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Laura Taylor-Kale: We have to build organizations that embrace complex problems as both challenges and opportunities

A successful career in foreign policy and economic diplomacy and a desire to study organizational behavior brought Laura to MS&E, where she earned her PhD in 2022.

Laura Taylor-Kale was intrigued by history, science, and foreign languages from a very young age, and she turned that interest into an international career in government spanning three continents.

Her overflowing intellectual curiosity about how the global economy and organizations work drove her to pursue advanced degrees in international economic policy and business, and in 2022, she earned a PhD from Stanford MS&E. Shortly after, she was nominated by President Biden to be the first-ever Assistant Secretary for Industrial Base Policy at the United States Department of Defense (pending Senate confirmation) (update: Laura was confirmed and sworn in at The Pentagon in June 2023).

Throughout her education and career, Laura sought out and nurtured relationships with people from all parts of her life—teachers, professors, mentors, colleagues, and fellow students. “I pick up people along the way,” she said. “Because I had such a tough childhood and far-flung family, it has been my way of building community. I always keep in touch and just keep caring people in my life.”

She was born and raised in the Chicago area by a single mother. Her father immigrated to the United States from Cameroon, and her mother is African American and from Chicago. “My mom and I barely scraped by. However, my dreams were bigger than my circumstances, and I was an avid reader, excelled academically, and had a deep-rooted faith.”

Laura’s drive to succeed by pursuing knowledge and forging new paths permeates her personal history.

What early experiences nurtured your interests in history and world travel and ultimately led you to join the Foreign Service?

8th Grade History Project on DuSable Museum, April 1991 | Image © Laura Taylor-Kale. Used with permission.

One of the most influential experiences I had was when I was 13. As part of a school history project, I met Margaret Burroughs, the teacher and artist who founded the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Chicago, the first museum of its kind in the U.S. Because this was 1990, I pulled out the Chicago phone book, called her number, and she answered. When I told her that I would like to interview her, she invited me and my mother over to her house on the south side of Chicago. We sat with her for hours, and she told me about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and why she started the DuSable Museum.

I started spending a lot of time there during high school as an intern and volunteer giving tours and helping the curator. Eventually, the museum community became another home for me. Margaret Burroughs was the one who encouraged me to travel abroad. Because we couldn’t afford it, I became an entrepreneur and sold homemade baked goods to raise money for my first overseas trip—a Girl Scouts backpacking trip in England. Margaret Burroughs encouraged me to pursue my dreams of having an international career.

I left my home before my senior year when I was selected to attend an international boarding school, the United World College (UWC) USA in Montezuma, NM on a full-merit scholarship. I was one of a handful of African Americans to attend a UWC and the only kid from the Chicago area to go to UWC USA. Both the international baccalaureate curriculum and the international student body were world-opening experiences. I met the children of diplomats, and it was the first time I heard about the Foreign Service. It planted a seed.

Camping in New Mexico mountains with UWC USA classmates, August 1994 | Image © Laura Taylor-Kale. Used with permission.

When I went to Smith College (BA ‘00), I knew I wanted to do international work and study abroad in Senegal. And I knew I wanted to go to graduate school to study economics and public policy. I was on a full-merit scholarship at Smith, and I didn’t know how I would pay for further study. So I started researching and applying for major fellowships, one of which was the Woodrow Wilson Foreign Affairs Fellowship (now called the Pickering Fellowship) to join the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service.

It was my sophomore year. My roommate took me shopping for a business suit, and I flew to Princeton for a day of interviews with distinguished educators and foreign service officers, including Ambassador Ruth A. Davis. The interview was very competitive—dozens of top students from around the country. And I got it! The Pickering Fellowship fully paid for my last two years of undergrad, including a study abroad year and graduate study at Princeton University’s School for Public and International Affairs (Princeton MPA ‘03). Through the fellowship, the State Department provided resources, mentorship, and internships that changed my life. Ambassador Davis became an important role model and remains a cherished mentor. 

I passed the foreign service entrance exams and began my career as a diplomat in 2003. By then, I had already spent a lot of time in developing countries, particularly in francophone West Africa. I was lucky to get my first choice of posting, two years in New Delhi, India. I spent a year in training in Washington, DC, studying Hindi and learning about South Asian history and culture. In my second year in India, I worked directly for Ambassador David C. Mulford as his special assistant. I was a notetaker in his meetings. President Bush came to negotiate the civil nuclear agreement. It was an incredible learning opportunity, fertile ground for a junior economic officer. Ambassador Mulford had been a banker and also a senior official at the U.S. Treasury. Because of him, I started thinking about international finance and the role of the private sector in development.

