Brainard grew up as a U.S. expatriate in Communist Poland and Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She is an alumna of George School, in the class of 1979, a boarding school in Newtown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Brainard received masters and doctoral degrees in economics from Harvard University, where she was a National Science Foundation Fellow. She graduated with highest honors from Wesleyan University with a degree from the College of Social Studies. She is the recipient of a White House Fellowship and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship, a Marshall Scholar elect, and a member of the Wesleyan University Board of Trustees, Council on Foreign Relations, and Aspen Strategy Group.
Brainard served as Associate Professor of Applied Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where her publications made important contributions on the relationship between offshore production, trade, and jobs; the measurement of structural and cyclical unemployment in the U.S. economy; and strategic trade policy. Brainard has also worked at McKinsey & Company advising corporate clients on strategic challenges and on microenterprise in West Africa.
Brainard served as Deputy National Economic Adviser and Chair of the Deputy Secretaries Committee on International Economics during the Clinton administration. As Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, she helped build a new White House organization to address global economic challenges such as the Asian financial crisis and China's accession to the World Trade Organization. As the U.S. Sherpa to the G8, she helped shape the 2000 G8 summit that, for the first time, included leaders of the poorest nations and laid the foundations for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. She had been mentioned as a likely U.S. Trade Representative in the Obama administration.
On March 23, 2009, President Obama nominated Brainard to serve as Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, to replace David H. McCormick, whose term had ended with the end of the Bush administration.
On November 18, 2009, the New York Times reported that Senator Charles Grassley, the chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, had cleared the way for her Senate confirmation as Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs. Reuters News Service reported on December 23, 2009, that the Senate Finance Committee had approved Brainard to become the "Treasury Department's top global diplomat, a job that would give her a key role in the bid to push China toward a flexible currency".
On April 19, 2010, the Senate voted 84-10 for cloture for Brainard's nomination. The Senate confirmed her in a 78-19 vote on April 20, 2010.
Brainard served as the principal policy advisor to Secretary Timothy Geithner on international economic matters at the Treasury Department. Treasury described her role as advancing the Administration’s agenda of strengthening U.S. leadership in the global economy to foster growth, creating economic opportunities for Americans, and addressing transnational economic challenges, including development as well as climate change. Brainard was the highest-ranking female Treasury official in U.S. history until Sarah Bloom Raskin became Deputy Secretary. She left her post in the US Treasury in November 2013.
Brainard was nominated to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in January 2014. She was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 61-31 on June 12, 2014, and began her term on June 16, 2014.
Brainard is co‑editor of Too Poor For Peace? (2007); co-editor of Offshoring White Collar Work (2006); editor of Transforming the Development Landscape: the Role of the Private Sector (2006) and Security by Other Means: Foreign Assistance, Global Poverty and American Leadership (2006); and coauthor of The Other War: Global Poverty and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (2004).