This interview is with Yiaway Yeh, mayor of Palo Alto. (Download the audio recording of this interview.)
- American University (undergrad)
- Peace Corps
- Harvard Kennedy School
- Morgan Stanley
- Harvey Rose Associates
- Mayor of Palo Alto
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. I’m currently 34. I went to undergrad at American University and got a bachelor’s in political science. My graduate work was at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and I studied public policy there with a focus on public finance.
Career-wise, I’ve had fun adventures throughout my life. I started in the Peace Corps. I served two years in West Africa and then worked for different governments, primarily local governments in California, Massachusetts, and Florida, sometimes directly for elected officials, at other times for different government functions and offices.
But after grad school, I switched sectors and explored the public-focused private sector industries. So I was a banker for a while with Morgan Stanley doing public finance and then also did public sector consulting with Harvey Rose Associates, which is a San Francisco / Los Angeles-based consulting firm. I’m currently serving as the mayor of Palo Alto.
Q. Tell us how your career path has taken you to your current role.
A. Sure. For me, one thing I feel fortunate about was that I knew I always wanted to be involved in something that had a public service or community aspect to it. That started way back in high school; I was involved in student government.
When I got to college, I focused on political science. American University is in Washington, D.C., so I was very much exposed to, not just domestic affairs, but international affairs, and that’s how I got into the Peace Corps.
I took French for many years — middle school and high school — and thought I wasted my time because I never used it. But the Peace Corps provided an opportunity to go to a French-speaking environment. And actually, along the way, I’d heard it was just a fascinating place to be.
So my first foray into public service and government service was in a rural village environment that really opened my eyes to the concept of living in a community and working with people who live in that community with you, and trying to improve your own community. It was an early lesson in my professional life. And growth as a person was really important for me to have right after college, and it stuck with me.
But one of the biggest lessons that stuck with me was I observed a lot of the international NGO donations that a village benefited from. I was based in a village health center that had been donated by the Dutch. And as I watched the physical infrastructure, it was quite old; it was falling apart.
I would ask questions of other local health professionals: “What’s going to happen when this building falls apart? Are you saving to actually rebuild this health center?” And they said, “No, we’re actually going to rely on donations from another NGO.”
From a purely strategic perspective, you think about that and say, “That’s not the best approach. You’re basically hoping and you aren’t really planning.” And that was a lesson that stuck with me. Ultimately, it was an incredible environment, a cultural immersion experience.
I came back to the U.S., and at that point, I was 23 or 24 and thought, “I think I just had the best experience of my life. What in the world am I going to do now? I’m only 24. I think it’s only going to go downhill from here.” That’s not a positive thing to think at 24, especially as it relates to your career or profession.
But fortunately for me, I ended up working with a local elected official at the county level in California: Rich Gordon. He’s now a state assembly member in California. What it taught me was basically, local government served for me almost like a domestic proxy for the Peace Corps. It was a whole other immersion, where I grew up really close to this county that I was now working in and for.
Part of the experience I really gained was that this particular elected official was focused on affordable housing. Affordable housing takes money both from the private sector and the public sector. And so this theme again of “how do you pay for basic services” really came to the forefront of my experience professionally.
Ultimately, there was an affordable housing trust fund that was started in this county, San Mateo County. And the highlight for me again was, “Here’s the way to plan. Here’s how you actually start creating financial resources for ultimately something that’s going to be important for the strength of a community.” You want people to be able to afford it in some place as expensive as San Mateo County.
At the same time, when you go through professional experiences, you start self-assessing. You say, “What are the gaps that I have as it relates to knowledge, professional training, academic training?” And that’s where I got really interested in public finance.
And I said, “Okay, here, I’ve seen two environments — a rural international context, and now a very wealthy domestic context, but then one that still faced challenges that came with having a lot of wealth in that environment.” I wanted to take it back to school, and ultimately, that’s when I decided to go back to graduate school and focused on public finance when I was getting my public policy degree.
What was important there was I fell into an environment that had an incredible set of colleagues. And I’ll be the biggest proponent for people working before they go back to grad school because you get immediate, relevant professional context to then think through all the models or frameworks or theories you’re learning in the classroom, and you have personal experience to draw from that creates relevance for what you’re learning in grad school.
