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Josh Wright ’98, Ideas42

Josh Wright ’98, Ideas42

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A conversation with Josh Wright ’98, the executive director of Ideas42, a nonprofit with the mission of using behavioral science to design scalable solutions to some of society’s most difficult problems. As part of his current role, he helped establish and staff the federal social and behavioral science team during the Obama administration. Prior to Ideas42, he led the Office of Financial Education and Access at the United States Department of the Treasury. 

Josh is interviewed by Sharan Subramanian ’24.

Josh Wright: Because I chose SOM because of its mission and the fact that you could be sitting in a class next to someone who had been a teacher on one side and an investment banker on the other side, and that there were people who ... Large swaths of the class, regardless of what career they wanted afterwards, they were really concerned or interested in having some sort of social impact in their career and doing the right thing.

Sharan Subramanian: Welcome to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. I'm Sharan, a student in the MBA class of 2024. Each episode of Career Conversations is a candid conversation between a student here at SOM, that's me, and a member of the Yale community who's doing something that I'm curious about, kind of like an informational interview, except you get to listen in.

Today's conversation is with Josh Wright, the executive director of ideas42, a nonprofit with the mission of using behavioral science to design scalable solutions to some of society's most difficult problems. As part of his current role, he helped establish and staff the federal social and behavioral science team during the Obama administration. Prior to ideas42, he led the Office of Financial Education and Access at the United States Department of the Treasury. He has held previous leadership positions at the Center for Community Change, Bertelsmann's Random House Incorporated, and Booz Allen Hamilton's commercial strategy consulting business.

He also has experience as an elected official, having served on the Tacoma Park City Council for four years. He has served on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Behavior, and has been a visiting lecturer at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Josh holds a BA in economics from Wesleyan University, and he graduated in 1998 with his MBA from the Yale School of Management. He calls Tacoma Park, Maryland home and lives there with his wife and three children.

Hello, Josh, welcome to the podcast. It's great to have you with us. Your career is very impressive, to say the least, but can you walk me through your career to date and share any achievements that you're especially proud of?

Josh Wright: Sure. Well, it's great to be here with you. I have to say that I wish I could fairly and honestly say I had some grand plan at the beginning of my career and it panned out exactly as I wanted but I think the reality is it's like a combination of serendipity, luck, and some intentional decision making along the way. I think there are some overarching themes that I've thought about as I've managed my career, and one is to do things that I'm passionate about or interested in, and the other is that in the long term I was trying to have social impact. Then lastly that I often think about my career as a decision tree. Not surprisingly, my mind kind of works in that way, even before I went to business school, but if you thought from your decision making classes about a decision tree and as you make choices about your career, what future paths are you pruning off and which are you leaving open?

The short version of my career is that before business school, I worked in the nonprofit sector first at an organization in New Haven called LEAP, which is an educational and social development program for kids ages seven to 15, and then later on as a community organizer in Harlem, helping tenants to purchase their apartment buildings from the city of New York. I then went to business school with this idea that I wanted to learn a lot more about business and how markets operate and be able to use that for social good. If you had asked me leaving business school how long I was going to be in the for-profit sector, I probably would've said three or four years. I then spent about 10 years doing a combination of management strategy consulting and then being a corporate executive at Bertelsmann, the big German media conglomerate, and I think that was an amazing experience. I actually tell people all the time that if you're going to go into the for-profit sector and you want to return to the nonprofit or government sector, actually don't do it for a short period of time. You should really do it for a lengthy period of time because it takes a while to learn, develop your skills, build credibility, build a set of networks in the for-profit world that can be helpful later.

Then I left the corporate world and then wanted to explore a couple other avenues, again with the idea that I could use my skills for social good. I did two things. One is I ran for local elected office and I was a city council member for four years in my city of Tacoma Park, which is right outside of DC because I thought I might be interested in being an elected official. Then the other thing was I helped to run a social venture at the Center for Community Change using my business skills to help them figure out like, hey, this business that had a double bottom line mission, could it be successful? Those were both great experiences.

