HBS Democrats Host Political Leadership Workshop

Do you ever look around your section and think, “I wonder who will be the next George W. Bush to emerge from HBS?” Many HBS students are interested in participating in politics at some point in their careers, but may be unsure how they can best use their skills to contribute.

To that end, the HBS Democrats hosted the Democratic Leadership Development Program (DLDP) on April 2, meant to provide insights and advice on how MBAs can get involved. The workshop was open to students of any political affiliation, and brought four accomplished speakers to campus. According to HBS Democrats co-president Jenny Abramson, “As a club, we believe business leaders can and should play an important role in the political process.

The goal of the Democratic Leadership Development Program was to demonstrate the many different ways business professionals can have a meaningful impact in politics and public policy – no matter what stage they are in their career.”

The first speaker was Colleen Burgess, who has applied her extensive experience as a fundraiser for political and non-profit organizations to found the consulting firm, The Mass Strategy Group. Ms. Burgess gave practical and actionable advice on how HBS students can tap into their networks to raise money for a cause.

“Identify forty people you know that can ask ten people [for donations] each,” she advised, “If you can get all of those people to donate just $25, you’ve just raised ten thousand dollars.” She continued, “Even if a contact is unable to donate money, perhaps they will be able to give you five or ten names of others who can.” In terms of specific events, she stated that breakfasts can be an effective way to raise funds, since they are relatively easy to organize and can fit into most busy professionals’ schedules. She then provided guidance on how to market the event, as well as ways to limit the event’s costs.

The second discussion, entitled, “So, You Want to Run for Office? (Or Maybe Not)” was led by Chris Gabrieli, a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist who later turned his attention to the public sector. Mr. Gabrieli ran for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts in 2002, and co-founded “Massachusetts 2020”, a non-profit foundation aimed at expanding educational and economic opportunities for families across the state.

Mr. Gabrieli advocated that business leaders participate in “the politics of substance”, urging workshop participants to get involved in their local communities and strive to make a significant difference in an issue they care deeply about. He noted that this may mean starting small, perhaps having an impact in just one neighborhood, and then building those efforts into a larger movement. Mr. Gabrieli stated that there is “lots of room for entrepreneurial thought” in the public sector, and also emphasized the importance of “building a network before you need it.”

Over lunch, participants viewed a video by Rob Stein of the Democracy Alliance, which compared and contrasted the development of the Republican and Democratic parties over the past 30 years.

The third speaker was Eric Schnurer, a former aide to several governors, U.S. Senators, and presidential candidates, and current president of the Public Works consulting network. Mr. Schnurer advised that campaign speeches should never exceed twenty minutes, and should emphasize that “…you’re ‘qualified’ for the job” and that “you ‘get’ what peoples’ concerns are. You should also show that you have some basic morality.” He also advised any future candidates to avoid staffing their policy committees with volunteers, citing the old adage, “you get what you pay for.” And for any HBS students interested in one day serving on a policy committee? Mr. Schnurer’s parting advice: “Be sure to keep your ego in check.”

The final speaker of the day was Brian Reich, who, at age 27, is already more accomplished than some twice his age. Mr. Reich began his involvement in politics at the age of 15, and was the youngest person to ever manage a U.S. Congressperson’s campaign. He has also served as former Vice President Al Gore’s Briefing Director. He now works for Mindshare Interactive Campaigns, where he monitors the impact of the Internet on the political process. He claims that the Internet is currently “the single most important way to drive discourse,” and that future politicians should not underestimate its power as an effective communications tool.

Mr. Reich also provided an insider’s view on all aspects of a campaign’s operations, and gave advice for what would-be candidates should do before throwing their hats in the ring. He advised that the first thing a candidate should do is hire an “outsider” to guide them, someone that will “keep the candidate in check.” He also advised that potential candidates examine their lives and look for any potential red-flags (“…every speeding ticket, every tax return…”) that could potentially create negative PR. If such items exist, Mr. Reich advised preparing a written statement in advance that could be sent out in case the other side brings them to light.

Mr. Reich also emphasized the importance of being consistent in all of your messages, even in the face of relentless press inquiry. He cited President George W. Bush as an excellent example of this: “When asked about his past, he consistently says, ‘I’m born again’, and the press has given up. The result is that now no one really bothers to ask him why, if he’s so committed to the ‘culture of life’, he was responsible for the most prisoner executions under any one governorship in history. He consistently moves the conversation in a focused and disciplined way.”

The Political Leadership Development Program allowed HBS students to learn how they may one day contribute to the political process – regardless of whether they aspire to contribute to an issue in their local communities, or to be the next Bloomberg or Bush.

The HBS Democrats Club plans to continue this program in future years, and is starting to expand the program to other business schools.

May 2, 2005
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