How did your interests in development finance and organizational behavior evolve?

After two more Foreign Service postings in Cote d’Ivoire and then Afghanistan, I moved back to Washington, DC. In 2010, I became the first State Department officer to serve as an advisor to the U.S. representative on the World Bank board. These roles were usually filled by analysts from U.S. Treasury; however, the Obama Administration’s representative wanted to include a State Department presence. But they needed an officer with a strong economic background in Africa and South Asia. And so luck meets opportunity meets readiness. I threw myself into understanding board oversight at a major multilateral development bank and learn about bank operations. I also leaned on the diplomatic skills I learned from my State Department mentors, some of our nation’s finest diplomats. Reaching out to other Board chairs resulted in closer relationships between offices and improved coordination and oversight.

The Foreign Service was a huge part of my identity. I spent almost nine years in the Foreign Service plus the five years as a Pickering Fellow while in school—from ages 20-34. It is a privilege to represent your home country as a diplomat, but I wanted to set roots in DC and deepen my work in international economics and business policy. I resigned from the State Department to work directly for the World Bank in 2012.

I started at the World Bank the same day as the new president, Jim Yong Kim. He implemented a change management process to reform the way that the bank operated. Since I worked for one of the vice presidents, I saw firsthand how teams reacted, changed, or didn’t change. I realized that having technical expertise was not enough to be an effective leader. You have to understand how an organization gets things done. Formally and informally. It was my first clue that organizational behavior could dramatically affect how and if an organization achieved its mission and led me to study management.

Visiting the Great Wall during Commerce Dept trip to China, June 2016 | Image © Laura Taylor-Kale. Used with permission.

In 2014, the Obama Administration appointed me to be a senior advisor at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), now the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation. I also started business school (NYU Stern MBA ‘17) to deepen my understanding of finance and organizational behavior, commuting from DC to New York on weekends. While in business school, I was promoted and went to the Commerce Department as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Manufacturing in the International Trade Administration.

Through my work at Commerce, I led teams of trade specialists focused on improving the export potential of U.S. manufacturers. I was struck by how rapidly technology is changing manufacturing and our economy as a whole, both for the United States and for the developing countries I had focused on for most of my professional life. I thought about the challenges of adaptation and the disparities that were developing between communities. In talking to one of my NYU professors about this, she said that I should think about applying to PhD programs. I laughed and said, “You’re absolutely crazy. I’m tired of school. I’m ready to go into industry.”

The problem was that I couldn’t stop thinking about these issues.  So in 2017, I accepted a one-year International Affairs Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).  It was the first time in my career that I had ever taken a step back to reflect on the rapidly changing world. At CFR, I researched how technology is changing manufacturing and the future of the U.S. workforce and taught a course at Princeton on the role of the private sector in economic development. I was also the deputy director of a task force with Penny Pritzker (former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Stanford MBA and JD ‘85), John Engler (former governor of Michigan), Edward Alden (CFR Senior Fellow), and a group of esteemed business and policy leaders. We published a report on the future of work based on the findings of that task force.

Visiting a 3-D printing electric vehicle factory in Tennessee as a Commerce official, October 2016 | Image © Laura Taylor-Kale. Used with permission.

How did you end up in MS&E at Stanford?

After I earned the MBA and was researching at CFR and teaching at Princeton, I decided to apply to PhD programs to pursue original research on technological innovation in business, the future of work, and organizational behavior. One of my NYU professors said, “You should look at Stanford Management Science and Engineering.” And I thought, “Why is he talking about this engineering school? I’m not an engineer!” He described MS&E’s roots in industrial and systems engineering and its tradition of investigating technological change, organizations, and work using both quantitative methods and qualitative fieldwork. I had a trip planned to the Bay Area for CFR, so I reached out to Professor Pam Hinds to see if the program would be a good fit. I knew as soon as I met her that I would love working with her and that she would be a good mentor.