I then actually decided that I wanted to try and work in the Obama administration, partially because I wanted to have a government experience and partially because I was really inspired by President Obama, and so I went to the US Treasury Department, and that was really serendipity. A guy named Michael Barr and Sendhil Mullainathan heard about me from somebody, they wanted to do a bunch of behavioral science projects at the Treasury Department, and we met, they realized I had the right set of skills, both in terms of behavioral science knowledge, but also knowing how to get things done in the real world and in complex organizations. I did that for a little bit more than two years and when I left there, I went to ideas42. Ideas42 had been created, it was only about 12 people, and the academics who created it sort of realized, "Well, we don't really know how to run an organization or turn it into something that has impact." I've been doing that for the last 11 years, and now we're 110 plus person organization with a budget of about $20 million. We have a venture studio, a policy lab, and we're the leading organization doing applied behavioral science in the world.

That's kind of the path of my career, and you can see in there that there's some luck and serendipity, but always pursuing things that I feel passionate about.

Then in terms of things that I'm particularly proud of, one is I would say that is just an overarching thing of always trying to stay and being successful in staying true to my values and not losing track about what I care about. When you go into the corporate world, it's hard because A, you're making a lot of money, but B, all of the social norms and the values of most people around you are to spend that money on material goods and get what I call the golden handcuffs or refer to the golden handcuffs. You buy a bigger house, you send your kids to private school, you get used to certain levels of travel or fancy cars, and then the idea of taking pay cut, I'd probably make about 1/10th of what I would be making in the for-profit sector if I had stayed on that path, is very hard. I think staying true to your values about being humble and realizing why you're doing what you're doing and being focused on social good in the long run, I'm super proud of that.

Then I think the other thing that I'm proud of is establishing the social and behavioral sciences team in the Obama administration. I was doing that from the outside, but we used ideas42 and funding from outside foundations to lend people to the federal government to set up that team and then had impacts on millions and millions of people.

I think the third thing I would cite about being proud of is just what we've built ideas42 into. I don't say what I've built it into because I think it's a team of people, but since I've been there, we've been able to grow from 12 people, as I said before in about a $1.5 million budget to 110 people and a $20 million budget. With that, it's not so much about the people or the numbers, but the impact that that can have, then that means that we've been able to impact tens of millions of people and make behavioral science not as ubiquitous as we'd like it to be, but much more ubiquitous as a problem solving tool.

Sharan Subramanian: Thank you, Josh, for sharing that background on your career. One thing that I was really curious about that I was hoping you could elaborate on just based off of what you said there was this concept of values. It's clear to me that impact is a core value for you, but I was wondering if you could just share perhaps a few other guiding values in your life that have been central to how you've made decisions and how you've decided to lead yourself?

Josh Wright: Yeah, one is I think I try to be a good Boy Scout, which to me that means always try and do the right thing. Sometimes that means you have to make tough decisions and admit fault and say you're sorry. I know that doing the right thing morally or ethically is a subjective judgment, but I always think about sort of like, hey, if this decision was on the front page in the New York Times or I had to explain it to one of my grandparents, would they be like, "Yeah, you did the right thing," and I think that's an incredibly important value. Then third, I would say just making sure you're always engaging with and treating people with respect. Everyone is a human, regardless of how successful they've been, whether they've had challenges in their life or wild success, and I think you just got to treat people with dignity and respect in how you engage with them. I think if you have those three things of trying to do social good, having a good moral compass, and trying to stick to that even when it's uncomfortable and might not be to your advantage, and just treating people with respect across the board regardless of who they are or how you've come to meet them.

Sharan Subramanian: Got it. You briefly alluded to this, but going back to your career, given the diversity of your experiences, I was wondering if you could share a little bit more about what motivated you to become involved in behavioral science and specifically to step into your current role at ideas42.

Josh Wright: A little bit of luck, and I think actually underlying curiosity. One thing about me and I would really encourage people to do is continuously be curious in life. For me, that's reading a lot. I read a lot of stuff and I really encourage people to read long form content, meaning books. I think too often we get sucked into our phones or reading short-term articles and really setting aside time to read or listen to long form content is important and be a lifelong learner. It could be that type of thing, reading content, or there's a great edX class that's the Harvard kind of most well-known class about computer science that I took about two years ago just because I was like, "I want to learn. We're doing more in machine learning. I want to learn the basics of computer science." I think some of it is just being curious.

