‘Like another Williams course’: Recently appointed Massachusetts Secretary of Economic Development Yvonne Hao ’95 reflects on career

Annie Lu

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Hao

“I’m the classic Williams liberal arts kid,” said Yvonne Hao ’95, the new secretary of economic development for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in an interview with the Record. “I never knew that I’d have a career in business — it’s all been kind of unplanned and accidental.”

Hao’s business career spans over 25 years, including time as an operating partner for Bain Capital, the COO and CFO of PillPack, and a co-founder and managing director of Cove Hill Partners, where she worked until Governor Maura Healey tapped her to be a Cabinet secretary on Jan. 4. In an anticipated reorganization, Healey has split the existing Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development into two distinct cabinet posts, with Hao leading the economic development branch — the first person of color to do so.

Several departments fall under Hao’s purview as secretary of economic development, including consumer affairs, banks and insurance, business licensing, and tourism. “Most people probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about [these functions], but they are the underpinning of a lot of the things that happen in the economy,” Hao said. On a day-to-day basis, Hao is still learning about the state’s numerous programs, as well as addressing immediate priorities.

Hao’s parents came to the U.S. from China, making Hao the first member of her family born in America. Though she started at Williams on the pre-med track, Hao instead found herself drawn to economics and eager to pursue a career in academia. She won the Herchel Smith scholarship to Cambridge University, where she completed a master’s degree in development economics — and decided once again to rethink her career path. She then pivoted away from academia and joined McKinsey & Company upon graduation. “I thought I would take a break, earn some money, pay my parents back, and just see what this business thing is,” she said. She ended up staying in the business world for the next 25 years.

Since then, Hao has taken on multiple roles at various organizations, with each experience imparting its own set of unique lessons — but she recalled some moments as especially formative.

After only a few years at McKinsey, Hao decided to leave and join the manufacturing and technology company Honeywell. “The reason I joined was because I wanted to learn about a business that had real manufacturing and real products,” Hao said. “I was 28 years old, meeting with the CEO of all of Honeywell, and he said, ‘If you join us, I’m going to give you lots of opportunities as we’re turning this company around.’ And that kind of opportunity to learn was really exciting.”

According to Hao, the CEO kept true to his promise. “I got a chance to run a $2 billion division of Honeywell and manage a couple thousand employees,” Hao continued. “I learned so much in that role, and I loved it. That was when I fell in love with really being a leader in business.”

Another formative period in Hao’s career occurred shortly after she joined Bain Capital in 2008 — around the same time as the financial crisis and the birth of Hao’s second daughter. “I came back from maternity leave with a 2-year-old and a newborn, and this Japanese company that I was on the board of, which [Bain Capital] had just bought, ended up … on the verge of bankruptcy,” Hao said. After Bain was unsuccessful in finding a new CEO for the acquired company, it tapped Hao for the job.

“I ended up flying to Japan for maybe two weeks every month,” she said. “We had very little money left, we renegotiated our debt, we had to do restructuring, and I was breast pumping on the airplane and in all these offices in Japan.” Hao described herself as “really an alien” in that situation, working as the CEO of a company of Japanese engineers, many of whom were double her age. “They were not excited about having a very young Chinese American woman who had just given birth — who’s an investor, who’s not an engineer — come in to be their CEO,” she recalled. But despite the challenges involved, Hao said she became close with the entire team, and they succeeded in turning the company around.

“That experience taught me that nothing can kill you — it’ll just make you stronger,” she said. “I have no fear of anything, because I had to stand in front of almost every Japanese bank and beg them to extend our covenants and give us more time. I had to stand in front of thousands of Japanese employees and beg them to stay with the company as we restructured. It was a trial by fire.”

As someone who has frequently been the youngest person, the only woman, and the only person of color in a room, Hao is familiar with the making and breaking of glass ceilings. She described a board meeting in which a CEO used a racialized term to refer to an employee in a derogatory manner. “I looked around the room and waited for someone to say something, but no one said anything,” Hao said. “Finally, I spoke up and said, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t use that word, which is a pretty loaded word for someone who’s Asian American.’”

Across her career, Hao said she has treated each opportunity “like another Williams course,” and she views her new role as secretary of economic development in a similar light. “It’s just another chapter of trying to figure out how I can learn and push myself and be a better person — and hopefully also in the process make a difference in some positive way, big or small,” she said.

Despite not having sought out a job in state government, Hao said she is both grateful for and excited by the opportunity. She and her husband, who are both Chinese American and the first in their families to be born in the U.S., have always talked about how lucky they feel to be in the U.S. “I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but we feel very, very indebted to this country for all the opportunities it’s given us,” she said. “I feel so honored to have this chance, and I am very inspired by this administration and by the team we have.”

Hao’s office is in the process of kicking off an economic development plan for Massachusetts, which is a state-mandated requirement once every four years. “The good news is that we have a lot to build on in Massachusetts,” Hao said, pointing to world-class universities, healthcare systems, and financial institutions. At the same time, however, she expressed concern about the cost of living and ongoing housing crisis. “I feel an incredible sense of urgency that we need to be proactive and intentional right now, to put in place the right strategies to help us continue to be successful in the future,” she continued. “That’s the job that we’re excited about.”

Hao credited much of her career success to her time at the College. “I could say with confidence I do not think I would have this amazing role had it not been for Williams,” she said. “Everything goes back to Williams in some way, shape, or form.”

She cited Religion 101 with then-Professor H. Ganse “Binks” Little as an example of a particularly memorable class. “In business, I think about [Little’s] class all the time, because he taught us that across all cultures, languages, and time, humans have a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Hao said. “In business, no matter what company you’re in, if you can find some way to connect with humans on a fundamental level and to make them feel like they’re part of something bigger, that is a huge gift for them and helps the organization be so much more successful.”

Hao’s time on the crew team at the College also influences her work to this day. “I learned so much about how to win, how to lose, how to work hard, and how to have patience,” Hao explained. She described how, in the process of selling PillPack to Amazon, she often thought back to rowing as an analogy. “When you’re rowing, a lot of it is very boring — you spend all your time doing these practice rows,” she said. “But every now and then, you have these races that require a ‘power 10’ [a sprint of ten hard strokes].” Likewise, in business, Hao noted how much of the time is spent doing “normal things” like hitting a budget. “But every now and then, you have a power 10 sprint — like when you’re trying to sell your company to Amazon for $1 billion,” she said. “In those 10 strokes, all the hours and hours of practice come into fruition.”