by Commissoner Jaques Jiha
I was born in Haiti and lived there until I was 21. I immigrated to the United States to further my education in December of 1979, bringing nothing with me but a set of values my mother taught me. She raised me alone after my father died when I was 10, teaching me the value of hard work, perseverance, integrity, curiosity, and giving me a sense of responsibility and accountability.
As is the case for any immigrant, the transition of moving to a new country was challenging. I was not fluent in English and needed to land a good job. With the help of some close friends, I found my footing.
I worked all kinds of jobs to survive. In fact, I paid my way through college by working as a parking lot attendant, earning my bachelor’s in economics from Fordham University in 1985. I went on to receive a Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research in 1990.
Since then, I have held a broad range of jobs in both the public and private sectors. These experiences led to the opportunity for me to serve as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Finance, my current role. What a journey it has been!
I began my professional career with the Assembly Ways and Means Committee in 1988 as principal economist. The state Assembly was just getting into data analytics and needed their own staff, not the Governor’s, to generate analyses and forecasts for negotiations with the Governor’s office.
In 1994 Alan Hevesi hired me as his chief economist, and later his deputy comptroller for budget with oversight responsibilities. I was later recruited by the Nassau County comptroller to serve as deputy for audits and finances. Hevesi was then elected comptroller of the State of New York and I joined his administration as deputy comptroller for pension investment and public finance. As the state’s chief investment officer, I was responsible for all of the assets of the New York State Common Retirement Fund—then the nation’s second-largest pension fund, with a value of $120 billion. I also oversaw the New York State College Savings Program. In the public finance arena, I was in charge of all activities related to the issuance of state general obligation bonds, bond anticipation notes, and tax and revenue anticipation notes.
Thereafter, I joined Earl G. Graves, Ltd, first as CFO and later as Executive Vice President/COO & CFO. I worked there for nine years, until Mayor Bill de Blasio tapped me to be his finance commissioner in 2014, a job I still serve today. Public service has always been my calling, and I have also served on a number of government and not-for-profit boards.
Just three decades ago, immigrants like me were often referred to as “boat people,” a pejorative description of those who were escaping the Duvalier dictatorships in Haiti. No other group of refugees entering the United States had ever been referred to as such. Until 1980, Haitians, who had risked their lives to sail to the United States, were not even permitted to apply for asylum. Today, I am called Commissioner.
While my story is the archetypal American Horatio Alger story (of imagining your goals, working hard, and achieving the dream), it also the story of a city that welcomes immigrants from places like Alabama, Ohio, Ukraine, France and Jamaica, and provides them with opportunities to succeed—as they, in the process, contribute to America’s expansion and diversity, and the forging of its more perfect union.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacques Jiha was appointed Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Finance by Mayor Bill de Blasio on April 8, 2014. Prior to becoming Commissioner, Mr. Jiha was the Executive Vice President / Chief Operating Officer & Chief Financial Officer of Earl G. Graves, Ltd., a multi-media company with properties in print, digital media, television, events and the internet. A staunch advocate of public service, Mr. Jiha served on a number of government and not-for-profit boards. He was a board member of the Ronald McDonald House of New York, a board member of Public Health Solutions and a trustee of the Public Health Solutions Retirement Trust, a member of the Investment Advisory Committee of the New York Common Retirement Fund, and he was also the Secretary of the board of the New York State Dormitory Authority – one the largest issuers of municipal debt in the country on behalf of public and private universities and medical institutions, and the State of New York. He holds a Ph.D. and a Master’s degree in Economics from the New School for Social Research and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Fordham University.