Next Up Columbus 2020: McKinzie Harper

McKinzie Harper
McKinzie Harper

Photo by Matt Reese / CityPulse Columbus

Interview by Sarah Shumick

Name: McKinzie Harper
Age: 34
Profession: Lead, Education & Programs, Smart Columbus at the Columbus Partnership (as of list publication); Project Coordinator, Skills & Cities, Global Business Coalition for Education (as of March 2020)
Neighborhood: Downtown Columbus
Education/Certifications: Bachelor of Arts, Public Policy, Leadership and Management at The Ohio State University
Quote: “I’ve had the pleasure of being the first person to welcome someone to Columbus and watching as they fall in love with our culture and people.”
Connect: LinkedIn | Instagram

When Columbus won the Smart City challenge in 2016, McKinzie “Kinzie” Harper was a college intern for Battelle in Washington D.C. She clearly remembers the office team erupting in cheers at the announcement. Inspired to learn more, Harper instantly knew she wanted to be part of it. Today, Harper serves as Lead, Education & Programs for Smart Columbus where she connects partners, peers, students and community members to their work across the Columbus region. She especially enjoys getting to use technology to educate and empower. Outside of work life, Harper loves putting her Gateway Film Center membership to use and spending time with her adorable padawan puppy, Obi-Wan. (You can follow Obi on Instagram @obiwantheshichon).

Give us a snapshot of your career path:
Before returning for my senior year at Ohio State, I spent the summer in D.C. working for Battelle’s congressional relations team. I vividly remember the office erupting in cheers having heard the news that Columbus won the 2016 USDOT Smart City Challenge. After reading what was public about our application, I knew I wanted to learn more, be a part of it. Fast forward to my first week as an intern with the Columbus Partnership, the intern team was asked if anyone was interested in helping with some early Smart Columbus projects and my hand shot up. As luck would have it, the Partnership was growing a smart cities team to support the initiative and accelerate private sector engagement and investment in mobility. I graduated May 7th, 2017 (Go Bucks!) and walked into the Columbus Idea Foundry May 8th to our first shared headquarters. There, I worked alongside my colleagues at the City of Columbus, AEP, Ohio State and the Electrification Coalition and saw this concept of the ‘Columbus Way’ come to life. My role has grown and changed as the team has evolved. I currently have the opportunity to connect external partners, peers, students and community members to our work. I’ve had the pleasure of being the first person to welcome someone to Columbus and watching as they fall in love with our culture and people. As far as first jobs go, my experience at Smart Columbus has given me an education like no other, one that has prepared me for a career committed to using technology to empower and educate.

What gets you up in the morning? And what gets you through the workweek?
Well the first thing to get me up in the morning is my puppy, Obi. Next, I have been trying to do a daily gratitude exercise for two reasons – 1) because it puts me into a positive headspace for the day and 2) because I have so much to be thankful for and 3) especially in my work, reminding myself how easy I have it compared to those I want to serve keeps me aware of my own privilege. At times, especially the summer months when working back to back community events, it can be hard to stay bright-eyed and bushy tailed. But my team and the people I’ve met along the way continue to keep me motivated and inspired. I think about my all-star interns who continue to raise their hands to help because they’ve grown equally committed to our mission. I think about the middle school student who pitched an idea for a fresh-food delivery shuttle to solve for food deserts, or the mother who shared the stress of balancing class, work and family responsibilities in a focus group about mobility access. Their stories continue to motivate me and my family continues to support me and I am better for it.

What advice or mentors have helped guide you along the way?
Too many incredible people come to mind, which is a good problem to have. Before I knew what it meant to have a mentor, I met my friend Suraj Hinduja. At the time he was my orientation leader, introducing me to all things Ohio State – little did he know he was stuck with me. The next time we sat across from each other I was interviewing for an internship at the Columbus Partnership, and soon after he was showing me the ropes before my first board meeting. More than advice, he continues to show me what it means to be a team player and invest in the people around you. His advice? Know your boss’ birthday. Remember the names of your co-worker’s spouse and kids. And don’t forget the power of a ‘thank you’ or ‘thinking of you’ note. Being more like Suraj makes me a better friend and teammate, which has created a foundation on which I can develop deeper relationships with mentors, friends and advocates. Ironically, I’ve also learned the value of surrounding myself with strong women from Suraj by who he surrounds himself with and cheers on. I am incredibly lucky that almost every manager I’ve had has been female, which in technology and business is not the norm. Not once have I ever thought I could not do something or be open with concerns because I was a woman and that is a direct result of seeing someone like me leading, representation matters. To all the women who have shown me I can have it all, made room for me at the table and encourage me to bring my whole self to everything I do: thank you – by being you in the workplace, I feel more confident being me.

What do you do or where do you go to unwind?
I love going to the movies – it was always a treat growing up, start to finish from the popcorn, milk duds and getting to pick where we sat. This past year, my partner and I became members of the Gateway Film Center, which means unlimited movies, Saturday morning cartoons and geek sneaks for the two of us. It’s the best deal in town, in one night alone we watched 3 movies in a row – Knives Out, Parasite and Queen & Slim. And when I am not waiting in line for the next Star Wars movie release, nothing gives me more joy than playing with my padawan puppy Obi-Wan (@obiwantheshichon) or trying a new restaurant with friends.

When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up?
I had many answers to this question ranging from Broadway star to middle school teacher and even President. While my family could not reach a consensus on what I wanted to be when I grew up, they all remembered my interest in finding a husband who wanted to stay at home with our future children so I could work.

What books or podcasts are you reading/listening to right now?
You can always find a book on me (or three). My favorite pastime is walking around Prologue in the Short North looking for every book recommended by a member of their staff, Chloe, who I think is my book soulmate, even though we’ve never met. Some of my favorite reads in 2019 were: The Power by Naomi Alderman, In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson and Educated by Tara Westover. As for 2020, I just finished @BraveLittleBookClub’s January pick, Know My Name by Chanel Mille and started Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, Dead Wake by Erik Larson (my favorite author) and The Recursion by Blake Crouch.

While I will always prefer a book in my hands, I recently dipped my toe into the world of podcasts and audiobooks. No surprise to anyone that knows me, the podcasts I am currently listening to are filled with drama, of the musical variety. My favorite of the moment, aptly named The Drama Podcast, is hosted by two friends of mine from Ohio State now living in the Big Apple and working in showbiz.

What does it mean to you to be chosen for the Next Up Columbus award?
Being chosen for the Next Up Columbus award is first and foremost a reflection of the mentorship and opportunity I have been given over the past two years at the Columbus Partnership. I am lucky to work for an organization committed to developing young people with a passion for this city. It is an honor to grow in my career alongside the city I love and I greatly appreciate the unique opportunity I have to co-create what Columbus could be in the future with the incredible people who I share this honor with.

If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them?
To me, Columbus feels like it’s on the precipice in many ways – we have been on the move, picking up wins big and small along the way and now it’s time to take the leap. I think the pulse of Columbus is tension and unrest, we want to do more, be bold. What will we do to capitalize on the attention and investment we’ve achieved in order to do more for our community, especially those who have not yet benefitted from the growth. Now it’s just a matter of how we mobilize, which I am excited to be part of.


The Next Up Columbus Awards highlight emerging leaders who are connectors and ambassadors in Central Ohio and who are making a positive impact on the future of Columbus. Special thanks to the Columbus Young Professionals Club, Discover Financial, and Zipline Logistics for their support of this awards program. Meet the entire “Class of 2020” »

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