Helen Mason


What do you do as Business development specialist for Safe Ports?

I work as part of a small business development team working on a variety of both federal and commercial proposals. I direct research into the legacy of existing programmes and gather intelligence on incumbents and competitors. I also produce political and commercial risk assessments to enable us to establish new markets in areas such as Latin America.

As well as being a part of our larger pursuits, I also manage my own project. This project is for transportation of perishable food to various places in the Pacific region. Due to the location of the project, I had to establish and build relationships with companies who could provide services such as airlift and ground transportation. I am also responsible for supporting and managing procurement task orders for various military security and supply chain contracts.

What does Safe Ports do? 

Safe Ports is a woman-owned, small business, headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina. There are other offices across the US, Guam, Jordan and Peru, and a presence in the Far East and Europe. They provide a wide range of freight cargo and transportation services including mission critical freight, HAZMAT cargo transportation and supply chain management services for both military and commercial customers. Safe Ports also has vast experience of both inland and maritime port development including trans-shipment hubs, which link multi-modal access to air, sea, rail and highways to warehouses and assembly plants. They provide in-country government advisory services such as security risk assessments (including management and asset protection). In 2010, Safe Ports’ was selected above many of America’s largest and most capable companies to operate the US Defense Logistics Agency Depot inside Afghanistan; the first such depot ever operated inside a war-theatre.

What is a typical day like?

No two days are ever the same. That’s what I love about this job; I never know exactly what I am going to do every day. For example I might be preparing proposal documents and liaising with subcontractors for my own project and then the next minute I could be managing procurement items and negotiating the quickest shipping time to an overseas destination. Then there is also the chance that, perhaps due to a foreign policy decision made a couple of weeks ago, a project I have been tracking (which from the previous check looked like it had either been cancelled or the customer requirements were being reviewed), has suddenly sprung into life and is due in two weeks – causing what some of my colleagues would call a “serious fire drill” to get everything together and submitted on time.

I also do the slightly less glamorous (but equally important tasks) of responding to requests for information from customers or teammates and attending company meetings and conference calls.

Tell us about being a membership officer for Young People in Foreign Policy (YPFP) London for the past year.

Being a membership officer for YPFP London has been a privilege and so much fun! I enjoy encouraging people to join this organisation, as it really is a great way to meet fellow young professionals and dig deeper into foreign policy issues that affect us both now, and in the future. Our membership base is getting wider all the time as people start to realise that their work is affected by foreign policy to a greater degree than perhaps in the past. The standard of events being put on by YPFP is going up and up, that's due to the huge amount of effort and planning of volunteer staff who give up their time and expertise to organise, communicate and encourage members to attend. It's also a great social scene with many happy hours including a pub quiz, which I organised in the autumn and presided over the questions. I can now happily add pub quiz mistress to my list of life skills!

I really would encourage anyone who is thinking of joining to YPFP to do so - not only is it a lot of fun, it's a great way to meet fellow young professionals with similar interests.

What did you do as Research Intern for Jefferson Waterman International (JWI)?

I did a variety of things. I carried out media monitoring and analysis on behalf of clients looking to do business in areas such as Africa, Asia and the Caucuses (Azerbaijan, Ukraine). Some clients were already engaged in business activities in these areas whereas others were looking to new markets, especially in Asia. Whilst I was with JWI, the US began to take steps towards opening up diplomatic ties with Myanmar. Several times I went to Capitol Hill and reported on senate and congressional hearings and provided briefings to clients on what the United States stance was in regard to certain foreign policy issues. These hearings could get very heated depending on the subject matter and once the Capitol Police was called to ease tensions!!

I also supported a project on behalf an African Government following post-election unrest by researching various social media outlets and identifying relevant information generated by each in order to provide insight into how this newly-formed government was being perceived.

Perhaps one of my proudest moments during my internship was being given free rein to organise and manage the company board dinner. I had organised events in the past but not on this scale! This event was to be attended by over 100 people ranging from foreign government ambassadors to state department officials as well as those closely associated with JWI. I sent invites, organised table plans, liaised with the venue staff and did everything to make sure that everyone had an enjoyable evening. I am told that they did.

