What is the most valuable lesson you learned during your time at Laurel?
Oh, there were so many! Many lessons learned in the classroom to be sure, but many also on the tennis court, basketball court and softball field. One particularly powerful lesson that cuts across academia and sports is that of teamwork. During my time at Laurel, I learned how to observe and navigate group dynamics. I learned the value of working in teams that have diverse skills. You can’t have a team made up all pitchers and no outfielders! I learned how to be a teammate as well as how to be a leader and to know the fluidity of these roles. Last spring, for example, I was leading a workshop for 100 young people from around the Arab States region. One of our young participants, a 20-year-old student/entrepreneur from Tunisia, proposed a session to physically demonstrate the Sustainable Development Goals (through a power march, visually showing the concept of “leaving no one behind”). It was a great idea and I gave her the reins to run the session, which turned out to be one of the workshop highlights. Embracing teamwork makes me a better colleague and a better person. I’m honored to still be a part of team Laurel all these years later.
After Laurel, you majored in English literature at Yale University. What skills from your liberal arts education did you rely on for jobs managing corporate communications programs at Burson-Marsteller and strategic services at Accenture?
How to think. It sounds so basic, so simple, but what I started at Laurel and then continued at Yale was learning how to take a critical eye to information and how to analyze it. For example, by learning how to deconstruct information, how to question its message and how to find its meaning, I became a problem solver, a skill that was useful as a consultant at both Burson Marsteller and Accenture. And how to communicate. Learning how to read different audiences and understanding what will resonate with them, constructing messages that are meaningful and putting together persuasive arguments, are all skills that have stood me in good stead across all my “careers.”
In 2005, you accepted a job with the United Nations, working for a year at the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) before moving over to the UN Development Programme. What prompted your career change? Did it feel like a leap into the unknown or not?
After almost 20 years in the private sector, I wanted to make a different kind of contribution, one with a strong social component. I had also always been drawn to the international arena. The work I enjoyed most with Burson-Marsteller and Accenture was overseas, particularly an engagement I had while with Accenture, living in Germany on and off for a year and traveling extensively throughout Europe. I set a medium-term vision for myself: in three years’ time, I’ll be working for the UN. At that time, I knew barely anything about the organization, other than that its headquarters were on the East River in New York. But I did my research, used my network, and lo and behold three years later, was employed at the UN. I even surprised myself with how that turned out.
The transition from the private sector to the public sector was relatively straightforward in many ways because I was using similar skills. For example, my first assignment at UNOPS was to develop a new strategic direction, a task similar to what I had been doing at Accenture, just a different kind of “client.” The longer I stayed in the UN and the more immersed I became in the organization, the more I recognized the differences between the private and public sectors (such as the challenges of negotiating in multi-lateral contexts as well as the opportunities of taking longer-term perspectives, beyond quarter to quarter mandates). I also realized the importance of the public and private sectors partnering to address the world’s most pressing development challenges like poverty, gender inequality and climate change.
Can you tell us about the work of the UN Development Programme? As Regional Team Leader for Innovation in the Arab States what can you share about your area of focus?
I love what I do so am happy to share! The United Nations Development Programme is the UN’s global development network. On the ground in about 170 countries and territories, the organization works to eradicate poverty while protecting the planet, with the goal of “Empowered lives. Resilient nations.” I manage UNDP’s Innovation portfolio for the Arab States region, covering 18 countries and territories, from the Gulf to the Maghreb. My goal is to disrupt traditional ways of doing development, by introducing new and alternative approaches to development such as behavioral insights, data innovation, games for social change and alternative forms of financing. I work primarily with national governments in the region, but I also have the opportunity to work directly with youth in these 18 countries and territories. In conjunction with my colleagues at the national and regional levels, we support young people to pursue their ambitions of making positive contributions to their communities and countries. One young woman from Sudan has been involved in our youth programme from its first year. She started an enterprise that supports women in telling their stories of gender-based violence and offers the women services and support in surviving and thriving. She has also become an integral part of our programme team, each year mentoring and inspiring a new cohort of young entrepreneurs from across the Arab states. Watching her and her young peers gain confidence, realize their ideals and make a difference has been extremely rewarding.
