March 06, 2020
Alumni Spotlight: Emily Feenstra
By Bill Brink
For Emily Feenstra, São Paulo beckoned. She had spent a year and a half there, on and off, investing in education technologies for low- and middle-income families in Latin America. She’d learned Portuguese.
Now the operations were there, and she had a choice: Move to Brazil, or move on?
“I didn’t want to be a funder anymore,” said Feenstra, who graduated Carnegie Mellon in 2013 with degrees in both International Relations and Politics and Policy and Management. “I wanted to make sure that I was capable of doing what we were asking our entrepreneurs to do in our portfolio.”
Now Feenstra is the COO of Henry Health, a digital healthcare community based in Washington, DC that focuses on black men – the adult subgroup with the lowest life expectancy in the US.
Her new role, which she started in October, is the latest in a series of positions that allowed her to help the less fortunate. During the past decade, Feenstra worked in a woman’s health organization in Nicaragua focused on domestic violence, tutored and provided for refugees in Pittsburgh, and started an education-to-employment program for disconnected youth.
“I was raised in a household where parts of our family’s core values were giving back,” Feenstra said.
Feenstra’s father, Randall, is a CMU physics professor. She was aware of the opportunity afforded her.
“The more that I’ve learned over the course of my career about privilege, the more I recognize the privileges I’ve had, to grow up in the school district that I grew up in, that was an outstanding public school district, to have the opportunity to attend a private expensive university with the tuition benefit that I did,” she said.
Before beginning college, Feenstra taught English in Peru, but realized that her Spanish needed work. So she went to Nicaragua the summer after her freshman year and worked at a women’s community program.
“It was supposed to be an integrated approach to domestic violence, so it was a center that had a social worker, a lawyer, a physician and a community outreach person, and I worked with the community outreach person on a range of educational programming,” Feenstra said.
During the fall semester of her junior year, she went to Chile, this time through the School for International Training. The following summer she focused on public service through the government: She interned at the White House, an opportunity she received with the help of a Friedman Fellowship.
“I really think the White House internship was the first domino in opening a lot of incredible professional doors for me,” Feenstra said. “When I think about interning with McKinsey, which is one of the top three management consulting firms in the country, my background is quite atypical.”
McKinsey would be McKinsey & Company, where Feenstra worked for two years as a business analyst after graduating. There she worked on strategy, operations, mergers and acquisitions, consumer packaged goods and healthcare. She also was the manager of the first pilot program of Generation, a McKinsey-sponsored nonprofit aimed at helping young, unemployed people find careers.
“Over six months I was literally interviewing students, interviewing staff, setting up our program which was a partnership with the community college, thinking about how to implement best practices related to education-to-employment,” she said. “Ultimately while I didn’t stay on that project and went back to normal client work, I realized that there was so much potential impact to be had that it was hard to go back to serving Fortune 100 companies, where the definition of impact is client impact not social impact.”
McKinsey colleagues pointed Feenstra to the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Feenstra was involved in more than $25 million worth of investments, most of which went to education organizations in Latin America. Her work with the Omidyar Network Education team in Brazil eventually created the opportunity to move there full-time, but she was ready to do what she had asked of those in whom she had invested.
At Omidyar Network, Feenstra kept her finger on the pulse of social entrepreneurs. When she came across Henry Health founder Kevin Dedner, she messaged him on LinkedIn; fundraising was a challenge, so Feenstra offered to use her investing expertise to review Henry Health’s fundraising materials. Two months later, Dedner invited her to join the organization as COO.
“We have four full-time people, six half-time people,” Feenstra said. “We just closed our first $100,000 in family-and-friends money and are on track to close $1 million in investment by the end of April. Henry Health is a tech-enabled community focused on providing self-care and mental health services to black men so that they can show up whole, operate with joy and live with power.”
Feenstra took a course on the political economy of inequality and redistribution at Carnegie Mellon that resonated in her career as she thought about capital markets and the role of philanthropy. Another thing she took from CMU into the workplace: Excellent writing skills.
“Particularly at Omidyar Network, we wrote relatively long-form investment proposals where we would analyze investment opportunities in great detail,” Feenstra said. “Definitely being comfortable laying out your argument, gathering supporting evidence, was something that I felt very well-equipped to do based on my experience at Carnegie Mellon.”