Yassamin Ansari

Strategy Coordinator | Mission 2020

CV IN BRIEF Education: BA in international relations from Stanford University (USA) | Mphil candidate at the University of Cambridge (UK) Career so far: United Nations: executive office of the secretary general | Special adviser to the UNSG on climate change | Project coordinator and special assistant to the office of the Secretary-general’s envoy on youth | Ansari fellowship program Find Yassamin online: LinkedIn | Yassamin for US Exclusive interview by Isabela Barriga, 5 March 2016

CV IN BRIEF

Education: BA in international relations from Stanford University (USA) | Mphil candidate at the University of Cambridge (UK)

Career so far: United Nations: executive office of the secretary general | Special adviser to the UNSG on climate change | Project coordinator and special assistant to the office of the Secretary-general’s envoy on youth | Ansari fellowship program

Find Yassamin online: LinkedIn | Yassamin for US

Exclusive interview by Isabela Barriga, 5 March 2016

What is your background? Where did you grow up and go to undergraduate and graduate school?

I was born in Seattle, Washington and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona. My parents both immigrated to the United States from Iran before and during the country’s revolution in 1979, and I am proud to say that I grew up with a strong sense of my Persian culture. I went to Stanford University for undergrad and studied International Relations with honors in International Security Studies. I am currently pursuing my master’s degree in International Relations and Politics at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

What is your current job position/title?

At the moment, as I focus on my graduate research in climate change and international security, I am also pursuing a few part-time projects.  

I recently launched the Ansari Fellowship, a scholarship program that encourages young Iranian-Americans to pursue careers in policy, government, and public service. In its inaugural year, we are holding a competitive application process to select one undergraduate and one graduate student that will receive funding to pursue an unpaid summer internship. The long-term vision is to build an unprecedented generation of leaders in public service.

I am also the Strategy Coordinator for Mission 2020, a climate action initiative under the leadership of former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres. We will soon launch a global campaign to increase the urgency and ambition of climate action in order to reach the climate turning point by 2020.

You worked at the Executive Office of the Secretary General and the Office of the Special Advisor to the UNSG on Climate Change. What it is like to work for the UN?

My experience at the United Nations was, on the whole, a phenomenal one. I was 22 years old and fresh out of college when I began working in the Executive Office of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon through the John Gardner Fellowship Program. I was the Special Assistant to the Senior Adviser on Partnerships, Ambassador Tomas Christensen. In this role, I supported several of the Secretary-General’s multi-stakeholder initiatives on a range of issues from women’s and children’s health to the use of big data for development. The learning curve was steep, but it was a crash course in global sustainable development issues that I had not previously studied.

The UN Secretary-General’s Climate Change Support Team, UN Headquarters, December 2016

The UN Secretary-General’s Climate Change Support Team, UN Headquarters, December 2016

After my fellowship ended, I was hired full-time to serve on the Secretary-General’s climate change team in the lead-up to the UN Climate Conference in Paris. 2015 was an incredibly exciting year all around—from the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Global Goals, to the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. I was one of three team members who worked on the development of the Secretary-General’s new initiative to strengthen the resilience of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change. The Secretary-General launched the initiative – A2R (Anticipate, Absorb, Reshape) – in November 2015 in Paris. It was an honor and a privilege to serve the Secretary-General and the United Nations during this time.

Subsequently, I was hired by the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Climate Change, Dr. Robert Orr, to serve as the Director of the Climate Action 2016 multi-stakeholder summit in Washington D.C. I managed all aspects of summit preparations including development of the agenda, communications strategy, fundraising, and everything in between. It was a massive undertaking, but ultimately a resounding success.

This summit was unique in that it was a partnership between several major organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, Global Environment Facility, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and its mission was to accelerate the non-state climate action agenda. In other words, we sought and achieved in bringing together cities, companies, countries, universities, and others to build upon the momentum from Paris and ensure that climate action remains at the forefront of the agenda.

Prepping Bill Nye before his panel with Paul Polman, CEO Unilever, Ahmad Alhendawi, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, and several young leaders on the role of business and young people in the fight against climate change, Climate Action 2016, Washington D.C., May 2016

Prepping Bill Nye before his panel with Paul Polman, CEO Unilever, Ahmad Alhendawi, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, and several young leaders on the role of business and young people in the fight against climate change, Climate Action 2016, Washington D.C., May 2016

How did you become interested in climate change and global affairs?

As an Iranian-American, I grew up in a household where dinner table conversations revolved around politics. Later in high school, I joined the Speech & Debate team and it became my life. I spent my weekends competing in local or national tournaments, debating other students my age about issues ranging from the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, to normalizing relations with Cuba, to the success of the Millennium Development Goals. I loved it and thrived off of it, and there was never any doubt in my mind that I would pursue a career in foreign policy. I have studied International Relations at Stanford and am striving to enhance this expertise as a graduate student at Cambridge University.

Live television interview for Al Hurra TV in the Middle East talking about climate change

Live television interview for Al Hurra TV in the Middle East talking about climate change

Climate change, however, is a passion that developed out of my job at the UN. Prior to this, I had very little knowledge about climate change other than the basics. My work experience opened my eyes to the urgency of responding to the climate crisis, one that former President Obama refers to as the “greatest challenge of our generation.” I am committed to doing everything I can to deter its worst impacts and help to create adaptation and resilience solutions, particularly for the world’s most vulnerable.

What kind of work did you do while you were a Project Coordinator and Special Assistant at the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth?

