Chief of Staff at YPFP | Foreign Policy Radio Show Host | Former Obama Administration Appointee
Can you tell us about Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP)?
YPFP started in response to the September 11th attacks. Young professionals searched for a place to gather and talk about what’s happening in the world, and to inject their voices into the discourse, but they weren’t getting recognition from the foreign policy establishment. Over the years, a consistent group of young professionals came together to host discussion groups and host events that amplify the voices of young professionals in international affairs. Today, we are a network of over 20,000 young professionals around the world in 80 countries.
What does your role as YPFP’s Chief of Staff entail?
As Chief of Staff, my role involves harmonizing the work we carry out around the world, which includes staffing, brand recognition, and events. We provide leadership training and networking opportunities. I identify the talent in the foreign policy world that YPFP members will find interesting and useful to their own careers. In addition, I engage in behind the scenes projects that aren’t as sexy with nonprofit work like fundraising, managing operations, and maintaining our website and databases. I do this alongside YPFP’s president, Alexia D’Arco, who is a fantastic leader. Together, we make sure that YPFP is a strong organization for the future of foreign policy and that our members gain the skills and experiences necessary to become global leaders.
Can you describe a typical day at work?
My typical day varies. Currently, I am steeped in migrating our website and membership database to a new platform that will improve our digital presence and enable us to build a community. Additionally, we are in the midst of planning YPFP’s Annual Gala, “Affairs of State,” which is held in Washington, D.C.
How does your work help Americans understand the connection of foreign policy to their everyday lives?
At YPFP, we are breaking away from the mold that foreign policy is only for people who understand national security. We are expanding into other intersecting topics that impact foreign policy. Most recently, YPFP has increased partnerships with colleges and universities to make sure the younger generation of students are mindful of global dynamics and the role they can play in addressing global challenges.
You are the creator of a radio program and podcast. What inspired you to launch this podcast?
Outside of my job, I host a podcast called “What in the World?” I started the podcast last July because I felt the need to address, recognize, and discuss the trends of misinformation and misunderstandings about the global stage, America’s role in the world, and how that role influences our everyday lives. The idea came from listening to National Public Radio (NPR) while I was cutting an avocado (I was cooking dinner). On NPR, the reporter was talking to a woman about the current president’s plan to build a wall at the Mexico-US border. The interviewee talked about immigration, Mexicans, and South America in a way that was hurtful and simply wrong; it was completely inaccurate. As I was cutting the avocado, I looked down and realized that the avocado’s label read: “Hecho en Mexico” (made in Mexico). If I was a Mexican official and heard such comments coming from the American people, I would rethink my avocado trade agreement with the US. American’s do not realize this, but foreign policy informs everything we do.
I was really upset and I screamed: “what in the world is going on!” America needs to be re-educated about foreign policy. Within the foreign policy establishment, we need to get comfortable engaging in dialogues with people who don’t think about these issues in their own day-to-day jobs, and who better to do this than people of color and women, the voices often left out of the foreign policy dialogue.
As a former Obama Administration appointee at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), what were your responsibilities and following achievements?
I served as the Special Assistant to the Assistant Administrator in the Office of Land and Emergency Management. In government, a Special Assistant plays various roles, all of which prepared me for current my role as YPFP’s Chief of Staff. My role in this office, in particular, was to ensure that the policies and programs related to resource conservation (think: recycling, waste management, and environmental issues) were implemented, and community voices were heard as we developed policies and programs, especially voices from historically disenfranchised and marginalized groups in the US.
In addition to managing the portfolio of resource conservation policies, I supported our Assistant Administrator, Mathy Stanislaus, and his role in the Group of Seven (G7), which had an affinity group called the G7 Alliance on Resource Efficiency. It was the working group he oversaw, and it became a responsibility for the EPA, and the US, to work with other G7 countries to ensure that best practices around waste and resource conservation were shared among the countries. It was a great opportunity to work with colleagues from Germany, Italy, and Canada to fine-tune the way these countries deal with waste, and this is important because the largest emitters of waste come from developed countries.
I gained a first-hand understanding of environmental diplomacy and how you can find commonalities to move countries forward, protect the environment, and provide an opportunity for the business sector to earn a profit because they also play a key role.
How did you secure this political appointment?
It is a mysterious process. To this day, if you ask a political appointee, they will each tell you a different story. My way in was right after graduate school. I was studying at Columbia University in New York at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Toward the end of my second year, I was sent information about an opportunity to work for the federal government. There were three requirements: 1) you had to be an American citizen, 2) you needed at least two years of work experience, and 3) you had to have supported one of former President Obama’s elections. Coincidentally, during his second run in 2012, I volunteered to serve on Obama’s campaign in Philadelphia, without knowing this opportunity would come up in the future.
When I saw this opportunity I still didn’t quite connect it was a political appointment: I saw: White House, government, Obama, and thought “Cool, I will do it”. I am a person of faith and believe this was a divine opportunity through a friend of mine, because otherwise, I would have completely missed it. To apply, I submitted my resume to Columbia, waited to hear back, and later received a phone call from the White House. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I told them about my interest in the State Department, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and listed various other agencies that have a global footprint. When they offered a position at the EPA, I took a leap of faith and I don’t regret it.
