Michelle Wu did not anticipate becoming a high-profile public servant. Growing up the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants in Chicago, she had no exposure to government or politics.
Yet, remarkably, by the time she was 28 years old, she had become the first Asian American woman elected to serve on the Boston City Council, and two years later, the first woman of color to serve as president of that same body.
Since taking office in 2013, Michelle (Boston, 2007-08) has worked to make government more accessible for all Bostonians. "My foundational belief is that all people, but particularly those in need, should have a voice, and that government should be accessible, transparent, and accountable to the people," she said.
As councilor at-large, she represents the entire city of Boston, dealing with the gamut of constituent issues, from potholes to trash pickup, to the quality of schools and the safety of neighborhoods. "We are the level of government closest to people. My colleagues and I serve as Bostonians' first link to government."
Indeed, it was her frustration with this link—or lack thereof—that set Michelle up for some unforeseen career detours. She had been an associate in BCG's Boston office for about a year when her mother fell ill. She was compelled to leave the firm and return home. "I was in my very early twenties. One day I'm on the consultant career track; next thing I know, I'm raising two younger sisters and taking care of my mom. Had my mom not become sick, I likely would have gone on to business school and returned to BCG afterwards—who knows—but when I went back to Chicago, my life took a 180-degree turn."
Determined to make the most of this sudden life change, she opened a teashop, featuring poetry readings and open mic nights, on Chicago's North Side. However, navigating the permit and inspection processes for this small business left her "exasperated with local government," which she felt put too many bureaucratic barriers in the way of aspiring restaurant operators. This experience, together with her roles as legal advocate for her mom and legal guardian for her siblings, gave Michelle an up-close view of how city government can directly impact people's lives.
Red tape and bureaucracy notwithstanding, she enjoyed the restaurant experience. Nonetheless, she felt that her future lay elsewhere. In 2009, she moved back to Boston (bringing her family with her) to study at Harvard Law School.
During that first year—as an intern for then–Boston Mayor Thomas Menino—she had an opportunity to work on changing some of the same systems that had frustrated her previously as a small-business owner. She helped simplify and streamline some of the city's restaurant permitting issues and spearheaded a revision of mobile vending rules, clearing the way for food trucks to operate on Boston streets. The internship was a pivotal experience. "I wouldn't have considered running for local office later had I not learned firsthand then that you can have an impact from within the system."
Later, during her third year at law school, one of her professors, Elizabeth Warren, announced her run for a US Senate seat. Michelle jumped in to work as Warren's constituency director. "Helping out on the campaign further opened my eyes to the importance of politics that are inclusive and that speak for all communities."
Today, Michelle says, hindsight has made it easier to connect the dots of her journey from Boston Consulting to Boston City Hall. "BCG, in particular, had—and I'm sure still does—a commitment to intellectual analysis and to investing in young people. I can't believe how much it put into so many 22-year-olds like me, all straight out of college.
"I learned from my time with the firm that I love interacting with different types of people. I loved the fast-paced environment; I loved the problem solving and getting to be creative about how we proposed solutions and framed information for clients in ways that made sense to them."
Much of what she does today, she says, is related. "There are policy challenges for which, as an elected representative, I must offer solutions. That involves a process of information gathering, research, and, ultimately, explaining why my proposals—backed by data, graphics, and easily digestible bullet points—makes sense."
There is no shortage of examples of her success with this process.
While pregnant with her first child, Michelle spearheaded the city's first-ever paid family leave policy, making the city of Boston one of the few public employers in the US to offer the benefit. She was lead sponsor of Boston's health-care equity ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. She authored Boston's communications access ordinance, guaranteeing translation, interpretation, and assistive technology for access to city services regardless of English language proficiency or communications disability. She introduced a successful ordinance to end the city's ban on bring-your-own-bottle (BYOB) for small neighborhood restaurants and championed "Boston Unplugged," allowing small businesses in commercial districts to host acoustic performances.
The impact of her efforts has not gone unnoticed. In 2016, she was honored by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce as one of "Ten Outstanding Young Leaders" and was listed in Marie Claire magazine as one of "The 50 Most Influential Women in America."
So what's next for this political rising star? A run for office at the state or perhaps even national level? "I get asked this a lot. But I don't equate my role in public service with a need to climb the ladder. I'm not convinced that every next level of government would be as meaningful for me. I look at politicians in Washington, DC, and see that many of them have become removed from the impact of their work. That's not for me. As long as I'm able to make a difference, I'll be happy in this job."
Another question she hears a lot—given that she herself has achieved so many firsts as a young woman—is what advice she has for other women considering a career in public service.
"It's important for women to recognize when they have something to offer in a position of leadership and to act upon it. Women are not nearly where they should be in terms of equal representation in government and politics, but if they wait to be invited to step into a leadership position, they'll find themselves waiting a very long time."
As somebody who did make that step into leadership, how's the view from the council president's seat? "I love it! It's a privilege to feel strongly connected to the community and to the people of Boston.
"I want to implement meaningful change for residents," she concluded. "I enjoy that at the municipal level; you can have a great idea and see it implemented quickly. The work is impactful, it's tangible, and it's a place where innovation can thrive. There's nothing more satisfying than to serve in the public sector and to know that every day my work is focused on how to help people and to make their lives better."