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SEI25 Series: Henry Tsai (MBA 2017)

By: Henry Tsai 07 Mar 2019

This post is part of our Social Enterprise Initiative 25th anniversary blog series, which highlights some of the faculty, staff, students, and alumni who have been a part of SEI throughout the years. In this post, Henry Tsai (MBA 2017), shares his insights on pursuing a socially-oriented career path. Henry is currently a product manager at Facebook working on Civic Integrity.

What has your connection been to SEI?

During business school, I took elective courses from SEI faculty like Professor Rebecca Henderson and Professor Mitch Weiss. The Social Enterprise Summer Fellowship allowed me to spend my summer as an innovation fellow in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office. After I graduated, the HBS Leadership Fellowship made it possible for me to spend a year as a technology and innovation policy advisor in the San Jose Mayor’s Office. During that year, I also attended professional development days organized by Margot Dushin and Matt Segneri – who I also consulted when I was thinking through career questions.

What motivated you to pursue a career path in the social sector?

I wouldn’t describe all my jobs as being in the social sector, but I’ve increasingly tried to find socially-oriented roles. Looking back, the original motivation for this kind of work probably came from growing up in a family of immigrants and having a sister with a disability. The experience made me more sensitive to the needs of people who may sometimes find themselves at the margin of our society.

Over time, through school and my early jobs, I realized that I do my best work when there is something outside of myself. For example, before business school I worked at a startup called Astrid, and I was able to push through many late nights because I knew our app was helping millions of people live happier and more productive lives. It was incredibly energizing to receive messages from a user who could focus for the first time in his life despite his ADHD, from a bride who planned the biggest day of her life with her wedding party, and from a man who relied on our app to remember to take critical medication throughout his day.

By the time I got to HBS, I was thinking about how I can apply what I’ve learned in tech in a different way. I was considering different industries that could benefit from better technology when I attended a talk by Professor Mitch Weiss, who had been Boston’s late Mayor Menino’s chief of staff. He encouraged me to use my summer to explore – and that ultimately led me to the San Francisco Mayor’s Office.

What advice would you give to other alumni or students interested in pursuing a career in the social sector?

I’d start by briefly gathering data. When I started exploring the civic technology space, I reached out to a few people I knew who either founded civic tech companies or worked in the public sector. These early conversations helped me map the landscape of federal versus municipal entities as well as private versus public sector opportunities. From there, I had the information to decide how I wanted to spend my MBA summer. Throughout the process, I was surprised at and grateful for how willing people were to share knowledge, opportunities, and their network. 

Then, as soon as reasonable, just try it. It doesn’t have to be something like a big job change because there are so many ways to be involved, like starting a side project or volunteering. In business school, I started a platform to pair conservatives and liberals to have one-on-one conversations. It started really small – the first version was out the door in less than an hour – and as it grew, I invested more time and resources. This work gave me opportunities to meet other civic technologists, attend conferences, and generally be part of the space.

On the volunteering front, nonprofits and government agencies are often happy to take pro bono consulting work, especially if you bring a skillset they need. When I worked for San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, one of my projects was to work with a group of alums from HBS Community Partners who helped us think through the marketing strategy for our innovation efforts. We benefited tremendously from their expertise, and it was a great way for them to have an inside view of how the Mayor’s Office operated and meet leaders in the city.

How would you describe the social impact you seek to have in the world?

The founder at Astrid would always wash whatever he used – a mug or a plate – plus one more item from the sink. The idea has stuck with me. I’d like to try to leave the world better than I found it.