When Aanand Mehta was a summer associate at Jones Day in 2011 — just before his final year at the University of Pennsylvania Law School — he helped fellow attorneys organize Cleveland’s Brain Gain Project. Their goal? Counter the “brain drain.” They worked to encourage Cleveland professionals to seek opportunities in Northeast Ohio rather than moving elsewhere.
“We wanted it to be a megaphone for the city of Cleveland. We wanted to show people how amazing our city is,” he says. “We wanted to put out there that there’s so much more to see and do. We promoted that, and we held a big event at the Rock Hall. We brought in professionals to network and learn about the city.”
“We know that Cleveland has all the potential in the world,” he adds. “Our goal was to give the people that are here help to unleash that potential.”
Working on the project helped him learn more about the city. “Even though I grew up in the area, there are things I didn’t learn until recently,” he explains. “I hadn’t spent meaningful time on Cleveland’s West Side until I was older. Through my involvement, I learned about Gordon Square and explored the West Side Market.”
Energized by the Brain Gain Project, Mehta applied for Cleveland Bridge Builders, a 10-month program of the Cleveland Leadership Center that brings together young and mid-career professionals to build collaborative leadership skills and tackle civic projects.
“Our team worked with Esperenza to get more school involvement from parents,” he says. Esperenza is a nonprofit group that works to improve academic achievement of Hispanics in Greater Cleveland. Programs push high school graduation and promote college attendance.
The Flats neighborhood resident also was a City Advocate for the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, another civic leadership group.
The recurring theme here is civic involvement. Mehta, a first-generation American whose parents were born in India, appreciates being born into middle-class status and wants to spread opportunity. “I was fortunate that my family has the tools to succeed. A lot of the community doesn’t have that,” he says. “Life shouldn’t be a lottery.”
That sense of social justice is why Mehta chose law school. “I went to Northwestern University knowing I wanted to give back to the community,” he says. “Somewhere in the beginning of undergrad, I wanted to figure out what would give me the most flexibility in helping people.
“Becoming an attorney helped me develop into someone professional and level-headed,” he adds. “In the law you have to keep calm and work hard until you find a solution. You can’t not find a solution to a problem. You have to stay focused on getting things done.”
He wants to take that social conscience and his civic skills to the Ohio House of Representatives, so he is seeking a seat to represent the 10th District — Ohio City to Glenville to Downtown to Collinwood. It's one of the most diverse districts in the state.
“I want to provide a bridge between the two Clevelands. I want the business community and struggling neighborhoods to work together. It’s important to our region,” he says. His ambitious platform includes job training, public transportation, health care access, criminal justice reform and public school/after-school program funding.
Mehta sees core strengths coming from his legal background. “I negotiate for a living. I understand laws. I feel I would be able to fill that specific role, that job.”
His real insight, though, comes from developing collaborative leadership skills in public service. “The most important thing I learned is that everybody has a different background and a different way of thinking. You have to work with other people's styles, you have to listen. Everybody adds something in their own special way. If you want to get something done you have to put your ego aside and do what’s good for the collective.”