Episode 1: The trailblazers

Women in Foreign Policy Trailblazers podcast

In our first episode, hosts Ashley and Annika discuss trailblazing, innovative women in the foreign policy field. We hear from interviews with Marissa Conway, Bonnie Chiu, Shireen Santosham, and Diana Nassar about their work, and we discuss what it means to be an innovator.


Ashley Pratt: Hi and welcome to the first episode of the Women in Foreign Policy! We’re super excited to welcome you to this episode and to this podcast, and we’re going to come to you once a month with interviews, ideas, career inspiration. Each episode will be roughly based around a theme, and we’re going to have discussions with women in foreign policy, and commentary from me and Annika.

Annika Erickson-Pearson: Hello! Before we start this month’s discussion, though, we thought we’d take a minute to introduce ourselves. My name is Annika. This summer I’m living in Washington, DC working at a nuclear non-proliferation foundation before I head to Geneva, Switzerland to do my master’s in international affairs in the fall. I have a bike named Mike, and I am trying to get better at cooking.

Ashley: And I’m Ashley. I recently received my master’s degree in international relations from King’s College London. I also live in Washington, D.C. I write exclusively with fountain pens and I love anything elderflower-flavored.

Annika: I love it. So, what is Women in Foreign Policy? I think Ashley hit the nail on the head. We’ll be bringing interviews and wisdom from women who work in the foreign policy field. The whole idea behind this site, which started in 2014 was to provide inspiration and career advice to young women looking to come into this field.

And this first episode that we’re doing today, welcome, is around innovation: women who are working in the field, particularly as innovators and trailblazers. And honestly it feels really natural to be doing a first episode of a podcast about innovation. I think a lot of what we’re doing here today, making this podcast, is innovating on the older idea of WomeninForeignPolicy.org and turning a print form into a podcast form coming to you sonically in your ears.

And I think that really gets at the idea of what innovation is. So, a lot of times we think that innovation is that a new idea had to fall from the sky and then we brought it into the world. But the reality is that innovation can be so much more. It can be taking an old idea and creating anew, it can be bridging connections in the world that we had never thought to make -- biomimickry being a great example: taking inspiration from the animal and plant kingdoms and allowing that to inform our problem solving.

So today we’re going to be talking with women about their thoughts on innovation. But before we do that, do you have anything you want to add about innovation?

Ashley: Yeah! We talked, to a certain extent, before we started recording and before we even sat down to write the outline for this podcast about how this form of innovation was particularly unique because there is a teamwork aspect to it. And we found that we were having an easier time, or if not easier than at least a more pleasant time with this process, just because we had each other both to rely on when our own skill sets or experience failed, but also to hold each other accountable.

Annika: Yeah, that’s true. So, over the course of this episode we’re going to explore the concept a bit more, speaking with trailblazing women across a variety of fields. Women in Foreign Policy previously interviewed Bonnie Chiu, Marissa Conway, Shireen Santosham, and Diana Nassar, who we’ll let introduce themselves.

Our first guest is Marissa Conway. She’s based in London and is the co-founder and UK Director of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, a research and advocacy organization whose mission is to promote people-centered policy.

Marissa Conway: Feminist Foreign Policy initially sprung out of the master’s dissertation that I wrote a couple of months ago.

Diana Nassar: I’m Diana. I’m 27 years old in a month. I work as a product manager at an e-commerce company. I’m based in Amman, Jordan, and I’m also a 2016 Tech Women Fellow.

Annika: And, because all processes have hiccups, we have the transcript from an amazing interview with Bonnie Chiu but no corresponding audio. We didn’t want to lose out on the wisdom she shared, so we’ll be reading her thoughts to you as we continue through the episode, but to start her out with an introduction: Bonnie started Lensational, an organization designed to equip underprivileged, marginalised women in developing countries with cameras and photography training. She says photography is a universal language that transcends cultural barriers.

And finally, Shireen Santosham is Chief Innovation Officer for the Office of the Mayor of the City of San Jose, California, Sam Liccardo.

Ashley: So, to begin, we wanted to frame this concept from a number of different angles, and immediately began to wonder… how do you know if an idea is innovative? Marissa had an interesting response.