 There is a lot of controversy about internships at the moment. What is your take on it and what is your advice to readers to make the most of their internship?

Although internships can act as a launch pad for a future career, you do have to be very careful that the company offering the internship is not just having you in to make tea and spend your day rooted to the filing cabinet and printer as “stapler-in-chief”! There are companies who do just that; I think it’s really sad as they could utilise the talent that lands on their doorstep to much greater effect. That said, I have four pieces of advice that I hope readers who are thinking of embarking on an internship will find useful:

Firstly, don’t go into the internship with an overinflated sense of your own abilities. Yes you are smart, you have just graduated after three or four years of studying and you are now ready to unleash to the world all the great skills, enthusiasm and creative thinking that you have acquired. Nevertheless, what you don’t have is experience. Trying to take over the company by the end of the week is not advisable as it gives the impression that you are arrogant and that you are a know it all. Of course nobody knows it all but there most certainly will be people in your office who have worked very hard to get to where they are and who know more than your 22-year-old self does. You are there to learn – embrace it.

Secondly, use your initiative. If there is a particular project or client that a manager is working on – ask them about it. Taking an interest like this shows that you want to get involved, you don’t just want to sit and churn out newspaper clippings all day. Although that is very helpful and can unearth a new business opportunity, you want to get your teeth into something. This shows that you are taking the internship seriously, but it also indicates that you are willing to learn and make the most of your time with the company.

Thirdly - enjoy it, have fun! At the end of the day an internship is what you make it. Talk to people. You could be in an office like I was working for some of the most amazing and interesting people you have ever met. People who have careers that span decades, take advantage of that, listen to their knowledge and experiences. Remember, they were once just like you - just out of college or university seeking their next adventure.

Lastly, if you can strike a good balance between mundane tasks (stapling, making the tea) and using your initiative to take on new projects, you'll come to the end of your internship having made the right impression. Who knows what that might lead to?

You studied Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen and Policy Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Would you recommend these degrees?

Yes I would. The world had has changed so much since 9/11. I think Aberdeen got the balance just right in terms of understanding the history behind events happening now but also focussing upon the new threats to our world, including those posed by non-state actors. My undergraduate degree provided me with such a wide choice of subjects to choose from. In my Honours years I took courses such as International Security, Modernity and Islam, Human Rights and the Extreme Right in Western Europe. Aberdeen’s flexible approach to the courses that I took made it very easy to switch if you didn’t like the course. They didn’t believe in doing something you didn’t enjoy.

When I went back to Edinburgh to do my masters, I approached it more strategically. I wanted to ensure I studied courses that were both interesting and relevant to finding a job at the end.  Although there was one compulsory course each term, I did have the chance to broaden my horizons away from politics and more into management and also the energy sector.

How do you use your studies in your day-to-day career?

In this job, an interest in current affairs is vitally important. My degrees have helped massively as it allows me to see the bigger picture. What goes on the world has a profound effect on business, especially now. Globalisation has had a huge impact; the world is far more inter-connected and as a result something that happens in one part of the world has a profound effect elsewhere. For example I have seen projects that might have been a few months away from release suddenly come alive as a result of a policy decision being made or a volatile situation. As the old saying goes: where there is insecurity, defence company order books go up as countries prepare to combat whatever threat they might be facing.

You are in the early stages of your career. Do you have a career plan?

When I completed my undergraduate degree I did not have much of a plan at all. Those people who have a solid career plan that they stick to from an early age? Just know I find you annoying! I find you annoying because I believe there are always options. You might trained to do one thing and then realise that you have a skillset for a career that you'd never thought of in a sector you had never realised was possible. For instance, I never planned to work in the defence industry as all they seemed to offer was engineering and technical jobs that I had neither the interest nor the qualifications to pursue. However, my narrow-mindedness was soon widened when I realised that they did in fact need people like me.

One of the main things that I want from a career is to make a difference. When I returned home from my World Challenge Trip to Peru I felt it - not to simply talk about making a difference. I wanted to make a difference in REAL time. My role with Safe Ports has done just that. Safe Ports is REAL time. Whether its moving freight, or providing base support services to the US military both at home and abroad, it is making a difference. Whether it is moving humanitarian aid to an area struck by natural disaster, or providing a security solution to an unstable part of the world; it is happening now.

