How to get in-and out of-politics
Sara Bliss :
It's not uncommon to pivot into politics from a different career. Yet, one of the probabilities of being an elected official is that another career leap will most likely be necessary. Three former New York City Council Members Eva Moskowitz, Gifford Miller, and Eric Gioia were all rising stars in local politics in the early 2000's. After serving in the Council for many years and failed bids for higher office, they used the opportunity to springboard into entirely new roles. From charter schools to real estate development to finance, they are examples of how a political career can lead to a variety of distinct and intriguing directions. Here, the three former politicians share how they got in-and out-of politics.
Getting into politics: I was a college professor at Vanderbilt University teaching American History, but I wanted to contribute to improving public policy. It was not so much that I loved politics, it was more that I believed so strongly in public service and the public good. I started as a volunteer for then Council Member Gifford Miller in New York. Later, I ran for City Council and served for six years.
Political life: It's an incredible honor to serve in the New York City Council and serve fellow New Yorkers. Not only do you have the opportunity to solve everyday problems for constituents, but one also has the opportunity to be a leader in the city. I did that particularly on education. Reason for leaving: I ultimately lost an election for higher office. It's sort of a well-known story that the Teacher's Union vowed to take me out-and they did. But I am really happy to be doing what I do now. At the end of the day, I would say while I was interested in many areas of public policy, my focus really was on reimagining public education and delivering more for kids. I really was able to do that by starting Success Academy.
Current job: We are now at nearly 50 schools for 17,000 children across K-12. We deliver not only core academic subjects but art, music, dance, debate, chess, and coding. It's incredibly satisfying to be on the service end of things. When I was in politics and government, as incredible as it was, we were often trying to fix things that didn't work. What I get to do at Success is figure out how to get it right from the get-go. Pivot process: My last day in the City Council was December 31, 2005. I started Success January 2, 2006. After I lost the primary, I had a variety of opportunities, but I really tried to take a step back and say, "What could I do that would materially impact the lives of children?" I decided the best thing I could do is create great schools. So that's what I did. Idea to implementation: When I started, I did not have an office or a school building or teachers. Other than getting a computer and a bank account and raising some money to start off-the first thing I really had to do was decide how I was going to design the school. Was it going to be a uniform school? Was it going to be arts-focused? I very quickly worked on figuring that out because I opened my doors August 21, 2006.
Challenges and results: When you're a politician, you're opining on policy and it's less managerial. I now have to deliver for children and families and I have to manage the organization. That's just hard to do. On the positive, when you manage it well, it is incredibly satisfying to know that one's actions and those of the team and enterprise are the difference between a child learning to read and not, or a child's shot at the American dream or not. It's very urgent work in that sense. It's not ten steps removed. It's very immediate.
Getting into politics: After college, I started out working for a great congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney. I then moved back to the city and got involved in New York City politics because I felt like I could make a difference in ways that were tangible and change people's lives for the better. I was elected to serve as a Council Member and then became the Speaker of the New York City Council.
Reason for leaving: I lost the primary for New York City mayor in 2005 and I was term limited as speaker of the City Council. I also felt honestly like 10 years on the City Council was an amazing experience, a real gift, but also long enough.
Next chapter: I got offered a lot of lobbyist jobs with real estate firms and developers. I decided instead to start my own real estate company focused on development in neighborhoods where I could bring a positive vision and positive change.
Pivot process: I partnered with a former investment banker Robert D. Frost and we launched Signature Urban Properties. Starting your own firm in real estate takes a long time. In the short term, I did some strategic consulting and gave people advice about navigating New York's governmental and political waters. I've mostly retired that, because my goal was to get the real estate firm up and running. Having had the experience that I had in government, I brought something to the table, but there was plenty to learn about financing, construction, and other aspects of the business. That's been one of the exciting parts for me. The key to doing real estate development is partnering well and recognizing where your strengths and weaknesses are and compensating for them.
Current work: The first project that we undertook was in Tunnel Park East section of the Bronx by the Sheridan Expressway. We found a non-successful industrial area that was driving down the neighboring community with all the kinds of activities that occur in non-successful industrial areas. We did the largest private rezoning in the history of the Bronx and near the end of the process of replacing that, we created 1600 units of affordable housing. In addition we created two public spaces, a playground, and cleared the way and provided the land for a new primary school, and about 40,000 square feet of neighborhood retail and community space. We try to look at development in a holistic way and through talking and listening to the community, figure out what their needs are and how we can meet them.
Goodbye to all that: In politics I got to work with a lot of really smart people and people who were really dedicated to the city. I really enjoyed what I was doing, but towards the end I was working seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day. I've found weekends are a really great thing. I also like being able to open the paper and be pretty confident that nothing disastrous about me is going to be in it. Perks: In my current job, I still get the feeling that I'm contributing to the city. In Hunt's Point we're working with the green markets to build a regional food hub. We're trying to build the first ground-up commercial building in the South Bronx in many decades. It keeps me interested in what I'm doing, and when I'm successful it's rewarding on lots of levels.
Getting into politics: I grew up in Queens and my family had a small family business-a flower shop that has been open for over a 100 years. I grew up working there, but I'm actually allergic to flowers. From an early age, I knew I had to do something else with my life. I worked my way through college at NYU as a janitor and doorman. Then I went onto Georgetown Law School. I got very lucky and got a job as a law clerk for the Deputy White House Counsel. There I was, a kid from Woodside, Queens walking around the West Wing of the White House. It was a pretty big deal for me. From there, I came home and I was practicing law. I looked at my neighborhood where I grew up, and I thought I could make a difference. I set out to run for office. I was elected to three terms on the City Council.
Reason for leaving: I ran for Public Advocate and I lost to Bill de Blasio, who's now mayor. That was a big question for me-what to do next. I contemplated running for office right away or taking some appointed position at some level of government. My wife, Lisa Hernandez Gioia said something to me that really shaped me, "We've had this great success at a young age, but it's important that you don't let it limit your identity. Your success in politics could be a starting point for the rest of your life ." That's when I began to think more broadly about not just the skills I had, but what I wanted to do and what the next several decades of my life would look like.
Deciding what path to take: I met with folks in different fields, connecting with people who had been mentors to me throughout my life and career. I spoke to folks in law, finance, tech, and folks who make movies for a living or had their own businesses. Each of them had really interesting things to say and saw different ways for me to fit into their world. E. John Rosenwald Jr. who is a Vice Chairman Emeritus of JP Morgan, and has been a mentor of mine, was very instrumental in talking to me about what I could be doing at the company and why I'd be good at it.
Current roles: I started as a Vice President at JP Morgan Private Bank and after a few years became a Managing Director. What was really attractive to me is that I work with family businesses, founders, and entrepreneurs and help them navigate both their businesses and their lives. I help them think about if they want to sell their company, expand it, or take it public. It's fast-paced like politics, but you also have to think about the long view. The similarity is that so much of leadership begins by listening and understanding what's important to folks. That really served me well in government representing a broad and diverse constituency, and that's served me really well in business.
Pivot process: I had to get up to speed on not just all that we do, but all that our clients would find valuable. In my first year at JP Morgan, I actually went around to many people I work with and asked them a) what do they read everyday? and b) what are the best books they've read in their career? I made a long reading list and I came in every weekend of my first year and put myself through school.
Career journey: When I think about my life, from janitor to White House to public official to JP Morgan, in each part I've learned a lot. I feel smarter and better today than I did 5 or 10 years ago, and I really hope that growth continues.
(Sara Bliss writes about career pivots).