As a staff member working for the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in the mid 2000s, Tomicah Tillemann reported to now-Vice President Joe Biden and worked extensively with, he says with a chuckle, “a new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.”
Inspired by successful policy work, Tillemann remained in government, serving as Secretary Hillary Clinton’s speechwriter (once going 100 hours without sleep in order to perfect a speech) and later, as her senior adviser. That work informed Tillemann’s current position as director of the Bretton Woods II initiative at New America, a new model of investing that combines the public and private sectors and technology to further social impact causes worldwide.
NationSwell sat down with Tillemann at New America’s minimalist offices in Washington, D.C., just blocks from the White House, to discuss the importance of collaboration and why appealing to logic isn’t always successful.
Is there an innovation in your field that you’re particularly excited about right now?
In the work we’re doing right now at the Bretton Woods II initiative, we started from the realization that we’re living in a world with a huge quantum of capital and problems. We don’t do enough connecting the two, and we have yet to develop a business model that allows us to move resources to solve big global challenges. What we have recognized is that with good data and good analytics, you can provide big asset holders with the information they need to see how targeted investments in social impact and development can address the root causes of the volatility that eat away at their profits.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received on leadership?
If you can build a community that is passionately committed to the cause that you are trying to advance, then your job as a leader becomes immeasurably easier. What I’ve tried to do in my work in the private and public sectors and now straddling the two is to bring together individuals that share a common commitment to the work that we are seeking to advance. At that point, I can kind of step aside and get out of the way and watch them do incredible things.
In our current efforts, we are fortunate to have partnered with some of the leading foundations and many of the largest financial institutions in the world. When you put these guys together, provide some vision and serve as a catalyst for their collaboration, they’re going to do spectacular things. The great challenge of leadership is to deliver a vision that can appeal to people who wouldn’t otherwise work together. If you can provide that, then you’ve got it made as a leader.
What inspires you?
My grandfather came to the U.S. as a penniless Holocaust survivor. He arrived with $7 and a salami in his pocket, and his salami was confiscated at customs. Through a lot of hard work and education, he eventually served the United States in the Congress for 30 years and became chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I was able to grow up learning at his feet; I spent virtually every summer in Washington, D.C., with him. The great benefit of that was seeing his commitment to improving the state of the world. He recognized what could happen if you didn’t; he’d seen the evil that could be unleashed when people looked the other direction.
What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you started working in Washington, D.C., but didn’t?
In so much of what we do in Washington and certainly the work we do trying to mobilize the world’s largest asset holders to invest in social impact, we’re trying to change behavior. Part of that is based in logic, but a lot of it goes beyond that. We tend to focus a lot of time and energy on logic, and it’s necessary but it’s not sufficient. In order to do everything else, you need to build communities, relationships and get very good at leveraging different centers of power. Ultimately, you can have the best case in the world, but unless you know how to speak to people through those other channels, you’re probably not going to do what you set out to accomplish.
What is your idea of a perfect day?
My most important job is dad to five amazing kids. Our oldest is 10 and our youngest is 16 months. My happiest days involve them. We go to the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest every summer, and if we go out and catch some crabs, read some books together and spend some time on the beach — that’s real tough to beat. It’s a reminder of why you do everything else that you do.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Definitely my five little people, and they’re in a class by themselves. Beyond that, I hope to someday say that my proudest accomplishment is leaving them a world that’s materially better than it would’ve been if I hadn’t engaged in these issues.
What is something that people don’t know about you but should?
I was born in the car on the way to the hospital. My mother was a very brave woman.
What is your all-time favorite book?
I really like Thomas More’s “Utopia,” which is a great exercise in how to reenvision and reimagine a society. The questioning that is evident in that book and the reexamination of some of the fundamental principles that you assume that need to undergird our civilization is something that we need more of. I think we can benefit from constantly looking at the way our society is constructed and asking, “Do things really need to be built as they are?” To the extent that we can make that part of our constant conversation in our heads, we can do good things.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.