Jason D. León, CPA, MPA: Bringing Public Finance Expertise to Public Health

    • October 15, 2013

Jason D. León was beginning to feel a little too comfortable in his job as an assistant city administrator in Isabela, Puerto Rico. He had already helped to eliminate a multi-million-dollar deficit, restructure the local government, and manage an operating budget of more than $30 million—while still finding a little time for surfing.

But professionally, he was ready to grow. “I decided it was time to sharpen my skill sets a little more, and the best way to do that was to go back to school,” León says.

The combination of training leading to a graduate degree and a nine-month mentorship assignment sold him on the National Urban Fellows Master of Public Administration (MPA) Fellowship. (Read the Progress Report to learn more about the program.) “What better way to complete a master’s degree and get work experience in a manageable amount of time?” he recalls thinking. “That was key. I wanted to go to graduate school, but not take two years off from work. I wanted to continue in that groove of working.”

León began his fellowship in June 2008, and was assigned a mentorship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

From New York to Puerto Rico. Some years earlier, León was growing up in the Bronx, New York, where his parents sacrificed to send him to a private Catholic school. Despite his family heritage, he was neither completely fluent in Spanish, nor fully immersed in Puerto Rican culture. When the time came to apply for college, he chose the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, seizing on the opportunity both for cultural enrichment and tuition savings.

León enrolled first at the English-speaking program at the university’s main campus in San Germán. The location proved to be inconvenient, so he transferred to another campus that had only a single drawback—all the classes were taught in Spanish. Only after the semester began did he discover that his Spanish wasn’t quite as good as he thought it was. “I had to study twice as hard, I had to translate my notes, translate the books,” recalls León.

The struggle was intense enough for León to consider transferring, but he managed to hang on, and as he mastered the language, his grades started to improve. Eventually, he earned his degree in accounting, graduating magna cum laude with a grade point average of 3.94.

The language challenge, he now says, was “a blessing in disguise.” Finally, he felt linguistically and culturally at home in Puerto Rico.

After becoming a certified public accountant, León was hired by the city of Isabela, serving first as director of the Finance and Budget Department and then promoted to assistant city administrator. By the time he left the commonwealth to become a National Urban Fellow, he understood a lot more about how cities are managed. He called his five-year stint in Isabela “an amazing experience, learning the ins and outs of local government and how that work impacts on the community in so many different ways.”

A mentorship at RWJF. León began his RWJF mentorship with no experience in philanthropy and little knowledge of public health, and he was mystified at first as to why a health-focused foundation would be interested in him. But RWJF’s Public Health team was exploring ways to promote education and training in public health finance for health department officials, and staff saw a good fit.

Eventually, León recognized it, too. “They were coming from the public health end and I was coming from the financial end. My accounting background and having worked in government and financial management brought a different expertise that the team needed,” he said.

Part of his assignment was to inform the design of a research and training grant to the University of Southern Mississippi, intended to increase knowledge about state and local public health financing (Read a Program Results Report on this project—funded through Grant ID# 62024).

León blended professional expertise and new research to answer these questions:

  • What issues are public health directors looking at?
  • How can financial managers enhance their effectiveness as administrators?

His legwork helped to identify some of the skills that administrators need, and tools that could be useful to them.

As a result of his exposure to health philanthropy, León says, “I became an advocate of public health. I became immersed in the work that RWJF was doing, learning about it on a daily basis. [As a fellow] you participate in the grantmaking, the planning, the meetings, the retreats. It gave me a great introduction to what public health was all about.”

Expanding horizons while building knowledge is what the fellowship is all about, says León. “Part of the beauty of the program is you go in with one set of skills, and leave with another whole set so you become a much more well-rounded professional.”

With RWJF’s support, León served as an independent consultant for a year beyond his fellowship so that he could continue to contribute his expertise in public finance.

Circling back to National Urban Fellows. In 2010, RWJF decided to fund the Health Policy Advocacy and Education Initiative at National Urban Fellows to help weave a public health component into the 14-month program. León, who had finished his fellowship two years earlier, came on board, again as an independent consultant, to help develop the initiative.

