On Friday, May 4, as a part of Harris Connect Weekend, Jennifer Tescher was presented with the Career Achievement Award for her outstanding use of a Harris education. Jaime Bellolio Avaria MPP’10, a Diputado in the Chilean Congress, is receiving the Rising Star Award, and Gerardo de la Peña H. MPP’01 (Head of Operational Risk at Infonavit) and David Garcia Junco Machado AM’95 (Secretary of Science, Technology, and Innovation at the Mexico City Mayor’s Office) are receiving the CC DuBois Alumni Service Award.

Jennifer Tescher
Jennifer Tescher MPP'96

Like many Harris Public Policy graduates, Jennifer Tescher wanted to use her new knowledge and skills to change the world. So she aimed small, deciding that she merely wanted to find the one solution to poverty.

Of course, as her journey has reminded Tescher time and time again, there is no one solution to poverty, because there is no one problem that causes it.  Poverty is an overwhelmingly complex and nuanced problem driven by myriad personal, societal, institutional, and systemic factors.

This complexity has not deterred Tescher from trying to find strategies and approaches that will help give her a “theory of everything” as it relates to poverty.  She credits Harris with giving her the "timeless" frameworks and tools need to think about and address complicated problems and issues.

“There are a lot of complex problems that need addressing, and lots of other systems to solve them besides the marketplace. Public policy is a great path for trying to understand these problems and find solutions,” said Tescher.

But, as Tescher discovered, influencing public policy and change does not require one to be in the public sector. Upon graduation, Tescher landed in the financial industry. In 2004, she founded the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) to improve the financial health of Americans, especially the underserved.

Tescher is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Financial Services Innovation, also known as CFSI.

Her accomplishments as head of CFSI earned Tescher the 2018 Career Achievement Award, which recognizes Harris alumni who have achieved a position of significant leadership in the public, private or nonprofit sector and built a robust track record of meaningful accomplishments that have positively influenced their organization and/or society.

Tescher and the CFSI have certainly had a positive influence on society. The organization's research, consulting and Financial Solutions Lab impacts 165 million customers served by its 138 network members. Of those, 47 million are low-to-moderate income consumers.

The financial services industry was the last place she imagined herself after graduating from Harris. She entered Harris as a journalist seeking to gain a more in-depth understanding of urban poverty issues – an issue she was passionate about covering as a reporter. She had every intention of returning to journalism but soon recognized that her path after Harris needed to be more about addressing and trying to solve the issues she cared about, as opposed to reporting about them.

She knew journalism was no longer in her future, but she had no inkling that she would eventually make her mark in financial services. After all, how do you help people with little to no money from an industry that is all about helping those with money manage it?

She discovered though that this was an industry where she actually could have a tremendous impact, recognizing that limited understanding of and access to financial services plays an instrumental role in the cycle of poverty.

“Being in the industry helped me appreciate that the private sector has the necessary resources to address problems at scale. I became fascinated with issues of mission vs. margin. I wanted to help financial services companies understand that they do better when their customers do better.”

Tescher’s career was launching at a time when the internet and portable technology were starting to reshape so many sectors, including financial services. She put her theories about access to financial products to the test by helping the Ford Foundation figure out how the burgeoning internet could best create new opportunities to serve the underclass.

The number of unbanked and underbanked Americans has fallen dramatically over the last couple of decades, due in large part to financial technology. But in 2015, there were still about 9 million households without any type of bank account, according to a national survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). There were an additional 24.5 million households considered underbanked, meaning the household had a checking or savings account but also obtained financial products and services outside of the banking system.

The Great Recession taught Tescher and many others in the financial sector, however, that merely having access to technology and banking services is not enough:

“A lot of people felt the impact of that recession, but poor people were devastated. From the crisis, we realized that financial health is much bigger than simply having access to financial services. There are so many stakeholders – hospitals, insurance, employers, community colleges, just to name a few – that play key roles in determining people’s ability to achieve financial stability."

Having a more holistic understanding of American’s financial health is at the core of CFSI’s research. Its newest research will be the U.S. Financial Health Pulse, which will provide a rigorous, regularly refreshed snapshot of the financial health of U.S adults.

Thanks to CFSI’s research and that of many other organizations and institutions, there is a much clearer understanding of the financial lives of Americans. For example, data points to the fact that more than half of the country is struggling financially. More than four in ten Americans would be unable to cover a $400 expense without borrowing or selling a possession.

Tescher says figures like these provide rich insights into the financial lives of Americans and shed light on how financial service providers can help consumers spend wisely, build savings, manage debt, and plan for the future.

"Financial health is much bigger than simply having access to financial services," Tescher says.

“But research like this has to be ongoing. Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from my time at Harris is that we need to continually learn and re-learn. We need to continually evolve our thinking. Because problems change, potential solutions change, and the information we have available changes,” said Tescher.

Tescher asserts that the data-driven approach to policy emphasized at Harris is extremely valuable, whether you end up in the public sector, the private sector, or with a non-profit. It is a message that Tescher has been sharing with Harris students frequently over the past few years, as she has taken a more active role in helping young people in their efforts to achieve a career with purpose.

She wants to and feels a responsibility to help the next generation of students who will change the world.

“There are so many ways to change the world now through policy. And working in government is just one way to do that.  These students are well positioned and better prepared than most to disrupt the way we address some of society’s intractable problems. But we will need bold action. My advice to them is to think big,” said the woman who once declared that she wanted to find the one solution to poverty.