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The Opportunity Changed My Life

Rachel Kaprielian: A Lifelong Pursuit to Help Others.

One by one they stood, Harvard Kennedy School of Government classmates each sharing a brief window into his or her own slice of the earth as an introduction to fellow students.

It was September 10, 2001, orientation day for those of the incoming Master in Public Administration program. None had reason to know that within 24 hours, the world of public service – the world at large, for that matter – would be turned violently upside-down.

But each knew his or her own small place, and each was there to share it for exactly 30 seconds before MPA program director Sue Williamson would blow her whistle to indicate time was up. So one by one, they stood.

One was the former Prime Minister of Mongolia, who spoke of being recently deposed in a silent coup. Another was the leader of the opposition party in Zimbabwe, who now had a bounty on her head. There was a Jamaican, who promised to use Harvard’s vast educational resources to help bring clean water to the third of his country that was presently without.

Then stood the second-term state lawmaker with an accent that rang distinctly more local.

“I’m Rachel Kaprielian,” she said. “I’m from Watertown, and I took the 71 bus to get here.”

She was State Representative and Rappaport Urban Scholar Rachel Kaprielian, to be precise, and when she looks back on that day some two decades later, she remembers less about the differences in the voices, and more about the collective resolve in the faces.

“I remember thinking that there was this whole world of people trying to make change and make a difference, and I felt a part of that,” she said. “Still to this day I feel the belonging with people all over the world just trying to do that.”

Kaprielian’s professional landscape has been varied ever since – Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, Massachusetts Office of Labor and Workforce Development, U.S. Health and Human Services, and most recently McDonald’s Corporation – but there is a thread that binds: the desire to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

“There are public servants, and the souls of public servants, in all kinds of roles, not just in government,” she said. “That comforts me, that there are always good people trying to make a positive difference and live a life of meaning.”

The roots of that meaningful life, for Kaprielian, began with a working-class Watertown upbringing and a culture of respect for public life and public service. Her mother was a devoted social worker who spent the bulk of her career securing homes for foster children across the state. Her father was a proud former Army pilot who spoke fondly of his years in the military.

It was a constituent services internship with then-Congressman Joe Kennedy while she was a student at Holy Cross that fed Kaprielian a first-person taste of her own, and it was powerful.

“I was talking to World War II veterans, trying to help them get housing and services from the VA, and it was just a great experience,” she said. “I was really lit up doing that. I wanted to help them in any way I could.”

She returned home to Watertown after graduating Holy Cross, and she was soon knocking on local doors, pouring her heart and soul into the campaign of a local substitute teacher running for state rep.

A later it was 1991, and a 22-year-old Kaprielian was at the kitchen table with her family, talking about the prospect of working on a campaign for a city council seat, when her father looked up and uttered what would become fateful words.

“Why don’t you run?”

So after a moment’s hesitation, she did. Door by door, street by street, Kaprielian began walking Watertown in support of her own campaign, simply highlighting a paper map to indicate where she’d been and with whom she’d spoken.

She talked authentically about the things that were important to her, like curbside recycling, a permanent senior center, and getting the budget under control. She shared that her grandparents had come as immigrants to raise her father, and that she grew up on Mount Auburn Street. And in each case, she asked for one of their four votes for the at-large city council seat.

When Kaprielian finished third of nine in the primary, earning her a spot in the general election, she checked her trusted map against the election results and found what she might have guessed: In the nine precincts she had walked, she did well, while in the three she hadn’t, the votes weren’t there.

“So there’s my poll,” she said. “If they met me, they voted for me.”

For the next four weeks, she continued to walk, meeting the rest of them, making sure those final three precincts became highlighted on the map, and when election day rolled around, sure enough … Kaprielian topped the ticket in a field of eight.

It was the beginning of a 17-year career as an elected official – two terms as city councilor and 13 years as state representative for the 29th Middlesex District, serving Watertown and Cambridge. And throughout, she never lost that same feeling she’d had on that very first state rep campaign with her teacher friend.

“There’s no better way to know what people think than by going door to door and asking them, because they’ll tell you about their lives and what worries them,” Kaprielian said. “So when I was in the legislature, it felt very familiar. This was my hometown, and I wanted to play a part in shaping its future.”

She rose to Assistant Majority Whip and focused a large measure of her energy on health care, public finance, workforce development, and in particular public health. She was known as an anti-tobacco advocate, authoring Massachusetts’ Smoke-free Workplace Law as well as various tobacco taxes, and she was in leadership during Mass Health Reform, which would later serve as a model for the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act.

