There are, no doubt, many influences that play out on anyone’s career. No different for me. One of my most important ones was Babak Armajani. He died a year ago, today.
Babak had nothing to do with financial services for the emerging middle class, economic development, or financial inclusion. To make things worse, perhaps, he was a politics geek. An inside man. A strategist. A change agent – or some such nebulous description that when applied to many, is meant to cover up a lack of direction, vision, or any real skills.
He co-founded a consulting group about twenty years ago called the Public Strategies Group. Their clients were federal, state and local government organizations. They shunned standard strategy, organizational development, IT or process improvement type of consulting opportunities – the standard fare. They were into reinventing government. Not just talking reinvention. Actually reinventing: to make government accountable, customer centric and effective and delivering outcomes. They weren’t liberals using reinvention as a ruse for increased spending, nor were they conservatives using reinvention as a ruse for cutting back taxes. Their team, Babak included, wrote the blueprints for that movement. They left their fingerprints on many federal agencies, many governors’ offices and hundreds to local agencies. And on me.
I remember clearly when Babak was thrown out of state government (he was the deputy revenue officer for Minnesota, where he lived his whole life) when a new governor brought in his own team. We were up at a friend’s cabin and he and his pals were drumming up this new company. It was the first startup I saw being created. Something from scratch. So exciting. I have spent my whole career in and around startups.
And this idea of reinventing government, reinterpreted, has informed my every move since they started Public Strategies Group. I loved that the traditional bi-polar forces that remain at work in our government needn’t be the final, or smartest answer. I loved that some of the key ideas in capitalism could inform – and transform – governance, and not in a Mickey Mouse-let’s-privatize-everything kind of way. My take on this was that capitalism is the most effective problem solving tool humanity has created, and that we should apply it to the world’s most intractable problems. I even helped his company in between things: We built a remarkable accountability tool for then-governor of Iowa, now secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Even more amazing is that it’s still up and current, after 12 years or so: www.resultsiowa.org.
Babak – I called him Amu (which means uncle in Farsi, even though technically he was my Dayi – my mother’s brother) – nudged me, coached me, invested in me (literally and figuratively), challenged me, bailed me out, believed in me. And I suppose he still does today, as he is so clearly a part of me. Here’s a picture, in case you were curious, in one of his signature Bill Cosby sweaters from the ’80s. I can’t say how much I miss him.
So in my own way, I’m continuing his work; his style of being. Through our approach at work, how I parent, how I envision my family, and nudge, challenge and cajole – and hopefully support – my colleagues and loved ones. A year ago today, I was on a plane to Minnesota, instead of to our annual conference. I’m excited to stay here in LA, our conference around the corner (tomorrow, in Century City).