Lessons from Inside the White House
Lessons from Inside the White House
Five MBA students recall their experiences working in the nation's capital, and what it taught them about life, leadership, and patriotism.
18 Jan 2017   Christian Camerota

Ahead of Inauguration Day, five Harvard Business School MBA students shared memories of their time working with officials at the highest levels of the United States government, the lessons they carry with them from their time at the White House, and what’s going through their minds as the country transitions to new leadership under President-elect Donald Trump.

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What were some of the key takeaways from your time at the White House?

Greg Allen: What it takes to build a coalition. The federal government is an unimaginably huge enterprise. To get anything done, you really can’t do it alone. You have to think through how you’re going to get all the stakeholders on board with your vision, and then how you are going to mobilize toward action. That was something I got to experience firsthand, and is something I still think through to this day.

Taniel Chan: The White House is often called the People’s House, and it truly is that—it’s not just open to the public simply in terms of visitation, but also in terms of diverse backgrounds. I came from a first-generation American family. My parents weren’t born here, neither graduated with a high school degree. So, the thought that people like them can immigrate to the US and have children that can grow up to be successful reminds me of how alive and well the America dream can be. It can be difficult, but I’m very grateful for what this country has offered me, and I’ve grown very appreciative of what the White House means and can be for those who seek it out.


Lisa Marrone: We talk a lot at HBS about what motivates people and what makes them want to thrive at work. Having worked at the White House the summer before HBS, I came here knowing compensation is less motivating than other things like really believing in the work you’re doing and being surrounded by brilliant people who are equally passionate about what they are doing.

What was most surprising about working at the White House?

Roxane Duka: Having access and exposure to someone like (former Secretary of the Treasury) Hank Paulson (MBA 1970), really at the very beginning of my career, was transformational in so many ways. He was extremely smart and competent, but I also got the sense that he was just a human being doing the best job he could. I think it made me feel like anything was possible in my own career in a way that I hadn’t before.

Taniel: How accessible people were. The senior White House staff put themselves out there to make sure that we, as employees, were appreciated. People share a lot of anecdotes about Joe Biden because he’s such a character, and he’s someone who’s quick to show how grateful he is for other people working in public service. When we first met him, he spent a good four-to-five hours greeting each of us one by one.

Greg: I was surprised to learn how truly passionate folks at the White House are about getting things done in a productive way, and how uninterested they are in getting the credit. My office in particular was led by Tom Kalil, who has subsequently had an HBS case written about him, and one of his favorite lines is to quote Harry Truman: “The less interested you are in taking credit, the more you can accomplish.”

With Inauguration Day coming up, and given your work with senior U.S. officials, what is going through their minds on a momentous day like this?

Greg: Inauguration Day is a sacred tradition in this country. There is the spectacle, hundreds of millions of people around the world watching this moment, and emotions are running high. All of the focus is on this one individual who is about to take the oath to defend the Constitution and execute the Office of the Presidency. The fact that we’re all in that moment together is extraordinary. There’s also the connection to history: the individuals who have held this office before, the institutions they swore to protect and defend, and those who have successfully and unsuccessfully done so. The amount going on on Inauguration Day is pretty difficult to exaggerate.


Roxane: When you get to the White House, you realize the job that you’re doing and the office you’re working for is so much bigger than you are, and that there’s a lot of symbolic power that comes with every public statement you make and the effect it can have around the world. It also makes you really believe that you as an individual or as part of a small group can have a huge effect on the world.

What is going through your own mind as a new administration takes office?

Lisa: Most people view this as a peaceful transition of power that we should rightly be proud of, and many are also worried about what this particular election means for the future of our country. Where I come out is that patriotism has to do with love of country and not love of party or even love for a particular policy. So the best thing that I and others can do is think about how we can all help move this country forward. Try to carve out a niche that is personally meaningful for you, and think about the ways you can change things one degree at a time to achieve an end state that you believe in.

Taniel: It’s a perpetual reminder of our democratic values that there can be a peaceful transition of power. What will make this particular inauguration an emotional one is who the outgoing president is. This was the first president that I was an adult under. To have had the opportunity to serve his administration is something that I’ll never forget. I’m also trying my best to look forward with optimism, because I don’t think one person defines this country. I don’t think it ever should.


Nathan Bruschi: There is work to be done and there are many ways to do it inside and outside of government. What’s really interesting about HBS is that it proves there are many ways to serve your country and advance causes that you care about outside of just government. There are many nonprofits and for-profits that by their very operation impact a lot of issues that people care about. The ideal career is one where in times when your party is in power, you go and serve your country in government. In times when it’s not, you can go advance those causes through private business. That’s what I hope to do. I was always proud of the people I served. And I hope that the future occupants of our highest offices can be proud of the people they serve as well.

What advice might you offer to any leader trying to make a positive difference in the world?

Roxane: Be humble. Seek the advice of others. There are a lot of people who want the best possible outcome, a lot of very committed citizens who want to contribute their time and energy to the path forward, and they’re eager to give you their advice and help if you ask for it.

Taniel: Part of me thinks that, for better or worse, we’ve arrived at an inflection point in history. I think countries around the world, ourselves included, are becoming increasingly fearful of globalization and increasingly insular. And I think what the president-elect and leaders across the world need to do is understand what it means to be empathetic. I think both parties in this election cycle were flawed in that they didn’t do a good job of empathizing, and at the end of the day, it means a lot to citizens to feel heard. Our job as people, and especially for leaders who set the example, is to take the time to be genuinely curious and to understand where all constituents are coming from.

Nathan: President Trump needs to acknowledge the enormous work that has to be done at home to repair institutions and communities that I think have been split apart by the election. I would hope he would use the enormous opportunity he has, the majorities he has in both houses of Congress, to create a post-partisan, bipartisan government, one that is capable of enacting change across the aisle.

Gregory Allen (MBA/MPP 2017) worked with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2015 in the Technology and Innovation Division, where he was responsible for leading initiatives on microsatellite technology and robotics.

Nathan Bruschi (MBA/MPP 2018) worked for the White House in National Security Affairs in 2015, where he provided logistical support for Vice President Joe Biden’s meetings with foreign heads of states.

Taniel Chan (MPP/MBA 2017) worked with the National Economic Council in 2015 on economic and workforce development policy, and the TechHire initiative aimed at helping people from underrepresented backgrounds transition into high-paying technology jobs.

Roxane Duka (MBA 2017) worked in the Office of Cabinet Affairs under President George Bush, predominantly on confirmation hearing preparation for Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson.

Lisa Marrone (MBA/JD 2017) worked at the National Economic Council in 2014, focusing on manufacturing and small business policy, specifically how trends in 3D printing and advanced manufacturing would impact the manufacturing sector and apprenticeships in the 21st century.


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