less R&D in education than in virtually any other economic sector. I’m hopeful that the new Common Core will help provide a platform to bring a wave of productive innovation to American education.

In the United States, we focus on the inputs – student teacher ratio, etc – rather than outcomes. Our teachers are undervalued. In a “knowledge economy,” teaching should be the iconic profession, and it is not. We need to attract top talent to teaching on a much larger scale than we do today.

Bittner: Why is there little innovation in government?

Auguste: There is a reluctance to innovate in government. In the high tech sector, “failing fast” 4-5 times to create a winning product or service is considered normal and successful. In the public sector, there is a fear that tax dollars will be wasted, which makes it hard to learn from failure. Innovation can happen in the private and social sectors, and then be brought to scale by the public sector.

Bittner: You founded an organization called the Hope Street Group. What does this group do?

Auguste: Hope Street Group provides a way for people working outside of government to contribute to the shaping of better public policies to promote economic dynamism and widespread prosperity in the United States. Hope Street brings together problem solving teams across the country, and connect innovators and practitioners to policy makers. There are Truman Scholars on staff (Sam Roe, NY ’01) and many others serve as volunteers and supporters. There is so much problem solving capacity that we can tap into when we open up our collective abilities.

Hope Street focuses on education, health, and work. We tackle big questions that shape the character of our country. Our political discourse can be small relative to the magnitude of the challenges we face. But the American Dream is alive and well.

We have found that leaders across the political spectrum agree on goals much more than you might expect. They may disagree on specific policies, of course, but they can make a lot of headway in the right problem solving environment. Policymakers get little exposure to the practitioners – those who are implementing the policies at the ground level. Incredibly valuable innovation happens on the edges, and does not have an easy way of penetrating to the core of the system. By using an open source “Playbook Model” Hope Street Group has successfully incorporated innovators and practitioners, like educators, in the policy decisions that impact them.

Bittner: How has the Truman Scholarship influenced your career path?

The Truman Scholarship definitely implied a commitment to the public interest in my professional life. I never lost sight of that. It was a marker to make sure that I never strayed too far from contributing to the effective work of public institutions.

Bittner: It seems like there are a growing number of Truman Scholars who are working in the private sector or pursuing MBAs to make an impact.

Auguste: The world’s biggest problems can’t be solved by one sector alone. Being a “tri-sector athlete” – understanding private, public, and social sectors – is important.

Bittner: What advice do you have for Truman Scholars who are early in their careers?

Auguste: The Truman-Albright Fellows program is great. We didn’t have that when I received the Truman, but I would definitely have wanted to take advantage of such an opportunity. I worked briefly for USAID at the African Development Bank early in my career, and I am still drawing on it. I would recommend to Truman Scholars to get experience in government early in your career. If I could have done one thing differently, I would have spent more time in government earlier. I am gaining more experience working with public sector leaders now – and they are a very impressive and inspiring set of people. I would also recommend getting experience that spans across the private and social sectors early in your career, to expand your sense of how the world works and the very different ways that big problems can be tackled.



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