Class of 2021: Leading through ‘Yes’

A former sports journalist and investment banker, Batten’s Sean Bielawski, who will graduate with his MPP next week, has no regrets about saying yes to everything.

Batten’s Sean Bielawski
MPP student Sean Bielawski. (Graphic by Macy Brandon)

For the past eight years or so, Sean Bielawski’s guiding principle has been saying “yes”—yes to everything, in fact. Yes to marriage; yes to an MBA program; yes to kids—three so far; yes to Batten. Want to host the Virginia Policy Review podcast? Yes, of course!

So far, it’s worked out well for the former sports journalist and investment banker, even if it has felt like drinking from the proverbial firehose at times.

Bielawski made the jump into the public policy arena after feeling like an exhausted and frustrated sideline fan for too many years. He wanted to be in the game, with the ball in his hands.

“A lot changed between when I started in finance in 2015, and when I left in 2019. There was Brexit, there was the 2016 election, there was what happened in Charlottesville in August 2017,” Bielawski said. “I really liked the intellectually stimulating work I was doing, but there was no civic fulfillment in it. It just got to the point where I felt like, ‘OK, are we just going to complain about these issues or actually do something about it?’ Going back to school at Batten provided an opportunity to work on fixing some of these institutions.”

A native of Roanoke, he’s been particularly concerned about the post-globalization plight of Southwest Virginia. For his Applied Policy Project (APP), Bielawski offered his services as a consultant to Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade, Cassidy Rasnick. His work focused on finding ways to stimulate economic growth in rural areas.

While the pandemic has created opportunities for high-paid urban employees to work from anywhere—and many local jurisdictions have taken to paying those outsiders to move there—Bielawski says he thinks those solutions are unsustainable because more and more large employers are either coming out against permanent teleworking or are threatening to adjust salaries to account for the lower cost of living.

Nor do those solutions feel equitable to him.

“To me, once you’re paying out money to have outsiders come into these communities, that just feels like you’ve run out of ideas,” Bielawski said. “These are incredibly proud people in areas that have been raided by corporations over the years, so it’s really important to allow those areas to regrow themselves organically.”

From his perspective, and with his experience in consulting, finance and now policy, he would focus on closing gaps in education funding, keeping rural hospitals open, installing and maintaining broadband internet, and making sure “foundational infrastructure is there to meet the basic needs of folks so they can succeed economically,” he said.

The thrust of Bielawski’s APP recommendation is for the state to focus on building free coworking spaces—complete with broadband internet access—and then providing ongoing programming and professional development opportunities at those spaces. The physical location and the programming would foster “a more robust entrepreneurial ecosystem” among current residents, regardless of what happens to the teleworking trend once the pandemic has passed.

“From a state standpoint, it’s about bringing people together to learn from each other—it’s enabling folks who are already there to do the fixing,” Bielawski said.

As challenging as it may be to juggle a marriage, three kids and being an active student leader in a second master’s program, Bielawski has no regrets about saying yes to everything.

In part, he’s hoping to tackle policy challenges for the sake of those three kids. “If you believe in the ideals of America—equality, freedom, equal opportunity—it’s a pretty important time to be fighting for those ideals. I think it’s an important battle that’s going on right now, and ultimately my kids are going to feel the consequences of it.”

Even if his career path leads him back to the corporate world, he said he feels he’s picked up invaluable skills at Batten, from thinking about problems more “systemically” to practicing a more empathetic style of leadership.

“I think the School’s focus on leadership is a very smart one and very worthwhile,” Bielawski said. “For folks like me, who have been in the work world and held leadership positions, those are the most important classes here. It’s really clarifying to go through your prior experiences and re-examine them through that lens.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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