What do you do at Nathan Associates Inc.?
I work as an Associate in the Trade and Logistics Unit at Nathan Associates. Nathan is a firm that specializes in the nexus of international development, the private sector, and government advisory services. My current role allows me to continue exploring the space of international development, macroeconomic policy, and democratic governance.
You previously worked for Endsight Consulting LLC. What did you do there?
I oversaw the East Africa portfolio at Endsight Consulting LLC; a boutique Washington D.C.-based international development consulting company. My projects ranged from advising US companies on global procurement opportunities, developing market entry strategies in emerging markets, to leading research efforts on Millennial Challenge Corporation (MCC) indicators and providing policy recommendations based on our research. Within MCC, I worked on the health, education, and gender in the economic indicators. Our firm’s research of the indicators allowed us to provide tailored policy prescriptions to MCC eligible countries in order to improve their overall scores.
I was with Endsight for a little under three years and my time there was truly rewarding. I enjoyed working with talented young professional and industry leaders from all over the world as well as learning firsthand how impactful policy-oriented development work can truly be.
You’ve worked in the private sector, for the US Department and in academia. What are the key skills that you've gained throughout those very different jobs, that you use now?
The major theme throughout my career and a key skill-set I gained during my internships was the ability to understand and appreciate the intersectionality of this space.
As a graduate student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, I had the unique opportunity to intern with the US State Department at the US Embassy in Djibouti. Getting to work with Embassy personnel as well as individuals from United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Africa Command (Africom) served as a catalyst for me, not only professionally, but also academically. I saw firsthand how development, foreign policy, and US national security came together to shape US Foreign Policy agenda overseas.
Following my time at the Embassy, that fall I interned in Washington, D.C. at the National Defense University’s think tank—Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP). At the CTNSP, I worked on a Department of Defense (DoD) research project that managed a network dedicated to sharing sustainable solutions for development & emergency support. The initiative conducted research on how military logistics and equipment can benefit the humanitarian space.
It was through my internships that I had my ‘aha moment’! It became clear to me that foreign policy, development, security, and the private sector all seamlessly came together under a common theme. The understanding of this framework has been very powerful for me.
What drove you to pursue a career in foreign relations?
My father never shied away from exposing me to the realities of the world. My earliest memories as a child were getting to watch the evening news with him every night. One of the first people I remember seeing at age at four was then Secretary of US State Madeleine Albright coming to the podium to address the press. My father told me, “That's the first female Secretary of State for the US. Her name's Madeleine Albright.” She became my first idol in this space and that put me on this trajectory.
I also grew up in a time when the atrocities of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocide were on daily on the news. Seeing those images with my father every evening, I wanted to find a way to be on the other side of the coin. That is when my father introduced me to the UN, and the idea that there is an international institution that's working to make sure that this isn't a reality for all kids. I became obsessed with that notion of being on the other side of all of that. After I moved to America, and throughout my undergraduate years, my goal was to be an active participant in this space.
You went to the Josef Korbel School at Denver. Would you recommend it?
Absolutely. The Korbel School was exactly where I needed to be. It provided a unique opportunity to expand not only my understanding of international relations but to challenge my views. I would definitely recommend it to any student interested in an academically rigorous institution that provides the necessary skills to be able to find employment after graduate school or pursue a PhD. Plus it didn’t hurt either that the school is located in Colorado and is right next to the Rocky Mountains.
You've been living and working in DC for quite a while now. How has the change of administration impacted your work?
It has not necessarily affected my line of work at Nathan, but it has been in the back of the mind of most. I was looking for a change of position during the height of Trumpianism, in April. Some of the opportunities that I was going after were not hiring because no one really knew where USAID funding stood as Trump was threatening the aid budget as well as other US government agencies budgets.
You're black woman working in foreign policy. How has it affected your career?
I am not only a black woman working in foreign policy, I am also a Somali woman working in the foreign policy space. It brings a unique element. Often, foreign policy decisions are made irrespective of those that they are impacting. That was a large reason why, as a kid, I wanted to be on the other side of the table. Bringing in that nuance, whether a cultural or religious continues to be very important for me.