What that meant is when Nudge, one of the first books about behavioral science came out in 2008, a funder of mine at the time when I was at Center of Community Change suggested to me, and I was an econ major undergrad and I graduated in 1993, I went to SM and graduated in 1998, and neither of those places was there any talk about behavioral economics or teaching about behavioral economics. I had a very traditional economics education. I felt it was very helpful way to look at the world, but also not particularly helpful in terms of how humans actually behave. When I read Nudge, I was like, "This is super helpful framework, but let me not stop here. Let me start reading basically everything I can find about behavioral economics and much more about psychology." That meant I read The Person in the Situation and other books that were at that time, the popular books in behavioral economics or psychology, but not just reading the books.

Then if I was reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, I would say like, "Well, let me actually read the studies that Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book," and I can realize which ones he was totally concluding incorrectly and created some bullshit because he wanted to tell a good story as Malcolm Gladwell does, but actually reading the underlying studies and understanding what they really have to say and how rigorous they are. It's just a fascination.

That's sort of the curiosity and the luck is then that, as I mentioned before, Sendhil Mullainathan, who's one of the founders of ideas42 and has written a book with Eldar Shafir called Scarcity, but is also one of the preeminent thinkers in behavioral economics. Michael Barr just happened to get my name as someone they should talk to to potentially hire, and that's just luck. Then when I talked to them, they're like, "Oh shit, this guy knows a lot about behavioral science despite not having a PhD in social psychology or behavioral economics."

Then I got the experience of working very closely as Sendhil for about two years. And that I feel like really gave me the experience of getting a PhD in behavioral economics without having to write a dissertation or do some of the, I'm quite quantitative, but I didn't have to do a lot of the really heavy quantitative things you you'd do to get a PhD. That was just kind of luck.

Then when I was looking at whether I should join ideas42 was really three things. One was the behavioral science, I was super interested in it. Two was the potential for a massive social impact applying behavioral science because it was a nascent field. I could see that we had an incorrect understanding of how humans operate, particularly as it relates to public policy. Then three was I've always enjoyed throughout my career building things, growing things, and this was an opportunity that had all of those three components and it seemed like a great fit, so that's how I ended up getting into it. That's kind of the combination of the luck and the curiosity.

Sharan Subramanian: Yeah, no, very interesting. Similarly with regard to ideas42, as you're running this organization, and I'm sure no one day necessarily looks the same, but to the extent that you, can you share with our listeners a typical day in the life for you at work?

Josh Wright: Yeah, I think you hit it the nail on the head. I think not just that ideas42, but any executive director of a medium to large nonprofit, there is no typical day in the life of, and that's one of the things I actually really love about my job is that the days are very varied. I don't come in and feel like I'm doing the same thing.

There's no Groundhog Day aspect to my life. I think it's more helpful to think about what are the broad arcs of how I spend my time. About 30% of my time is spent on fundraising activities. That's either talking to funders, connecting with others within the organization to funders. Money is the lifeblood that makes a nonprofit operate and allows you to have social impact. That is a big part of what I do. Then about 30% of it is engaged in internal management, helping the director of operations or the director of people operations or the finance director think through internal management challenges or talking to the managing directors who are running the different focus areas. Then about 10% of my time, 15% of my time is spent on strategy. That often can be in chunks, whether it's strategy for the organization overall or strategy for individual focus areas.

The way we're set up is that we work on behavioral science, but the world organizes itself in different fields, so we have someone who runs our global health field and someone who runs our post-secondary education efforts. Those each need their own strategies. So that's about 70% of my time. I would say 15 to 20% of my time is spent on the mundanity of just communicating and answering emails and that sort of stuff, and then 10% of my time is spent on reading and writing, trying to do thought leadership or as I was saying, learning myself. Now of course, that learning yourself and curiosity extends way outside the typical workday. That's basically how my day goes. That means some days I have lots of meetings with people internal or external to the organization, and some days it means that I have a lot of solitary work, but it's very varied.

I think the one thing that's very constant about my work is this idea of selling, selling ideas, whether it's when you're talking to people, fundraising, you're not asking them for money, you're selling the work that you do, and then because they're excited about that, they give you money. Or internally, if we're having debates about strategy or projects we're going to do, you're selling people about ideas. You have to be convincing, you have to think through facts and details and evidence to support the ideas that you have.I'd say that's kind of a good synopsis of what a day in a life is for me.

Sharan Subramanian: Yeah, no, it's a really good breakdown. I think what you said there about selling or marketing internally and externally is a very interesting point.

