You describe yourself as a bridge builder, collaborator and idea architect. How does that translate, career-wise?
Whether working on a long-term economic development plan, leveraging policy to create local economic opportunity or developing a large scale advocacy campaign, it’s about seeing points of connection between ideas/people/data, solving problems, cultivating strategic relationships with others, and leveraging them for collective impact. It’s figuring out where there’s a gap, a need or a problem, then harnessing resources to create new opportunities for growth and development.
How did you get there?
Growing up internationally, I always had an interest in foreign affairs and was drawn to the economic plights and inequities around the world and the need for sustainable solutions, whether related to energy and infrastructure or access to capital and workforce development. That interest was foundational to my decision to build a career in economic and business development – one that has enabled me to expand my focus from addressing local needs to the global stage.
Throughout my childhood and beyond, I also observed the challenges of various socio-political systems and became sympathetic to issues of human rights and social justice, recognising from an early age the need for global literacy, cross-cultural awareness and effective leadership and communication to bridge these differences. These early influences, combined with my career in economic development, shaped my current interest in international development, leadership development and women and girls’ empowerment in particular.
You’re a 'UN Global Champion for Women's Economic Empowerment'. What does that mean, how did you become this champion and what do you do as part of it?
The UN Global Champion program is a competitive volunteer programme, sponsored by the UN Women Knowledge Gateway for Women’s Economic Empowerment. Evaluated on our subject matter knowledge and demonstrated advocacy, I first became aware of it through my engagement with social media and participation in a marathon ‘tweet’ chat on women’s economic empowerment they hosted last year.
As one of 44 Global Community Champions, our role is to identify and share resources and best practices, and elevate, advocate and educate others on the importance of women’s economic empowerment – whether related to enabling policy, land ownership, access to capital and entrepreneurship, or food security, workforce development, energy and the environment. We do this through social media and online engagement with the Knowledge Gateway platform and our own personal projects.
Two years ago, you launched The Global Girls Project. What does it do and what is its aim?
This collaborative writing project invites women and girls from around the world to share stories and advice from their own journey toward empowerment and leadership, while providing in-depth learning and exploration of the role character, confidence and personal development play in cultivating strong, empowered leaders. The goal of this project is to not only deepen the dialogue on women and girls’ empowerment, but to a create a global collection of stories, tools and resources that not only inspire and uplift, but educate and empower others to find their own voice, too, passing on the legacy of leadership from one generation of women to the next.
Why did you decide to launch it?
Inspired by my daughter who was 10 at the time, this collaborative writing project began with a challenge, a conversation and an opportunity. It also began with the reminder that as mothers, we are our daughter’s first and most important role model for what it means to be a female in this world.
In the spring of 2013, my daughter and I each faced a significant challenge and setback that collectively provided rich fodder for introducing her to the subject of women’s empowerment, global development, and what it means to live one’s own voice out loud. Determined to model a positive response and develop a constructive solution to a difficult set of circumstances, what initially began as a mother-daughter project, slowly evolved into a deeper community conversation about how women lead, what it means to live and lead from a heart-aligned place, and how each of us can develop the capacity to become leaders in our own lives, irrespective of age, culture, religious or socio-economic status.
Weaving together my own knowledge of foreign affairs, gender issues and character-based leadership, I decided launch an inspiring educational project that focused on a different measure of ‘success’ and empowerment than the one we typically see – one defined by internal alignment of values and becoming your all, versus external measures of achievement and having it all. That’s a perspective any woman or girl from around the world can relate and aspire to.
What is the role of entrepreneurship in foreign policy?
Entrepreneurship in foreign policy is about leveraging ideas, people and policy to advance a specific agenda; it’s about building effective partnerships to solve key issues. The intersection of the two occur within the realm of social entrepreneurship, where growth and innovation come together to create positive change and impact – whether social, economic, political or environmental, all of which are central to foreign policy and international development.
You are an advocate of a work-life balance. Why is it important to you and how do you personally achieve it?
Early in my career and even before I started a family, I recognised that if I was burned out, both the quality of my life and work contribution would be diminished, so creating a sense of ‘balance’ in my life has always been important. Key to achieving this equilibrium has been developing a clear sense of my own values and priories, setting healthy boundaries, and allowing for detours and course-corrections when the demands of career, values and priorities have conflicted. It has also meant acknowledging that it’s not always possible (or even desirable) to be perfectly ‘balanced’; that there are seasons of my life that may be more heavily weighted towards family or career at any given time.
One of the reasons often given for not having more women in foreign policy is the lack of work-life balance. How could this be changed?