So for me, it was incredibly helpful to have that public finance exposure and two years to just focus on a lot of the academic and theoretical underpinnings of public finance.
When I left, one of the important messages that Harvard imparted on all of its graduates was that you should focus on something called “tri-sector competence.” So even if you truly love working in one particular sector, and for me, that had been government — I worked in the Peace Corps, at a federal agency, and then local government at the county level, so I knew I really enjoyed government service — they said, “You can always learn something that’s relevant to your destination sector, your destination career that you envisioned for yourself.”
And so for me that meant, “Well, I should probably explore the private sector.” And I decided to go to Morgan Stanley. I can share with you that when I shared that decision with my Peace Corps friends, they were blown away by it. They said, “Oh my God, you’re such a sell-out. How could you go to Morgan Stanley?”
I said, “I appreciate what you’re saying.” But when I asked them, “What did your health center do when you talked about planning for the facility, because there’s no access to capital markets in West Africa? You can’t actually issue debt, for example, like we take for granted here in the U.S., at the local level in West Africa.”
So there was a rationale and a lot of exploration. That’s what Morgan Stanley really provided — this environment for me to understand how long “long hours” can actually mean. We worked hard, from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m. almost every day, and it was a lot of rigor.
It was an environment that taught me a lot. Ultimately, I was on the national healthcare team and we were helping public hospitals and non-profit hospitals issue debt for projects like increasing the number of beds in a hospital. So it’s very helpful to learn those kinds of details in that kind of environment.
For me it was important to stay true to my roots, and I did make it back to California. And while still pursuing a career — I ultimately shifted to consulting — there was an opportunity to then run for city council. So when I came back from New York to California, I ran for city council at the same time that I started a consulting career.
And I really enjoyed this aspect of implementing and policymaking through the city council role while also pursuing this other career where I got to work with the biggest cities in California — San Francisco, Los Angeles — that really brought a comparative context for what I was doing in Palo Alto.
Q. And that was for a city council role in Palo Alto?
A. That’s right. I ran for Palo Alto city council. That was while I was working at Harvey Rose Associates, a local government consulting firm based in San Francisco but that focuses a lot on Los Angeles and San Francisco.
That was about five years ago. Fast-forward to today, and I’m focusing on being mayor now, but all of my experiences, from these public sector introductory experiences to grad school to adventures on Wall Street to consulting — it really paved the way for me to feel I had strong professional preparation and academic training to serve now as mayor of Palo Alto.
Q. It sounds like from that first experience with the Peace Corps, public finance has been a theme that has shaped your world view.
A. Exactly. The interesting part is this year, as mayor, I’ve called it the “year of infrastructure.” It’s exactly looking at these public finance issues.
Every single local government in the country is working through a combination of issues. One is on a compensation piece of public sector employment, and the other one is just a lot of the stuff that we did to invest in streets, sidewalks, parks, public safety, IT support.
It all happened almost a generation ago. And so we just have to work through how we balance these issues of the people that deliver those services and how we compensate them and, ultimately, the physical infrastructure and physical assets we use to deliver these services and programs to the public.
So only through hindsight can I say there’s a line that connects it all. When you’re actually going through it, you meander through things and you try to figure out, “Well, how do I build on the experiences I’ve had that helped me to grow as a professional and person ultimately?” And in this sense, I feel fortunate that a lot of what I experienced feels very relevant to what I’m doing today.
Q. That reminds me of the Steve Jobs quote from his 2005 commencement speech, that you can’t connect the dots going forward, but they become clear looking backward.
Q. You were with the Palo Alto city council while doing public sector consulting at Harvey Rose. When did you decide to run for mayor?
A. I should explain structurally how it works within Palo Alto versus bigger cities. The first thing is, 60 percent of all cities in the United States have a city council / city manager form of government which is actually a part-time role. City council members generally do have a full-time job, and then the city council is a part-time role for them.
So for me, it really was a matter of making sure I could stay focused on my career while also giving back to my community. I grew up in Palo Alto. There’s a tremendous affection I have for this community in terms of the values that have been instilled in me and also the cool community it is today.
One piece I didn’t mention was actually after public sector consulting with Harvey Rose, over the last three years, I have served as assistant city auditor for the City of Oakland. So I was transitioning from this consulting role for these cities to then being almost like an internal oversight function for another big city in California — Oakland.
