Felicia Wong Took a U-Turn in Grad School—and Now Runs a Think Tank
October 07, 2018 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Felicia Wong was halfway through her Ph.D. when she realized that academia wasn’t her thing. So she took some time “off” to teach at a public high school, and found her true calling: converting abstract ideas into “real-world” policies. Today, she runs the Roosevelt Institute, a New York-based think tank that specializes in economic research based on the ideals of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Here, she talks about learning to be a boss, how she deals with an all-day meeting schedule, and relaxation via “dumb shopping” with her 12-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son.
I GREW UP IN SILICON VALLEY, although it wasn’t Silicon Valley in the ‘70s and ‘80s; it was just Sunnyvale, California, full of cherry orchards and farms. My grandparents emigrated from southern China and my parents were both born here very soon thereafter. My mom grew up in Chinatown in Oakland, and my dad grew up in the Jim Crow South before moving to Oakland when he was 15. We had a middle-class upbringing—my mom was a teacher and my dad was an engineer—but our town was very white. I look back at my kindergarten class picture and I was the only kid with black hair in a sea of little blond heads. It was important to my parents that my brother and I understand where we came from, and they cared about Asian Americans having a voice in the civil rights movement that was happening in the ‘70s. Ours wasn’t an academic family, but it was one where social justice was valued.
WHEN I STARTED GRADUATE SCHOOL, I thought I was going to be a political scientist. Then I wound up on a different path for a couple of reasons. One was sort of selfish: I wanted to stay in California, and when you’re on the academic job market, you have to look nationwide. (Of course, now I’m in New York, but that’s a different story.) The second reason was that in academia, you’re mostly writing and speaking for an academic audience, and I was more interested in how ideas, policies, and research findings can influence the larger world. Also, at a certain point, I realized I was never going to be a great enough academic to make the kind of impact I wanted. Relatively few professors get to the level where they make a discovery or have an insight that affects people deeply outside of their field. I wanted to ask big questions and get concrete answers that could be put into action.
IN THE MIDDLE OF GETTING MY DOCTORATE, I decided that I wanted a break to do something in the “real world,” so I became a high school teacher for six years and totally loved it. The human element of forming relationships with my students was enormously rewarding. It also had a profound impact on the course of my dissertation, which was originally going to be about international relations theory and then became about access to quality public education based on race, socioeconomic status, and class.
AS I WAS FINISHING MY DISSERTATION, I went to work for the Clinton administration in 1998. It was quite a leap from teaching high school, and a complicated time for the Clinton White House. I had also just gotten married. When I got hired, my husband and I bought a 1982 VW Jetta and drove across the country to Washington. We slept in the car on the way there because we didn’t have enough money for hotels.
WHEN I STARTED MY JOB AT THE WHITE HOUSE, I had never even worked in an office before. I was 30, so I wasn’t young, but I’d spent my whole life in a classroom. For the first couple of years, I wasn’t very good at workplace logistics or etiquette. I didn’t know how to use Microsoft Outlook, or who talks first on a conference call. But in a way, not knowing what I was supposed to do led me to some interesting opportunities, like getting to co-author a book that was part of Bill Clinton’s race initiative. Somebody in the White House found out that I was writing a dissertation on race, and they needed a junior writer. I had no idea that this wasn’t really normal, or that I wasn’t “senior” enough to be an author on a book that was written from the perspective of the president, so I just dived in.
EVENTUALLY, I GOT HIRED AS A STRATEGIST for the Democracy Alliance, which provides funding for a number of research institutes and think tanks, and that’s when the opportunity to run the Roosevelt Institute came up. I had worked with my predecessor on a couple of projects, and one day he came up to me and said, “I’m leaving to go back to teaching, and I think you’d be great for this job. Why don’t you apply?”
IT’S RARE THAT ANYONE TEACHES YOU HOW TO MANAGE strategic planning, budgeting, and all this stuff that’s part of running a mid-sized nonprofit organization. Learning how to be a boss took me a while. I had a great mentor who had been a high-up administrative officer at Yale, and he showed me that a big part of being a good colleague and a good boss is not what you say, but how people hear you. Everybody brings a different perspective to work, and it’s your job to try to bring all of those perspectives into a cohesive whole, and communicate in a way that different people will understand. He also helped me learn how to sell an idea. How do you convince someone, like a school superintendent, to value what you’re doing? And how do you get people to give you money for it? If you’re not going to make payroll unless you close a contract in the next 15 days, you need to be able to make it happen.
