Careers in International Development

By Riya Mehta, Stanford in Government Fellow at Landesa

Panel on Careers in International Development (Photo: Colleen O’Holleran / Landesa)

On June 19, 2017, Global Washington partnered with Landesa to lead a panel discussion on careers in international development for the third year in a row. The event provided an opportunity for students and experienced professionals alike to learn more about Washington’s international development community and the best ways to navigate the international non-profit sector.

The event was moderated by Melissa Merritt, Vice President of Executive Search practice at Waldron, a Seattle-based consulting organization. Panelists included Jodi-Ann Burey, Andie Long, and Heidi Peterson, three professionals who all work for Seattle-based international development organizations. Burey is a Health Systems Associate at VillageReach; Peterson is the Executive Director at Mobility Outreach International; and Long currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications for Global Washington.

The panelists spoke candidly about their varied academic and career paths, all three noting that they did not begin their careers in international development.

Peterson explained that she worked in banking before realizing that she “was in the wrong business” and needed to be more connected to beneficiaries. Similarly, Long’s interest is communications first led her to a job as a consultant to biotechnology firms, and while she enjoyed the start-up scene, she realized she was most passionate about her pro-bono work. Pulled towards the humanitarian sector, she took an opening at Mercy Corps and has been involved in international development work ever since. While Burey always knew she wanted to have an impact on marginalized communities, she “hopped from job to job” before entering the international development sector. Nevertheless, she finds that the skills and connections she gained across her diverse work experiences continue to inform her work at VillageReach.

Speaking to this point, all three panelists emphasized that having multiple careers and a variety of professional experiences is not only typical in this day and age but can also play to one’s advantage. Burey advised audience members to identify a narrative and “connective thread” through all of their experiences. Merritt added that it is important to “articulate how your skills transfer” because organizations are often interested in candidates who can bring a different perspective on an issue.

The panelists also spoke about different ways to engage with international development work. Peterson found that she likes to be “very, very close to the details of the work,” but some individuals are able to bring the greatest value to this sector as donors or board members. The panelists also advised audience members to think critically about their own definitions of meaningful work, even within an international development setting. Some individuals are only fulfilled if they are able to engage with an organization’s programmatic side, but others may find satisfaction in a support role, like supply chain management or fundraising.

Long added that “a good life” means something different for every individual. For her, making money is important, but how she spends her time is equally important. “I want to do work that makes me feel alive.”

After the moderated discussion, panelists transitioned to an informal Q & A with the audience, in which the panelists provided useful tips on how to enter the international development sector. Each of the panelists encouraged audience members to seek out volunteer positions if an organization they are interested in does not have open job openings. Volunteer positions may only require a few hours of commitment per week, and they can eventually lead to paid positions in the organization. Burey spoke about a number of other ways to engage with organizations, since some individuals do not have the capacity to volunteer their time. She stressed the importance of an online presence, encouraging audience members to create personal websites that feature their resumes and to engage with organizations through social media. Networking events, like Global Washington’s happy hours, can also open doors. Peterson noted, “It’s often our weak ties that get us the job.”

Ultimately, the panelists emphasized the importance of doing what you love and trusting that the rest will fall into place. All three panelists explained that they would tell their younger selves to be less anxious and insecure about their careers. Long summed it up well when she said, “It’s the twists and turns that really make it interesting.”