Chicago may be known as the “City That Works,” but that’s because the county -- Cook County that is -- works. In this day and age, reform (especially of the fiscal kind) is often lauded as the platform for any political campaign, so it was a no-brainer for newly elected Cook County President, Toni Preckwinkle, to enlist rising wunderkind, Kurt A. Summers, to ensure a streamlined government for the second largest county in the U.S.
Summers initially began his career as a strategy consultant and later joined Goldman Sachs & Co. working in both investment banking and leveraged finance. The Harvard Business School grad reflects on how his unusual trajectory is what he always wanted. “When I wrote my business school essays in 2002, I said that I wanted to weave an elegant tapestry between the public and private sectors, lending best practices from each to make the other better,” he says. “My career has followed that path, but it's been more about unforeseen opportunities than by design. I left the private sector to work for [Cook County] President [Toni] Preckwinkle because I thought this would be an amazing, once-in-a-generation type of opportunity to truly change a unit in government that sorely needed it.”
Before joining Cook County, Summers’ first taste of public life was when served as Chief of Staff for Chicago 2016, the city’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in 2009. The ambitious plan called for development in struggling neighborhoods and was considered a sure win for the city. Unfortunately Chicago lost to Rio de Janeiro. “It was devastating!” said Summers. “So much effort, such a wonderful opportunity for Chicago’s future, crushed in a matter of seconds. I remember calling my wife from Copenhagen, still in shock and not able to explain how I felt. I hope Chicago bids again someday.”
It’s hard to keep up with everything Cook County manages -- a $1 billion public hospital system, a jail that holds nearly 10,000 people daily, and a court system that sees almost two million cases per year, are just a few. Summers, a Hyde Park resident, explains what it all means. “We walked in the door and immediately faced a $487 million dollar budget deficit that we solved for in less than 90 days. This year it is $268 million dollars and we will have a balanced budget,” he explains. “[This] means you will receive better healthcare from your public system, more investment in infrastructure, smarter investment in creating jobs and a more transparent and effective justice system.”
It’s hard to believe Summers has accomplished so much in his 33 years, but he explains how the 3 P’s (Prayer, Partnership and Perspective) serve as a guide through life’s every day challenges. “I try to every day and make time to reflect on the word. For Partnership, I have the most amazing, patient and supportive wife in the world. She keeps me focused on what’s important. Finally, perspective is key. I don’t get caught up or overwhelmed by the day-to-day problems or fires because I’m focused on the bigger picture, on our place in history, on our ability to make changes that will last for generations.”