Jean Lin Pao, MPP ‘91

As the Director of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Jean Lin Pao, MPP ‘91, is the principal advocate for small business utilization in government contracting—a $650 billion annual federal enterprise. Jean has been a member of the Senior Executive Service since 2006, and during her seven years as director, she has transformed the way the office approaches the small business community with an eye toward advancing equity in federal procurement. Jean received several awards and honors, including two Presidential Rank Awards (PRAs) in 2010 and in November 2023, President Biden selected Jean for the prestigious Presidential Rank Award of Distinguished Executive. The PRA is considered the highest honor for career civil servants, recognizing the important contributions of public servants across the federal government. Only one percent of career members of the Senior Executive Service receive the Distinguished Executive rank, which recognizes extraordinary achievement.

What does your job at OSDBU entail?

I am the advisor on small business programs at HUD, and I report to the head of the department or the deputy secretary. The office’s responsibility is one of advocacy, outreach, technical assistance, and compliance. The government has a responsibility to utilize small businesses in federal contracting. Expanding small business access to federal contracting is currently an elevated priority, but it has been government policy since the establishment of the Small Business Administration, more than 70 years ago, to ensure small businesses earn a fair proportion of government contracts.

Why are small businesses the key to a thriving economy?

There are 33 million small businesses in the country, and they make up over 99% of all firms. They provide 62.7 percent of net new jobs. Small businesses are the engine of the economy.

What are HUBZone Businesses?

The federal government uses contracting assistance programs to help small businesses win at least 23% of all federal contracting dollars each year. These programs are for women-owned small businesses, service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses, small disadvantaged businesses, and then there's a category for small business in historically underutilized business zones, or HUBZones. In order to be a HUBZone small business, your principal office has to be located in an underserved neighborhood, and 35% of your employees have to reside in a HUBZone. The program aims to stimulate local economies and reduce unemployment rates in these areas and serves as an amplifier for community and economic development by encouraging businesses to locate and hire within these zones,

Are there misconceptions about small businesses that you work to overcome?

There are many misperceptions about the capacity and capabilities of small businesses, but all businesses face performance, service delivery, and staffing challenges. It has been instrumental to provide small businesses the opportunity to engage with government personnel and vice versa. When small businesses understand the government landscape and requirements, they are better equipped and positioned to provide a quality response that meets the needs of the agency. When agency personnel meet with small businesses, which oftentimes is with the President, Founder or CEO, they see the commitment and expertise of the businesses.

Can you share your origin story?

I was an Urban Affairs major at Columbia University with a political science background. That really ignited my passion for urban development. A college professor suggested that I explore public policy graduate programs, and told me about public policy summer institutes sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The foundation was offering fellowships for a master’s in public policy. And so that’s how I came to apply to the Harris School of Public Policy.

What was your experience like at Harris?

I graduated in 1991, and at the time, the school was just establishing itself. What attracted me to Harris was, of course, being part of the University of Chicago, and Harris was developing a reputation for being very strong in quantitative analysis while also offering a multidisciplinary approach to the curriculum.

Who were your influences during that time in Chicago?

As part of the Core, I took Professor V. Joseph Hotz’s statistics class. I really bonded with my team members as we pulled all-nighters analyzing the impact of immigration on unemployment using Census data. At the same time, Harris had a great mentoring program, and I was paired with a trailblazer in local politics and former commissioner for the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago. I also interned with an amazing local government leader from the City of Chicago’s Department of Economic Development and Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training.

What did you do there?

I was able to apply what we learned at Harris to practical program development and implementation. One of the big initiatives that I worked on was called YES Chicago: Youth Employment Success. The effort focused on developing an apprenticeship program for high school students in different communities in Chicago and connecting adjacent industries to local high schools. Around Edgewater, there was a partnership being formed with tool and die companies; in Pilsen, the plan was to train students as community health workers and paraprofessionals with access to the local Medical Center.

Has your path crossed with any of your former Harris classmates over the years?

A number of my classmates and I are still friends. We helped each other professionally and supported each other over the course of three decades now. A cohort of us moved to Washington D.C., which was a logical move after graduation, as of course this is the center of making public policy at the federal level.

Everyone’s talking about data and quantitative analysis now. When you got your degree 33 years ago, you were way ahead of the curve.

The Harris degree, and the rigorous training in quantitative methods and policy analysis, has been critical to my ability to make government change—and direct small business programs at the Department. All the rigorous training has served me well because it’s all about evidence-based policymaking, and I use those skills every day. I have to routinely report out how the department is progressing against its small business goals, so goal measurement and data visualization are key. A federal best practice, the creation of a monthly small business dashboard helped leadership keep track of the Department’s progress on meeting goals and informed their decision-making.

What led to the Presidential Rank Award?

Part of it was establishing HUD as a leader in conducting outreach to the small business community. But also, I had to lead a group of my peers and make the case to the Small Business Administration that they needed to change their methodology for how they reported small business accomplishments by the agencies. It took two years of analyzing the data, being able to communicate the results, and working with key decision-makers to make that change happen. This revised methodology increased data accuracy and transparency for the government’s annual procurement spend and provided a more accurate reflection of the actual opportunities for small businesses to participate in government contracts. Change is possible in the federal government!

I understand you and your spouse recently became empty nesters. What do you like to do in your free time?

I recently got invited to join a hiking group. We did a president’s tour recently in Washington, D.C. where we visited different homes. We went to William Howard Taft’s former house, Woodrow Wilson’s former house, and we tried visiting the home of former President Obama, but the Secret Service wouldn’t let us down the street. So we did that circuit and ended up at the White House.

How do you feel when you reflect on your professional journey?

I am honored and grateful for the opportunity to dedicate my career to public service. For someone who looks like me, as a woman who comes from an immigrant background and a woman of color, the possibility of becoming a federal executive is unlikely to happen in other countries. I’ve come full circle in terms of what I do today to help break down barriers to economic opportunity. I started out being interested in how cities spur community and economic development. It’s about creating programs and pathways to economic success and achieving the American dream. My professional journey serving the public has exceeded my wildest dreams, and I look forward to continuing to serve the American people for many years to come.

The views presented in this article are solely the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. federal government.