Going back to school full time in my early forties was a huge life change. I knew I would be older than most PhD students, and even some professors. I wanted to work with faculty who could support me as a student learning how to conduct original research and as an experienced professional. Pam herself had worked in industry before going into her PhD program and encouraged rather than discouraged me using my professional experience to inform my academic inquiry. And I loved the PhD students in the department. So in the summer of 2018, I found renters for my house and drove from Washington, DC, to California to become a student…again!

Stanford PhD Graduation with close friends, June 2022 | Image © Laura Taylor-Kale. Used with permission.

How did you come to your field of inquiry within MS&E?

My dissertation research was an ethnography of Convergence, a Toronto-based online platform that connects different kinds of business, government, and nonprofit organizations to finance sustainable development projects. I intended to study the platform’s technical design, but once I went to Convergence for my fieldwork, I saw that their real challenge was managing disparate stakeholders and a complex mission.

The project began early in my first year when I wrote a paper for Woody Powell’s organizational theory course about the processes of institutionalization and my observations of different U.S. government agencies working across their organizational boundaries in financing sustainable development projects, often co-opting other organizations’ missions and work. I was writing about what I experienced as a professional through the new lens of theory. Woody encouraged me to pursue this topic for my dissertation. My advisor Pam was a thought partner and guided me in developing the project. Bob Sutton and the department gave me the resources to travel for field research. While it was challenging to advance my research when the pandemic hit, the faculty in the Center for Work, Technology & Organizations (WTO) and the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP)—especially Riitta Katila—as well as key faculty at the GSB, such as Sarah Soule and Bill Barnett, were very supportive.

We’re often told that for an organization to be successful in its mission, it must be narrowly focused. Simplicity should reign. But what I found in the organization I studied was they balanced multiple, competing conceptions of themselves to satisfy their diverse stakeholders—private equity firms, philanthropic organizations, nonprofits, government agencies, and multilateral banks. I describe this process as meta-organizing.

There’s a sense among researchers that studying complex organizing environments is just too difficult.  We think that eventually, the relevance of the complexity will fall away. Simplicity should prevail. Well, there are some problems that will remain complex, like climate change, global sustainable development, or how technology intersects national security, because there are so many interdependent parts, diverse stakeholders, and competing agendas. My research suggests strategies for building organizations that embrace complexity as both a challenge and an opportunity.

What I appreciated about MS&E and being at an engineering school was the focus on the phenomenon, not a preset theory. We say: let’s look at this problem, let’s make sure we understand it, and then, let’s figure out how to solve it. I firmly believe that because the problems we’re trying to solve in business and policy are so complex, interconnected, and systems-related, we need to know how to break apart the different pieces and still maintain an understanding of how the many parts are connected. I’ve learned so much from everyone, and I look forward to keeping in touch with this wonderful community of scholars and practitioners.

What's next for you?

Next up for me is to leverage my research and professional experience to continue to impact public policy, industry, and academia. I am thrilled to be back at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as the Fellow for Innovation and Economic Competitiveness. I was also elected as a CFR life member. CFR is a special place, and the leadership has been very supportive of my professional journey. My research focuses on innovation, U.S. industrial policy, and the future of work. I also continue my academic research on meta-organizing and technological innovation.

I am also deeply honored to have been called back into public service. In May 2022, President Biden nominated me to be the first-ever Assistant Secretary for Industrial Base Policy at the Department of Defense. In July 2022, I testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in confirmation hearings. I now await a confirmation vote by the full Senate. If confirmed, I will lead a multi-team division at the Pentagon focused on several critical areas in economic and national security policy including the Defense Production Act, foreign investments in manufacturing and the defense industrial base, supply chain management, fielding innovative technologies, and international cooperation. It’s a role that links back to Alexander Hamilton and the economic policy debates of the early republic as well as MS&E’s origins in industrial engineering.

As someone from humble beginnings who dreamt of having an impactful, global career, I am very excited and grateful for this opportunity. An appointment to serve in a presidential administration is such a privilege. Leading in economic and business policy requires a deep understanding of how economic policymaking within and across government organizations works and how government and industry can work together, as partners, to ensure economic and national security. If confirmed, I will bring to bear my expertise garnered from my unique path, my understanding of organizations and technological innovation, and my Stanford MS&E research on cross-sector partnerships in complex settings to execute policies that promote a resilient and innovative manufacturing and industrial base.