How much travel is there in your job? How do you keep your stateside life-work equilibrium when you are away for periods of time?
For the past four years, I have been based in Amman, Jordan, at UNDP’s regional hub for the Arab States. With a regional portfolio, I travel quite a bit . . . suffice it to say that more than a few flight attendants know me by name! Traveling throughout the region, and sometimes further afield, is an aspect of my job that I really enjoy. I have the opportunity to experience the very different contexts of the region from Algeria to Yemen, from Bahrain to Syria. While I am making many new friends, my long-standing friendships at home are super important to me. Skype helps me keep my hometown friends close!
Is there an initiative of which you are most proud?
For the past three years, I’ve partnered with a colleague who manages a regional programme that works at the intersection of youth, innovation and sustainable development. In the first year, we reached about 70 youth. Since then we have grown the programme to reach thousands of youth, supporting them in launching social enterprises, non-governmental organizations and advocacy campaigns that promote sustainable development. We have created a branded community and network that has taken on a life of its own and which we hope to grow exponentially in the coming three years. To see a kernel of an idea turn into something tangible has been particularly rewarding.
What are the rewards and challenges of working with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities?
While it’s true I do work with people from all over the world, we are more similar than I first imagined we would be. More so than being defined by our nationalities, we are differentiated by our skill sets, which is true of any organization I’ve been in. There are those who are good schmoozers, those who are nose-to-the-grindstone types, those who are good presenters; there are those who are deep technical experts and there are the generalists. I enjoy working on multi-disciplinary teams that bring together a variety of talents, not so much because it is easier (because mostly it isn’t), but because we tend to achieve more interesting and sustainable results. It is during the moments “in between” that I get to know and enjoy the personal and cultural differences of colleagues and partners—over a lunch talking about our upbringing, during travel comparing school experiences and at holidays, sharing our traditions and cuisines. These sorts of interactions are where working at an international organization like the UN can be most fun!
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself since joining the UN?
I don’t know if it’s surprising, but what I’m continually thankful for is how possible it is to enjoy one’s work! I count myself truly fortunate to enjoy what I do, to feel like I’m making a positive contribution in the world, to have new challenges, to meet new people and to learn new things every day! It keeps work fresh and vibrant. Heck, it keeps me fresh and vibrant!
How would you spend your ideal vacation day?
Before working for the UN, I would have easily said an ideal day would be one spent on an adventure in a foreign country—doing something new, meeting someone new or learning something new. But after 14 years at the UN, with so much travel every year, an ideal vacation day is now one spent with my family and friends at home in New York.
If you could have one super power, what would it be?
Oh, this is an easy one! I would definitely speak all the languages of the world. I’m fortunate in that English is one of the six official languages of the UN (along with Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish), and that my colleagues and most national partners speak it fluently. But I do feel like I would have much richer interactions and deeper experiences if I were able to connect with people in their own language—hear their stories and get their jokes in their mother tongue. I can read French (thanks Madame André!) and am taking Arabic lessons, but I have a long way to go!
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you as a Laurel student that you would share now with current Laurel girls?
Don’t let the goal get in the way of the journey. This is a lesson I’ve learned relatively late in life. Two examples from different times in my life and different context—giving my senior speech and summiting Kilimanjaro—but the same lesson. The Senior Speech was a milestone that of course I’m glad I hit. But to a certain extent the prospect loomed over me, affecting my experience getting there. I was nervous about it and thought a lot about it. It was going to come one way or the other and I was going to get through it one way or the other. I wish that I had a stronger sense of that for the months leading up to the speech and hadn’t let it cloud the process of getting there. Same with the climb. I was so focused on reaching the summit and how difficult that last eight hours to the top would be (and they were!) that I didn’t enjoy the first four days of hiking, which were amazing, as much as I could have. Don’t cheat yourself out of every moment of the process of getting to a goal by being so focused on the goal itself.
Thank you for sharing your story!