Josh Wright: Yeah, I think we underappreciate, when we're in business school, a couple things. One is that there's lots of emphasis on the really hard skills, and most of those are quantitative, thinking about the details of strategy, and we undervalue some of the softer skills that might be in organizational behavior and thinking about management, but we also, I think undervalue selling and just how important selling is regardless of your career. Every place I've ever been, when I was at the Treasury department, I was selling. One of the things we did was we tried out a pilot where we sent tens of millions of people this offer to get a savings account at the same time as tax time when they got their tax return. That is not something the US Treasury Department has ever done. You have to go sell that ideas to lawyers, you have to sell that idea to, not to the secretary or the Treasury Department, but to the deputy secretary. They have to be convinced because that could end up in the news and there could be questions about it. The thing I've learned is everywhere is all about selling almost all the time. Yeah.

Sharan Subramanian: Yeah. No, I completely agree. With regard to business school and the general SOM community, I noted that you were named a Donaldson Fellow last year. For our listeners, the Donaldson Fellowship honors Yale SOM alumni that embodied the school's mission to educate leaders for business and society. What does this honor mean to you and has it changed how you interact with the SOM community at all?

Josh Wright: It's an amazing honor to me because I chose SOM because of its mission and the fact that you could be sitting in a class next to someone who'd been a teacher on one side and an investment banker on the other side, and that there were people who ... Large swaths of the class, regardless of what career they wanted afterwards, they were really concerned or interested in having some sort of social impact in their career and doing the right thing. To choose the school, to go for that reason, then try to live the mission of the school afterwards, and then being honored for that was amazing and really important to me.

It also was really nice and a great honor because it allowed me to reflect on my career a little bit more and my path. One of the great things was my friend Stacy Hightower, who's a classmate of mine from SOM and one of my best friends from business school, got to introduce me at the ceremony. Hearing someone else who you care deeply about reflect on you was amazing.

But it also caused me to really reflect on how lucky I've been. I grew up in a family that didn't have a lot of resources, and there was times when my family was on food stamps because my father was unemployed. I can remember being in the grocery store at that time, food stamps, you actually got these physical stamps. They looked a little bit like monopoly money. I can remember being four or five with my mom in the supermarket. When you'd paid with food stamps, it took much longer because the clerk had to make sure that you were buying the correct things and getting all of these dirty looks from people behind us in the line. When you have experiences like that and then you realize government is actually is so criticized, but I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for many aspects of government, like food stamps help feed my family when I was a young kid and my dad happened to be unemployed. I went to an amazing public school in Boston, Boston Latin School. I was able to go to college and business school because of federal financial aid loans. None of that happens. These massive institutions of government or places like Yale really form you and give you massive opportunity. That was the other thing that was just so nice about the experience reflecting on that.

Then it has actually increased my engagement with the SOM community. One of the nice things as part of that, you come on campus and you get to select a group of students you meet with. Meeting with those students, getting connected with those students is great. It's deepened my desire to be involved in reunion and obviously to give back financially in any way that I can because again, because of SOM, it's a big reason why I'm successful as an individual. I want to create more opportunity for others who don't have those opportunities to have the same chance of success.

Sharan Subramanian: Yeah. Thank you for sharing. Yeah, I thought it was really special that one of your former classmates introduced you at the ceremony, that is pretty unique.

Josh Wright: Yeah, you get to choose who might introduce you, and Stacy was a great person.

Sharan Subramanian: Awesome. On a totally different note, switching topics here, you recently interviewed Daniel Pink about the power of regret, and it was such an interesting conversation. Let me just say speaking personally here, Josh, thank you for doing this because regret is something that's not talked about enough and something that I think about. I'm just so grateful that you took the opportunity to interview Daniel about this topic. In this conversation you discussed how talking about regret could be used as a tool in organizations for greater connection. I'm interested in understanding how you think such an environment could be fostered at ideas42 and in similar organizations to help people feel comfortable with having such personal conversations.

Josh Wright: Yeah. First I want to say Dan Pink is amazing and I want to plug his book about regrets. The interview was about his book that he's written, and Dan Pink is one of my favorite people, and he is an amazing storyteller, so I encourage anyone to read that book and it gives you a totally different perspective on regret as a powerful tool to motivate you and to make changes in your life as opposed to feel bad about past things.