You worked at the National Defense University both as a researcher and as an intern. What do they do and what was it like working there?
NDU is designed to consolidate intellectual resources and provide joint higher education for the nation’s defense community. Several think tanks under the umbrella of the university work on bridging the gap between academia and joint military strategy.
I heard about the NDU from a professor at Korbel and prior to my internship, civil-military work wasn’t something I was aware of. But getting to intern at an institution that trained the next generation of military strategists from all over the world was truly a rare opportunity.
The security and defense field has a reputation for being quite male-dominated. What's your experience of it?
Based on my experience, I don’t think gender discrimination was prevalent. Especially, in the think tank side of NDU. There were just as many women as there were men. And I don’t recall having discussions with my female colleagues about this. In fact, all my supervisors during my internship were women.
Similarly, in Djibouti, at the Camp Lemonnier base, my colleagues were predominantly men and I don't recall anyone treating me any differently based on my gender.
What have you learnt in terms of finding a mentor and running a relationship with a mentor that could be useful for our readers?
How to find the “right mentor” is something you never stop learning. Where you are today will be vastly different from where you will be in five or ten years, so being cognizant of where you are career-wise and making an informed decision based on that is crucial.
In my opinion, it is much harder to maintain a relationship with your mentor than it is to find one. The way I have always approached it, and this might come from some of my cultural background, is just genuine respect and interest for the person.
For me, my mentors at a certain point stopped being my mentors and become people I genuinely value in my life. I want to know how they’re doing, how their kids are, and for them to update me on their lives. Whenever we are meeting up for coffee, it is as if I am meeting up with a good friend of mine. That mental shift of seeing them as a value to my life has helped make sure I maintained the relationship with them throughout the years.
What is the most useful thing you've learnt throughout your career?
Never stop learning and to be open to change, in every form it comes in. Today you might be stationed in DC. Tomorrow, you could be asked to move to overseas. You have to have flexibility, and be open to the opportunity to learn a new language or a new skill set.
What do you find hardest in a career in foreign policy? One thing, which maybe from time to time makes you go, "You know what? Screw that. Maybe I should do something else?"
The hardest part about a career in foreign policy is the breadth of this field. From the beginning of our conversation, we discussed the intersection of development, security, government policy, and private sector. And your task is to know them relatively well.
Your survival in this space is definitely contingent on your ability to learn and adapt. Today it might be quantitative work, tomorrow it might be a new software, regardless of what the change is your ability to adapt and change with this space is necessary.
Did you have a career plan? How did you organize your career?
My mentor once told me that “…so long as you are open to new opportunities and continue to push yourself, you are exactly where you need to be at that time.” I have taken that advice to heart. So I wouldn’t say that I have a career plan, it’s more of an outline. I feel as if creating a detailed career plan will inhibit the ability to be flexible and open to changing environments. I am passionate about development and economic policy and so long as I am in this space, I am where I'm supposed to be.
How do you know when an opportunity presents itself? How do you identify it as an opportunity and how do you know it's right for you?
When an opportunity presents itself, I examine seven factors. First, will I grow in this space? Is there upward mobility? Will I continue to challenge myself? Would I have the ability to work on numerous types of projects? Would I have projects related to the sector and space that I am interested in? Is the opportunity something that prepares me for a PhD? And, finally, is it something that I can use for post-PhD work?
I only leave an opportunity when I feel as if I have plateaued and am no longer learning. So far, I have been fortunate in that there have been so many new and exciting ideas coming out that that has yet to happen.
Why do you want to do a PhD?
Two reasons. First, obtaining a PhD is a promise I made to myself when I was young. And second, I value the idea of specializing in economic development and being able to immerse myself in the discipline.
Have you found things in your career so far that you would have liked to do but could not because you didn't have a PhD, or do you think it would happen down the line?
I don’t think that a PhD necessarily makes you in this industry. I do think that it's time and experience and the effort that you put into your career that inevitably ends up getting you to where you want to be.
However, it depend on the lens with which you view it. If you want to go up the ladder in the development space, whether it's in a consulting role or in government, you can do that without a PhD. A master's degree and years of experience can get you there. However, if you want to be designing and framing policy, having a PhD would be very helpful.