And a lot of what happened there was the juggling that people have to make when they think through their careers. I commuted from Palo Alto to San Francisco every day. I commuted everyday from Palo Alto to Oakland. That means I was in a car for at least two hours every single day for almost five years.
And so, when people think through careers, you think, “How do I juggle things that I want to pursue that is a mix of my professional interests?” Maybe you’re pulled to wanting to serve your community. And here is where that structure of when you have city council and city manager comes in. The mayor rotates in Palo Alto every year, and it’s a one-year term.
It’s a sprint. The best way to describe it in Palo Alto is it’s a sprint to really try to put your stamp and your mark on your role in one year as mayor. For me I was fortunate enough to be able to focus this year on being mayor full-time and not have those two hours of commuting that I was doing for all those years before.
Q. So your full-time role is as mayor.
Q. Is the one-year term not renewable? Does everybody just get a one-year term?
A. No. We have nine council members, so basically, every January — the start of every calendar year — we pick new leadership for the city council. There are people in the past who have served as mayor three times.
We have term limits now, though, in Palo Alto, so it’s more difficult for people to serve repeated terms as mayor. So being able to focus and be mayor of Palo Alto this year for me has been something I knew and saw really as a unique opportunity in my career.
Q. Is the mayorship a rotating position among the city council?
A. Well, rotating kind of implies that everyone will have a chance to be mayor, and we have nine council members and we have a term limit of two consecutive terms of eight years total. So if you do the math, if everyone were to run — you have eight years max on the council, and there are nine of us — then it’s almost inevitable that one person won’t have the opportunity to become mayor. And people choose to run for re-election or not run for re-election as well.
So for me, the opportunity to serve as mayor of my hometown really became something I just wanted to really focus my efforts full-time on.
Q. The council roles are elected. How is the mayor role determined?
A. In Palo Alto, it’s selected by your colleagues on the city council. You’re right, every first meeting, the city council is elected by voters in Palo Alto. Here, we have the very traditional way — you knock on doors, you get to know people, you do community events. You participate in a lot of community events just to get out there and hear what people are thinking or are concerned about.
And for you, you can also then share what your hopes and visions are for the city council. Then every January, we pick new leadership; we’ll pick a new mayor and a new vice-mayor.
Now, it’s September 2012; I’ve been mayor for about nine months, and a year goes by incredibly quickly.
Q. What do you do day-to-day as mayor?
A. I think being mayor, in particular of Palo Alto, is such an adventure because every week I’ve been mayor has been something incredibly different. There’s a mix of things I do.
One is clearly the role and function as a city council member. I am still, and function exactly as, one of nine.
But as mayor, I run the meetings. So we have meetings every Monday night. Ultimately the mayor works with the vice-mayor and the city manager, who actually functions like the CEO of Palo Alto.
The city council is almost like a board of directors of a corporation or a non-profit, and the mayor is basically the chair of that board. And we just happen to be very public, though, so all of our board meetings are open to the public, as are our agenda items.
As mayor, I really work closely with the city manager and vice-mayor to create the agenda and the items that will come forward. So we structure the topics, the policies. Basically, we are the legislative body, so it’s a legislative function of the City of Palo Alto. And as mayor, it’s making sure things move forward in as orderly a fashion as possible so that colleagues can move through issues.
In community meetings or facing the public, you interact with the public in so many different ways. When you have issues that come before the city council, you want to have that kind of relationship with community groups, neighborhood associations, non-profits, businesses, all in the community to talk through something.
I’ll give you an example. A lot of what cities wrestle with is land use — major land use decisions. What happens with housing? What happens with development of commercial space? And to have these networks that basically the city council members can reach out to and talk to on any given issue around land use, it’s so important to understand the potential impact, the potential benefits for Palo Alto.
The other part is the ceremonial aspect of being mayor. I consider Palo Alto as the heart and soul of Silicon Valley. It’s the birthplace of Silicon Valley for a lot of the ingenuity that rose from our residents and also the energy that comes from Stanford University. So as a result, we have a lot of new businesses that open up in Palo Alto.
So one ceremonial — I’ll call it responsibility but it’s really something that’s a lot more fun — is ribbon cuttings. You get to go and explore a lot of the new energy and creativity and animation that new businesses are bringing here into Palo Alto.
