CSMGEP Profiles: Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, MDRC

Just Do It

Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, Senior Research Associate, MDRC

Lashawn Richburg-Hayes PortraitA runner in college, Lashawn Richburg-Hayes was ready for her first triathlon, with one exception: the swimming. "I couldn't swim to save my life," she admits. Her anxiety about swimming was so strong she was having nightmares about drowning. So she did what she has always done when facing down a fear. She dove in, head first—metaphorically speaking. Her motto might as well be Nike's, "just do it."

"Someone once said, fear is False Evidence Appearing Real. I believe that," says Richburg-Hayes. For her, confronting fears is the only way to move ahead. Yet unlike the actors in the Nike ads, Richburg-Hayes, by her own admission, is not the adventurous type. In fact, she was the shy, quiet girl on the block—a block that was anything but shy and quiet.

"We called it the boogie down, burned down Bronx," she says of her New York City neighborhood in the tumultuous early 1980s. "The mornings in my neighborhood were real quiet," she says, but around 10 a.m. the hustle would start up. Kids would start coming out, hanging out on the sidewalks in front of the few homes that had not already burned down. If the day was hot, someone would crank open the fire hydrant. Rap music and Spanish tunes would blast from the radios, and somewhere around noon or so a crowd would start to gather on Lashawn's stoop.

"My older brother was very popular," she says, and he had quite the following. "It took him two hours to get dressed everyday. He had to look good." While her brother was the most popular kid on the block, Lashawn preferred to stay indoors. "For me, the best time of the summer was the two weeks before school when you got your new book bag and supplies," she says. "I was really quiet, but where I lived was not a quiet place. I loved school because it was orderly, structured, not all of this craziness. I was growing up amid the crack (cocaine) epidemic after all. It was too much chaos."

Luckily for her, she was a girl. Boys, she says, did not have the option to stay indoors and look forward to school. "In my neighborhood, girls would be sheltered. If you had a boy, you couldn't shelter him. You had to let him go out and get in trouble because that was the only way he'd be able to protect himself. You couldn't be a nerd and survive."

In some respects, it was this early insight into how outside forces shape opportunity that led her to labor economics. But there was a detour to be taken first.

"When you're a poor African American, you either want to be a fireman, a doctor, or lawyer. I wanted to be a lawyer because I knew it would be the route out of my neighborhood to a place where people don't shout all night long."

She took jobs in law offices as a teen, and went to college with the full intent of heading to law school. Until, that is, she took her first class in labor law as an undergraduate.

"I had no clue what law actually entailed when I proclaimed a profession in second grade," she says. "You're asked what you want to be, so you pick something. And then people congratulate you because that's a great thing to be, and then it's self-perpetuating. I hated those jobs in the law firms. It never occurred to me that maybe it's not the right area."

Her turning point came in another class: labor economics taught at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations by Dean Robert Smith, the coauthor of Modern Labor Economics. "It was like candy," she says. "It just didn't occur to me that I could do something different."

It was shortly thereafter that Smith took her aside and told her that in his 15 years of teaching he had only three students whose exams were as good as hers and one was the chair of Columbia University's economics department and the other was tenured at Princeton University. "Who could resist such flattery," she says laughing. "With that, I was going into economics—even though I had no idea what a doctorate in economics entailed. None."

She would go on to graduate school at Princeton, where she would meet another influential professor, Cecilia Rouse, currently serving on President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. "I went through high school and college without having a minority female teacher in a hard science or social sciences," Richburg-Hayes says. "Ceci was the first African American economist I'd met."

She made a point of seeking Rouse out after a seminar. Little did she know that Rouse was watching her as well. A few months later, when Richburg-Hayes hit a rough patch and was advised by another professor to take some time off, Rouse emailed her "out of the blue," she says. "We met for lunch, and she basically told me I was screwing up and here's what to do about it."

"I think it's important to connect to a professor early on in graduate school," she says in hindsight. "I wouldn't suggest anyone be as clueless as I was. Find someone in your area and ask to be their research assistant. What you get in the classroom is important, but you're not going to get the 'how-to' in the classroom."

One of her most memorable times at Princeton, in fact, did not come in the classroom but at the water cooler. "We had a sitting area with coffee and whatnot, and the professors and graduate students just shot the breeze. Those were the most educational experiences I had. We talked about issues, people were thinking aloud, and I could hear how others formulate ideas. That was really helpful. It was the right environment for me because the things I'm interested in are not just theory."

