Managing Director, Corporate Affairs | Council on Foreign Relations
20+ years of experience
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Exclusive Interview with Aisha Babalakin on December 21, 2016
Describe your role at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
The Council is a membership organisation and think tank. We serve as a resource for our members (both individual and corporate), the US and other governments, the academic community, the media, and the private sector. We convene discussions on global issues and create safe spaces where people can share ideas and debate policy.
As the managing director of corporate affairs, my role is to lead CFR’s Corporate Membership Program, which provides executives at member companies with access to CFR events, policy discussions, and our resources. We also connect executives to thought leadership opportunities at CFR or Foreign Affairs magazine published by the Council. Currently, there are about 150 corporate member companies that go through a bit of a selection process and meet internal guidelines. Not all companies are fit for corporate membership.
The bigger picture is that my job is a hybrid of fundraising and connecting our corporate membership to CFR’s resources. For any non-profit organisation, corporate support is a significant source of revenue. My team consists of fundraising and event programming professionals who work together to maintain relationships our corporate member companies and ensure that they are using their membership benefits. CFR’s bread and butter is geopolitics, looking at country – to – country relationships and US foreign policy on a number of different issues. We also have experts that cover cyber space, Women & Foreign Policy, and a whole range of topics. My team connects executives to CFR’s region and topic experts.
What do you find most challenging about working for an organisation with such an international network?
The biggest challenges that I face involve the way that global issues have an effect on our fundraising. For example, when the economy takes a downturn, we see member companies pull back, depending on the industry. On the other hand, sometimes they are willing to engage with us even more because they know that CFR experts provide excellent research on and analysis of issues.
Economic cycles can greatly affect our fundraising. But CFR’s international network is an advantage.
The US will have a new President on January 20. In what ways will the new administration affect CFR’s fundraising efforts?
CFR is a nonpartisan organisation. As an institution, we do not take a stand on any particular issue because we are really a convening body for our members to gather and discuss policy
Our member companies come from a wide range of industries, sectors, and countries. I do know that member countries are interested in our analysis on immigration, infrastructure, US environmental and energy policy, etc.
You have over twenty years of experience in international relations and foreign policy. Do you have any advice for young women of colour who would like to pursue a similar career?
My first piece of advice would be – don’t worry about your skin colour or your background - because you belong. I really want young women of colour to act like they belong, because they do belong. There’s no need to prove that you belong.
Like anyone else, you need to understand that market forces, globalisation, and the movement of people and technology are really levelling the playing field across the world. The western world has traditionally been at an advantage, but globalisation is really bringing down barriers for women and minorities. We’re entering an age of economic, social, and digital disruption. One needs to be able to embrace the changes, and be globally competitive. You must constantly educate yourself because the rest of the world isn’t going to slow down.
I would also say to young women of colour – just embrace it when your skin colour is the first thing that someone notices when you walk into a room. A lot of people shy away from this or feel embarrassment, but I say just embrace it. I recall being in Astana, Kazakhstan in 1999. I walked into a large market with hundreds of vendors and shoppers, and the place went absolutely dead silent. My Bulgarian colleague had warned me that this situation could happen, and had taught me some Russian just in case. I approached a vendor speaking Russian, and he literally ran away from me! But the one standing next to him smiled at me and spoke to me in the broken English that he knew, and everything was fine. You should embrace interactions like these – especially if you’re going to be working in an international environment, with people from different cultures. Most people are just curious, they’re not being disrespectful. They might not have seen many black people or people of colour.
Earlier this fall, I participated in a program called the International Career Advancement Program (ICAP). It is a fantastic week-long leadership program, which gathers mid-career level minorities who work in international affairs to help them develop their network, and figure out how to advance to senior roles in their career. You should look for organisations like ICAP to facilitate your network, but also make sure that your network doesn’t only include people of your minority group. You need to reach out and develop a diverse group of mentors and champions from all walks of life.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Yes, I do! A lot of people think that working in foreign policy is just about saving the world, or they want to be a scholar or a fellow at a think tank – I think all of those things are fantastic. But I would say that there is a whole range of jobs available in foreign policy. My position is on the operational side of CFR; my work supports the think tank. I’ve also learned that a lot of companies with global supply chains are interested in human rights, sustainability, and economic development as well as political risk. These issues can affect them on a regulatory level and can affect a company’s reputation.
I say all this to emphasise that young people should think broadly about their employment decisions. If you’re interested in human rights and foreign policy, you might not think about working in the private sector, but a lot of these companies are working on these human rights issues within their supply chain.
There’s a lot of opportunities out there to work in the foreign policy sector, and one should look outside the traditional policy jobs that you tend to know.