Marissa Conway: I focused on a feminist analysis of the Iran Nuclear Deal and looked at masculinity within US defense intelligence and how that shapes foreign policy around national security issues. I tried to write a more tangible, action-oriented conclusion to my dissertation: what can we do? How can we shift this? How we can interrupt foreign policy? These questions became the theoretical foundation for the Feminist Foreign Policy website, which focuses on questioning power and hierarchies, and re-envisioning structure and the status quo of foreign policy.

Annika: I love this concept of interruption. I think that interruption these days is a total buzzword, but I really am curious myself in my career as I explore the work that I do is how do we interrupt foreign policy? Particularly, how do we interrupt over-bloated and/or systemically oppressive structures that prevent innovation, and a flow of ideas, a flow of problem-solving? Obviously, in my mind, there’s a lesson here in looking at the way things are and asking - is this the only way this can be done? Does it have to look like this? I think that gets at some of the work Marissa is doing.

Ashley: Speaking of systemic oppression, we are talking about women. We are talking about women in a traditionally male-dominated field. So another thing that we were wondering is, how is your life as a foreign policy innovator different than a comparable man? How is your innovation different than it would be if you were a man? Would you have been innovating if you were a man, or would you have just stuck to the status quo that benefited you? And I think that we got some interesting answers.

Diana: A big part of working in STEM is to keep pushing boundaries, because it's a very competitive place to work in and it is true that it’s a very sexist kind of place to be working in. You have to prove yourself, as a female you have to prove yourself sometimes doubly, sometimes even more because you're the only female in the meeting room and you have to make it work for you. You have to be a very powerful woman, but you also have to be very resilient about things that you face and to never give up.

It saddens me on a personal level, because I know so many girls from my class are now married and are not using the skills that they acquired. It can be a personal decision for them, and that’s totally fine, but sometimes I feel that it's more society than the individual deciding, it's what society forces them to do. Most of the time girls, especially in my community, feel like they have to choose between their work and their personal life, their family commitments and everything around that. This is something that I like about technology, with technology you can always find a solution. You can work from home, you can be a contractor, you can do lots of things if you have these skills. I believe that the main problem here is that girls aren't exposed enough to the opportunities out there. They don't know that that's even an option. I talk to them and they just think that they have to go from 8am to 5pm, and that is not feasible for them. We need to raise awareness about remote work opportunities and to support women by having better working conditions, especially in the technology sector. [Women] are an untouched resource. We cannot deny this.

Just keep remembering that the more power you gain in this sector, the more responsibility you have to your fellow women. Just keep these issues in your mind and keep speaking up about them. Keep suggesting internship opportunities in your company, keep talking about including more women in your department, keep doing it. I really try to do this all the time, and I try to bring more female interns to my company because I believe that this is actually an issue. And the more power I have to solve it, the more I try to actually solve it.

Ashley: So, Diana basically advocates for exposing young women to more opportunities, and exposing all women to opportunities to work flexibly and to work in a way that best fits their goals, and that doesn’t always mean their career goals, and I think that’s something that’s really important, that you can want to be innovative and that you can also want to go home at 3 PM to pick up your kids. And we can’t shut out women who need that kind of support. There are women who have incredible things to offer the foreign policy community, or the STEM community, who don’t have a 9 to 5 sort of life.

Annika: Yeah, it’s so true. The burden is really placed on women to advocate for themselves and I think that’s where really leaning into the support structures of being in a community of women for those of us who are lucky to work with other women or in close proximity to other women, to really rely on one another and band together. You and I already talked about the benefits of teamwork in making this podcast, and I think it can benefit us in so many other ways.

I know Bonnie Chiu said something about that too -- she said, “There’s only so much that one person can do, no matter how brilliant or talented. So you need to build a team, collaborate with other organisations. It shouldn’t be focused on you; it should focus on the cause or the purpose. It takes a movement to really change the world.”

Ashley: Absolutely. Teamwork is great.  But then are the times when we do fail, and sometimes we might fail because we weren’t working as a team. And no one sees that.

Annika: Yeah, I was actually just thinking about how I wish that we’d had more information about times these women have failed… I know that there have certainly been times in my life when because I failed to collaborate, I burned out. Or because I failed to collaborate, I maybe didn’t advance as far as I would have. Yeah, I’m definitely bummed we don’t have those stories of failure from the women we interviewed because it’s helpful. It’s easy to miss out on lessons when we don’t actually talk about failure.

