A Carolina graduate is making government jobs cool again

Joe Nail co-founded Lead for America, which works to match recent graduates with local government jobs.

Joe Nail portrait
Joe Nail, a 2018 Carolina graduate, stands for a portrait on campus. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When Joe Nail was an undergraduate student at Carolina, he made a list of the 25 most significant challenges facing the world in the 21st century, ranging from rising sea levels to a widespread distrust in government.

He couldn’t solve them all. But he wasn’t content looking the other way.

“I spent months not doing anything social,” said Nail, who graduated from Carolina in May, “just researching and looking at this list. And I realized I could spend my whole life working on a couple of these problems, but none of them could be addressed in full without a functioning government.”

From that realization, Nail saw an opportunity to pair talented young people with opportunities to serve their communities. He joined forces with peers at Harvard and Stanford Universities to launch Lead for America, an organization that places recent graduates in local government positions across the country.

“There are very few young people considering government as a viable career path,” he said. “We need great people in our public institutions, and young people overwhelmingly want to find meaning in their work. We just need to give them opportunities to serve.”

To address that challenge, Lead for America recruits and matches civic-minded young people with government partners that fit their interests. Their roles range from policy analyst to public health educator, allowing them to tackle pressing community issues such as developing local economies and combatting the opioid crisis.

The organization will work to offer the same incentives and training opportunities as corporate recruiters, using an algorithm to create the best employee-employer matches.

As Baby Boomers are set to retire, Nail is making a long-term bet on Lead for America. He and his co-founders hope to build a network of 50,000 current and former fellows by 2040.

“Restoring faith in government is going to require a lot of organizations working collaboratively,” he said, “but I believe we can play an important role in giving really talented young people an opportunity to see at a grassroots level the issues that everyday Americans and their neighbors face.”

As a child, Nail experienced many of those issues firsthand. When his father deployed to Afghanistan, Nail took on the responsibility of caring for his sister Katie, who has cerebral palsy.

“It made me much more sensitive to the responsibility that public institutions have for caring for those who can’t care for themselves,” he said. “I started realizing on a hyperlocal level with my sister, and up to the international level with my dad, the way that policy and government can make a difference in people’s lives.”

At Carolina, Nail served as a leader in student government, built a community of public service-minded peers as a Morehead-Cain scholar, interned at a conflict resolution organization in Sierra Leone and worked with Congressman Jim Cooper in Washington, D.C. — all experiences that continue to motivate him in his new venture.

Nail also continues to learn from the expertise of Shimul Melwani, a professor of organizational behavior at Carolina who helped Nail gain the leadership and management skills to launch his venture. Now Melwani has joined the Lead for America team as director of people and culture.

“It’s a huge gain and asset for us to have someone who is truly an expert on organizational behavior helping advise on people and culture and everything our organization is doing,” Nail said.

Above all, Nail remains focused on the underlying goal: to use his abilities to make a difference for people in need.

“For me, the biggest thing is that I really do want to spend my life doing what is most useful for the world,” he said. “I just want to dedicate my life as a leverage point to build that pathway into public service, to promote human welfare and to inspire people to become transformational public service leaders in the long term.”