HKS Student, Jay Finch,

“I grew up on the east side of inner-city Cleveland. From a very early age, I was acutely aware of the struggles in our neighborhood and developed a desire to do something about them,” said Jay Finch, M.C./M.P.A. ’18.

Photo by Natalie Montaner

Campus & Community

Growing up in Cleveland set Finch’s trajectory

4 min read

Departs Kennedy School with new frameworks for learning, leadership, and public service

At 32, Jay Finch, M.C./M.P.A. ’18, is one of the youngest among this year’s cohort of mid-careers, yet his relative youth belies an impressive list of accomplishments. Finch has worked in both the private and public sectors, having served in senior positions at the U.S. Treasury Department and the General Services Administration (GSA), and as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Born and raised in Cleveland, Finch calls himself a “platform-agnostic public servant” who is excited to tackle the many challenges facing the world. We spoke with him as he neared the end of his time at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).


Jay Finch

HKS: Tell us a bit about your upbringing in Cleveland and how it inspired your early career trajectory.

finch: I grew up on the east side of inner-city Cleveland. From a very early age, I was acutely aware of the struggles in our neighborhood and developed a desire to do something about them. Up until high school, I’d only met one black person — ever — who’d graduated from college and all of the black leaders I saw on TV were doctors, lawyers, or politicians. However, all of the problems I saw in our community seemed to be related to money or the lack thereof. As a consequence, I became very passionate about community economic development, household finances, and national economic policy.

HKS: What brought you to Harvard Kennedy School?

finch: During college, I participated in the Public Policy and Leadership Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School. The conference brought undergraduate sophomores from diverse backgrounds to campus for a weekend introduction to graduate school in public service. After that experience, the seed had been planted. However, it was not until I had been promoted into senior staff positions at Treasury and GSA that I felt compelled to come to the Kennedy School. My time at those government agencies taught me that public leadership was uniquely difficult for a myriad of political, community, and governmental reasons. As I thought about how I could increase my capacity to serve at the next level, I remembered my experience at the conference and decided to explore the mid-career M.P.A. program.

HKS: How did your Kennedy School education help prepare you for your next steps in life?

finch: The Kennedy School experience has been transformational for many personal and professional reasons. My wife and I have made deep relationships with other students and their families that I expect to be fruitful throughout the rest of our lives. Additionally, I’ve picked new frameworks for learning and leadership that promise to make me a more capable public servant. Like everyone, I don’t have a clear vision of the future, but I feel strongly that my time at the Kennedy School will prove valuable going forward.

HKS: In the fall, you will be attending Stanford Business School. How will business school training complement your Kennedy School experience?

finch: I tend to look at strategic decisions from three perspectives: why, what, and how. In this context, when I think about my career, my why is that my work is the manifestation of my relationship with God; my whats are the challenges I decided to pursue; and my hows are the technical and soft skills and processes I use to achieve my whats. The Kennedy School was about the whats, specifically what are the public policy challenges in the world, and how do I know whether they really are challenges. For example, my coursework on digital government helped me better understand challenges within civic technology. Stanford Business School will be about the hows, specifically how will I leverage finance and entrepreneurial skills to tackle the challenges. To keep the example going, I hope to learn skills that might help me build a social enterprise that could address civic technology problems. As a platform-agnostic public servant, my education at Harvard and Stanford are deep investments in my capacity to tackle the problems about which I am passionate.

HKS: What are the public policy challenges you hope to tackle once you complete your education?

finch: I am still very concerned about economic development and the financial security of households. However, I am increasingly concerned about America’s civic discourse and constructive, collaborative, and inclusive citizenship. I will likely focus on these areas after I finish school.

This article was originally published on Harvard Kennedy School’s Student Life web page in May. It has been lightly edited.