First I would say when I think about ideas42, the conversations related to regret don't all have to be personal. All the time in work we make decisions and we make mistakes or we make the wrong decisions, and we could have regret about those things. I think it's also reflecting on, well, how might you interject conversations about regret more frequently into the work?

One way to avoid regret is to have pre-mortems. If you ask yourself the question at the beginning of projects or work, "Well, if we make these decisions or what might we regret afterwards?" it helps you do that positive reflection. Then also on the postmortem side, afterwards, just processing with your teammates and talking about what went wrong and what went right. Sometimes we have regret when it's not really fair to ourselves. Yeah, we feel like we would make a different decision, but we would only make that decision differently because we had additional information. If you went back, you wouldn't make the decision differently. I think those are two really concrete ways you can sort of interject elements of regret around the work.

Then I think your second point is exactly right. There are these things about personal elements, and I don't know how much you've read about the concept of psychological safety and sense of belonging. There's a massive study about psychological safety showing that it is the most important thing in effective teams. It's a work in progress at ideas42, but really trying to get people to connect personally and share is important. You can't force that. You can't require people to do it, but you can create spaces where it happens, often in smaller groups, and you can do that during retreats or within smaller group meetings at times. There is this social norm aspect that happens around it. You can't force people and you shouldn't force people or you want them to feel totally comfortable, but if you share as a leader and show your vulnerabilities and other people start sharing and people see that others are accepting of that and open and noncritical, then it creates a positive social norm around and cascading effect. It really does cause people to understand each other better, be able to empathize with each other, put themselves in each other's shoes more effectively, and become better teammates. Also, I think sometimes those conversations about personal stuff are about regrets that people have and processing through and talking that through is super helpful.

Sharan Subramanian: Yeah, and really appreciate some of the techniques that you shared there. For instance, the concept of the pre-mortem is something that I was hitherto unfamiliar with. Certainly postmortems we talk about in retrospectives, but I think the pre-mortem and asking ourselves what might we regret is a really good technique of potentially eliminating some of those forthcoming regrets.

Josh Wright: Yeah, I love pre-mortems. We try and do them on all of our projects and work. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner, I think the only psychologist ever win the Nobel Prize in economics talks quite a bit about it in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Yeah, I think it's a very powerful tool. It's very hard to avoid planning fallacy and overconfidence generally, but pre-mortems can really help with those issues.

Sharan Subramanian: Certainly. Following on from this, how would you say the workplace and your approach to managing your team at ideas42 has evolved as we've transitioned into remote work and back out again over the past three years?

Josh Wright: I think we're really fortunate, ideas42, because we're now in a hybrid work environment, and I think we weathered the storm of being fully remote quite well because of elements of our culture that we already had in place. Already we're a non-face time culture and an output culture. We already always said to people, "Our preference is to have you be in the office, but if you're going to be more efficient and it's better for you to work at home on a particular day based on the deliverables that you have, you should do that." We don't have any 9:00 to 5:00 hours. Before, if it was better for you to come in from 11:00 to 8:00 or 12:00 to 9:00, or maybe someone wanted to get in at 7:00 and leave at 4:00, that was all totally acceptable. We just asked that you communicate and share with other people on your team and your manager about how you were going to get the work done. Ultimately the manager cares does the work get done in a high output, high quality way? That's the first thing. If you don't have a face time culture and you're about ownership and trust, then it makes it much easier when you move to a remote environment.

The other thing is we're not a huge organization, but we've always had people in different parts of the world, so we are not so huge that we would say, "Okay, we're going to launch this project and everyone on this project's going to be in the DC office." It might be that two people are in the DC office, one person was in New York, one person was in San Francisco, someone might've been in South Africa. We already were using Zoom a lot and had these kind of elements of teammates being in different locations. It actually made the transition relatively easy.

I think the thing that we've struggled a little bit with and we're getting better at is how do you then create those intentional connections? How do you have virtual happy hours? How do you play trivia games as a team in a happy hour? How do you have virtual retreats in the heart of the pandemic? Thankfully, this year we're coming back together in person to do a big retreat in September. We typically do an annual retreat, and we're going to continue that. The one thing I would say and take away from it is that we need to increase the number of times where we bring everyone together or bring chunks of people together to create that kind of more informal connection.

