28 May 2019


Tech for the People

As a leadership fellow, Henry Tsai (MBA 2017) used his technology know-how to help city government in California
Re: Shireen Santosham (MBA 2008); Mitchell Weiss
by Deborah Blagg

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Photos courtesy of Henry Tsai

HBS Leadership Fellow Henry Tsai (MBA 2017) was working as a technology and innovation advisor in the San José mayor’s office in the fall of 2017 when he began thinking about the plight of families forced from their homes during natural disasters. Floods the previous February had displaced 14,000 city residents and caused $100 million in damages. Because his own family’s home in Texas had been damaged during Hurricane Harvey, Tsai understood firsthand the importance of quickly relocating displaced families.

Part of Tsai’s job was to help San José partner with innovative tech firms to address high-impact civic challenges. He knew the city had worked with Airbnb to make emergency housing available after the recent disaster, and he reasoned, why not establish a proactive registry of Airbnb providers to be on emergency standby instead of waiting until disaster strikes?

“San José’s CIO Shireen Santosham (MBA 2008) and Mayor Sam Liccardo immediately supported the idea,” says Tsai, which led to the October 2018 launch of Host Corps. This public/private initiative drew on a concept Airbnb devised to use its platform to recruit and prepare San José residents who agree in advance to offer free disaster-relief housing to neighbors in need. “It’s the first program of its kind in the US,” he notes. “I’m grateful to have had the chance to help add another resource to San José’s robust emergency response program.”

Henry Tsai and San José Mayor Sam Liccardo

That chance had come by way of a fellowship offered through HBS’s Social Enterprise Initiative that provides competitive salaries to graduating MBAs who work for a year in nonprofit and public sector organizations. Spending his first post-HBS year as a Leadership Fellow made total sense for Tsai, a Stanford graduate with a tech background who came to HBS “to learn to lead in ways that are consistent with my values and beliefs.”

During his fellowship in San José, Tsai led several other public/private collaborations, such as a project to livestream city council meetings on Facebook Live. His collaborations also included a partnership with the cloud file-storage company Box to archive videos of city council meetings, and a registry designed with IBM to monitor rent-control compliance. “It’s incredible how much I learned about ways that tech companies can develop products and services that both benefit the public and align with their business model,” he observes.

Tsai says courses such as Public Entrepreneurship, taught by Mitchell Weiss, professor of Management Practice and Richard L. Menschel Faculty Fellow, helped spark his interest in a career that would use technology to improve society. Additionally, Tsai received an HBS Summer Fellowship in 2016 that enabled him to work on tech issues in the San Francisco mayor’s office. This experience built his confidence and provided him an entrée into what he calls “the fairly small world of civic innovation.”

Today, Tsai is applying his leadership skills in the private sector at Facebook, where he is a product manager working on civic integrity.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2017, Section G

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