Kwame Owusu-Kesse MPP 2012, MBA 2012 of Harlem Children’s Zone, is working to unlock a community’s potential.

By Mari Megias
March 5, 2020

Kwame Owusu-Kesse MPP 2012, MBA 2012 of Harlem Children’s Zone“It’s not enough to love the kids,” says Kwame Owusu-Kesse MPP 2012, MBA 2012. “You have to prepare to have your heart broken multiple times.” He is referring to his job at Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a nonprofit that serves approximately 14,000 children each year from age zero through college, as well as their families and caregivers.

With multiple plaudits, including a 60 Minutes profile of HCZ’s founder (and Owusu-Kesse’s mentor) Geoffrey Canada, HCZ could easily rest on its laurels of providing exceptional results through programs such as Baby College® and its Center for Higher Education and Career Support. But the status quo is not an option for Owusu-Kesse, who is currently HCZ’s chief operating officer and will become its CEO in July. “Organizations become comfortable if they’ve been recognized, which begets a level of complacency. We need to make sure we embrace innovation.”

“The kids can relate to my story”

Embracing innovation is just one lesson he learned during his journey from his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, through his undergraduate years at Harvard College, a job as an analyst at Morgan Stanley, then to Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, and, finally, to HCZ. The son of single parents who had immigrated to the United States from Ghana, Owusu-Kesse did not have an easy childhood. “I grew up under difficult circumstances with a number of challenges, just like the kids we serve in the Zone,” he says. “The kids can relate to my story.” Although he was surrounded by extreme poverty, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence, Owusu-Kesse was able to gain scholarships to private elementary and secondary schools and, from there, to Harvard College. “Education completely changed my life’s trajectory,” he says.

Finding answers at Harvard Kennedy School

While working at Morgan Stanley, he was selected for a highly competitive externship program, which he did at HCZ. He began to ponder graduate school and how he could best have a social impact. “The Kennedy School is what tipped the scales for me to choose a three-year program. Social entrepreneurship, impact investing, the intersection of the public and private sectors—I asked myself if there was a career for me at the nexus, or whether I should go back to the business world and do philanthropy on the side.”

At the Kennedy School, he found his answer. “It was a very important time for self-exploration, a time to push to understand who you are, what your true passions are,” he says. “The idea of being authentically you and the relentless search for the mark you want to make in the world, your skills, the skills you don’t possess, becoming a lifelong learner—all this was very important in terms of the choice I made ultimately. I could have returned to the very lucrative world of finance, but for me, the clarity about mission and vision came when I was in graduate school.”

“Best self to best serve”

Owusu-Kesse uses the skills he learned at HKS and HBS to enhance the impact of HCZ’s 2,100 employees, which, he says, “is what this community deserves as we unlock its potential.” This includes everything from investing in professional development to building clear and cohesive messaging for employees to use to convey HCZ’s work and mission. In addition, to scale HCZ’s work, Owusu-Kesse is building out a public policy and external engagement department—“I just hired an HKS alumnus, Hayling Price, to head this,” he says—and is working on building a leadership development function at HCZ, including hiring a director of training and launching a learning management system. “There’s significant work to be done, and you need the skillset to address the complex problems the kids and families are dealing with.”

Because the work can be so intense, Owusu-Kesse encourages HCZ’s employees to engage with their non-HCZ interests. “It’s in our culture. We want people to feel whole, to explore their hobbies, and live out the values. And I need to be an example of this. ‘Best self, best serve’ is our culture.” He says his wife and daughter are his everything. “They put into perspective why I work so hard—but I can’t burn myself out. So I have a couple of creative outlets. I’ve been a professional DJ for the past decade, and a professional photographer for five years. Having these creative outlets is so important to me, it’s an opportunity to clear my mind,” he says.

Walking the walk is not easy, but Owusu-Kesse is nothing if not committed. “I’ve been given a unique opportunity, because of the preparation I received, to lead an organization that is making a meaningful impact in an impoverished area.” With his indomitable spirit, HCZ is well positioned to expand its impact for years to come.