MY PH.D. MAY NOT PLAY A BIG ROLE IN MY DAY-TO-DAY JOB NOW, but having it has helped me understand the sociology and psychology of academia, and that comes in handy running a think tank where there are a lot of people from that world. Many scholars who come to the Roosevelt Institute are looking for a platform to make a greater impact, and for to me to know what their normal university life looks like allows me to show them how we can add to that, and make their time here worthwhile.
THE ROOSEVELT INSTITUTE LOOKS PRIMARILY at economic issues like financial regulation, corporate governance, and the relationship between wages and benefits to overall economic growth. I know it sounds technical and mysterious, and whenever I talk about it I feel like Charlie Brown’s teacher: “Wah, wah, wah.” People’s eyes glaze over. But these issues are also very, very key to why our economy is so confusing right now, when it seems to be doing well but so many people are still struggling. It’s a huge puzzle, and trying to make the technical stuff relevant to everyday life is the crux of what we do.
A GOOD THINK TANK CONNECTS IDEAS TO AUDIENCES who will benefit from them. We use research to look at how the world ought to work, and then connect that information to specific policy recommendations and get them into the hands of people who can do something about them—politicians, reporters, and so forth. The Roosevelt Institute also has a legacy: Our point of view tries to combine what Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were great at, which was using government for the public good and incorporating human rights, gender rights, and civil rights into their work.
I KNOW THAT MY WORK GOES OVER PEOPLE’S HEADS SOMETIMES. I’ll start talking about structural analysis at the dinner table and my 12-year-old daughter will be like, “But mom, what should we actually do?” She wants to know what will make the planet a better place: Should she go into marine biology or become a karate teacher? She doesn’t want abstract solutions; she wants concrete ones. And I get that. But there are no neat answers to a lot of these questions. I think most people are trying to do the best they can. One encouraging thing that I do see right now is that people are trying to talk to people who are not exactly like them. We live in such bubbles, separated not just by race and class but also by political identity. And I know a number of people who are very consciously trying to understand why other people believe what they believe, and where they’re coming from, even if they don’t agree.
MY AVERAGE DAY IS FULL OF MEETINGS—check-ins with my direct reports, budget meetings, board meetings. Any work I can’t do in little half-hour chunks gets relegated to early morning or weekends. I usually get up sometime between 5:00 and 6:00 A.M. to try to get a couple hours in. Reading or writing that I have to do happens then. I also do a lot of travel for fundraising, academic meetings, and meetings with other non-profit groups. I go to Washington a lot.
I NEVER CHECK A BAG WHEN I TRAVEL. I always carry on, and the key is to bring only two pairs of shoes if possible: one to wear and one to carry. I also have an MM.LaFleur scarf that I bring everywhere—on the plane, in every meeting. It’s a hybrid of a scarf and a wrap, and it goes with everything, or I pretend it does. I just got back from a sabbatical, teaching at Deep Springs College in the California desert, and I literally wore it with overalls. It now has grease on it because it once got caught in the spokes of the one-speed bike I rode the whole time I was there, but I’m probably still going to wear it to my board meeting next week.
TO RELAX, I LIKE COOKING WITH MY KIDS, and it’s fun to shop with them too—like, dumb shopping at TJ Maxx, to see what we can we find for under $10. I know it’s ridiculous, but I really enjoy it. I’ll also watch Netflix with a glass of wine, or even better, a martini. I highly recommend Kim’s Convenience, which is a family sitcom but set in a Korean grocery store. It’s my new favorite show.
THIS IS A TERRIBLE THING TO ADMIT, but I also find it relaxing to do work-related reading. I’m in the middle of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, which is so good, and I can’t wait to get to Matt Desmond’s Evicted. I love reading a long magazine piece early in the morning. My husband is like, “Your idea of relaxation is more work,” which is a bad message, I know. But reading lets my brain go to this other place that’s not about budgets or HR stuff, and it reminds me why I’m so interested in what I do.
Photographs by Jeff Allen at the FDR Four Freedoms Park.