Ashley: I think people really avoid talking about their failures because we consider it shameful or embarrassing to have made an earnest attempt at something and then not succeeded. We are a culture of being super cool about everything and it’s not cool to have wanted something, and especially wanted it desperately, and not gotten it.

Annika: Yeah. To have tried and failed is so embarrassing. And we’re so obsessed with keeping an image of ourselves as having a great career, and a great life, and I’m so happy! Where is the space to process failure? Where is the space to process those lessons? I think failure happens and it happens to all of us.

Ashley: I think the question is how do you stay motivated when terrible things are happening all around you and the beautiful plan you crafted is collapsing? This was another moment when I was so deeply spoken to by what Bonnie said in her interview. She said to focus on your purpose. “The other key thing is to understand your purpose, as it can be quite tiring to do so much and work so hard. Knowing your purpose will make things easier. It might be daunting when someone says find your purpose. Some people are luckier; their purpose is obvious to them.”

Annika: Yeah… purpose is not always obvious. I think we need support and resources and people around us to help point us in the right direction. I agree that purpose is our north star, but I don’t want to alienate any listeners to this show who might not know exactly what that is. I know that we hope that Women in Foreign Policy a great resource for more career inspiration and for advice and helping folks find their purpose, but I also know that Shireen had some great recommendations when it comes to resources or alternative paths that aren’t well-publicized.

Shireen Santosham: I’ve always done joint degrees, so I did an undergraduate degree in Business [at the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania] and a degree in International Relations at the [University of Pennsylvania] College, and then I did something similar in grad school when I went to [Harvard] Kennedy School and [Harvard] Business School. This kind of cross training has been really impactful on my career path. I found power in that intersection [between these subjects]. Because few people in the world have those cross-training skills… To have cross training allows you to really look at problems from multiple perspectives, and come up with solutions differently. It also allows you to speak the different languages of different sectors. You're not bound by speaking only in business language or the language of politics. You can actually think about both of them and connect with people in both sectors - which I think becomes more important as you get more senior in your career.

Annika: I love this advice so much. When you have different angles and experience to draw from, it helps you keep moving. Today, more than ever the world is nuanced. Economic decisions have security implications. Development strategies affect diplomatic relations. For listeners who plan to spend their careers in this sector, I think it’s wise to create a strong, comprehensive baseline understanding of many disciplines just like she argues.

Ashley: And I think that the other thing that I want to take a moment to talk about is not feeling trapped if you wake up one day and realize, “Oh no. My background or degree is in something I don’t want to do.”

Some people may know this about me: my undergraduate degree is in theater. I have a Bachelor of Arts in theater and trained as a stage manager. And when you say that to someone at a conference, or to a professor, or to a colleague at a happy hour, they look at you like you are bananas. They look at you like you have wandered off of the moon and into their classroom. “What are you doing here? And how did you get here? And why are you at the same prestigious school that I’m at because I have a degree in political science.”

Annika: I love the people the people who say, “Yeah my undergraduate degree was playing the tuba.” And I say, “Welcome. Yes! You belong here. Correct Hybrid sectors.”

Ashley: That’s the thing! They do belong there. I am a better foreign policy practitioner, not “just as good as”, but better because of the background I have. What I trained as a stage manager, and what that gave me the opportunity to do was to practice high-stakes decision making and creative thinking in a space where no one dies if I get it wrong. Yes, it feels really important in that moment that if the door knob falls off, no one in the audience notices, but in the long term… it doesn’t affect geopolitics. So I get to have the practice of making those decisions before I get to make them at the UN.

Annika: Isn’t that innovation is? Circling back to where we started, it’s this idea of taking one idea or one practice or one discipline and connecting it to another. I’ve never thought that I’ve been a straightforward “creative” person. I don’t often have new ideas, like what do I write an article about, etc.? I’m much better at building bridges and drawing connections. And so I think what you’ve done taking your skills from theater and drawing them into the work that you do now is actually really innovative.