We’re fortunate because we have very low office vacancy — actually single-digit percentage in vacancy for commercial space in Palo Alto. And it’s a mix of retail, but then Palo Alto is really helping to be the birthplace of a lot of these innovative technology companies.
When you go to these ribbon cuttings, you see people’s passion that’s poured into this kernel of an idea that’s now taking shape and taking form, and it’s all happening in Palo Alto. It’s a really cool gig. It’s a really fun way to interact with people because you just get excited for them and for your community when you see people being able to pursue their passions. It’s something I truly get excited by.
The ribbon cuttings — I think as old-school as that sounds because ribbon cuttings have been around for generations — are still a tradition that I think has been one of the highlights for the service of anyone who has served as mayor in Palo Alto.
Q. Are there other common issues you face as mayor that are unique to Palo Alto?
A. For Palo Alto specifically, there’s one particular initiative I’m excited to be working on right now. Early this year, we had some great companies step up and it was focused on the innovation community. They are all High Street-based companies — one is called Innovation Endeavors, one is Talenthouse and another is Institute for the Future.
They came together and basically approached us, the city, to support a “hackathon,” and it was a block-wide party hackathon. It was new to me. I’d heard of hackathons. I’d participated in one before, but this was a block-wide one.
And basically, as a city, we shut down the street and they came in and rigged it so that there was additional bandwidth for a lot of hackers to be able to work on different projects. Food trucks and mariachi bands all came and we got about two thousand people to turn out for this incredible event which we called “Super Happy Block Party.”
And for me, the theme of my career has really been, once you go through an experience and get an opportunity to reflect on it, you say, “What does this government need that would enable this kind of activity, if truly beneficial, to happen more regularly?”
One initiative I’m working on is called the Innovation Council of Palo Alto, and I am pooling together people who are part of the innovation sector and community. And so it’s helping to inform Palo Alto on how it could stay as innovative as possible, because what would not be good is for any community, particularly a community as fortunate as Palo Alto, to have this history of innovation, to then be resting on its laurels, and to not say, “We need to be proactive in how we actually foster this ongoing innovative spirit within our community.”
So, the Innovation Council concept is really about how do we get an advisory body that basically lets the City of Palo Alto know things like, “Here are issues that are important: affordable housing.” Young professionals who are paid in stock options can’t use that to pay their rent, so you want to be able to make housing affordable for our innovative young professionals.
Another one too that comes up, an example we wrestled with in Palo Alto, is how do you make it so that there are “lifestyle” options. Young professionals do like the ability to go out at night. We’re a very family-friendly community, though, and we don’t want pulsating club music ringing through all of our streets — but you also recognize some people still want to have a couple options like that in Palo Alto.
This particular project has been really exciting because it’s such a broad way of thinking about the future of Palo Alto, and then basically trying to cement the way a lot of people identify Palo Alto, but in a way that honors how government can be and saying, “Look, we need an advisory body that really keeps government informed and bringing people together that can help us stay informed and be strategic.”
Q. What do you find most exciting about your public service experience and what do you most wish you could change?
A. For the part I’m most excited by, I’ll say that if public service is in anyone’s heart, that’s ultimately what I think is most rewarding. There’s a lot of “heart” aspects to just being in public service, and if you know you like helping the community, you like being involved in community initiatives — I’m going to steal from Oprah and call it a “full-circle moment.”
When I first became mayor, there was a tree planting I got to do at Gunn High School, and Gunn High School is one of the two public schools in Palo Alto. It’s the high school I went to. And every year, the mayor gets to do a tree planting somewhere in town, and I got to do mine where I went to high school.
In that sense, it was very full-circle. It was next to the principal’s office, and I was joking with the principal, “I wonder how many disciplinary meetings this tree has now been a witness to.” Just acknowledging that this place is really what helped instill certain values in me, along with my family. That’s what’s been most rewarding. It’s these kind of emotional connections to these great events in the community.
In terms of I wish I could change, we’ve really put a concerted effort in making our government as efficient and effective as possible. Government is known for sometimes moving more slowly, and there’s a lot of good reason for that. That comes with being prudent, acknowledging that we have a responsibility to not be rash with taxpayer / resident payments into a system that they ultimately want to feel is responsive and responsible at the same time. Because of this, sometimes we have a slower process.
