17 Feb 2015
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The First Five Years: Justin Pasquariello (MBA 2010)

Children’s HealthWatch Executive Director Justin Pasquariello on helping kids, following your passion, and why a career in comedy wasn’t in the cards.

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What’s a typical day like as executive director of Children’s HealthWatch?

“Days vary quite a bit here, and that is one piece of what drew me to this role. As executive director, I work closely with our academic/pediatric leadership, our advisory board, and others, on the development and implementation of our organizational strategy and budget. I work with our team and other stakeholders to think through research questions, and partner with funders to identify funding to investigate questions and disseminate our results. The questions can involve topics such as hunger, unstable housing, and difficulty keeping the heat or the lights on. Together with our headquarters team and researchers, I work with policy makers and policy groups to help develop and support better policies for young children.”

What attracted you to this position?

“My role at Children’s HealthWatch engages several of my passions. I received a concurrent MBA/MPA from HBS and the Harvard Kennedy School and was interested in working at the intersection of multiple sectors to address societal challenges and realize our society’s potential. I also had considered PhD programs and was very interested in research. We are a research group in an academic nonprofit setting working with government leaders and other nonprofits, foundations, and businesses, to inform better policies. I enjoy leadership roles where I feel like I can have a unique impact, and my role here gives me that opportunity.”

What do you enjoy most about the job? What do you find most challenging?

“I enjoy most the moments when we can see our research and testimony, and the experience of our researchers, directly informing better policies—or helping to stop worse policies from being enacted. I also am fortunate to work with a great team of smart, passionate people here at Children’s HealthWatch, as well as with talented, passionate funders, advocates, and policymakers.

“We operate in many ways as a small entity, but are also part of a larger organization. We also work through subcontracts with four other institutions. Many of the people who play critically important roles, in ensuring we are able to do our work, do not report directly to us, so I have to rely on influence strategies to accomplish a great deal of my job. I work with many great, dedicated people who are also busy and often have different job responsibilities and objectives. Identifying how to best achieve our mutual objectives can be challenging, but also provides a great learning and growth opportunity.”

How do you use what you learned at HBS in this position?

“In some way or other, every class I took at HBS has been relevant. Marketing has been very helpful; specifically, the marketing insight that customers care much more about product benefits than they do about product attributes, is very relevant as we talk about what we do and what we are learning. This insight also informs my strategic thinking. Although willingness to pay doesn’t directly translate for us, willingness to donate isn’t so different—and so my strategy class has also been very helpful. I use accounting to evaluate finances and develop budget documents both here and in my role on the board of the organization I founded: Adoption and Foster Care Mentoring (a Boston-based mentoring and life-skills organization serving foster youth and youth aging out of care). Our discussions about leadership and ethics—in LEAD, LCA, ALD, Managing Human Capital, and the Moral Leader, and outside those classes—are very relevant in my leadership roles. In thinking about the policies we recommend, I also draw on international comparisons based on what we learned in BGIE. In overseeing our operations, I draw on TOM thinking. In work and beyond, concepts learned in Negotiations are very helpful.

“My HBS experience was made possible through the provision of several generous fellowships (given that I had come in from a nonprofit). I have been able to work in the nonprofit sector since graduation because of HBS’s generous Loan Reduction program. So beyond what I learned, HBS and our generous alumni have made this work possible.”

Which HBS case you studied is most memorable? What made this case so interesting?

“The case about chicken contact lenses was among the most memorable. It was a case about a company that introduced contact lenses to make it more difficult for chickens to see, so they wouldn’t peck each other and hurt each other too much. One of my section mates had worked with chickens previously, raised his hand during the discussion, and said, ‘This is ridiculous. You can’t make chickens wear contact lenses.’ It was one of many funny moments in our section. His instincts were right, too. Spoiler alert: the product was not successful.”

What advice do you have for current HBS students?

“HBS can provide so many different, but equally transformative experiences. I would recommend thinking carefully about what one wants from HBS and then being disciplined in pursuing it. Given the approach to thinking that many students bring to HBS, and hone there, I imagine many of them came in having already done that.

“I was an older student than many. I was married and had lived in the area. I went in knowing I wanted to work in the social sector, wanted to stay in Boston, and wanted to have a balanced life while in school (sleeping a good amount, exercising, etc.). For me, this meant not doing as much extracurricular activities as many other students—and being very selective about what I did do (I was one of the writers for the ‘HBS Show’ in my second year and worked on a business plan for a nonprofit).

“That’s definitely not the right experience for every student, but for me it was very rewarding, and in the end, I gained what I hoped to…and more.

“I also think my approach reduced competitive pressure; being with so many remarkable people can be a humbling experience (which can be good, but it also can make people forget the context and not realize how much they themselves have accomplished).

“I think knowing exactly what I want has enabled me to have my own framework for personal success—which reduces the inclination to benchmark myself against other students/alumni by other metrics (like annual salary). I think this just leads to a happier life.”

What Children’s HealthWatch achievements are you most proud of, and why?

“I am most proud of the ways in which we have contributed to improved policies that have made life better for millions of American children and families. Many parties contribute to policy work, and we cannot alone take credit for any policy achievement, but we do know people have told us our work matters.

“In 2014, we were credited as being among the group of organizations whose work helped to ensure that cuts to SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), a critically important program, were not as deep as they could otherwise have been. Before I joined the organization, our founder was called on multiple occasions, and by multiple people, the woman who saved SNAP. Other Children’s HealthWatch researchers have contributed to this work by ensuring that WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) continues to be designed based on the best health research.

“At the state level, our researchers and staff have worked to ensure states adopt policies that allow maximum food and other basic needs assistance to reach families. Our research has been cited as important for the funding of the housing trust fund in Arkansas and the development of legislation that protects families during recessions in Connecticut. Currently, we are providing our research findings to legislators who are preparing legislation to significantly enhance the Earned Income Tax Credit in Massachusetts—bringing more resources to hard-working families.”

Do you do improv yourself? If you do, where can we see you perform? (Note: Pasquariello lists “improvisational comedy” as an interest on his LinkedIn profile.)

“I took several improv comedy classes at Boston’s Improv Asylum—and generally find the skills I learned there to be useful in a variety of contexts—but I don’t do any improv performance. However, you can see me in HBS’s Business Speaking competition on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6lsBJRQLK4.

“I did (bad) stand-up comedy about three times, years ago, and tried out for Last Comic Standing. (I wasn’t selected to move on).”

Can you finish this statement? “Improving the health of children is…”

“Easy, but it requires commitment. By reducing poverty and ensuring all children have enough nutritious food; a safe, consistent home; and heat and cooling when they need it, we can make much more significant improvements in their health and development than we can through any amount of additional health care investment alone. Effective programs like Nurse-Family Partnership can make a huge difference, too. By improving children’s health and development, we can significantly increase their chance of success in school and of having fulfilling lives in which they give back to society. Over time, the investment more than pays for itself.”

Pasquariello is currently writing a book about his experiences growing up in foster care and being adopted. He says, “I have great, loving, supportive birth and adoptive families, and have had great committed social workers. I want to share my story about what worked well for all of us, to help inform other families, social workers, and policy makers, so we can build a better future for more youth in care.” The Huffington Post recently published an article chronicling Pasquariello’s story. Read the piece at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/21/mentor-foster-care_n_6141686.html.

Learn more about Children’s HealthWatch at http://www.childrenshealthwatch.org.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2010, Section A

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