City Beautiful

City Beautiful

When it comes to economic development, Bo Kemp ’87 understands the value of efficacy.

Bo Kemp ’87 spent the first decade of his career in finance with Morgan Stanley and TSG Capital, but a chance encounter with Cory Booker refocused his career. Now Kemp is the CEO of the Southland Development Authority, a not-for-profit that oversees economic development for about 750,000 people in the south suburbs of Chicago.

Kemp recently spoke at a Conversation with Friends event moderated by the clerks of the Black Alumni Alliance Advisory Council: Akinyi Ochieng Sagoe-Moses  ’11, who is senior associate director at APCO Worldwide, where she advises nonprofits, foundations, corporations, and governments on initiatives to improve economic and social outcomes for vulnerable communities, and Neville Waters ’75, who has had an extensive career in marketing and communications and who is currently working for the District government processing freedom of Freedom of Information requests.

Kemp's journey from finance entrepreneur to city-planning started in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans. “I’ve raised $100 million for different businesses that I've run, from media to biodiesel and the like,” Kemp said. “By happenstance, one of my businesses got washed away with Katrina and that’s what connected me to Cory Booker.” At the time, now-Senator Cory Booker was running for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and learning the lessons of various municipal failures in New Orleans. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly 14 years later, Booker would sponsor the Small Business Disaster Relief Bill in the U.S. Senate.) Booker subsequently asked Kemp to lead his mayoral transition team and then to stay on as Newark’s business administrator. Now, Kemp has a reputation for driving innovation in municipal utilities, public infrastructure, and economic development for legacy cities.

“The opportunity felt interesting,” he said of the chance to be an urban business administrator in New Jersey. “I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan, and I find a kinship to places that have had large industrial bases that have been decimated and are now dealing with all of the issues that come from the depletion of that population.”

One of the things his traditional private equity and investment banking background did not prepare him for was the government’s role in the lives of low-income and working-class residents. “When a tree falls on your house, the first thing you do is pick up the phone and call someone to cut the tree down and you call your insurance company to get a claim,” he said. “But when someone with lower social-economic status has a tree fall on their house, they call their councilperson; they call their mayor.” He said those people deserve a functioning government; in fact, they are really the government’s broadest constituency. People at the economic top can use money to resolve problems. On the other hand: “A simple tree falling for someone who’s working class is the equivalent of Katrina or Superstorm Sandy for someone who’s wealthy.”

It is also why, Kemp believes, not everyone who runs a company is cut out to run a government. In fact, former DC Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon helped orient him. “She said, ‘Government is really about effectiveness not about efficiency,’” Kemp said. “I didn’t fully appreciate that until I started working in government.” Kemp was used to using productivity and efficiency as the measures of success, “but it very quickly became obvious that you can’t cut your way to profitability,” he said. “You have to grow, and so I turned my attention to economic development because that’s really the driver to generate the revenue to support everybody regardless of class.”


The Kemp discussion was wide-ranging, covering civic engagement, greening cities, sports stadiums, and more. Click here to watch the full Conversation with Friends.

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