Today, she puts that interest in real-world applications to work at MDRC, which designs and evaluates social programs that create detours from the path that poverty too often proscribes. Richburg-Hayes is particularly interested in designing incentives to change behavior and break the cycle of poverty, such as in her current project evaluating whether a performance-based stipend for low-income students in community college will help them stay engaged.

"My own neighborhood is always at the back of my mind," she says. "There were so many people who had so much talent and were so smart, but too many went the wrong way via drugs or crime or whatever. And it didn't have to be. You never know what the one thing will be that can turn a life around. It can be an opportunity, a suggestion, or even just a word."

She saw firsthand the difference a word can make in an interview with a college counselor for her current project. "He was white, mid-50s male, with 20 years of experience. He started to talk about 'those people' and 'them,' referring to his students, African American single moms with kids. I was floored. A slight change of circumstances and he could have been talking about me." Richburg-Hayes entered graduate school at age 21, three months after the birth of her first child.

"If I had to deal with this man for 'support,' I would have needed medication. This illustrated to me that to have a real student service component in a program, you need to ensure that truly supportive people are in place and that training is provided."

Unlike many of the students she is currently helping, Richburg-Hayes had some critical supports along the way, and she has known how to use them. That skill, however, did not come easily or naturally. But she had the drive to face her fears and just do it. Just as she is about to do with her latest fear—of heights. "I think I want to go rock climbing without equipment over open water (deep water soloing)," she says. "I have a fear of heights as well as open water and I'm a safety freak. What an efficient way to get over everything!"

Actually, she says, "graduate school corresponds to my theory of jumping off cliffs. When I was a first year graduate student, I was lost. It's only when I started go forward, and started to make connections between things that it began to make more sense. You just have to do it. There's no other preparation."

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Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century, made most famous by Marcel Proust's answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

What is your idea of a perfect day?
A perfect day is waking up early (5 or 6 AM), jogging 3 or 4 miles or swimming a half mile, dropping kids off, going to IHOP for the three-egg with pancakes special with coffee, going back to bed for two hours, spending some hours working, having dinner alone at Legal Seafood and then spending the rest of the evening at Barnes and Nobles (I have a book addiction) while my husband does dinner and homework.

What's on your nightstand?
I have a teddy bear lamp that I've had for 23 years (it's more than time to throw it away, but it's reliable when the newer, modern replacement breaks), a copy of the Harvard Business Review, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a quart of water, several uncashed dividend checks in denominations ranging from $0.43 to $0.67, a tube of lip balm, and a copy of Andrew Clement's The Janitor's Boy (yes, it's a book for kids! My friends say that I'll read anything. That's not true; I am discerning unless utterly bored.)

How do you treat yourself? What's your favorite indulgence?
I treat myself like the ugly stepsister! I'm unlikely to buy anything new for myself and I focus on the things that went wrong and can be improved next time, rather than on the things that went right (which, I'm told, is very demotivating to most people). My favorite indulgence is to go to Legal Seafoods (alone), have a glass of wine with dinner, and read a book (yes, at the table).

What trait do you most deplore in others?
Victimization and the phrase, "I can't."

Whom do you most admire?
This is a really hard question; I can find something in everyone that is admirable…

What is your greatest regret?
I didn't apply for the Rhodes Scholarship in college.

What's your favorite sport?
Triathlons! I ran in high school and lettered in college, but I couldn't swim to save my life. [see above]. As of this writing, I've conquered the fear of clear water and even finished a few triathlons, but I still need to close my eyes when swimming in open water.

What's your most annoying/bad habit?
Pointing out what could be done better next time in response to something that was done well. However, President Obama seems to suffer from this also, so it can't be that bad!

What could the world do without?
Intolerance and pork rinds.

What will you never forget?
The lyrics to "Eric. B. is President" by Eric B and Rakim (circa 1986).

What's your favorite movie?
The Fugitive
- a story of a person who loved his job, had to know exactly how point A related to point B, acted on the preponderance of the evidence in an ethical way that benefited multitudes (he could have just used black mail), and embodied quintessentially the motto from The Little Engine That Could (my all-time favorite book).

For a vacation, beach or mountains?
I'd say mountains. One of my "100 things to do before I die" includes rock climbing without equipment over open water (deep water soloing)

What's your personal motto?
"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can—within reason." That is, be the Little Engine That Could, but make sure it's worth doing first.