Then the last thing is I think it's just important that you over-communicate, realizing that there's going to be less of this informal communication that happens and so you need to over-communicate about changes and decisions and just make sure that you are doing town halls, but also emailing people about the information because maybe everyone doesn't go to the town hall or someone misses a detail or not just doing email because not everyone has time to read the email, and if there's a town hall they're more likely to attend. Just over-communicating I think is also super important.

Sharan Subramanian: Certainly. Josh, before we launch into a conversation about your time at SOM, one more question on your career at large. Was wondering if you could describe the pivot from government to nonprofit work and talk to me about which skills specifically were transferable between the two sectors?

Josh Wright: Yeah, the pivot, it didn't feel like that much of a pivot, but so many of the skills are very transferable, whether it's logical thinking, analyzing problems, communicating. We talked about selling before, being a good verbal and written communicator, assessing the politics. You're just assessing the politics on a different scale. When you're in government, you're assessing the small P politics of everything that's going on in the building of the Treasury Department and you're assessing the national politics. Am I going to get someone called to the Hill to testify or talk about this thing that they were doing? But even when you're in an organization or a big company, there's a lot of politics within companies and understanding what people's self interests are, what their motivations are, all those sort of skills are the same.

I think it's just realizing that the context you're operating in can be different. In the government, it can be quite bureaucratic, and I don't say that in a bad way. It's like the reality of the government. It's a massive organization. The federal government is the largest, it's much bigger than any company that exists. Even the Treasury Department when you include the IRSs is tens of thousands of people. Large organizations often require more bureaucracy because you have to check in with more people, but you're also in the public eye all the time as we talked about. The processes to make decisions are more thorough because you need to check in with everybody and make sure there's more checks and balances of are you making the right decisions? But the skillset is very similar. All those things that we learn about managing people effectively and analyzing situations thoroughly, and writing clearly and logically and selling ideas. The skills, to me, were surprisingly similar. It's just how you deploy them in the context can vary a little bit and sometimes quite a bit.

Sharan Subramanian: Now with regard to SOM itself, first, can you share with our listeners a little bit more about why you decided to attend SOM in the first place?

Josh Wright: Yeah. First was like, "Okay, should I go to business school?" I was about three years out of undergrad, and I had been very fortunate to help run LEAP, this program in New Haven. One of the great things about that program and that opportunity was right out of undergrad, I was managing 20 people, which is very, very rare, and then doing tenant community organizing and seeing how housing operates in New York and just feeling like I was at disadvantage because I didn't really understand how markets operate and how businesses make decisions. I did theoretically, yes, I'd taken economics classes, but I didn't really know how those worlds worked. I felt like I really need to understand that more effectively, and that would be a good set of skills to have.

First it was a business school, and then when I started to look at business schools, I was actually quite late in the process and SOM really seemed like the right fit for me. It turned out that SOM was one of the few places that didn't require you to take the GMAT. They would accept the GRE, and I had already taken the GRE, so I was like, "Well, SOM's my first choice. I'll apply to SOM and then if I don't get in, I'll apply to a wider set of schools." It was about this mission, that you would learn, it was a business school, there was no confusion about you weren't going to some public policy school or going to learn to sing Kumbaya and drink Kool-Aid. It was hardcore business skills. But I really love that they took this perspective that you could learn about the nonprofit sector at the same time you could learn about the government sector and how those three things interact. That was really the reason I chose SOM.

There was other things too. I liked the slightly smaller class size. I really like New Haven as a city. I think it's a good place to go to school because there's stuff going on there, but it's not so big that you might be distracted like you could be in New York or Boston. Yeah, those were really the reasons, and it turned out to be an amazing fit both from the people I met and what I learned and my relationships with professors were amazing. Sharon Oster and Kathy O'Regan and Doug Rae and Barry Nalebuff were all people I took classes with and then became TAs for. Kathy O'Regan, who's now at the NYU Wagner school is still one of my close mentors and people I go to advice for. Yeah, it was just an amazing experience and totally the right decision for me.

Sharan Subramanian: Got it. You started briefly talking about some of your favorite professors, but if you can recall, can you share what some of your favorite classes were at Yale SOM?

