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From PhD to DEI-focused consultant

We sat down with Nina, an engagement manager in New York, to learn more about her path from a political science PhD into consulting and how she has kept her passion for racial equity alive at McKinsey.

I came to McKinsey after finishing my doctorate at Oxford, where I studied political science with a focus on American racial politics. I took the leap out of academia because I was ready for a more action-oriented environment and, as a strong extrovert, team-based work after five years of largely solo reading and writing. I didn’t entirely know what I was looking for, but at McKinsey, I found a boot camp in how to get things done.

For example, at the end of my PhD, I hypothetically could have held a productive conversation with a US mayor about some of the challenges her administration might be trying to tackle. I could have shed light on where those problems came from or how they affected residents. But, if the mayor then told me, “Let’s tackle this issue,” I wouldn’t have known where to start.

That’s what my time at McKinsey has taught me to do. The problems governments and institutions are facing are as complex as I imagined from my perch in academia, but we have to start somewhere in trying to solve them. That means, for example, determining the baseline of how things are going today, making hard decisions about what to prioritize, rallying your troops around a new aspiration and the steps you’ll take to achieve it, and figuring out how you are going to measure success.

Making my own McKinsey 

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Nina opening the first printed copies of her book, which is based on her dissertation.
One of the best parts of making the transition to McKinsey was that it didn’t mean I had to give up my academic life entirely. I’ve made use of McKinsey’s Take Time program on multiple occasions to turn my dissertation into a book, How the Color Line Bends, which was published this spring. It explores the relationship between local geography and racial politics in the US—how place is one of many factors that shape the expression of racial prejudice.

I’ve been fortunate to work with an inspiring set of leaders at McKinsey who enabled me to dedicate time to this project while continuing to grow within the firm. Beyond pursuing my academic interests outside of work, I’ve also been grateful for the opportunities I’ve found within my client work and other McKinsey activities to focus on topics I find interesting and important.

Keeping my research interests alive 

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Participating in a breakout session on Black entrepreneurship at the 2019 Black Economic Forum.
A defining part of my time at McKinsey has been the opportunity to contribute the Institute for Black Economic MobilityAs new joiners at the firm, we’re encouraged to build our networks by speaking with people who do work that interests us. This was what brought me into conversation with Jason Wright, a former McKinsey partner who now serves as president of the Washington Commanders. A phone call with Jason turned into an opportunity to help him on a project focused on diversity and inclusion at a major insurance company, which turned into a spot on the core research team for the 2019 Black Economic Forum. Through that experience, I built relationships with other leaders including Shelley Stewart, JP Julien, and Duwain Pinder, and had the chance to co-author some of our research on financial inclusion and Black entrepreneurship

Getting to work on these topics has been meaningful and shown me the power of McKinsey’s approach and platform: presenting rigorous analysis using simple but robust frameworks, elevating the most important findings, using compelling visuals, and disseminating research via (for free! – in contrast to academic journals which often require a subscription). I still deeply respect the value of academic scholarship, of course, and I’ve gained a new appreciation for other ways to conduct and share research.

Supporting clients on topics related to racial equity

In addition to contributing to the Institute for Black Economic Mobility, I have drawn on my political science background in my client work. I now focus primarily on topics related to economic development, with a particular focus on workforce development and reskilling for the Future of Work.

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At a team breakfast with McKinsey colleagues in NYC.

At times, my client work has explicitly centered on racial equity, such as working with federal government agencies to embed a racial equity lens into their work and supporting a city in ensuring economic recovery from the pandemic was as inclusive as possible.

At other times, my projects may not have had an explicit focus on race, but my teams have been able to help clients address DEI issues as they arise. For instance, I spent much of 2020 working side-by-side with a state economic development organization to develop a workforce program that responded to the impacts of the pandemic. When we, along with the rest of the country, grappled with the reckoning presented by the summer of 2020, I collaborated with my clients on a response that shifted the program to focus more directly to serving workers of color.

Something people are surprised to learn about me

One thing my McKinsey colleagues might not know about me is that I grew up dancing—starting with the classic combination of ballet, jazz, and tap as a kid, getting into contemporary ballet and hip-hop in high school, and then primarily hip-hop as a dancer and teacher/choreographer throughout college and graduate school.

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Nina performing in a dance production at Harvard, where she went to college.
Consulting is obviously quite different from the world of performing arts, but they share at least a couple features I wouldn’t have appreciated before coming to McKinsey. For one, working in client services means I’m trying to deliver a great experience for my clients, like I did for my audience. That requires me to put myself in their position: to imagine how they might take in information, what might surprise them, and how I want them to feel as a result of our work together.

Consulting also is a surprisingly visual field. In my academic training, I learned many skills that have served me well here, particularly when it comes to conceptual clarity and data analysis. At McKinsey, I’ve learned how to draw a viewer’s eye to the most important detail of an image, such as a table or graph. I’ve learned how to make sense out of a large amount of visual information that, without an intentional flow and structure, would be overwhelming for a viewer. In a sense, this is its own version of choreography—even if what I’m producing in the end is a PowerPoint presentation or Word document.

Find a job like Nina’s

Learn more about the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility

Learn more about McKinsey’s work in economic development