Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is typically open to discussing most topics, from his troubles with the Black community of South Bend, Ind., where he serves as mayor, to his personal coming-out story. But with one aspect of his short and storied career — his nearly three years with the once-prestigious, currently scandal-prone management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company — he's not been as forthright.
The main reason for that silence — Buttigieg claims the only reason — is a nondisclosure agreement that all employees of the corporate behemoth must sign. But as The New York Times posits in a profile of Buttigieg's years with McKinsey, the candidate may have some reticence about speaking of his time there because the company is synomous with corporate power, enormous government contracts, opaque accomplishments, and lately — after he left the firm in 2009 — scandals.
McKinsey had its hands helping Purdue Pharma figure out how to "turbocharge" opioid sales to the public and took contracts with authoritarian governments in China and Saudi Arabia; work by McKinsey in South Africa was described by the Times as the worst scandal in the company's nine-decade history. McKinsey also recommended that the department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement save money by cutting back on food and medical care for detainees.
Much of the future mayor's formative years came at McKinsey, after he graduated from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and before he began pursuing public office in Indiana. He began working at the firm in late 2006, impressing many with business acumen beyond his years (he was 24 at the time). While it's never been made public which McKinsey clients Buttigieg specifically worked for, the young recruit flew to Iraq and Afghanistan with the agency, ostensibly for work with the Defense Department. Buttigieg was part of a team of "whiz kids" tasked with helping businesses in those war-torn countries flourish so they could hire young people and prevent them from joining terrorist groups.
The work appears admirable, but it was hard to get results when infrastructure was impaired and the countries remained politically unstable.
“It felt like we were completely half-assing everything — it wasn’t particularly effective,” former McKinsey consultant Alan Armstrong told the Times of his work overseas.
But Buttigieg did seem to be aware that Americans going to countries they helped sow chaos in wasn't always fruitful, pointing out that he protested against George W. Bush's war in Iraq. “But I also believed that it was important to try to do my part to help have good outcomes there,” Buttigieg told the Times. He was reminded of “the stories I had studied about well-intentioned Americans sometimes causing as many problems as they addressed.”
Without naming clients, Buttigieg did say he worked on expanding agricultural opportunities in Afghanistan as well as energy efficiency research for an unnamed client.
Buttigieg's campaign responded quickly and repeatedly to the Times article, reiterating that the NDA is keeping him tight-lipped about his work there and not anything else nefarious. The candidate's communications director, Lis Smith, retweeted at least half a dozen messages pointing out Buttigieg's legal quandary regarding his work at McKinsey.
Smith even went further, retweeting a quote from Buttigieg where he called his former employer "what's wrong with corporate America."