The First Black Woman to Lead the Heritage Foundation

How Kay Coles James parlayed her experience at Hampton University and in the George W. Bush administration into a job at a conservative think tank

An illustration of Kay Coles James
Heritage Foundation / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Kay Coles James’s family was adamant that she pursue an education. James attended the historically black Hampton University, where she studied history and education. Growing up with an emphasis on education and self-sufficiency led her to a career in public policy and then the Heritage Foundation.

Coles James served during the George W. Bush administration as the director of the Office of Personnel Management. She began serving on the board of trustees for the Heritage Foundation in 2005, and became the president in 2017. In September, the White House named her to the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. I recently spoke to Coles James about growing up in a “dysfunctional family,” her experience at Hampton University, and serving as the first black woman president of the Heritage Foundation. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lola Fadulu: Could you tell me a little bit about your parents’ work background, what jobs they were doing when you were growing up?

Kay Coles James: I came from what would be called today a dysfunctional family. My father did odd jobs. He was a guard. He worked unloading ships when he was younger. He did maintenance work. My mother was a dental tech for part of her life, working for her brother-in-law, and the rest of the time she was a domestic, cleaning houses and caring for people. So they were hard-working folks, but not with steady jobs or glamorous careers by any stretch of the imagination.

Fadulu: Did they have a specific profession that they wanted you to go into?

Coles James: I was the only girl out of five boys, and I think they were more interested in making sure that I had a good, solid education because with that, there would be lots of opportunities to do any number of things. My father left home when I was around 4 years old, and I ended up being raised by my aunt and uncle. They were professional people. He was a businessman, and she was a schoolteacher, but she suffered under the debilitating disease of alcoholism. And as a result of that, even as a young child, I had to learn to be self-sufficient and independent around the house.

So I learned domestic skills rather early: I could cook and clean and care for not only myself, but at a very early age took care of my aunt as well.

Fadulu: Did you have any jobs outside of the home before going to college?

Coles James: Not very much before college. I can tell you that being raised by an African American schoolteacher, even though she was a working alcoholic, she had all the values of a middle-class schoolteacher, and education was key. And my uncle, who was sort of the rock of the family, was very adamant about the fact that I was to get a good-quality education, and he felt that once that was done, then his task was done in that he would have equipped me for life.

So when I went off to college, he said, “No, you don’t have to work. No jobs, get your education, get that done and don’t get married. Don’t get serious about any guys. Focus.” Education was key. I grew up hearing about the United Negro College Fund. The slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I think I had my first job outside the home when I was in college, and I went to work for the Richmond public schools as an assistant for a summer reading program, where I was doing clerical work. When you are in college and you’re doing that kind of work, your job is pretty much to do everything in the office that nobody else wants to. And that’s what I did.

Fadulu: How did you cope with that?

Coles James: I didn’t expect to come in and be the manager or the supervisor or run the company initially. I expected to pay my dues. I expected to learn from the folks who were there and more experienced and older than I was. I expected to have a work ethic. The way I was brought up is, you get there early, you leave last, you do the best job possible, and all the doors will be opened for you. So for me, it wasn’t very much about coping. Those were the values that I was raised with. That was what I expected. And I heard every inspirational phrase one could hear in that kind of environment: The cream always rises to the top. The early bird catches the worm. Work hard and it’ll pay off in the end. Those were the things that were whispered in my ear from the time I was young. And so I grew up with those values and with that ethic.

Fadulu: I know that you went to Hampton. Were you considering other schools?

Coles James: I was considering other schools at that time. But I had had lots of incredible experience integrating the schools in the city of Richmond and had been through so much in the largely all-white environments that I really felt like I wanted the nurturing, caring environment of a historically black college and university, where I did not stand out as different, where I knew that the professors and instructors had my best interests in mind and at heart. They were committed to my education, and I think by the time I finished at Chandler Junior High School and John Marshall High School, I was ready for that environment. So while I had the opportunity to go to other colleges and universities, I specifically chose Hampton University because it was an HBCU and I wanted that environment.

I wanted to not be one of the two or three black kids in one class; I wanted to experience the rich culture and history and heritage, and I’m grateful for it. It came at a time in my life where I needed that.

Fadulu: Is there anything that you wish college prepared you for in your first jobs after college or your career in general?

Coles James: Well, if you know anything about Hampton University, you know that their motto is “Education for life.” And so at Hampton, not only did we get the academic skills that we needed and the knowledge, but we also got the other training that I think was so helpful for the first job. Hampton was then and probably still is now very strict about dress codes and about demeanor—about how you carry yourself on campus, how you carry yourself in the classroom—which can then translate into a work environment. And quite frankly, I’m not sure I would have gotten as much of that if I had gone to a predominantly white institution.

I think even with my middle-class upbringing, it was good to have those values reinforced, and they have served me well in a work environment. So the education for life that I received at Hampton University was truly that. It was an education for life.

Fadulu: And what was your major?

Coles James: History, secondary education. I studied history, and then [became] involved in public policy and government and watching history unfold before my very eyes.

Fadulu: To fast-forward to your time as director of the Office of Personnel Management, are there any experiences that are memorable to you from that time that maybe changed the way you view work and yourself as a worker?

Coles James: Well, I must confess that I, like everyone else who was around during that period in our country’s history, was affected in all kinds of ways by 9/11. I was the director of the Office of Personnel Management on 9/11. And on that particular day, I think every bit of knowledge, every bit of skill, every experience that I had, had to come together for quick decisions, for processing information, for inspiring a workforce, for coming together after that to figure out a pathway forward for our country. Being a part of standing up the Department of Homeland Security. And so I think every experience that I had had, and every bit of the education that I had, came together, and it was a seminal moment, I think, that changed me, and I think everyone else who was involved, for life.

Fadulu: You’ve served on the board of trustees for the Heritage Foundation since 2005, so you were already familiar with the organization. How did you feel when you found out that you were going to become president of the foundation?

Coles James: You may or may not know that I was actually chairing the search committee, and as we developed the profile of what the ideal candidate would look like, as we developed the document that talked about the culture of the Heritage Foundation and what was needed in order to preserve and grow that organization, it became clear to several of our trustees that perhaps the person they were looking for was sitting at the table. In my mind I was headed towards retirement, and I was looking forward to watching I Love Lucy reruns and researching, and writing my final book. So when given the opportunity, and it was a very humbling experience,  I felt that the stars were perfectly aligned.

I did have a background in public policy, had been the dean of a school of government. I did have the business experience to run a multimillion-dollar institution. I did have the knowledge of government, based on having served at the federal, state, and local levels. And I did have a love for the mission and vision and values of the institution, and as a result of that, when presented with the opportunity, I thought it was an opportunity of a lifetime. I am one of the people that has had the opportunity to do work worth doing, work that I feel passionately about and feel very equipped to do. And not everybody gets that opportunity.

Fadulu: Is there anything that has particularly surprised you about being the president of the foundation?

Coles James: There have been very few surprises as I took over the role of president at the Heritage Foundation. Probably the elephant in the room is an African American female being president of the leading conservative organization in America. I am absolutely convinced that it was a total afterthought. Having been a part of the process, sometimes we just stumble upon the right thing, and I think we did.