Quoting President Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Heuvelton native Brayden T. McCarthy’s described his recent three-year White House appointment as senior policy advisor on the National Economic Council as “pretty unlikely.”
The 28-year-old is quick to point out that he did not have the same struggles as an African-American growing up in a single-parent household, but Mr. McCarthy’s lack of political pedigree and growing up isolated in a small north country village with a population of 700 seemed to put him at a disadvantage in the political sphere.
But Mr. McCarthy is also adamant that his accomplishments did not happen by chance. He credits hard work, determination and the support of his parents and mentors.
“I was by no means the smartest person in the room wherever I went, nor was I even necessarily in the top 10 or 5 in my classes,” he said. “I cared more and I was willing to stay later and work a lot harder because I was genuinely passionate about the work I was doing. So all I wanted to focus on was doing the absolute best and really killing myself for the job.”
Even if that meant that he would wake up at 5 a.m. after staying in the office until 2 a.m. the night before so he could be the first one in the office. Sometimes he would work 80 to 100 hours a week.
“I would dedicate myself,” he said. “I learned how to do it in investment banking, and I knew I could do it for something I genuinely cared about — like working in the White House.”
Mr. McCarthy, the son of Kelly and Christine McCarthy, Ogdensburg, grew up in Heuvelton working at his family’s local small business, River View Homes, which his parents still own and operate. He attended Heuvelton Central School from kindergarten through 10th grade before graduating from Trinity College School, Port Hope, Ontario.
“Many parents say that they hope that their child will be successful, but with Brady — we call him Brady — I never wondered,” Mrs. McCarthy said. “He was always a hard worker and we tried to encourage any interests that he had.”
Mr. McCarthy earned masters and bachelor degrees with honors from the London School of Economics in England and spent a semester at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.
In his first week at the London School of Economics, he went into the office of his advisor and economics professor and outlined a 35-year-plan for his future.
“I mapped out every single aspect of my life from a career point of view,” he said. “My professor looked at me and asked, ‘Are all Americans like this? Because if they are, that’s scary.’ She gave me some really good advice which I still follow. It’s great to have that ambition and great to have direction and that determination. That is what is going to keep you going, but you can’t plan every aspect of your life. That’s something I learned the hard way.”
After college and graduate school, Mr. McCarthy was an investment banker on Wall Street. He worked in the New York City, London, England and Dubai, United Arab Emirates offices of Lehman Brothers when the Wall Street financial crisis bankrupted the company.
But within several months of the firm’s collapse, Mr. McCarthy decided did not want to work on Wall Street. His new goal was a White House position.
“I saw all of my peers getting fired left and right,” Mr. McCarthy said. “When you have three-quarters of your class laid off in the first year you are there, I realized that I couldn’t really think about what I wanted to do next. I had to find out how I could do the best job here.”
As the market started to recover, and he established himself as one of the top analysts at Barclay’s, a British bank which took over Lehman Brothers in 2008, he began to rethink his move to Washington.
He was once again at a disadvantage. He still had no network connections and had not worked on the Obama presidential campaign.
“I think what fuels my determination in many respects is that when people tell me ‘no,’” he said. “It makes me want to do it that much more. The people I talked to before I took the job would say things like, ‘That is never going to happen. You are 23. You didn’t work on the campaign. You are going to go work for a president, a Democrat who is not supportive of all right now of Wall Street. It’s just not going to happen.’”
Almost seven months after he applied and interviewed for positions in Washington, he began serving as senior advisor at the U.S. Small Business Administration, the nation’s primary federal agency to support small businesses.
He worked directly with Karen Gordon Mills, the head of the SBA.
“Brayden is very bright and also a good strategic thinker,” Ms. Mills said. “He has an enormous amount of common sense mixed in with intelligence which he used to come up with good answers on how we could work for American small business owners. I think it has to do a lot with where he grew up. When I found out where he was from and that he comes from a hardworking family with six generations of small business owners, I knew that he would be able to contribute to a more deep understanding of what rural America needs in order to grow and prosper.”
Working with Ms. Mills and the entire SBA senior team, Mr. McCarthy put together proposals for new policies to strengthen SBA’s government-backed loans for small businesses and government-sponsored classes so that business owners could become more competitive in the marketplace.
“We knew that in places like the north country, small businesses were everything in terms of supporting the local economy and providing jobs,” Mr. McCarthy said. “That is where relief starts.”
Mr. McCarthy gave a presentation with Ms. Mills about the SBA team’s proposals to the White House. Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council and the head of the president’s economic team, later offered Mr. McCarthy a job.
He soon became the council’s senior policy advisor, working in the second floor of the West Wing.
“People told me that when I came in, I would have a really small desk and no office or privacy,” he said. But, quoting his boss, Mr. Sperling, Mr. McCarthy said he would “take half of a windowless closet to work in the West Wing.”
“And that is pretty much what I got,” Mr. McCarthy said. “But it was perfect because I really wanted to do it so, so much.”
Mr. Sperling said Mr. McCarthy was on-call every hour of the day.
“He was under a lot of pressure to collect and analyze information for our team and the President,” Mr. Sperling said. “He would have to come up with information at a moment’s notice when we were trying to avoid a government shutdown. Working in that environment, a single mistake can be costly. Outside the White House if you make a mistake it usually means mild embarrassment in front of your boss. But with the major media outlets, there are fact checkers that will be there to tell the President if he got it wrong. Some of the smartest people I know can’t deal with that kind of pressure. Brayden thrived in it.”
At times, Mr. McCarthy admits, he felt insecure in a room full of White House staff and the President.
“If you don’t grow up with privilege, I think you always feel when you are around people who are privileged, that shouldn’t be there and you don’t belong,” he said. “I think being gay I feel a certain aspect of that as well. It has never been an issue in my career, but you always feel it wherever you are especially in a new place before you’ve proven yourself.”
He recently left his appointment to attend Harvard Business School this fall. While he still keeps his 35-year plan, he says he no longer follows it.
“I think about what I want to do with my life in terms of perspective,” he said. “Whatever I do next, I want to be in the same in the vein of helping other people. The people I admire the most are actually not public servants. They do great things, but it is people like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs that have genuinely changed peoples’ lives through commerce. They have changed the way business is done and the way you relate to products. We live in a market economy where the biggest drivers of change are actually businesses and enterprise.”
While at Harvard, Mr. McCarthy said, he and several partners want to create an online company that would allow small business to apply for loans through an aggregator site — helping small businesses like the one his parents started many years ago.
“For small business owners today, if you want to apply for your business you do it the same exact way you had have 20, 40 and even 100 years ago,” he said. “You walk into bank and ask for a loan, and they check your FICO and credit scores, your revenue and decide if and how much they want to lend you. But if you look at other industries, such as the travel industry, it is all online and you can shop around. That is essentially what we want to do. We want to empower small business owners in the marketplace.”