Born in Haiti and raised in Harlem, Rene Aubry has long been interested in “the different ways people could live, simply because of the different places they may have been born,” he said. Accordingly, he began his college career at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service but interrupted his studies to return home when his father became terminally ill in the fall of his junior year, almost exactly a year after his mother passed away.
“I decided I needed to be in New York,” he said, and began contemplating ways to resume his education. A mentor referred him to Columbia College, which, given his break in education, referred him to the School of General Studies.
“Columbia is as much a home to me as anywhere else,” he said. “It took me in at the lowest point of my life: I was 21 years old, had just lost both of my parents, had no money and only the support of a loving sister, who was also wrestling with a deep sense of loss and a need to find her place in the world. GS provided me with stability and a sense of belonging.
“I loved sitting on the steps between the columns of Butler and Low and feeling small between them. To this day, when I have something important to think about, I look for columns to remind myself that I am merely a small part of something much larger than myself.”
At GS Rene studied political science, intending to continue on to law school. “My father had always wanted me to be a lawyer and before he died, I promised him I would achieve that goal for us, no matter what,” he said. Upon graduation, however, he didn’t immediately go to law school, instead working as a mergers analyst before returning to Haiti as a consultant to the President of the country’s Provisional Electoral Council during the 1995 elections, which he calls “still the best job I ever had.” At 25, less than three years out of college, Rene served as a liaison between the United Nations logistics team, multinational forces, and the electoral bureaus and offices throughout the country. He briefed the President regularly and even flew with the ballots on U.S. Army helicopters to deliver them to every part of the country to ensure that the electoral process was not compromised.
After the elections Rene returned to the U.S., attended both law school and business school at Columbia, passed the NY State Bar Exam (fulfilling the promise to his father), worked at three Internet startups (two of which he founded), and spent three years at JPMorgan and two more at Citigroup. Ultimately, however, he decided to return to public service.
“Although I enjoyed my work at the banks, I thought I could make a larger contribution in the development space,” he said. “I have always felt lucky for the opportunities I received throughout my life and the only way it makes sense for me to have received them is to help provide similar options for others coming from likely improbable beginnings.”
Rene received the Roy and Lila Ash Fellowship in Democracy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he has studied the field of microfinance and the operations of distributed service delivery systems, particularly in developing countries. “Essentially I have been looking at how needed goods and services (i.e., clean water, healthcare, education) can be brought to people who need them, who typically reside in hard-to-reach, rural areas, such as villages” he said. “This dovetails nicely with my previous work in Haiti, where we literally brought the elections to the people.”
Rene recently returned from a 10-day research trip in India, where he met with the leaders of several foundations and made field visits to several women’s cooperatives, water treatment facilities and microfinance institutions. In January he will travel to Haiti for a similar visit, with the hope of confirming that the lessons and successful operations he observed in India can be successfully applied there. “At the end of the day, I simply want to help poor people live better lives; the question for me is how best to do that,” he said, pointing to his mother as the source of his motivation. “I see my mother in the eyes of every poor person I come across in the developing world—hunger, poverty, and grit always look the same to me.”
Although Rene is quick to point to the value of his coursework, much of his education has taken place outside the classroom. “I have gained every bit as much value, if not more from conversations with my colleagues and by attending the many lectures and award ceremonies the school sponsors,” he said. “Sitting 10 feet from the President of Chile, chatting with [cofounder of Partners in Health] Paul Farmer, who has long been a personal hero of mine, or listening to [Better Place founder] Shai Agassi about the viability of electric cars have been just a part of my overall experience here.
“The true value of the Kennedy School, to me, is that it imbues students with a sense of possibility; it insists that anything is possible and moreover that there is no reason why the people here cannot be the ones to achieve it. Actually, it expects them to be the ones to achieve it. Over time, we tend to absorb and reflect the world’s expectations of us.”
Yet, as Rene points out, “I may wear the crimson these days, but I will always bleed Columbia Blue. Columbia provided me with surrogates and mentors, most notably Jacob Brown, whom I still miss every day, who truly cared about me and encouraged me to push forward at times when I felt depleted or even defeated. Without Jacob, and without GS, my life does not unfold as it has. This place put me back together at a time when I was merely so many fractured pieces; it made me whole again.
“GS is a magical place, where one can be renewed!”