It all started with brain-eating amoebas. I was working for Louisiana’s then-governor Bobby Jindal in early September 2013 when a little boy was suspected to have contracted a deadly form of meningitis from water in South Louisiana. No more than 20 minutes after new water regulations were released by the state health department, we heard from the state business association: The required higher chlorination levels meant the expenditure of millions of dollars to comply with an impossible deadline, plus the possible loss of jobs. Protecting the people of Louisiana was the right thing to do, but we hadn’t thought through all the consequences. We worked with those companies to develop a timeline that protected our citizens and didn’t shutter their operations. But that was the moment when it crystallized that I really wanted to understand the private sector better than I did.

I thought about going to business school full-time, but I was passionate about working for Governor Jindal. So when I heard about the Executive MBA at Wharton, the governor and chief of staff graciously gave me the leeway I needed. I expected Wharton would give me a deeper knowledge of how the private sector works, but I didn’t realize how much I would benefit from applying what I was learning in real time to Louisiana’s government.

For example, when we were deciding how to accommodate new juvenile offenders—in older buildings in New Orleans or in newer facilities in North Louisiana, each with its own pros and cons—I plugged all the factors into an Excel optimization model I learned in Ziv Katalan’s operations and information management class. It proved to be a helpful tool in finding an answer: the newer facilities. When I wanted better visibility into the state’s cash position, I sat down with someone in our accounting department and used an old Wharton homework assignment to build a model that helped us increase the state’s cash cushion by $500 million.

After the administration ended in early 2016, I wanted to continue to use what I’d learned. Through a classmate, I was introduced to a senior leader at AECOM, a global engineering and construction firm that works with local, state, and national governments and is uniquely positioned to solve critical infrastructure problems the public sector can’t. I now lead business development operations for their North and South America design business.

I’m interested in going back into the public sector at some point. I’ve also started thinking more about the areas where government does a poor job and why. But for now, I’m working on the problems the private sector is better able to address, and I feel uniquely prepared to help bridge those gaps.
—Stafford Palmieri


Published as “Bridging the Gap” in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Wharton Magazine.