Editors note: In late January 2020, Elizabeth Yee ’94 was promoted to Chief of Staff of The Rockefeller Foundation. She continues to oversee the foundation’s Climate and Resilience initiative.
Throughout her career, Elizabeth “Liz” Yee ’94 has channeled powerful resources to projects that improve people’s lives. After graduating from University of Pennsylvania, she worked in wealth management and public finance for 16 years, helping direct $30 billion to fund major infrastructure, everything from roads to even a race track. “One of my favorite parts of being a public finance banker was seeing people interact with the projects we financed,” she says.
While exploring the financing for a renewable energy project, Yee had an epiphany. Instead of just building a power plant, she realized the project could be structured to benefit the area’s unemployment. In 2014, she fostered that kind of synergy, taking a position as vice president with 100 Resilient Cities (100RC). The global initiative, pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation, helpedcities as diverse as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Honolulu develop multi-faceted responses to emergencies such as tsunamis and fires, as well as persistent problems like homelessness and waste.
Yee says resilience requires thinking about interconnectedness and designing solutions that generate multiple benefits to optimize limited capital. More than 1,000 cities applied to the 100RC program, and more than 80 developed resilience strategies. Yee’s team helped these cities find funding, develop financing strategies and establish partnerships across different sectors.
A project she’s particularly proud of is Paris Oasis Schoolyards. When Paris applied to 100RC, Mayor Anne Hidalgo faced staggering problems, including deadly heat waves, flooding and racial tensions after an influx of immigrants. Then came the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan. “That really changed people’s perspective and got them thinking about what issues led to this kind of behavior,” Yee says. Hidalgo and the resilience team reoriented their strategy to address extreme weather, while simultaneously building inclusive communities.
“Because Paris is so intensely Parisian, people migrating from Africa and the Middle East had limited ability to integrate into the city’s social fabric,” Yee says. “And because Paris is so densely built, urban planners had no extra space to work with.” How could the resilience team use existing places to bring people together? They found their answer in schoolyards. Most Parisians live near a school, so the team transformed schoolyards into after-hours community centers, where people can gather, find jobs and learn local culture. Local contractors replaced concrete playgrounds with absorptive groundcover, shade trees and water fountains. Yee says the effort exemplified how infrastructure and social challenges can be addressed in a single intervention.
Last August, Yee transitioned from 100RC to her current role as Managing Director, Climate and Resilience at The Rockefeller Foundation, focusing on advancing the development and implementation of climate and resilience financing solutions worldwide.
She credits Punahou for introducing her to key resilience concepts. She still feels inspired by teachers who incorporated Hawaiian concepts into lessons and used the outdoors as a classroom. “At Punahou, they emphasize the ideas of ahupua‘a and ‘ohana. Taking care of the land and understanding how we’re all connected like an ecosystem is critically important to the practice of resilience.”
She remembers friends teasing her for taking an especially difficult elective her junior year – Middle Eastern history. Two teachers from different departments, English and social studies, co-taught the class, which investigated how history influenced current affairs. Yee describes the elective as one of the most remarkable classes she took, instilling an interdisciplinary approach that mirrors what she does today in her professional life.
Punahou remains a big part of her life in New York City, where she regularly connects with former classmates and other alumni. Yet, while Yee routinely returns to Hawai‘i, New York is home. “I love the energy and the grit,” she says. “I like enthusiasm and the hardworking nature of the people.”
She’s also appreciative of what the city offers her 9-year-old special needs son. “The city is incredibly accepting of all kinds of people, and there are so many opportunities for him and his friends,” she says.
Yee’s work affords her an unflinching view of how climate change will impact communities. It hasn’t dimmed her optimism. “We face intensifying challenges every day,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for all of us to figure out how we can contribute and address those challenges in meaningful ways. Problems aren’t mono-dimensional; solutions can’t be either.”
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