Edwards wants to learn more about government finance before eventually running for political office.
Makai Edwards
Makai Edwards

Incoming student Makai Edwards’ burnished credentials in public finance would seem a natural launch pad for a career in investment banking. 

But the 28-year-old senior underwriter hopes one day to take the plunge, like his hero President Barack Obama, and run for local office in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago politics. 

Edwards expects to enter the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Evening Master’s Program in October to further study how policy affects municipal finance. He admits he’s “excited, nervous, and scared at the same time” about juggling studies and full-time work at PNC Financial Services Group in Chicago.

“It’ll probably take time for me to digest everything,” says Edwards, who’s worked at PNC since graduating from Washington University in 2012. “But I think the Harris program will provide the tools I need to get to my end goal.”

As a PNC senior underwriter in public finance, Edwards crunches numbers for clients in the nonprofit world and government space. 

He enjoys pulling back the curtain on government funding, demystifying the process and, literally, following the money—from tax coffers, to general funds, to supporting essential public services. 

“There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to making needed city services run regularly, like the trash getting picked up every Monday,” he says. 

At Harris Public Policy, Edwards hopes to build on the considerable knowledge he’s already acquired at PNC for a career in public service, including analyzing property tax elasticity for the city of Chicago.

In 2015, he was part of a team at PNC that worked with the City of Chicago during its early response to the pension-funding crisis. That year, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the state’s pension reform was unconstitutional. The fallout spread to the city, which saw its multiple debt-rating downgrades.  

For Edwards, the discussions took on a personal meaning: He grew up in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood on the South Side in a home where both parents served years working for the Chicago Public Schools system. Both are retired and live on their pensions.

Edwards’s background gave him “a unique perspective and helped put more of a human spin on the numbers,” he says. “People forget that there are actual humans on the front lines providing these services.”

The perception of government taking two steps forward and one step back when addressing pension funding and other complex issues is a turn-off for most. But Edwards remains optimistic. 

He’s not put off by the heightened emotions on display during public meetings. As a child, Edwards would tag along with his father when he attended Chicago Public School board meetings. More recently, he has sat in on Chicago Park District meetings where tempers flared during the public comment period. 

“People were talking about the lack of job opportunities in the District, and it almost felt like the people on the board weren’t connecting with them,” Edwards says. “You need to understand where they’re coming from.”

The experience stoked his growing interest in running for office someday. If all goes as planned and he earns his master’s degree from Harris in December 2019, Edwards says he will return to the private sector — always keeping an eye on the opportunity to run for local office. And from there, maybe even state or national office.

Regardless of whether he ever gets his name on a ballot, Edwards expects to be involved in public service. 

At Harris, Edwards hopes to learn more about how policy is created and how to determine and measure the negative and positive impact of a specific policy decision.

That he’ll be able to meld his love for data-driven decisions with his craving to understand government operations while attending Harris is a dream come true, Edwards says: “It’s a nice marriage between my two loves.”