Alumni Spotlight: R. Jai Gillum, Class I

Long before she was R. Jai Gillum, she was Jai (pronounced JAY) Howard, a young woman who cared deeply about the disadvantaged.

She knew that two of the most unmet health needs, even for families who have health insurance, are oral health and mental health. So she planned to become a dentist.

But that was several years ago. Just as the world around us has rapidly changed, so has she. Jai Howard, Florida A&M student and would-be dentist, became R. Jai Howard, member of the inaugural class of Florida Gubernatorial Fellows.

And five years later, she’s R. Jai Gillum, working for state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is running to become Florida’s first female Governor. In May 2009, R. Jai married Andrew Gillum, a Tallahassee City Commissioner who in 2003 became was the youngest person ever elected to that position.

It’s been an interesting road for R. Jai, who never planned any of this when she grew up in Montgomery, Ala., the daughter of two educators. She explained how she got her name:

“My first name actually is Rashada, and Jai is my middle name,” she said. “My parents were professors at Jackson State (University, in Mississippi). My dad named me Rashada after my father’s first student to get her Ph.D, a woman who was terminally ill.”

She answered only by Jai until registering for classes at Tallahassee’s FAMU, where the registrar insisted her first name be represented in some fashion. Thus was born the name “R. Jai,” which we must admit sounds pretty cool.

R. Jai got her bachelor’s in biology at FAMU, the typical prerequisite to attending medical school. But with degree in hand, she decided to test out some different paths. She took a banking job in Dallas, but left when the bank was purchased, which would have forced her to move to West Virginia.

Ultimately she decided she wanted to go to graduate school, not to be a dentist, but to study something in the public health or public policy arena. The path led her back to FAMU.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I still had a passion for oral health. I was interested in policy, in the process, whether that was at the local, statewide, or federal level. I wanted to be involved in (assuring everyone had) better access to health care.”

While waiting to start grad school, she applied for the very first class – what we now call Class I – of the Florida Fellows. And R. Jai must know how to make a great impression in a hurry, because she found out about the program all of one day before the application deadline.

“I actually was forwarded the application the day it was due!” she said, laughing. “Someone told me they thought this fit me, and I hadn’t heard about it before. I thought it was a great opportunity to learn more about the public sector.”

The program is designed to match Fellows with job placements that match their interests, and it worked out perfectly for R. Jai. At the state Department of Health, she worked on the “Oral Health Safety Net,” which worked to determine the best ways to serve dental needs in the under-served population.

R. Jai said she gained a lot from the fellowship, from getting real-world experience to meeting movers and shakers of the highest order.

“It was awesome,” she said. “I gained some really great relationships and mentors, especially from meeting the Speakers and the Secretaries.”

R. Jai found a particularly influential mentor in Dr. John Agwunobi, who was the state’s Secretary of Health at the time. He would go on to be the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health from 2005-2007.

After finishing up the fellowship and her master’s degree, R. Jai continued her efforts to strengthen communities by doing development work for the Boys and Girls Club. Less than a year into the gig, she said, “I got a call from out of the blue.”

R. Jai said she still doesn’t know where the Florida Department of Financial Services got her name, but they called to ask whether she’d like to be a “special assistant” for state Chief Financial Officer Sink. R. Jai jumped at the chance to work for the CFO. She started in March 2007.

“I had a lot of responsibilities,” R. Jai said. “I did a lot of travel with the CFO. I was her travel aide. And I did a lot of work with the boards and commissions, primarily with all the health care boards. I also was her staff member for the Healthy Kids Corporation. That’s a partner of Florida KidCare, which is (state-provided) children’s health insurance. When they asked, I said, ‘Hey, health care? I love it. I’m all over it.’ ”

In August 2008, R. Jai was promoted to her current position. We’ll give you the short title, which is Director of Appointments for the Office of Boards. Long story short, she oversees the CFO’s appointments of members to more than 75 state boards.

R. Jai helps vet candidates for the boards, coordinates all of the liaisons to the boards and personally acts as the liaison for – you probably saw this coming – all of the health boards. She said she loves working for Sink:

“She brings a different perspective to state government in that she was a business person for 26 years,” R. Jai said of Sink. “I really enjoy working for her. She’s very passionate about public service. She values the kinds of values the same things I value. She always makes sure there’s diversity on our boards in every way.”

R. Jai doesn’t have any role in the gubernatorial campaign – Sink made it clear that DFS staffers need to continue to give the department their full attention. But R. Jai said she’d love to continue to work for Sink if her boss does become Florida’s next Governor.

She credits her interest to the experience she received as a Fellow, especially given the program’s mission to bring together future leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“It was great for me because it was eye-opening,” R. Jai said. “You know, at a young age, I probably did not have any close conservative friends. Interacting with the other Fellows – some of whom were quite conservative – it certainly helped broaden my views on a lot of things.”

R. Jai said she learned a lot not only from other fellows, but from meeting with state leaders including then-Governor Jeb Bush.

“I consider myself a fairly progressive Democrat, so that was an interesting experience. I always took something from that. It broadened some of my views, and in talking to the other Fellows, I’d like to think I broadened some of their views as well.”

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