Yesim Sayin Taylor never thought she’d work in DC government. Admittedly, she didn’t know much about it. “I just thought it was this crazy, dysfunctional place,” she said.
An economist, Taylor came to the United States — and the Washington area — in 1996 when she enrolled in a doctoral program at George Mason University. She worked at Smarthinking (now part of Pearson Education), an internet startup in the area that specialized in online tutoring services. After receiving her doctorate in economics, she took a government job at the advice of a GMU professor who advised her not to “pigeonhole” herself by working at a think tank.
But now, Taylor — who spent a decade in DC’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer as a fiscal analyst — is the executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, which she helped launch in 2017 as a nonpartisan think tank focusing on policies to bolster DC’s economy. There, not only does her work concern the DC government (where she never thought she’d work), but she’s running her own think tank.
“It has been a source of tremendous personal growth, and the challenges are invigorating,” Taylor said. “I am extremely lucky that the D.C. Policy Center started with its roots in the Federal City Council and benefits from tremendous support from its very capable board.”
Originally from Turkey, Taylor worked at Smarthinking for six years, during which time she got a green card and became a permanent U.S. resident.
Taylor figured that after the startup, she needed some government experience to be able to jump to an international organization like the International Monetary Fund. She got interested in local government due to her friendship with Robert Ebel, who was the chief economist for the DC government at the time. And she got hooked in state and local public finance: Taylor ended up leading the CFO’s work on measuring the fiscal impact of all legislation under consideration by the DC Council. She worked closely with the executive branch and council staff to make sure policymakers comprehended the fiscal implications of legislation that they put forward. She also co-founded the District Measured blog.
Taylor spent nearly a decade in the CFO’s office with no intention of changing jobs, but then Tony Williams and some of the trustees of the Federal City Council recruited Taylor to launch the D.C. Policy Center. The D.C. Policy Center was initially incubated within the Federal City Council, a nonprofit focusing on economic development in DC.
She was happy with her job at the CFO’s office, but when presented with the opportunity she “thought about having a midlife crisis,” which she associated with taking risks. She saw creating and building the D.C. Policy Center from the ground up as a solid opportunity; doing so could be her midlife crisis, and “a pretty good one at that,” she said.
Taylor — now entering her third year at the D.C. Policy Center, which last week marked its anniversary — says she feels “very lucky” to be working there. The research it undertakes extends across six broad areas: business conditions, workforce and the labor market, housing, demographics, transportation and education policy.
The hardest part about working in the fiscal sector, she said, is trying to explain to people exactly what’s going on.
“People form very strong opinions about how the economy works, and sometimes it’s very hard to change their thinking,” Taylor said. “Things can be entirely driven by data and I can prove them, but still some people will disagree.”
An example is the broadly shared sentiment that families are being squeezed out of DC because new development doesn’t include housing units large enough to accommodate them, Taylor said. “It turns out, this is wrong,” she explained. In fact, the data reveal the city has plenty of housing units to accommodate its families of four or more people — but not enough units for households with one or two.
“The reason families get displaced is not because they cannot find large enough homes, but because they cannot compete with affluent singles and couples who bid for the same homes,” Taylor said. “What [the] data show is increasing housing stock is more important than picking and choosing what kind of housing we should be building. While minds get it, hearts are too connected to the original story that developers build too many small units.”
The economic work Taylor does is driven by a passion for the city’s offerings. There’s a “wealth of cultural opportunities at one-fifth the prices of Istanbul, New York or LA,” but pressed to pick one, Taylor said her favorite museum is the National Portrait Gallery. Taylor enjoys the quirky, modern and folk art at the gallery — she finds it soothing.
The Kennedy Center is another favorite spot. “My son is now an 11th-grader, but he would be the one running in circles in the back,” she said, thinking back to the days when she took him to the free Millennium Stage concerts when he was young. She also loves that residents can find excellent hiking opportunities within just an hour’s drive from the city.
In her journey to where is she now, Taylor has drawn inspiration from stories of women facing difficult odds. She cites Laura Esquivel and the Mexican author’s novel Like Water for Chocolate as a particular inspiration. “When I was a young woman who came to the states, I needed these kinds of authors,” Taylor said, also naming Sylvia Plath and Anna Schwartz, who wrote A Monetary History of the United States with Milton Friedman. “Those are the type of women who influenced me.”
Taylor said that teaching young women confidence at an early age is key.
“This may not be a problem anymore, but when I started my Ph.D. program, I found those who held strong opinions to be intimidating,” Taylor said. She added that since there were so few women in the program, they stuck together.
“Someone like me coming from Turkey, I was intimidated by people who could talk a lot,” Taylor said.
As we wrapped up our conversation Taylor got personal. Speaking about a recent trip back home to Turkey, she told me about how she met up with a close friend she had known well since she was 16. The two talked about how they’ve changed since then.
“Now in my mid-40s, I have a different worldview,” she said. “I used to feel very nervous that things would go wrong, and I don’t anymore. I say, ‘It happens,’ and I never react to anything immediately.”
Before reacting at all, she often goes for a walk and thinks through her emotions, a practice she finds helpful in overcoming stressful situations.
Taylor said that the United States has been very good to her. “I’ve had all kinds of doors open, and I never thought being an immigrant stopped me from doing anything,” she said. “I work hard, and I think that helps a lot with any adversity.”
In honor of Women’s History Month, The DC Line is profiling notable women shaping DC. This is the second in a series of four articles we’ll be publishing this month; the first one profiled Trinity Washington University President Pat McGuire.