Andy Rabens #HeForShe

Special Advisor for Global Youth Issues | U.S. Department of State

Education:  BA in government, Harvard University | MSc in International Relations, London School of Economics   Find Andy online:   LinkedIn  |  Department of State  |  Facebook    Exclusive interview by Isabela Barriga, May 2017

Education: BA in government, Harvard University | MSc in International Relations, London School of Economics

Find Andy online: LinkedIn | Department of State | Facebook

Exclusive interview by Isabela Barriga, May 2017

What do you do as Special Advisor for Global Issues? What does a typical workday look like? 

I help the U.S. Government better connect with young leaders across the globe to identify shared interests; solve pressing global challenges; and build relationships for the future. Typical days vary, which keeps things exciting but often involves meeting with young leaders or youth stakeholders in Washington, DC or overseas to better understand their interests and explore opportunities for engagement. This also includes working with dedicated U.S. government officials and partners to devise meaningful youth-focused initiatives around shared challenges; briefing U.S. officials on youth policy; speaking and representing the U.S. Government at events and forums in the U.S. or abroad; and finding ways to amplify youth voices and advocate for youth issues. 

I’m honestly excited to go to work in the morning and feel like I’ve got one of the best jobs in the world. 

What was your career like prior to working for the US Department of State? 

I’ve been at the U.S. Department of State now for over 8.5 years - spanning three Presidential Administrations - which seems like an eternity . But I feel like my life pre-State Department built the foundation for the work I get to do today – helping to unlock and amplify youth voices around the world – which is truly rewarding professionally but also deeply personal. 

Addressing global youth leaders in the United Nations General Assembly on International Youth Day 2016

Addressing global youth leaders in the United Nations General Assembly on International Youth Day 2016

I grew up in Berkeley, California with a serious lisp that caused me to struggle to find my own voice. I was very self-conscious as a kid when I had to speak out due to difficulties saying certain letter combinations – sh, th, and the dreaded dr. I got so frustrated with my lisp that I even changed my name from AnDRew to Andy in the third grade. 

I went to a speech therapist and worked hard to overcome my lisp. And overtime, I built up confidence and recognized that I had a powerful voice - just like anyone else – with an ability to use it to advocate for issues that I cared about. 

The recognition that anyone – regardless of the lottery of their birth – can develop a powerful voice and advocate for issues that they care about - is central to my view of the world and my career thus far. This is also central to my commitment to fight for women’s rights because female voices are just as powerful as male voices when unleashed. 

In addition to dealing with my lisp, another key event that shaped my view of the world me was when 9/11 happened during my first week of college at Harvard University. This sparked my deep desire to better understand and connect with the larger world that we live in – a passion that still drives me today.   

I graduated from Harvard in 2005, worked in the U.S. Congress in Washington, DC for Senator Ted Kennedy and then Senator Dianne Feinstein. I then went to Graduate School at the London School of Economics to get a Master’s Degree in International Relations, which led me to get my foot in the door at the U.S. Department of State in 2008 as a Presidential Management Fellow

I’ve found an incredible home at the U.S. Department of State and meaningful opportunities to help build upon existing public diplomacy efforts to engage young leaders around the globe. I remain energized by working to help young women and men in the U.S. and around the globe to unlock their voices, expand their leadership capacity, and become more empowered versions of themselves. 

Why do you think is it important for men to be involved in advocacy for women’s rights?

Men, especially young men, need to be partners in the fight for gender equality and women’s rights – not just because it’s the right thing to do - but because it’s also the smart thing to do- to achieve economic, political, and social progress. You can’t progress as a community or country if you’re not empowering and tapping into the talents of half of your people. 

I’m a firm believer - and I think the majority of young people across the globe are as well - in the idea that the lottery of birth shouldn’t determine one's prospects in life. Where you are born, who you are born to, and what gender, religion, or race you might be, shouldn’t determine what you can do in your life. There needs to be equal opportunities available for anyone that wants to work hard to pursue their passions and make the most of their talents. 

Working with young women to unlock their voices in Amman, Jordan

Working with young women to unlock their voices in Amman, Jordan

And this applies for young women as much as it applies for young men. 

I’ve met some amazing young women in my travels around the U.S. and overseas and I have also had some amazing female bosses throughout my career. I can attest to the fact that women have just as much to offer – and can lead just as effectively - as their male counterparts in any arena that they put their energy towards. I believe at my core that the glass ceilings that exist today are just waiting to be broken by the current generation of women around the globe. 