It became clear to me that President Obama was interested in leaving a legacy of diverse young professionals in the federal government. Prior to working at the EPA, I didn’t have a government background but I was told it was one of the reasons I was selected. The president wanted to inject fresh perspectives and non-traditional professionals into government to foster innovation and forward-leaning policies that would help America.
When did your interest in foreign policy become clear to you?
My family is Nigerian and global awareness has always been a part of my life because my family is connected to another country. From a young age, I was in tune with the world outside America. It wasn’t until college that I can remember wanting to do something in this space. I took a class on sociology and international relations. for which I had to write a paper from a sociological perspective. That’s when I first learned about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Kenya and was mortified. However, as I read more about Kenya’s political history, and learned about the different tribes and cultures, I began to question my own way of thinking.
As a Western-born and raised woman, was it appropriate for me to judge this group? Even though I am a woman of color, and I consider myself both an African and an American. Although the practice sounded disturbing, it wasn’t right to place judgment on it. I believe the practice is wrong, but the writing and research process led me to the realization that I could do something about it, learn more about other world-views, and what influences people’s actions. It was a crystallizing moment for me.
In my late 20s, I decided to make a hard pivot into foreign policy. I have taken the Foreign Service Exam several times. Despite having failed, I will keep trying and continue to chart my path in foreign policy.
Can you tell us about the mistake you’ve learned from the most? How might others be able to avoid making a similar mistake?
I believe everything happens for a reason so I wouldn’t refer to them as mistakes, but rather epiphanies because you can learn from it. When I tell people about my educational background (I have two Master’s degree), a part of me shrinks inside because I feel like I’m seen as the woman who wants to have fancy degrees, which isn’t the case. I jumped into a graduate program a year after undergraduate school, but I should have delayed graduate school until I had a better sense of what I wanted to do. I went to Illinois State University’s Stevenson Center on Applied Community and Economic Development and I loved it.
After turning 30 years old, I went to Columbia University to pivot into foreign policy because I believed a graduate program was the only way to do it. Being outside of my comfort zone helped open my eyes and grow as a person. My point is: I would not recommend enrolling in graduate school twice. Travel, work at different places and explore different careers before you go to graduate school. Early in your career, travel first (before you go to graduate school), and delay pursuing a Master’s. The advanced degree programs will always be around to take your money. Consider graduate school after you had a chance to think about what you want to do.
If I could do it differently, rather than go back to graduate school at 30, I would have applied to the Peace Corps or pursued a fellowship opportunity to get the international experience I thought was necessary. At Columbia, I made lifelong friends, worked in East Timor, lived in New York, and I don’t regret it. However, for young people trying to enter foreign policy, I would advise against making graduate school your first stop because there are many other ways that don’t require you to spend thousands of dollars and amass student debt.
As a woman of color with a prominent career in international affairs, can you tell us what it has been like breaking into the field? What has helped you succeed?
I feel honored and blessed to have paved a meaningful career, and finally started to give myself more credit for making the pivot into foreign policy. Oftentimes, we [people of color] are under a microscope and being told what is right and wrong. With foreign policy, it gives me the opportunity to put the microscope on others, and more importantly, to put the microscope on America and assess our weaknesses and strengths and how we contribute (or don’t) to the stability of the world.
As a woman of color, I ask myself: What could I add to this conversation that’s different from the norm? How can I help others who look like me succeed? It’s deeply humbling. I have an amazing network and use my podcast and YPFP to give them the alley-oop so they can do great things.
Flexibility has also helped me succeed. We tend to hold on tight to a vision about our lives and the world. A wonderful mentor and former supervisor told me: “If you hold on to something too tightly, nothing else can come in.” We need to learn how to be flexible in our thinking and flexible in what the world tosses at us. For example, had I turned down the position at the EPA under the Obama Administration, I don’t know that I would be featured on this website. At that time, I clung to a vision of working at the United Nations (UN) (it was the reason I went to Columbia even though the UN is nearly impossible for Americans to break into). Instead, I decided to be flexible. I wasn’t okay with the gray the EPA represented but I went ahead anyway, trusting that something was going to come of the situation. You have to trust the process. I promise it does work out in the end.
What career trajectory do you envision for yourself?
My dream is to become the first Nigerian-American Ambassador (how I will get there is to be determined). I envision a role in public diplomacy and helping Americans understand what in the world is going on. Aside from what the State Department already does, I would love to see the US Department of Education, Department of Labor, and local schools and municipalities providing opportunities for youth, young adults, and adults to work and study abroad.
If our “democracy” will last in any sense of the word, then this is imperative. Americans need more opportunities to experience the world. It was life-changing for me and its life-changing for everyone.
What advice might you offer to young women interested in pursuing a career in foreign policy and international affairs?
I have two pieces of advice. The first is career-related, and the second is personal. The personal is very simple. Prepare for your retirement early. I mean that with all sincerity. Too many women live in poverty because they did not plan for retirement. While we are going to school, and taking low-paying fellowships or unpaid internships, we are not paying ourselves. In terms of my retirement, I am 13 years behind and think about how to catch up every day. I encourage young women to save, save, save (save your coins for retirement). My career-related advice is to keep an open mind to unconventional paths into foreign policy. No one has a crystal ball and no one knows what will happen in the future, so take risks. You need to trust that the right people and the right opportunities will direct you toward the path that feeds your soul.