Growing up in the fading manufacturing economy of upstate New York, Aaron Chatterji saw first-hand what happens when a community loses its economic engine. “It was the ’80s and ’90s, and many of our bigger employers had downsized or moved away. I remember looking at these old photographs of downtown when it was bustling, and wondering, what happened?”
He didn’t need to search far for answers. Dinner table talk in the Chatterji household often revolved around social sciences and the impact of economic ideas on the wider world. His father, an economics professor, and his mother, a special-education teacher, both immigrants from India, encouraged big questions and teachable moments. “In my family, teaching was the highest calling,” says Chatterji, a tenured associate professor at Fuqua and leading scholar in entrepreneurship and business innovation.
Chatterji used both his teaching skills and his ideas when he served as a senior economist on the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), where he worked on a wide range of policies relating to entrepreneurship, innovation, infrastructure, and economic growth in 2010 and 2011. He also worked closely with top CEOs to develop corporate- responsibility strategies. “CEOs are very interested in public impact, but each company does its own thing,” he says. “If we could measure outcomes and find best practices, we could do even better.”
That experience in Washington deepened Chatterji’s understanding of how the public and private sectors can work together toward a common goal. “As we’ve seen in the tech industry and the sciences, research funded by government institutes lays the groundwork for innovation and new business,” he says. “It’s the virtuous cycle that invigorated the Research Triangle. Downtown Durham is a hub of activity now. How can we apply that to other cities in economic transition? That’s the question.”