It’s important that young men provide the space and encouragement to our sisters, mothers, and daughters to raise their hands, step into the arena, and break through those glass ceilings in any profession, industry, and walk of life that they choose to. 

What do you think is the importance in having women involved in global issues or foreign affairs? 

It’s critically important to have women involved in the foreign affairs space.  Again, not just because it is the right thing to do in order to uphold democratic values of fairness and representative government, but also because it leads to stronger foreign policy outcomes. 

Studies show that integrating women’s perspectives into peace negotiations and security efforts help prevent conflict and can lead to more durable peace agreements. The presence of more women in legislatures makes a significant difference in the types of policy that gets passed and the progress in women’s employment, health, and education often leads to greater economic growth for the community or country as a whole. 

What is the biggest challenge women face in having “a seat at the table”? 

I think that one of the biggest challenges for young women is a lack of self-confidence to pursue their dreams or passions - and a lack of role models to show that certain professions or pathways are possible. There also a number of systemic and discriminatory challenges that women - and minorities for that matter - face as well. 

I’ve found it interesting that when I talk with young men - and this is a global phenomenon – that if they make it through breakfast without spilling on themselves or graduate from school (be it high school, college, or grad school) – they feel like they’re ready to run for office or become the next CEO – brimming with confidence. And then when I talk with young women – incredibly impressive young women – they feel like they can’t jump into the political arena, become an entrepreneur, or pursue the C-Suite office until they’ve obtained their JD and PhD, worked for 20 years, and fulfilled their family ambitions. They often lack the self-confidence to pursue the leadership position that they’re passionate about and capable of competing for. 

In our 115th U.S. Congress, which began in January 2017 - women hold only 19.4 % of the 535 seats – only 21 women serve in the Senate out of 100 seats and 83 women in the U.S. House of Representatives out of 435 seats. 

Similarly, women only hold around 4.4 % of the Fortune 500 CEO roles - the top Fortune 100 companies having 8 female CEOs and the remaining Fortune 500 Companies having 14 female CEOs. 

While women make up half of the population worldwide and 40 % of the global workforce - they still only own about 1 % of the world’s wealth and continue to make far less on the dollar for equal work than men do.  

So as a global community, we need to do much more to help young women gain the confidence to pursue and compete for leadership positions and break down the discriminatory barriers preventing them from doing so. Men - young and old – have an important role to play as partners in this effort in order to encourage more women to pursue leadership positions, to create more opportunities for women to succeed, and to treat, and compensate, women as equals. 

Hosting a group of young leaders from East Oakland, California at the U.S. Department of State - encouraging them to pursue careers in Foreign Affairs and Government

Hosting a group of young leaders from East Oakland, California at the U.S. Department of State - encouraging them to pursue careers in Foreign Affairs and Government

Running a public narrative training for youth leaders from around the globe in New York at the Millennium Campus Network Conference

Running a public narrative training for youth leaders from around the globe in New York at the Millennium Campus Network Conference

What achievements are you most proud of? 

I’ve been really proud of a number of programs and initiatives that the U.S. Government has launched to engage young female and male leaders around the globe.

We’ve had some good success in the youth leadership space with our Young Leaders Initiatives consisting of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), the Young South East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI), and the Young Transatlantic Innovative Leaders Initiative (YTILI). 

We’ve had some innovative efforts around youth and entrepreneurship with the Global Entrepreneurship Summits in Silicon Valley in 2016 and Nairobi Kenya in 2015.

The achievements I’m most proud of however are the meaningful individual relationships that have been built with dynamic young female and male leaders around the globe – from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to Clichy Sous Bois, France; Belgrade, Serbia to Beijing, China; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Kampala, Uganda. I feel a great sense of purpose in helping to tell and amplify the inspiring stories of countless young people around the globe – including a multitude of young women - working towards a better future.

YSEALI - Andy Laos Summit.jpg




YSEALI (Young Southeast Asian Leaders) Summit Selfie in Luang Prabang, Laos

Do you have programs that reach out to girls and younger women? 

