Growing up, Mehul Patel always assumed he would become a physician, like his father. But during his last year in high school, people and events converged to change the direction of his life. He attended Boys’ State, a weeklong summer program focused on teaching students about how local, county and state governments work. While he was interested in learning about the political process, he questioned what difference this would make. His father gave him some sage advice that Mehul took to heart and still recalls, “As a doctor, you can help one patient at a time. But as a public servant you have the chance to improve the lives of millions of people by creating lasting policy.”
With this insight, Mehul reinvigorated his efforts in the program and was selected as one of two New Jersey representatives to go to Washington, D.C., for Boys’ Nation. There he met and was inspired by President Clinton, who was also a Boys’ Nation representative as a teenager. Soon after, Mehul was selected to represent New Jersey again at the U.S. Senate Youth Program and then, as a Coca-Cola Scholar where he was surrounded by peers who shared his passion for leadership in public service and dreams of making a difference in the world.
At Yale, he became captivated by a class that covered the complexities of how cities grow, thrive and fail. “Understanding how cities work and learning about the persistent challenges they face inspired me to focus on what I could do to help shape their future,” he recalls. His path to get there after college took him through learning about the business and tech world as a management consultant at Accenture, helping to start a non-profit in India and ultimately to earning his Masters degree from Columbia. Subsequently, he worked in the private sector in real estate and economic development consulting and with a New York City developer.
“Five years ago, I had an incredible opportunity to be part of the redevelopment and expansion of Penn Station,” he explains. “I was given the chance to work on the Moynihan Station Project, named for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who championed the idea of expanding Penn Station into the monumental post office building across the street. This would redeem the city from having torn down the original, grand Penn Station fifty years ago and trapping it beneath Madison Square Garden. I was able to use my great private sector experience to work for the public sector and help the city of New York.”
Mehul oversaw the design, planning, and development for the project, which is now under construction after two decades of false starts. “It was really thrilling to be part of the team that made it happen,” he says. “To see how it will transform the neighborhood and make New York an even better place to live and work for future generations is tremendously gratifying.”
Earlier this year, on the heels of seeing the Moynihan Station Project coming to fruition, Mehul was named the Chief of Staff at Empire State Development. In this role, Mehul now works on real estate and economic development policy across New York State. “While New York City has made an incredible comeback since the 1970s, there are other great cities in our state that we are investing in to help them once again become vibrant centers of industry and commerce,” he explains.
“The future of all our cities is so important because for the first time in history, more people live in cities than outside of them,” he continues. “It’s a global phenomenon for good reason –there’s a dynamism in cities that brings people, ideas and opportunity together. That’s why the ways we develop and value cities are so crucial to our collective future and working to solve their complex challenges is what I most enjoy.”
Having a passion for urban development doesn’t preclude Mehul from occasionally wondering whether he’s pursuing the right path and where it will lead. When he has those doubts, he thinks of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation. “They believed in me by supporting me through college and they continue to support me in so many different ways. I’m inspired by that support and always look to live up to the ideals of the program” he says.
He also draws inspiration from his fellow Scholars, especially the Finalists he’s met while serving on the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation National Selection Committee. “Their incredible journeys and dreams of making the world a better place reinforce my own passion and optimism. My advice to them is to be the change you want to be, and if there’s any moment that you doubt yourself, call another Coke Scholar, because you are not alone.”