As someone who has worked in the private sector, you take certain things from the private sector and want to apply it to the public and say, “What would be helpful or more efficient?” because you hear a lot of frustration sometimes from residents as it relates to a housing project or a commercial developer that says, “God, this is taking me years and I really wish we can move faster.”
Ultimately, I’m not one to advocate purely efficient processes; you also have to be mindful that the worst case for governments is when you see government money that’s been misappropriated or misspent, or there’s been fraud or abuse or waste of public funds, and there’s a lot of public scrutiny that comes along with any risk like that.
So you want to be prudent the entire way and ultimately balance being effective with being efficient. And so I think that’s the part where it’s a huge challenge. There’s no silver bullet. It’s so different for every single community, and that’s my Peace Corps history talking. It’s so different for every community.
In Palo Alto, we’re working on improving it, but we also know we have to balance it with different interests.
Q. What is the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned in working effectively with different community stakeholders?
The reality in Palo Alto is that, if you’re working on any given project or initiative, you’re going to meet someone who has a Ph.D. in it, someone who is an expert, has published on it, is working on the thing that’s actually in the news in that field.
So what you need to do first, especially if you’re in public service here, is just listen: “Here’s an issue I’m trying to tackle as an elected official. And ultimately, I respect and want to hear what your perspective is on this particular issue or policy.”
And ultimately, the challenge, of course, is when you have multiple Ph.D.’s that have different perspectives, or multiple experts who have different perspectives, that you then have to begin to reconcile. And the only way you can effectively reconcile and help people feel as if they’ve had an impact — because people just want to know they’ve been able to have that effect, that their input has been integrated into some kind of solution you’re looking for, and the only way you can really reach that sweet spot at the end of the entire process — is if you truly listen on the front-end.
That takes time, and that gets back to the efficiency aspect of government where, while city council is ultimately accountable for the decisions and budgets, you can’t be top-down and always drive stuff because this is a community where you have this incredible diversity of opinions and perspectives.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future, and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. Great question. The reason I wished your website existed while I was growing up, and even now, I’ve shared that I’m going to benefit from a lot of what you’re doing in drawing out the narratives of people’s professional lives and experiences.
My term on city council ends at the end of 2012, and in 2013, I’m actually moving to Nashville, Tennessee. The reason is, for me personally, family is really important and I’m a newly wed actually and my wife has just become a professor, a really great tenure track position in the department of political science at Vanderbilt University.
At the end of the day, I will say that for everyone tuning in and watching, a career is so important, but you always balance it out with these different interests in life. And for me, family and knowing how to balance things ultimately are incredibly important.
So the immediate term is three months away. I’m going to be moving to Nashville, Tennessee. And right now, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to be doing, but I know it’s going to be a merging of these public-private relationships and approaches that I think in this period of limited resources for both public sector entities and private sector companies, you try to figure out, “How do you do more with far fewer financial resources?”
There are some opportunities I’m considering in Tennessee that ultimately will allow me to explore this — but in an environment that has country music, great barbecue, a lot of new places and cultures we get to explore together.
Q. What advice do you have for others who may be interested in doing some of the things you’ve done, and in particular who may be interested in elected office?
A. I’ll speak to my current role as mayor. I think one of the healthiest things I’ve always kept in mind is, as an elected official, it’s so important not to craft your own identity as being an “elected official.” It keeps you grounded; it keeps you humble. Ultimately, if you are there in the name of public service, it’s so important to always remember that.
That’s why the listening is so important. You have to hear what people’s interests are because you are representing their interests. And that keeps you also connected to all the different stakeholders in your community, and that’s critical in public service.
You have to know the different perspectives that relate to whatever you’re working on. Whether you are currently in a non-profit environment, you still have to know what the government thinks about your non-profit work. You have to think about what the private sector thinks and how it interacts with your non-profit.
So it gets back to the tri-sector competence concept. It sounds like such a bold term in some textbooks. Pursue these different perspectives professionally, but it’s very relevant. Everything increasingly is interconnected because of technology and perspectives.
And the more people focus in a proactive way on gaining that knowledge to say, “Well, if I’m private sector, I have to be concerned about how government might oversee or regulate my industry. Or how non-profits then might ultimately serve these outcomes that are coming from my company.”
In that sense, I think that was the best advice I got when I was at Harvard and it’s really how I’ve tried to channel what I’ve been doing in my career since.