Josh Wright: Sure. First, I would say that I think that there's this very shocking thing that occurs to you pretty early on, and I think I uncovered it earlier than maybe some of my classmates, but this was not me as a student, I was not an all A student, but so many of your classmates are super smart, super successful students, and they're used to getting all A's. So much of that in undergrad is figuring out what do you need to tell the professor back to get the great grade. What do you need to regurgitate? Pretty quickly, from a game theory perspective, you realize with the grading system, it's going to be very hard to get a distinction, and there's no way you're going to get a distinction in every class. My strategy was choose one or two classes that you really, really like and you feel passionate about, and you want to get to know the professors better and really aim to get a distinction in those classes. In the other classes, learn what's interesting to you and think that it will be useful because you're going to end up with a proficient.

Some of my favorite classes were, I don't know what it's called now, but there was an intro economic analysis class, which is really sort of understanding the basics of how microeconomics, how businesses make decisions. Yah, I'd taken a micro class in undergrad, but it was much more practical and from the perspective of government actors and business actors and understanding monopolies and oligopolies and competitive markets. That was an amazing class, super helpful, really loved Sharon and Kathy and Barry Nalebuff's strategy class, those. I think my favorite were the economics and strategy classes.

As I said, I think underappreciated the organizational behavior classes. If I could go back, I probably would've paid more close attention in those classes because I think you learn things about leadership in those classes that end up being very useful five years out in your career as you start to manage and lead organizations.

Sharan Subramanian: Got it. Finally, SOM specifically here, were you involved in student government or any clubs?

Josh Wright: Sure. I was involved in the Internship Club, raising money for the, I don't know if it still exists, but there was a, I forget the name of it at the time, but there was a club that was involved in raising money for internships for people to do nonprofit internships over the summer. I didn't do one of those, but I was quite concerned about that. That was a big one. Then I think there was some sort of social venture club that I was a part of, but I spent a lot of my time being a teaching assistant. I really liked teaching. I actually for Doug Rae and Kathy O'Regan, they taught this class for the undergrads called New Haven and the Problems of Urban Change, so I was their teaching assistant for that class.

There was also at that time, something at SOM called the Community Renaissance Fellowship Program, which was a funded fellowship. The idea of this, it was started under Cisneros, Secretary Cisneros at HUD. The idea of this was sort of trying to create a White House-like fellowship, but for people related to urban change and urban policy. There was 20 fellows selected. It was a two year program. They would then come to Yale for six different times for week-long sessions over those two years, and then they were placed at a public housing development somewhere around the country that was working on urban renewal. There was a program called Hope Six at the time and most public housing developments were trying to do these mixed use, layered levels of financing kind of projects. I was the research assistant for that with Doug and Kathy and some other Yale undergrad professors. That took a lot of my time, which was amazing opportunity. Me and some other classmates taught something called Math Camp or Finance Camp explaining finance to all of them, but also putting together case studies.

One of the exciting things was I grew up in a neighborhood in Boston, which was actually the largest urban renewal project in the sixties in terms of geographic areas called the South End and they did something very different in the neighborhood. In most neighborhoods. They bulldozed tenement and created high rise developments and put in highways and really actually screwed up communities. In my neighborhood, they did a smaller set of incremental improvements, and there was an amazing housing stock. It ultimately caused a lot of gentrification, which wasn't great for some of the people who lived there, but there were also elements of public housing in smaller chunks where the people remained and got the advantages of the neighborhood improving. One of the great things is I got to write a case study about that, and then we toured the neighborhood with the fellows. That was probably the biggest way I spent my time because I spent probably 10 hours a week employed by them doing that work every week.

Sharan Subramanian: Wow. Yeah, really cool to hear about the wide variety of ways you were involved at SOM. Before we let you go, Josh, a few closing questions. First, what's one piece of career advice that you have for anyone thinking about attending business school?

Josh Wright: Just don't lose sight of why you're going. Be clear going in about what you want, and once you get there, don't fall into the norms. You're going to get there and lots of people are going to be talking about going into investment banking or consulting or going and doing a tech startup. Great if that's what you went in with your intention of wanting to do but if you change your mind from what you wanted to do, make sure you're changing your mind because you're doing an honest assessment of what you want your life and career to be like, not because you're not just following the sheep and giving into the pressures of social norms. That would be my biggest piece of advice.

Sharan Subramanian: Certainly. Next, Josh, do you have a favorite book, podcast, or resource that you'd like to talk about?

