Dan Goldstern reflects on the Schwarzman Scholars program

After graduating from Penn in 2013, Daniel Goldstern sought out, and landed, a job in investment banking. A political science major with a love of philosophy, Dan was determined to bring these interests into his professional life. He pursued real estate development in New York City before enrolling in the inaugural (2016-17) class of Schwarzman Scholars at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. The diverse community of peers and ideas Dan found there gave him the space and perspective to assess where he could best enact meaningful change in his own community. Dan returned to NYC in 2017 to take up a role as a policy advisor to the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development.

CURF Fellow Kathryn Morgan caught up with Dan in May 2018, as concerns about an impending ‘trade war’ between the US and China were on the rise. Dan spoke thoughtfully about what he gained by pursuing a graduate degree in China, his decision to transition from the private to the public sector, and what the Schwarzman experience has meant to him, personally and professionally. Excerpts from their conversation appear below.

You were on what many would consider a highly promising career path when you enrolled in the Schwarzman Scholars program in 2016. What made you decide to go back to school? And why Schwarzman?

Like many at Penn, I took my liberal arts education and promptly went into finance. I had been interested in political theory, philosophy, but I didn’t want to go into academia, and I had very little sense of the "practical" applications of those fields. Finance was great. I knew from the third week that I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life. But I stuck it out and learned a ton and I’m glad I did it.

But from that third week on I began to think really critically about what I wanted to do. I tried to reflect on the fundamental things about me, going back to when I was a kid. I grew up in Brooklyn, I used to walk the streets of Manhattan with my dad. If we passed a construction site--no shortage of those in New York--I would be glued to it. I thought okay, I’ll focus on the real estate sector, maybe there’s something there. Eventually I had the opportunity to work for Silverstein Properties. They’re a small company doing huge things--like rebuilding the World Trade Center--and they had this attitude that we’re in it as a business, but also to do good by the city. I liked that.

When I started thinking about next steps, I wasn’t really looking to go back to school; business school didn’t seem so appealing, but I did briefly consider studying architecture or urban design. Around that time I got a series of emails about a new program in China founded by Steve Schwarzman. Most emails were pitching the program in the usual way, as a prestigious course for future leaders. But, it’s funny, the one email that caught my eye wasn’t pitching the program at all, it was actually a job advertisement, for a resident advisor to live alongside the scholars in the Schwarzman College building in Beijing. So, instead of the usual language about leadership and prestige, this job advertisement was was talking about building a new community of 100 interesting people from around the world, all living and learning together for a year in China.   The community: that seemed really different, that seemed special.  In large part due to this RA job posting, I decided to apply to the scholarship. And just writing the application was an enriching experience for me, in that it forced me to take a big step back and ask, what am I doing now, what do I want to be doing, what do I want out of life? It was a very introspective process.

What do you think is most unique about the Schwarzman experience?

First and foremost, the community is really, really special. Because it was small and residential, it felt very different from, say, Penn as a university. This was a group of people who lived, ate, studied together in the same building for a year. We really got to know one another. So within the cohort you had closer friends, but you were close with everybody. Whether at lunchtime, on trips that the program sponsored, or in self-organized travel on breaks or weekends, there were always opportunities to have a conversation with a less-familiar friend or a different group of people.

And the people were inspiring to me. Part of the reason I ended up shifting from business to policy was because of my interactions with peers who saw the world very differently from me, in that never in their lives had they wanted to go into business, they had always seen themselves as nonprofit or policy or academic people. At Penn it felt like people tended to silo themselves, but at Schwarzman College it was a melting pot where I was constantly bumping up against other ideas. It made me remember how interested I had been in those areas as an undergraduate: policy, philosophy. I thought, I should go explore this. The community was far and away the most fulfilling part of the Schwarzman experience.

We still keep in touch, and the program coordinates plenty of alumni events. For example, in a few weeks we’re going down to DC for an alumni “deep dive.” It’ll be part alumni reunion, but there will also be lectures and conversations with interesting folks involved in policy, government, law in DC; it should be a good experience.

We’re already in touch with the next class. The dream is to have a class-to-class, generation-to-generation network of Schwarzman Scholars who support each other.

How did your time at Schwarzman College help you figure out your next steps?