Here’s to having long careers in this field. So for those of us who still have years to go, as you and I do, we wondered: what’s one piece of advice you’d share for people looking to innovate and shape the future of foreign policy?

Marissa: I think because foreign policy is such an elite institution, it can seem very difficult to break into. Personally, it's the career path I want to pursue and I didn't really know where to start. I hope FFP opens the door for other people who are interested too but might think it’s not possible because they don't have the right connections or the right background. But if foreign policy is going to be relevant and progressive and significant, then it needs new voices and fresh ideas. Easier said than done, of course. But what ultimately drives this project, from a feminist perspective and speaking for myself, I'm simply tired of women being subjugated and not taken seriously in politics.

Diana: I remind myself everyday to never lose hope. The moment we lose hope and stop believing in ourselves, this is all going to be done. I believe that we need to keep doing what we're doing and to keep setting an example. Each one can make a difference. And if we all believe in ourselves and do the small difference that we can, then all of us as a nation can do something. I know this is really really hard, but let’s not lose hope and let’s keep believing in ourselves.

Shireen: Be persistent, and be willing to experiment a little. My career path hasn’t been a straight line. You have to take certain calculated risks. At different points in my career, people have said: “You sure you want to leave? You’re on this great path, why would you change?” I think you have to trust yourself and take those risks.

Ashley: Bonnie Chiu told us to avoid comparing yourself with others, which is something I have to remind myself of literally daily. Bonnie said, “When I was young I never thought I would be an entrepreneur. As a young girl, I remember being quite daunted by the stories of wonderful women. I thought it was too out of my league. Be inspired by other women who have done great things, but don’t compare yourself to them. Everyone has a different own path to create change. Other people’s stories can teach us lessons, but don’t feel intimidated. If we are too intimidated we won’t take action. Don’t feel scared. Just do it.”

I identify with that so strongly. A lot of my failures come not from trying and not succeeding, but from losing motivation before I even try. I struggle with spending too much time watching other people succeed without experiencing any of the failures or setbacks that certainly preceded their highly publicized success. It’s on Facebook, it’s on LinkedIn That leads to me losing motivation, and potentially robs the world of innovative contributions I could have made. That kind of comparison can be so toxic, and I think especially in the early stages of a career in this industry, it’s so easy to slip into.

Annika: I think the key in what you said there is that it would rob the world of the innovative contributions you could have made. Which is to say that, there are innovation contributions within you! And there are innovative contributions within me, and honestly I’m prepared to say, within every person listening to this show. Innovation is so much more than Silicon Valley, it’s so much more than what’s flashy and new and fits conveniently into an application on your phone. I think what I’ve learned from these women today is that innovation starts with an idea and a sense that something could be different in the world. It doesn’t serve us, particularly as women, to play small and to doubt our contributions.

Ashley: You’re right, I think it’s vital that we make mental and conversational and social space for innovations that are, for lack of a better word, innovative - that don’t come from a conventional place or a white man in a turtleneck. We have to dream radically bigger to address the kinds of problems that you and I and our generation of foreign policy practitioners will be faced with.

We will be the standard-bearers of this field. The more power you gain in foreign policy, the more responsible you are for shaping the future of the sector. And that’s not just a pithy thing that I’m saying. Literally modern foreign policy practitioners are shaping the future that you and I are inheriting to deal with.

Annika: Absolutely. And it really comes from a place of standing in and understanding our own capacity, our own potential, and not doubting that. And then, really supporting one another in what we do - not thinking that we have to go the distance on our own.

Ashley: We had a conversation earlier about women supporting other women in the workplace and female colleagues coming through for you when you need that support. But I think we also need to emphasize that this can’t be a solution that only women pursue. The men in my office are just as responsible for building a better world as I am.

Annika: Phew. I think we just made our first podcast! Look at us. So that’s it. That’s this month’s episode. We’ll be back at the end of August with episode 2, but in the meantime, please come talk to us on the internet. We’re on twitter at @womeninFP, and my personal twitter is @annikaep.

Ashley:  Yeah, we really do want to know what you’d like to hear on these episodes, so I’m  @Ashley_e_Pratt. If you like the work we’re doing, please consider supporting us via PayPal at lmgoulet (spell) or on Patreon at Women in Foreign Policy.

Annika: See you next month! Bye!