One of this first steps was to sit down with his mentor, Debra Pérez, PhD, MA, MPA, former assistant vice president for Research and Evaluation at RWJF, to talk about the goals of the new initiative. Along with others, he then guided the package of webinars, seminars, and community-focused projects that have been built into the fellowship so that everyone is exposed to public health, whether or not they choose it as a career path.

Another of León’s consulting assignments from National Urban Fellows was to strengthen its connections with alumni. They were “looking for a way to solidify their outreach initiative and get more alumni engagement,” he explains. “My job became ‘How do we reach all of them, get them engaged, get them to give monetarily?’”

In part because he had gained a lot of knowledge about social media and messaging at RWJF, León was able to propose and implement strategies for building stronger networks. When his consultancy ended, he joined National Urban Fellows as the program manager for alumni affairs, overseeing their alumni network of more than 1,200 nonprofit and public sector leaders including mayors, city and county managers, and commissioners and officers of major nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.

Moving on to Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility. While at a diversity & inclusion event in 2011 in Washington, he met Carlos F. Orta, CEO and president of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR). “Thanks in large part to the RWJF mentorship, I recognized the importance of having great mentors and later asked Orta to be a mentor to me and he agreed to do so,” says León. In April 2012, he joined the Washington-based HACR as director of Corporate Relations, Communications and Programs.

“Our goal is to get more Hispanic representation in Fortune 500 companies,” León explains. “The population of the Hispanic community and the growing buying power we have are in no way reflected in corporate America in terms of employment, procurement, or governance.”

León oversees the operations, logistics, and marketing of HACR’s programs and initiatives, participates in long-range planning, and cultivates relationships with corporate executives nationwide to advance its mission.

He spends a lot of time advancing a business case for drawing more Hispanics into upper-level management and boards of Fortune 500 companies. “If your company is selling to a big demographic, it is probably in your best interests to have more people who think the way the people you are selling to do,” León tells high-level executives. “If you are going to keep ahead of the curve, you have to have the people who will help inform those decisions.”

But his goals go a lot further than helping to grow the business bottom line. León believes that bringing people of color onto boards and executive positions is the only way to direct attention to issues they care about.

“If you don’t have the advocate in those top positions, if you are not at the table, your voice isn’t heard,” he says. Whether it is helping to funnel corporate philanthropy towards diverse communities or pointing out the surfeit of white males in positions of authority, “you need that person asking that question in the board room. You need [someone among] the corporate leaders—those in the C-suite—saying, ‘Why am I the only Hispanic here?’”

Diversifying corporate leadership. León suggests that a mix of factors—education being one—explains the dearth of Hispanic representation at the highest levels. “In some part, the talent doesn’t exist at the rate it should. If we don’t have the right degrees, the right experience, we won’t be on the radar to qualify.”

He also believes Hispanics should learn to network more effectively. “We don’t go to the right circles. We stay within our Hispanic community as opposed to looking for mentors who are of a different color to help guide the decisions we will need to move up the ladder.”

A stronger commitment within the Hispanic community to groom others for success is also essential, he says. “There are a few big stars out there, they need to do a better job of creating the culture of inviting others in, advocating more, becoming more outspoken on the issue.”

As more Hispanic decision-makers gain influence, León believes Hispanic concerns will rise higher on the social agenda and that, in turn, will make the needs of underserved communities more visible. “I want to make sure my work somehow impacts their lives, make sure these communities are getting the attention they deserve.”

RWJF perspective. RWJF began serving as a National Urban Fellows mentorship site in 2005, and has supported between two and four fellows every year since, mostly at RWJF but some at other health-related organizations. Its support for the Health Policy Advocacy and Education Initiative is designed to build greater awareness of health-related issues among all of the fellows participating in the MPA program.

“The issue of diversity is really important to the Foundation; we see it as a core value in the work that we do,” said Debra Pérez. A National Urban Fellow alumni herself, Pérez considers the initiative a natural opportunity to introduce more diversity into RWJF.

“We believe that having folks at the table who represent folks in the communities where we work is a critical part of the equation. It enhances the work that we do.” The investment also reflects RWJF’s commitment to draw more people of color into philanthropy and create a pipeline for diverse leaders, especially in the public and nonprofit sectors.

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Spotlight on Jason Leon: Making the business case for drawing more Hispanics into upper-level management