The state’s new economic secretary, a Williams College graduate who owns a home in Williamstown, says that though the Massachusetts economy compares favorably to other states, “Now is not the time to be a caretaker.”
Yvonne Hao, who lives in Cambridge, said the economic secretary must plan as far as decades ahead. She says the state should take heed of worrisome trends, such as the declining population, an issue pertinent to the whole state but is particularly relevant for the Berkshires.
Gov. Maura Healey’s pick for economic secretary, Hao has had a successful business career, co-founding the Boston-based investment firm Cove Hill Partners, once working as an operating partner at Pillar Ventures, and serving as chief operating officer and chief financial officer for PillPack, an online pharmacy that Amazon purchased in 2018. She has also worked at Bain Capital and McKinsey & Co.
Despite her predominate professional experience in corporate America, Hao points to a modest upbringing in a Chicago suburb, where she was raised by parents who had immigrated to the U.S. from China to attend graduate school, in saying she won’t forget the state’s poorer residents as she looks to drive economic development for big business.
The Eagle recently spoke with Hao on the phone to discuss her plans for her new role. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you wind up at Williams College?
A: If you’re an immigrant from China, your dream for your child, after you’ve worked hard and sacrificed so many things, is not for them to go to a school you’ve never heard of that’s in the middle of nowhere. One of my best friend’s older sisters went to Williams, and came home and talked about this mythical place in the mountains that was so pretty, and you know your teachers by name, and everyone’s smart but laid back. When we were looking at schools on the east coast, I convinced my parents that Williamstown was on the way between Yale and Harvard. The minute I set foot on campus, I knew I wanted to go there.
Q: A lot has been made of your connections to the area. It seems the region is starving for representation in Boston. Have you heard anything, like, "finally we have a western Mass. person with a seat at the table."
A: I graduated from Williams in 1995, and I’ve gone back regularly since then for reunions and events. I was on the Board of Trustees. Now we have a house there. Western Mass. has come a long way. It is dramatic how much more vibrant it is than when I was in school. That doesn’t mean we’re done, there’s still more opportunity. I think there’s been progress already, and much of that progress comes from a lot of support from previous administrations for western Mass. They may not feel the love, but I think there has been support. I’m excited to be in this role because I have this personal connection to western Mass., but my goal is to help the entire state do well.
Q: Do you think there’s validity to this criticism that western Mass. is left behind in favor of other parts of Mass.?
A: I come from the business world, so it’s hard for me to opine on previous government administrations. When I think about western Mass., there’s a bunch of interesting venture firms, there’s Lever from Jeffrey Thomas, MASS MoCA, and if you look up and down the Berkshires, there’s this arts corridor. In Great Barrington you have Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood, then you have Kripalu, and now there’s the Miraval. You go up north, the theater in Pittsfield, the Williamstown Theater Festival, and then all the restaurants and hotels ... That doesn’t mean we’re done, but there’s been exciting things happening.
Q: What needs to be done to jumpstart the Berkshires' economy?
A: Once every four years we’re required to create an economic development plan for the state. In the coming months we’ll be collecting data, spending time out in the regions, including western Mass., thinking about, what are the assets we have, what's growing, what are issues we have or the barriers to growth? We'll put together a published economic plan with real areas of priority where we want to make investments and put resources. I’ve been talking to the governor about being more targeted in how we think about the economy. In western Mass., one of the challenges we have is transportation. I was having lunch this summer with the president of The Clark. He was saying that it was surprising that they had so many visitors from New York, and few from Boston. It’s funny how western Mass. is forgotten sometimes. We can find better ways to connect the state through transportation, education, housing and the governor’s talked about a climate corridor: "How do we use this new growth area of climate to connect east and west?"
Q: This is a region with thousands of service workers who have been or are currently being priced out of their homes. How should the state address that problem?
A: Housing is a massive issue across the state. There’s just not affordable housing, and in some ways we have a homelessness problem. We had lunch with the mayor of North Adams two weeks ago and talked about housing. It’s a thing we’ve dealt with on the Williams board, thinking about young faculty and families, hearing stories about faculty moving to Vermont or having a hard time finding affordable housing. This is an issue. Economic development is linked to housing, so I’m going to be coordinating closely with the new housing secretary.
Q: What is one main goal you’d like to accomplish during your tenure?
A: Our state is doing well, relative to other places. But if you look at the macro environment, we have real serious headwinds. Not everybody likes this weather. People will be leaving for warmer climates. It’s an expensive state with taxes, it’s an expensive state for housing, and there’s a housing shortage. Transportation is a challenge, and a lot of companies are going to remote and hybrid workforces where you don’t have to be in Mass. anymore. We have to do the right things so five, 10, 20 years from now, we still have a vibrant economy. We have great assets. We have incredible educational institutions. My alma mater, MCLA, the five college system, UMass and Amherst in Northampton, institutions that are drawing talent and doing amazing research. It’s also a pretty nice place to live. You can go skiing at Jiminy Peak or Berkshire East. You can drive to a lake, an ocean. Where do we go from here? For the areas we're good in, including education and the arts, how do we lengthen the lead? For new growth areas, how do we pick places and invest in them?
Q: How do you make sure you're not skipping over poor residents when you’re trying to spur economic development for big business?
A: My resume shows you where I’ve worked, but what’s not obvious — I come from a modest background. I have cousins who I’m close to, one of my cousins works selling cellphones at a Sprint store. My aunt was a secretary, just retired. We have relatives on my husband’s side who were custodians at the airport, who worked at McDonalds. We understand firsthand how sometimes it’s tough to make ends meet. That is not a theoretical thing. We have people close to us who are living those lives; I have a lot of empathy for that and a strong desire to make sure everyone’s lives get better when our economy gets better. Large companies can be important players in that because they can invest and create jobs. One of the things I’m most proud of at PillPack, we created a ton of jobs in our pharmacy and our fulfillment center for people who didn’t have college degrees. A lot of people were high school graduates. We trained them to be certified technicians and to get on the path to become a pharmacist. We invested in them, we gave theme equity, so they benefitted from the value created. I think it’s important for the health of any economy, any state, for all boats to rise when it comes to economic development.