Eritrean Law School Graduate Lands White House Position
SUNY Buffalo Law grad lands White House position
The son of political refugees, Nate Yohannes is living out his version of the American dream.
It is a vision not solely about his own success but the prosperity of fellow citizens, as well.
Yohannes, a 2012 graduate of SUNY Buffalo Law School, accepted a position at the White House earlier this year to work with the federal Small Business Administration as senior adviser in the Office of Investment and Innovation.
He calls it “the greatest thing I have ever done” and says that just as important is the gratification of knowing his work benefits others and a country that to him serves as a symbol of freedom and opportunity.
“Going from that to being able to walk the halls of the White House campus and think about policy to help the country, it’s a dream come true,” said Yohannes, who spent two years at the Money Management Institute as vice president and associate counsel. “I can sincerely say I feel very lucky to be given the opportunity to work on initiatives that are intended to help our country.”
His tasks include assisting in U.S. job creation by providing capital for private equity firms that invest in small businesses. He also is involved in the SBA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. Among the companies aided by the private equity fund, which is responsible for $24 million in investments, were Apple, Costco, HP and Intel — businesses that have created thousands of U.S. jobs.
A large part of Yohannes’ role is to help working families access these funds.
“It’s a win-win because I get to help folks and business owners in the United States create jobs and create revenue through taxes and help make our country blossom. I’ve been very fortunate,” said Yohannes, who worked on President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and ‘12. “I’m really thankful and glad I’m able to serve the best democracy in the world, especially with a president that I have the utmost respect for.”
His family came to the United States in 1983 after leaving Eritrea. His father was a freedom fighter who stepped on a land mine in 1979 while fighting for Eritrea in a war against Ethiopia. Prior to arriving in America, his parents, Tesfamichael and Nigisti Yohanbes, lived in a refugee camp in Khartoum, Sudan, where his three siblings were born: a brother, Thomas, and twin sisters Helena and Feven.
“This is what drove my ambition to serve this country,” Yohannes said. “It provided the context for me to be a champion for people, as well as have sincere interest for democracy around the world. My political ambitions, where they lie is one thing, but I respect the system of politics — Republican or Democrat.”
Lauren Breen, clinical professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School who directs the Affordable Housing and Community Development Clinic, recalled the time when Yohannes applied for a board position for the Western New York Law Center. He related his family’s story in the application and followed up with a handwritten note thanking the president of the board and the center’s executive director, she said.
“My sense would be that his drive must come from that,” Breen said. “He took nothing for granted. Every single opportunity he was given and every support he was given — from his family or other sources — there was such an appreciation for how lucky he was and is. I have to believe that’s something he’ll carry with him his whole life. He has such a positive outlook on life and people gravitate toward him.”
Yohannes also was inspired by his work on the presidential campaigns. In 2008 he volunteered in California and Las Vegas and in 2012 he volunteered as part of the Law School Democrats of America in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
He said he felt like part of history in 2008, watching Obama, a lawyer, start with grassroots and community initiatives to mobilize a movement in the United States. Yohannes went on to law school after the campaign.
“I’ve always wanted to be an attorney but that was also a driving force,” he said, adding that a belief in the benefits of universal health care as part of the Affordable Care Act led him to volunteer during the next campaign four years later.
And while many colleagues headed to Ivy League law schools, Yohannes chose to come to Buffalo. He credits the education and experience he received at SUNY Buffalo Law School with equipping him to be able to compete with the best in his field.
Living in Western New York offered many opportunities, as well, Yohannes said. He entered the financial services area after studying human rights and doing public interest work and received two fellowships during law school.
“UB Law provided me with the basis but it was also the city and the people who have helped me out,” said Yohannes, noting that he worked with a number of politicians including Brian Higgins and Crystal Peoples Stokes, who became champions for his future success.
Before the White House job, he worked at MMI, a national association that represents nearly $4 trillion in managed investment solutions and the wealth management industry. It represents major banks such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Bank of America, he said. Christopher Davis, the company’s president who hired Yohannes, is a fellow graduate of UB Law.
“One of the hallmarks of Buffalo law school graduates is that they’re very practical,” Davis said. “The school’s graduates are all about: How do I get the job done? Talking to Nate early on in the interview process, I could see that he had those typical Buffalo traits which were important to where I wanted to move this national association.”
Davis said Yohannes was in the right place at the right time. He was looking to relocate to the Washington, D.C., area around the time that MMI decided to expand its staff and hire in-house counsel. Davis said he made his mark at the company after just two years as associate counsel and director of the Gateway to Leadership Initiative, the company’s workplace diversity program.
“He just dug right in and revitalized the MMI legal regulatory committee and worked with our retained counsel as an assistant to help research and prepare comment letters to the Securities and Exchange Commission and then took on special projects,” Davis said. “He was just wonderful.”
Breen, the law school professor, said that when students come to her asking what they need to do to get a job after law school, she said she thinks about Yohannes and sometimes tells his story. She said that every week, he stopped by her office to ask if she could help him make some connections. She had worked in Washington and introduced him to her former boss and others.
He created his own network in that city, she said, and that ultimately helped him land a job.
“Above and beyond anything else, he is sincere, smart and funny,” Breen said. “He also just knew he had to be creative and was so strategic about it. He’s translated that into this White House appointment. ... He knows people and is really smart. He used this law degree to find a position that’s right for him.”
Yohannes joked that some folks assume he sleeps in the Lincoln Bedroom in the West Wing. While he pays almost weekly visits to the White House to work on federal initiatives, he does not work directly on the campus.
His proud parents visit him monthly, and Yohannes said that’s because he spoils them when they come by planning interesting activities such as White House tours.
“When they come down here, it’s like spring break for them,” he laughed.
Yohannes is not the only success story in the family: His brother, who was overseas for a few years and now lives in Rochester, is an international consultant. His sisters, who live in Los Angeles, recently were featured in Forbes for iHeartSavvy, a startup involved in the wedding industry.
For Nate, his desire to help people helped pave his path to the nation’s capital.
“I envisioned myself working on Capitol Hill but I’ve already surpassed my vision,” he said.
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