Absolutely. All of our signature Young Leader Initiatives (YALI, YSEALI, YLAI, and YTILI) include young women, as do all of our entrepreneurship efforts and most of our youth and Countering Violent Extremism programs as well. We have some initiatives that focus exclusively on young female leaders such as Tech Girls and Tech Women – both focused empowering female entrepreneurs. We also have country-specific efforts at our Embassies and Consulates around the globe and topically targeted programs such as the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, or Girls STEM camps that focus on key leadership or policy themes. 

We also have a dynamic Office of Global Women’s Issues within the State Department that partner on many of the programs above and oversee a multitude of additional efforts geared towards empowering young women globally.  

Do you have any advice for youth interested in getting involved in foreign affairs? 

My advice is that any young woman (or man) has an incredibly powerful voice just waiting to be unleashed in the world and in the foreign affairs arena. You can't let fear of speaking out or fear that you may fail hold you back. Find and pursue the foreign affairs issues that you care about and a career that you dream about. Don’t be afraid to proactively reach out to folks working on issues that interest you or in organizations that you want to connect with; and be confident about your talents and ability to create a path to achieve you career ambitions. 

What role do you believe confidence plays in landing one’s “dream job”? 

Confidence plays a huge role in landing one’s “dream job.” You have to start envisioning yourself in that role (no matter how crazy it is) and then start developing the skill sets needed to excel when you get into that role. 

One of my favorite coaches from the sports world is Jimmy Valvano, who coached the North Carolina State men’s basketball team to an improbable national championship in 1983 against unlikely odds. One of the odd things he had his players do was to practice cutting down the nets so they could begin to envision what it would be like (the feel, the touch, the emotion) of winning of a national championship. This helped make them believe that this was something they could do. 

So I think it’s important that we each start to envision ourselves cutting down our own nets – doing what we aspire to do – so we can start to feel, touch, and believe that it is possible. 

I also think it’s important that we put the emphasis on “doing” – what we want to do – rather than “being” – what we want to be. Because the job title is much less important than the change we want to shape. 

Any favorite places that you have visited while traveling under your position?

I’ve been lucky to have had the chance to travel to some incredible places all over the globe during my time at State Department – from Jerusalem to Johannesburg, Lima to Luang Prabang, Brussels to Beijing – but the highlights have been the people I’ve met on these travels. 

Andy and Nadera (left) in Clichy-Sous-Bois, France

Andy and Nadera (left) in Clichy-Sous-Bois, France

One particularly memorable experience was meeting an incredibly dynamic young female leader named Nadera at a training that we held in Paris. She was from Clichy-Sous-Bois, a banlieue (suburb) outside of Paris that was the epicenter of the 2005 social justice protests. 

Nadera was a 29 year old lawyer who was excelling in her work career at a big law firm in Paris while also leading an youth empowerment NGO in Clichy Sous Bois. Her father was from Cameroon, her mother was from Algeria, and she was incredibly proud of her Muslim religion and mixed race background. 

After the training ended, she invited me out to Clichy to see the suburb in person and to meet her fiancée and family. I went out to Clichy the next day and we spent an eye opening afternoon walking around the banlieue where she helped me gain a better understanding of the challenges that exist for young people there – chief among them high levels of discrimination, marginalization, and lack of economic opportunities. 

I left angry and frustrated but also incredibly energized and hopeful about the future because there were dynamic young leaders like Nadera, her fiancée, her sister, and others actively working for change. It also shook my own conscious and reminded me that similar challenges exist back home in the United States where communities of people continue to struggle with discrimination, marginalization, and lack of opportunities as well. 

That day in Clichy-Sous-Bois reaffirmed the importance of fighting for the ideal that the lottery of birth shouldn’t determine ones prospects in life. It was a powerful reminder that this fight for freedom, for fairness, and for equality of opportunity are fights being waged by many young leaders in communities and countries all over the globe. 

Do you have a role model and if so, why? 

My biggest role model is probably my mom, who my two brothers and I jokingly call the unofficial mayor of Berkeley, California where we grew up. She seems to know everyone in the city: from the baristas at the local cafes to the chefs at the latest restaurants to the local government officials at City Hall to the homeless folks struggling on the streets. She treats everyone with the same level of interest and respect and she has this amazing and uncanny ability to connect people to one another and spark mutually beneficial relationships. She taught me to believe in the power of people and community to create transformative change, to treat anyone and everyone you meet with a basic level of dignity and respect, and to strive to have an impact in the world, which is much bigger than oneself.

I also look up to my dad for modeling and showing me that men can also empower and support the women around them and not be intimidated by their success.