With regard to a career plan, the path to success is never smooth there are always bumps in the road and hurdles that you have to overcome. I have had setbacks and I have had disappointments, but it is how you deal with them that make you a stronger person. I am ambitious and would really like to further my career in Business Development as I believe this is the most exciting part of business; being able to see projects come to fruition especially if they are new to the market. I like the fact that defence has not always been the place for a woman, I enjoy being part of something that makes a difference in real time and makes me proud to do what I do.

Why the interest in foreign policy?

I have always been an enquiring person. I have always wanted to know the why or how of a situation. As a child, I would drive my parents mad by asking constant questions usually followed up by the standard extra question - why? I also have an avid interest in travelling. My parents have travelled the world; this interest in what’s going on outside my own country has come from them. I think everyone remembers where they were the day 9/11 happened and even though I was only 16 at the time I remember going home from school and watching the television in complete disbelief - this was not a movie. It was real. This unknown (to most people) terrorist group had carried out an attack on the US that changed international relations forever. This fuelled my interest in foreign policy further and shaped my decision to study international relations at University.

What are the particular advantages and barriers a woman pursuing a career like yours might face?

The Defence industry is often seen as a testosterone-fuelled environment where men could design and manufacture some of the world’s most advanced war-fighting equipment such as missiles, fighter jets, armoured vehicles and submarines. Men tend to lean towards more technical subjects like engineering at university and, even during my undergraduate in the early 2000s, you could have counted on one hand the number of women in an engineering lecture. I can’t say that growing up I had ever imagined myself managing a procurement that contained spare parts for tanks or a proposal for the storage of hazardous material or cargo consolidation. Not exactly very feminine!

Women were perhaps just not interested in technical subjects or didn’t want to be branded a geek. Gender equality has changed all this and women have used this to their advantage. We think differently from men, we are more logical, we think things through before we act. To give an example it’s like building a piece of flat pack furniture. We are all familiar with that infuriating phrase men use “how difficult can it be– no I don’t need the instructions” Only to realise further into the process that the plank of wood they have stuck fast to another is actually supposed to be up the other way. This can be applied to business – women read the instructions we take the time to think about the cause and effect of our actions and the impact it might have. This is a very unique skillset and one that should be embraced and given the kudos it deserves.

As recent figures show, the defence industry has, in my view, excelled at recognising this unique set of attributes by affording women leadership positions in their companies. Many of the large defence contractors such as Lockheed MartinBAE Systems, Inc.General DynamicsNorthrup Grumman and Rockwell Collins to name a few all have women in leadership positions. This shows how far this industry has come and how it is leading the way for future generations to follow in their footsteps. It is beginning to be possible. There is still a long way to go though - in 2015 women hold a meagre 4.6% of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies.

Nevertheless, some of the older generation in the defence industry view women with a certain degree of suspicion and cynicism. Some do not believe that women have the ability to be assertive enough and speak up. There are also those who find it very difficult to accept that a woman might be smarter and more able than they are, and therefore the ability to overlook a woman’s input becomes an excuse for their shortcomings.

Although there might have been barriers in the past, the fact is that the defence industry is leading the way when to comes to shaking off the all-boys, geeky engineers club. Women need to realise that this industry welcomes their viewpoints. It sees us as strong industry leaders who should not only be respected, but also be on hand with those all-important instructions to deliver a more effective capability to those who put themselves in danger on our behalf on a daily basis.

What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?

I would say go for it! We need more women like you! As I said before this industry has embraced women and afforded us the recognition we deserve – do you not think it’s time we embraced it back?

What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use today?

My very first job was as a Self-Invested Personnel Pensions Administrator with Standard Life. I had just left university and I needed office experience. My role was to provide illustrations to Financial Advisors, Consultants and Asset Managers for clients new or existing pensions. I spent a lot of time on the phone and also responding to emails. This job gave my fresh-faced 22-year-old self with one degree and not a clue of the real world two of the most valuable life lessons I have ever acquired:

1. The customer is always right. This used to drive me mad, however it's true. Even if you believe that they are wrong you have to be able to allow people to put their point across. Being able to communicate with people at every level whilst remaining diplomatic is so important and a great skill to have.

