Emily Jae is the Commonwealth Foundation’s director of entrepreneur engagement in southeastern Pennsylvania. Recently, Emily sat down with Commonwealth Sense to talk about her journey to CF, love of Philadelphia, and strange dog names.
Tell us about your path to the Commonwealth Foundation:
My path was not a straight line. If you had told me when I graduated from college that I’d end up in Pennsylvania, I’d have been very surprised. If you had told me I’d be working in state policy, I’d have been even more surprised!
I’m from Texas, went to school at Davidson College in North Carolina, and then moved to Philly on a whim after graduation. It sounded like an interesting place to go for a few years, so I just made the move. I got a job, but I didn’t know anyone. It was just a 22-year-old’s bravado, I think, and was not well thought out [laughs].
I never thought I’d stay. I thought this would be for a couple of years and then I’d move back to Texas. But I ended up liking Philly in a way I didn’t expect, though it wasn’t love at first sight. Philly is kind of a tough city, and that’s what I like about it. Philadelphians make you work for it. But they are really very kind once you’re in. I think it’s a much friendlier city than people give it credit for.
I was a history major and was fascinated by early American history and the American founding. So I was incredibly excited to be in Philadelphia, where I could walk past Independence Hall and all those historic sites.
Before coming to CF, I was working for a nonprofit focused on higher education reform—the Jack Miller Center. They work to advance the teaching of American founding principles on college campuses. I started out planning summer conferences for faculty and filling other program officer roles. That eventually led to communications and then to development and major gifts.
What interested you in higher education reform?
My love of history, particularly the Founding era that I spent so much time studying in college. My father is a professor, so I grew up around academics. It’s a world I know well, so it was a natural fit.
My dad is a conservative at the University of Texas campus, which can be a very difficult position. As a kid, I watched him go through these battles that didn’t make sense to me. At one point, he started a program to promote the study of Western civilization. It wasn’t ideological or partisan—it simply focused on studying the Great Books. The program, along with a few others across the country, was featured in the New York Times under the headline “Conservatives Try New Tack on Campus.” That didn’t go over well with the administration, and he was dismissed as director of the program.
College campuses should value and protect the right to free speech, but we are seeing the total opposite happen on most campuses.
How did your love of history and political thought shape your free-market beliefs?
If you study the Founders, they set up such a remarkable system of government. The principles of free enterprise, limited government, personal responsibility, it’s all there. I have a hard time understanding how you could read the Founders, understand what they put together, and not identify with the work CF is advancing.
You mentioned working in policy was another surprise. How so?
I never expected to end up working in state policy in any way. Then I attended the State Policy Network conference in August 2017. I wasn’t there for the policy, had no interest in policy, and thought it was just people writing white papers that wouldn’t go anywhere. I was there to meet with foundations for my previous job. But while there, I saw the real change happening at the state level, and it was exciting to me. I began to think that maybe policy was something I wanted to pursue and an arena where I could make a difference. And I happened to already live in a state where a great organization was working leading this exciting change.
Then I found out about a Commonwealth Foundation job opening in southeastern Pennsylvania, I thought it was something I should explore. I’d heard great things about the leadership and culture at CF, but I was afraid I didn’t know enough about policies. I went into the interview process a bit skeptical that I was a good fit, but I was so impressed with everyone I met. Everyone was so excited about what they were doing, and everyone was so kind and personable, it just felt like it clicked in place. When I first walked in the door, I was thinking, “I’m kind of on the fence. I don’t know if this would work,” but when I left, I called my husband and said, “I really want this job.” In a couple of hours, everything flipped.
CF’s work right now is so exciting. We’re seeing real wins. In higher education, the change often happens around the margins, but at CF, we have the opportunity to transform the entire state.
What does a director of entrepreneur engagement in southeastern Pennsylvania do?
I’m working with our investors in the greater Philadelphia area. When CF says, “entrepreneur engagement,” it’s more than just a clever way to say development. I was here for the paycheck protection vote in the state House, and we really do engage with and rely on entrepreneurs in every way possible to move the ball forward. We see engagement as far more than raising money. There’s so much more that entrepreneurs can do to advance our shared vision for the state.
Now for the speed round. Cats or dogs?
Dogs. I have a dog named Fish. My husband works in craft brewing, and he loves the brewery Dogfishhead. He wanted to be able to say “here’s my dog, Fishhead.” It’s the worst. I hate it. But that dog is famous in our neighborhood. No one knows our names, but they know our dog’s name.
Favorite restaurant in Philadelphia?
Zahav. It’s an Israeli restaurant.
It’s kind of obscure, but it’s called Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. The plot is really simple, but there’s a lot that happens underneath the surface. The main character is a butler, and all that happens is he goes on a road trip. That’s all that happens. But within this, you see this man is a really interesting narrator because you can’t trust him. You see how he deludes himself into thinking his life has meaning, how he’s trying to justify that his life is worth something, but just below the surface, he doubts that in his life he’s done anything really meaningful. It’s really dark and depressing, but I like how the author plays with the narrative voice.
Has to be Ben Franklin. He also seemed like he’d be the most fun of them all.