Work-life balance is a hotly debated topic and one for which there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Some policy, research and communications roles lend themselves to flexible arrangements such as job-share or virtual work, though other roles require extensive travel and 100% immersion. Still, while not every role lends itself to work-life balance, achieving any measure of it comes back to boundaries and developing good support systems in your life. In a 24/7 field that never sleeps, carving out time for self-care is essential. Also key is identifying role models who can help you chart a path forward; those who may have walked in your shoes or are in a position to cultivate a culture of flexibility within their own teams and/or organisations.
A few years ago, you served as the primary foreign affairs liaison for the mayor of Charlotte. Foreign affairs for local politicians isn’t something we talk about much, so could you please explain what the job was about, what you did and the particularities of working at the local level?
We typically think of foreign affairs as something that happens ‘out there’, though we live in a globally interconnected economy and world, and what happens out in the world can have a profound impact on our economies and communities at home.
My work and that of our team ranged from increasing cross-cultural awareness and deepening local diplomatic and economic ties through programming and exchanges with our sister-cities to participating in bilateral initiatives such as the U.S. mayors’ and senior official visit to China, sponsored by the Energy Team of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development (MOHURD). In addition to hosting foreign delegations from around the world, our office also served as a community convener of resources, whether related to export initiatives and small business development or local immigration issues and policy reform.
You studied Political Science and International Affairs at university. How have you used it in your career?
Having a foundational knowledge of world history, systems of government, and principles of development has been essential to understanding the cultural and political context within which growth and development occur and how best to effect change, whether working in the public or private sector. This has been especially important in my work with the Chinese, whose approach to business, government and cultivating relationships differs vastly from the West.
What advice would you give to a woman who wants to do a similar job to yours?
I would encourage her to stay open and curious, try new things, and be willing to take on volunteer roles to gain direct field and international experience. I would remind her that it’s okay to ask for help; that we each have something to learn from everyone and that there’s no such thing as ‘failure’ unless we fail to learn and grow from our experiences. I would also tell her to set money aside for a rainy day so she can better afford to take risks and invest in her own ideas.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?
The most rewarding aspects of my career are being able to work collaboratively with others around the world to effect positive change. I love the camaraderie and teamwork, and there’s a real sense of reward and accomplishment when you see insights translated into action and tangible results. Least rewarding has been learning to work within a political environment and the various challenges that accompany it.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
I am insatiably curious, a quick study, and genuinely enjoy speaking, writing and connecting with others. I also love listening to others’ stories and seeking out the common threads that connect us. Like any skill or trait, I continue to gain and refine them through daily practice, trying new things, and a willingness to be open to failure in the learning. When working with people different from me, I’ve also learned the importance of suspending judgment and meeting them where they are; listening for understanding instead of just advancing my own position.
What is the toughest lesson you have learned?
Know the historical and cultural context of the environment you’re working in before advancing your own ideas. Execution of even the best ideas is only as successful as our ability to first build stakeholder engagement and buy-in. This is as true for organisational culture as it is for the communities and countries we work in.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
My biggest challenge has been getting out of my own way and getting more comfortable in my own voice. It’s required letting go of what others think and seeking out opportunities to exercise my courage ‘muscle’…to do the very thing that I think I can’t do. That’s where mentorship comes into play. It becomes easier to take risks when we have someone we can bounce ideas off; someone who has walked our journey before us.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I’ve had the privilege of being a part of some incredible opportunities, including my work on the eco-cities initiative with the U.S. Department of Energy, and most recently, the work I’m doing with UN Women and the Global Girls Project. When you see the ripple effect; when you see the positive legacy that comes from empowerment, that’s very powerful.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I’m fortunate to have had many role models and mentors throughout my life, including my parents, who placed a strong emphasis on core values. Within the field of foreign policy, there are some powerful role models who are really paving a path forward for women and girls, including a favourite of mine, Madeleine Albright.
Sharon Reed - Consultant / Founder & Chief Empowerment Officer at The Global Girls Project at 2012 Lowe's Pride Awards
Thirteen years’ experience
CV in brief:
Find her online:
Opening remarks to the Mayor of Langfang, China, on behalf of Mayor Foxx and the City of Charlotte. Langfang, December 2011
U.S. Mayors and senior officials visit to China
Co-hosted by the Energy Team of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of the People’s Republic of China (MOHURD), December 2011
Presentation and overview of the City of Charlotte and Duke Energy's environmental and sustainability initiatives to China's Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development (MOHURD)
National Mayors Academy, and other senior officials. Beijing, December 2011
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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