2. Don’t take insults personally - If a client or customer is rude to you don’t take it personally. It is incredibly hard to do but growing a thick skin early on in your career is important. 

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?

One of the most rewarding parts of my career so far has been having the chance to spend time abroad. I arrived in Washington, DC feeling slightly overwhelmed and knowing no one. I had packed up what I knew back home in Scotland and all of a sudden I was strolling past the White House about to call an unfamiliar city home. The experiences I gained from that year abroad have given me countless life and business skills that I will take with me for the future. I also met some of the most incredible people (both on a professional level and personally) and I know that they will remain friends for life.

There are very few aspects of my career that have not been rewarding. I always believe that it might not be what you set out to do but there is always experience to be gained and new skills to learn. That said, before I started my Masters I took at temporary role with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency that involved unpicking staples and scanning pollution, water and waste licenses so that there could be an electronic copy – I kept in mind that this was not going to be forever but I can assure you it was certainly character building!

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

I love writing. Whenever I go abroad one of things that is always first to be packed in my suitcase is a journal. Working in business development requires a lot of writing and analysis and condensing of large amounts of information, therefore the fact that I actually enjoy doing it makes it easier.

I am highly organised. Working in logistics this is paramount, as your cargo has got to be in the right place at the right time. A break in the supply chain can be a disaster in terms of being able to offer the customer the high level of service they require and depend on. Being able to presuppose what might go wrong and put in place adequate measures to counter this is essential. It can also mean juggling a number of different things at once, therefore being able to prioritise workloads is essential.

A sense of humour (I believe I have one!) is so important. I have been very lucky to work with some of the most professional people but also some of the funniest. The ability to draw on the capacity to laugh during difficult times is essential.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt? 

One of the toughest lessons that I have learnt is realising that, although there are people throughout your career who will afford you the most incredible opportunities and give you the chance really grow and develop both professionally and as a person, there are also people who will let you down. That can be very hard to deal with.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

Working with people in different time zones is very challenging. It means that I have worked some very odd and very long hours in order to keep up with what is happening. However, I have managed to use it to my advantage as I have succeeded in getting tasks completed quicker and can get the mundane administrative tasks done before my US colleagues day starts. I also have been able to liaise with customers and partners who are in Europe or the Middle East which makes it easier as I am closer in time than my US colleagues.

What achievements are you most proud of?

My Bronze, Silver and Gold Duke of Edinburgh Awards – it really is worth all the leaky tents and walking in the rain, hail and snow!

My World Challenge trip to Peru in 2002 - I was 17 and I had not much of an idea of the outside world. This trip of a lifetime gave me the opportunity to see outside my own sheltered world and realise that not everyone is afforded the same opportunities as me. It really taught me to appreciate what I have and take nothing for granted.

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

It’s actually hard to choose one so I am going to go for two.

In a professional sense, one woman whom I greatly admire is Dina Kawar. In April this year she became the first-ever Arab woman to become President of the United Nations Security Council, as well as serving as the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations.

The second one would be my Dad. He is one of the smartest, most hardworking and modest people I have ever met. He recently retired after spending nearly 35 years in the Defence Industry, following a career as a fighter pilot in the RAF. He has achieved some incredible things, and if I can achieve even half of that I will be doing well. 

Helen Mason | Business Development Specialist | Safe Ports, Inc

Seven years of experience

CV in brief: 

Studied: MA Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen | MSc Policy Studies at The University of Edinburgh

Experience: Membership officer, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy | Research intern, Jefferson Waterman International - JWI | Mapping project officer, Scottish Natural Heritage

Speaks: English, Spanish, French

Find her online: @HelenDc | LinkedIn

Inspired by Helen's career? Here are related career opportunities:

Apply for Safe Ports Inc. | Young Professional in Foreign Policy (YPFP) volunteer staff opening | Apply for YPFP membership | Internships and careers at Jefferson Waterman International - JWI | Working for the Scottish Natural Heritage

Exclusive email interview 29 July 2015

Photos by Matthew Lai

Photos by Matthew Lai