Hao dives from private sector into state government
‘It’s not an obvious career choice,’ she says
A FEW YEARS after diving into the mosh pit at one of Nirvana’s last US performances, Yvonne Hao joined the high-powered consulting firm McKinsey.
Her star shot up from there, going on to become a CEO, investor, and board member at a number of companies, including an eight-year stint at Bain Capital, the investment firm with a strong connection to Massachusetts politics.
Now, she’s jumping into a different kind of mosh pit: Massachusetts politics. Straight from private equity, she’s Maura Healey’s new right hand on housing and economic development, the first person of color to ever hold the job, and also one of the first to ever go directly into the cabinet-level position with no previous government experience.
She’ll be making less money, while under more public pressure, and dealing with new levels of bureaucracy. So why take the job?
Speaking from her home in Williamstown in late February, where she was working the phones from isolation after testing positive for Covid, Hao described a desire to give back to the country that’s given her a “great education and career.” She’s the first in her family to be born in the US, and had grandmothers who had their feet bound in China.
Hao said she felt inspired by the Healey administration and by the challenge of what feels like a “unique moment” and inflection point for the state, with increasing warning signs about the costs of living and doing business.
“The intellectual question of what is the economic plan for the state of Massachusetts, that’s a really interesting question. I’m a very curious person and I’m excited to just figure it out, and go make it happen,” Hao said.
She met the governor at a campaign event with business leaders last April, according to the Boston Globe.
Hao’s background, which also includes economics degrees from Williams College and Cambridge University, could make her uniquely suited to the job, said Jay Ash, who led the department during the Baker administration.
“She’s schooled in economic theory and she’s been a practitioner,” Ash said. “I think Gov. Healey has smartly said, ‘If I have to err on one side or another, I need somebody who has substantial business acumen to help navigate the uncertain waters that are ahead.’”
High costs and taxes, along with ongoing transportation infrastructure and housing challenges, have pushed residents out of Massachusetts in droves–110,000 since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent Globe report.
And the growth of remote work has more companies eyeing the possibility of moving staff to places with more favorable tax regimes, like Florida or New Hampshire.
The politicians aren’t helping business leaders feel any more settled–the Fair Share Amendment in particular has caused consternation in C-suites across the Commonwealth and beyond.
“The business community frankly is unsure of where they stand in the relationship with Massachusetts and its political leaders,” said Ash.
But he sees Hao, who he called “likable” and a “great listener,” as a person who can help fix those perception problems.
She and Healey have “sent strong signals that they want to be relationship builders and more importantly that they want to be the champions who will help maintain Massachusetts’ overall competitiveness,” he said.
While Hao has laid out a number of long-term goals, she hasn’t exactly been able to ease into the job.
She’s had to get straight to work on legislation, including the administration’s immediate needs bond bill, and supplemental and official budgets.
She recently completed a sprint to apply for federal funding from the CHIPS Act, with the hope of harnessing the state’s tech companies and academic institutions to help the Defense Department create a “microelectric commons.”
And she’s been dealing with what she called “a bunch of crises” on the housing side, as cold weather has led to high demand at shelters.
That won’t be a central part of her job for long, as the Healey administration is planning to split off housing into its own office, with a dedicated leader experienced in that area.
But for now, “I own it,” said Hao.
“I have been spending a lot of time with the team there. I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can,” she said. Hao has an experienced team focused on housing, including some staff who have been around since the Weld administration. One of the department’s employees recently stayed overnight at an overwhelmed shelter to help manage intake, she said.
In the long term, though, Hao will be focused primarily on economic development. She’s centering her work around the economic plan that’s due at the end of the year, which entails setting up a council and holding regional meetings.
She hopes to bring more federal funding to Massachusetts, and to work on making it more affordable to live and work here.“I can come up with all the grand economic plans I want, but anytime I meet with any CEO or business leader or mayor, all the same topics come up: housing, transportation, childcare, health care,” she said.
“All the boats in the state need to rise with the tide. If that doesn’t happen we become an anchor, and it doesn’t work.”