It was during her time in the legislature that Kaprielian set her educational sights even higher. She earned her Juris Doctor from Suffolk Law in 2000 and immediately locked in on “broadening my public policy chops,” she said, within the prestigious halls of the Harvard Kennedy School.

“It was the dream scenario,” she said. “It was a whole new vision and approach of how you could grow your point of view from the state and local to the global, and that really engaged and excited me.”

And while it was the 71 bus that took Kaprielian those four miles to Cambridge physically, it was the Rappaport Urban Scholarship, a program for mid-career students working in public service, that provided the financial ride.

“The fellowship had everything to do with me going,” she said. “And having had that experience at the Harvard Kennedy School had everything to do with the path that followed.”

Specifically, her two years at HKS provided Kaprielian the tools she would need to marry the policy side of government, which she knew intimately from her decade-plus in the legislature, with the ability to actually do the work.

The experience paid off in short order. In 2008, Kaprielian was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick to be the registrar for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles – complete with its $63 million budget and 800 employees. When the call came, she was ready, both with her relatively new MPA education and her old-school approach to helping people.

“As registrar you are leading a huge state agency, but to me, I was first and foremost serving the public,” Kaprielian said. “The Registry of Motor Vehicles is the most public-facing agency in state government, and we owe it to our customers to do it as efficiently as we can.”

“Every time I can sing the praises of the Rappaports and this program, I feel compelled to do so, because I want people to hear all that they have enabled for others. They are always thinking about the next generation of men and women who get in there and solve the next set of problems in front of our state, our country, our world.”

Rachel Kaprielian, 2003 Rappaport Urban Scholar

At the center of those efficiencies was changing the transactional culture from in line to online, and under Kaprielian the numbers quickly showed evidence of a dramatic shift in that direction. The RMV added 14 new transactions under her watch, and online activity increased by 41 percent in her first two years, 95 percent in her first four.

Her work earned enough trust with Governor Patrick to lead to a state Cabinet position with the Department of Labor in Boston, by which Kaprielian managed five agencies, more than 1,700 employees and a budget of over $100 million. And then in 2015, President Obama appointed Kaprielian as Regional 1 Director of U.S. Health and Human Services, where she helped to guide and implement the elements of the Affordable Care Act to New England.

Her career arc, Kaprielian said, has been comprised of one experience building on another, with her Rappaport-funded HKS experience at its core.

“I felt better equipped to dig into things largely because of my experience at the Kennedy School,” she said. “All of a sudden you see how all of the policy, implementation and industry come together. Your past experiences can really serve in the alacrity and the agility of your thinking.

“I definitely got that from the Kennedy School, that all problems can be approached with a framework of solving them, no matter what those problems are or at what stage you find them.”

She has since joined the private sector, having been hired in 2017 by McDonald’s Corporation, where she is the regional lead for the company’s government relations and public policy team for New England.

Kaprielian arrived just hoping that her work in public service would be transferrable, and that question was emphatically answered in 2020 when she earned the McDonald’s Global President’s Award for exceptional performance, given to the top 1 percent of corporate employees worldwide.

When the problem of the pandemic struck, food services were on the front line, and Kaprielian’s problem-solving Kennedy School mind was part of the team that quickly increased mobile ordering, drive-through transactions and food delivery while keeping compliant with shifting regulations in and out of the restaurants.

“You know, it’s not the same thing as serving people in a government role, but it’s still serving people,” she said. “It’s sticking with the compact that we will serve you well, we will do it efficiently, and if necessary we will see if a better way can be adopted.”

They are principles born of good role models, forged through a lifelong pursuit of helping others, and polished to a blinding sheen by her Rappaport-fueled experience at the Kennedy School. And they are applicable, Kaprielian will tell you, at every stop along the way.

Today, she believes that passing along these tools, and conveying the gratitude she has for the Rappaport gift, is her responsibility.

“Every time I can sing the praises of the Rappaports and this program, I feel compelled to do so, because I want people to hear all that they have enabled for others,” she said. “They are always thinking about the next generation of men and women who get in there and solve the next set of problems in front of our state, our country, our world.

“People go to the Kennedy School of Government because they want to have a life of meaning. It’s not hyperbole to say that the opportunity the Rappaport Fellowship provided changed my life.”