After wrapping up Climate Action 2016, I was offered an opportunity to work for the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Mr. Ahmad Alhendawi. I spent the summer working on a fabulous team of young people whom I was truly inspired by. Our job was to bring young people from across the world closer to the United Nations, and vice versa, and also to ensure that youth issues were embedded across all of the UN’s priority areas. This includes peace & security, humanitarian action, human rights, as well as climate change and sustainable development.

There were several highlights. We expanded the Global Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action, which was first launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Historic progress was made on the youth and human rights agenda with the passing of a resolution by the Human Rights Council to provide an opportunity to bring youth issues to the HRC in a meaningful and systematic way. Finally, we launched the first-ever class of UN Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals—a cohort of 17 young people leading the charge in everything from healthcare to journalism to sustainable fashion, working to achieve the Global Goals along the way.

What is one of your most memorable experiences throughout your career?

There are many moments that come to mind where I have felt particularly proud of the work that we have done on the climate front. One of my favorites took place in April 2016 when Dr. Orr – my boss and the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Climate Change – and I had traveled to New York for the signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement. That evening we celebrated on the 37th floor of the UN – the place I had spent countless hours for two years prior – and the Secretary-General made a toast thanking the team for our efforts. It was a truly special moment to be surrounded by passionate colleagues to rejoice how far we had come. I will never forget it.

What kind of skills or experience do you think are valuable in your field?

I would say first and foremost is a solid understanding of global affairs. This includes both a historical overview and current events. From there, it can be valuable to develop an expertise on a region, issue area, or both. For instance, I focused on the Middle East and international security during my undergrad, and studied Arabic to complement my fluency in Farsi.

In terms of skills, I think writing is one of the most valuable to have in the policy world. The ability to translate complex ideas and issues into simple, easily understandable speeches is very important. On top of this, public speaking and communications skills more broadly are critical, particularly when it comes to negotiations and diplomacy.

The Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth Ahmad Alhendawi and some members of the team at the virtual reality display on the margins of the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly, September 2016

The Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth Ahmad Alhendawi and some members of the team at the virtual reality display on the margins of the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly, September 2016

What advice would you give yourself as a college student?

To keep an open mind. As a kid, I was always set on attending law school because I was convinced that it was the “right thing” to do based on my career aspirations. It still might be, but I have since realized that you never know what doors may open and when. Don’t be afraid to take a risk. An interesting or even life-changing opportunity could present itself at any moment, and you should be flexible enough to at least consider it.

What are you most proud of?

I am proud of playing even a tiny role in the process of reaching a global climate change agreement. I am proud of my efforts to advance the multi-stakeholder climate action agenda, both through the successful execution of the Climate Action 2016 Summit as well as my ongoing work with Mission 2020.

The experiences that have impacted me the most, however, are the ones where I have been able to help people on a one-to-one basis. In 2012, I spent the fall volunteering at the Zaatari Refugee Camp where I led a global campaign for Syria Deeply to educate and engage college students in the crisis. We also raised $12,000 to provide warm, temporary housing (i.e. caravans) to some of the most vulnerable refugees in the camp. I have continued similar work since, most recently as I embark on a trip to Greece with the Refugee Relief Project team to volunteer at squats and camps in Athens, Lesvos, and Thessaloniki, facilitate art workshops for youth, and deliver more than $13,000 in donations to the people we meet. It is a drop in the sea, but we are living through the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, and it is my firm belief that every effort does make a difference.

Does your career allow you to travel? Any favorite places that you have visited?

Yassamin Ansari

Most recently I traveled to Davos, Switzerland for the 2017 World Economic Forum with Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convener of Mission 2020. This is one of the principal opportunities each year where Heads of State, CEOs, and key journalists gather to discuss and determine solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. I was lucky enough to accompany Ms. Figueres on her meetings and engagements as we sought to embed the urgency of climate action into the global conversation. The 2020 turning point is our opportunity to keep all the Global Goals within our reach and ensure we are firmly on the path to reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

What does it take to be successful in your field?

I think working in international affairs can be challenging because there are constant setbacks, roadblocks, and plot twists. The UN, for example, is a gigantic international institution with thousands of employees and even more levels of bureaucracy. What this means is that it can often take far longer than expected or desired to propose a policy and then bring it to life. In certain situations, the agreement of nearly every country in the world is needed to make a change.

This is why it took more than 20 years for governments to come to a consensus on the Paris Climate Agreement. Some people thought it would be impossible. Yet, the years of effort put forth by countless diplomats, UN staff, and members of civil society ultimately worked. The process was grueling, but the final outcome is a universal and legally binding agreement that is an essential component to saving our planet from the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. In other words, persistence is absolutely critical. I would also recommend a positive attitude and a sense of humor to help get through the tough times.

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

My role models are the brilliant and ballsy women in my life: my mom and my grandmother. As a physical therapist, my mom’s job is to care for others. But beyond this, she has always gone above and beyond to help people. She is a leader in the Iranian-American community, most recently having established the first-ever Persian Cultural Center in Phoenix. She provides relentless support to refugees from Somalia and Syria who have come to the United States to escape conflict and persecution in their own countries. She assists adults with finding work, tutors and mentors young kids, and helps families integrate into their new lives. This is not easy work, but she has committed herself to it for decades. My dad and I jokingly call her an angel because she is truly such a genuinely compassionate human being.

My grandmother is my role model because of the strength and resilience she has consistently exhibited in her life, whether as a teenager in Iran defying stereotypes by pursuing her passion for playing sports, or today as a 73-year old woman through her ongoing battle with multiple meloma. She is a fierce, spirited woman who never backs down, and I admire her so deeply for this.

Zaatari Refugee Camp, Fall 2012

Zaatari Refugee Camp, Fall 2012