Josh Wright: I'm actually going to pitch a book that is by a Yale professor, by Zoe Chance, called Influence is Your Superpower. We now, anyone who starts with ideas42, we give you a series of books, but a bunch of those books are about sort of like, "Hey, we want to make sure you read Thinking Fast and Slow and Nudge and deep behavioral science books or Scarcity." But I think Influence is a Superpower is the most helpful book in terms of, as a professional, how do you think about all the lessons from behavioral science and how that should cause you to change how you operate in the world. We give it to every person who starts at ideas42. I found that when I read that book that there were many hard lessons I'd learned about how to operate in the world that Zoe was showing you. I could have known from the beginning because behavioral science basically explains why those approaches are successful and the right way to approach things. Definitely. I would also pitch The Behavioral Scientist, which is an online magazine that ideas42 has created with some other organizations. Super engaging and interesting free resource for people to sign up and read and get information from.

Sharan Subramanian: Great. Moving forward, if our listeners want to follow you and your work, where's the best place to find you?

Josh Wright: If you want to follow the ideas42 work, I think ideas42's Twitter feed is good. I'm a periodic poster on Twitter about stuff that ideas42 does, but also more political commentary sometimes, so you can follow me there. But I think mainly looking at the ideas42's channels, either the website or the Twitter feed, and seeing all the work that we do, much of which I contribute to, but I think that's probably the best way.

Sharan Subramanian: All right. Lastly, Josh, is there anything that we didn't ask you about that you'd like to answer or talk about?

Josh Wright: The thing we didn't talk about, I think, in careers is the cliche that's so true, which is it's as important who you know as what you know. I say this all the time to people that I advise and mentor. The networks of friends and relationships you build are so important and don't do it in a Machiavellian way. You'll meet some business school classmate that you realize is going to be successful or is already rich or comes from a rich family or something, but if they're a jerk, forget it. Don't be friends with them.

But there's so many people who are interesting and going to do great work in their lives, and it's not an Machiavellian way, it's just like you want to be connected to them, you want to share what you're doing, and it's so helpful later on. I would say probably 50% of my value at ideas42 is that colleagues want to talk to somebody at X Foundation or in particular place of government or Y company, and it's that I'm like, "Oh, I know somebody there, and then I connect them." I'm also shameless of taking the most small connection and reaching out to people and talking because I realized I want to talk to those people. Interesting people are fun to talk to. Just that element of intentionally fostering and growing your network of people that you care about and that you want to do good things for and they want to help you is so critically important. You got to nurture those things.

For some people, it just happens naturally. They're gad flies, they talk to tons of people, but for most people, you have to nurture that stuff and just nurture it in a genuine, true way, not in, again, a Machiavellian way. You're going to meet lots of people who you like and just further those connections with people you like. Some of those people will be lifelong friends and have no help or influence in your career, and some of them will be lifelong acquaintances and have massive help in your career. It's doing it from the right place again, but critically important, we didn't really talk about that.

Sharan Subramanian: Yeah, no, it's such a great point, and I think it's such a phenomenal way for us to close out the conversation, speaking to the importance of relationships and how at the end of the day, what will persist are those genuine relationships, not those ones that are derived for purposes of advancement or otherwise, but really what will sustain are those relationships where we are generally interested in the other person.

Josh Wright: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, it was great to spend time with you. Thanks for doing this interview and doing these series of podcasts for people. I'm sure it's very helpful to SOM students. At any point if an SOM student wants to talk to me or I can be helpful to, you can find me on LinkedIn. If you just put in Josh Wright and ideas42, I'll pop up as the only person and just message me, and then I'll arrange a time with my assistant to talk to whatever SOM student would like to chat, or I could be helpful in any way.

Sharan Subramanian: Wow. Yeah, very kind of you to say that, Josh. Yeah, we so appreciate your time today and above all, very fortunate to have you as part of this community. Thank you for doing this, thank you for being here, and we all look forward to following your journey moving forward.

Josh Wright: Thank you. Take care.

Sharan Subramanian: You've been listening to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. If you like what you heard today, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or however you take your podcasts. If you're already a subscriber, please go to Apple Podcasts and rate us or leave a review. That's a great way to let other people know about the show. Career Conversations is produced by Yale SOM. The producer for this episode is [inaudible 00:46:42], and our editor is Miranda Schaeffer. For Career Conversations, I'm Sharan. Thanks for listening, and we hope you'll tune in again soon.