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Bethany Henderson

Bethany Henderson

“For every second that you are not working on your project, people’s lives are worse than they could be,” Bethany Rubin Henderson, founder and executive director of City Hall Fellows said. Belief in the potential of young people to contribute led Henderson to create a nonprofit that trains college graduates to make major changes through a variety of government agencies in three US cities.

Henderson generated the idea for City Hall Fellows from her experience participating in The Urban Fellows program in New York before starting law school. As a Harvard Law School alumna, only 18 months from becoming a partner at Quinn Emanuel, she decided to pursue the venture. Revisiting that critical turning point, Henderson recalls “A good friend of mine and my husband both in the same week said to me essentially put up or shut up.”  Houston and San Francisco lent initial encouragement and funding, together with support from Echoing Green, which launched the proposal into a reality.

In the five years since the program began, City Hall Fellows has sent 75 fellows to three cities, where they have collectively dedicated over 85,000 hours to tackling local social problems.  Tracking the Fellows’ progress-- more than half remain in local public service--is rewarding for Henderson. As more intelligent and passionate young adults pursue local government work, others take the lead. Henderson observes that “City Hall Fellows is about leverage and it’s about relying on the snowball effect. Smart people go where smart people are.”

Henderson advises entrepreneurs to fully research their proposal before beginning a venture. “Really know your market before you jump in. Know your competition. Know who else is working in this space. If no one is working in this space, figure out why before you go in.” Despite the challenges that come with the initial years of social entrepreneurship, Henderson is proud of the organization’s growth.

In measuring its success, Henderson believes that City Hall Fellows will achieve its goals when the program becomes unnecessary. “My ultimate vision is not that a hundred years from now everybody knows about City Hall Fellows,” she said. “I hope we’re totally obsolete because young people routinely consider local government as a place to spend part of their careers.”

Advice for Social Entrepreneurs
● Research your market and your competition
● Prepare for the financial realities of the initial years
● Expect things to move slowly
● Apply for a social entrepreneurship incubator
● Take an accounting or finance class

© 2014 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.