I grew a lot, both personally and professionally, during my time at Schwarzman College. Obviously, the professional aspect is the most advertised part. This is a leadership program: you meet people who are doing interesting things across a variety of fields, you learn from visiting lecturers and established leaders in a casual, accessible setting. What Schwarzman College does well is it situates itself as a hub for people coming through Beijing. The college has guest rooms so that professors or anyone with meetings at the University can stay over. A few that come to mind: Larry Summers, David Petraeus, Ngaire Woods, Hank Paulson… Yao Ming, of course. Plus impressive leaders from all over China--heads of massive state-owned enterprises, entrepreneurs, government administrators--all came through.

The programming and the college environment enable you to reflect on what you want to do next, and you encounter a lot of people willing to share their experience and advice.

But the personal growth aspect is the thing I’m most grateful for. Whenever I discuss the program with someone who is currently working and hesitant about going back to school, I try to emphasize that this is the year to pause, reflect, and get to know yourself again. A four-year college is theoretically the place and time for this kind of thinking, but a lot of what you came to believe about yourself may rapidly lose its relevance as soon as you set foot in the professional world. At Schwarzman, connecting with my peers who had lived very different lives from me up to that point pushed and pulled me in a lot of interesting directions. What if I had never gone to New York or taken the business route? What if I had spent three years doing international development in Mongolia, instead? I kept a journal throughout the year and took the time to think about what would make me fulfilled and what it is I want to bring to the world.

I didn’t start doing the networking thing until the last months of the program because I wanted to make the most of living at the College and being in China. Speaking to the established, successful people who would come through to talk with us was calming: many of them do not have anything resembling a linear career trajectory. I’ve never wanted to be in just one field, to climb a ladder, so it was refreshing to see how flexible the possibilities were. Then, when I finally started making phone calls, doing informational interviews, just learning what was out there, I was able to go into it with as few assumptions as possible.

Tell me about what you’re doing now. What perspectives do you bring to the table from your time in China that others might not?

In my application essays to Schwarzman, I had talked about how, working in real estate, I was interested in the idea of New York City as a work in progress; the city is constantly being built up, being created anew. I tried to draw a parallel to my experience in China as an undergrad studying abroad, where I felt that feeling of endless construction so much more intensely. It’s cliché to observe how rapidly the country changes its physical appearance.

When I got back to NY I knew, more clearly than before, the area I wanted to pursue. Urban development: I mean dealing with the social and economic challenges roused by the historical force of urbanization.  This is closely linked with the question of the future of work, technological automation, energy and sustainability, and so on. Today, local governments, organizations, and businesses are the ones taking action. In New York we like to think that insane rents and dreadful transit are peculiar to us. But, the truth is, the fastest-growing cities have been in Asia and, actually, Africa for some time now. Two thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050. These are global problems that we all need to face. 

I saw that real estate, technology, and policy all looked at these issues in different ways. One thing that being in China brought home to me was just how different the urbanization model is for cities like Beijing. The Chinese government has plans to combine Beijing with two other nearby metropolises to create a 130-million-person megacity. It’s on another level. Infrastructure development is a much easier proposition in China. They have had an enormous national high-speed rail system for a decade; our foray into this modern technology, the LA-San Francisco line, is exceptionally delayed and way over budget. What my experience in China highlighted is that often the technology is there, the engineering problems are solvable, and in some cases, China is solving them as fast or faster than we are in the US. It highlighted for me how often, in the US, this is an issue of political will.

I wanted to be at the place where those policy decisions were made so I could understand how that works and what the issues are. After returning from Beijing, I was lucky to find this role in the Mayor’s Office to work on housing and economic development policy. I love it, I work on these exact problems (along with a smattering of random things). It’s perfect for my personality and approach.

What’s your advice to someone considering Schwarzman?

Schwarzman shouldn’t be viewed as a scholarship for people who have a prior interest in or affiliation with China. This is a leadership program where you can study politics, economics, international studies, in a Chinese context. Foreign students come to study in the US, not necessarily because they intend to stay here, but because fluency in the American context is valuable no matter where they go. Knowing the Chinese context has been important in nearly every area of business and policy for a while now and it’s gaining importance with every year. Our Chinese friends and colleagues are going to be playing a much more significant role internationally, and it’s both useful and fascinating to consider the world as they might see it.

Finally, anybody who is interested should definitely reach out to CURF! Because CURF’s resources are really wonderful, for alumni as well as current students.

Dan graduated from Penn in 2013 with a degree in political science. He worked in finance and real estate development before being selected to spend a year in Beijing, China as part of the inaugural class of Schwarzman Scholars in 2016. Dan returned to NYC in 2017 to take up a role as a policy advisor to the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development.