How to build a network of like-minded people

Back when I’d first moved to Bonn, I was pretty sure I was going to become a photographer. So I bought a DSLR, made my family pose for hundreds of photographs, and spent hours playing around on LightRoom, trying in vain to become a pro with the Adobe Suite.

It was during this photo-frenzy that I met Katrina. She wanted to get rid of her telephoto lens, and I was under the impression that the more lenses I had, the better of a photographer I would be.

We met one evening just after a 6pm drizzle, and, standing in the cobblestoned city centre, discovered we had lots more in common that a love of beautiful images and the gadgets that make them. Months later, when I changed jobs and moved to an office that was five minutes from Katrina’s building, we met for lunch. She was in a rush that day, but still found time to share lots of smiles AND paid for my meal. I figured we’d see each other soon, and I’d repay the favour, but a couple of years went by and we never met up. I started working from home, Katrina had a baby, we lost touch.

Two weeks ago, she called me.

“Malaika, I’m really struggling. I can’t stand my job, everyone just talks about money, money, money, I’m ready to quit and do something new, but everyone is telling me I’m crazy.”

Katrina, you’re not crazy, I told her. “It’s completely reasonable to want to do something you’re truly passionate about, and it’s part of what makes life really good. So why shouldn’t you have that?”

“Yes, I know,” she said, sounding morose. She sounded pretty down, and when I asked her what was getting to her, here’s what she said:

“But everyone around me talks only about money, benefits, security, etc. I can’t find like-minded people who are not all about that, and therefore -I actually don’t think that I have any appropriate connections. Not just to find a good job, but rather people who are on the same page as me, who will not stare at me with a blank face while I explain why I have decided to quit a job that provides me with a lot of money, benefits and security. Honestly, I am tired of explaining it already. And of that face telling me – YOU MUST BE CRAZY!”

“Katrina,” I wanted to tell her, “There are hundreds of people in the world who don’t talk ONLY about money, benefits, security. You’ve just got to go out there and meet them!”

“I am sure you have a lot of acquaintances who are like-minded,” she said. “I would love to become a part of a community that maybe shares ideas, or works on joint projects to make a difference in people’s lives, environmental issues, social projects, etc. How do I meet them?”

Here’s what I told her about where to get started:

‘Expats in…[your city] Facebook groups.

Because so many NGO workers are expats, and vice versa, you’ll always find opportunities to discuss social issues among others who have come to your city from another country. Worried about living in too-small a town? Even the tiniest villages have expats, or Peace Corps Volunteers, or recent graduates teaching English. Some of my closest friends in Madagascar were French agronomists working in the tiny town of Ambatondrazaka, where I lived, and though we were just five foreigners, when they offered to host dinner parties, I invited the local Peace Corps Volunteers, and suddenly we were a group of ten people passionately discussing climate change and the sustainability of rice farming. Expat groups tend to be inclusive, friendly, and treasure troves of connections when you are job-hunting.

Internations.

Although my least-favourite way to meet people (since most of their events seem to revolve around alchohol and attract many with poor social skills, Internations exists in nearly every capital city, hosts well-attended events, and exists for the express purpose of bringing locals and expats together. Many people tell me that the crowd Internations attracts varies enormously by city. You can try attending at least one event, and give yourself the goal of talking for at least 15 minutes with at least one person. The last time I did that, I met a Rwandan refugee who spoke perfect Spanish, an Australian surfer and his Dutch-Chinese-Singaporean girlfriend, and an American economist, all of whom have since become close friends.

Intern groups.

Back when I first moved to Paris, I was considering doing a consultancy at the OECD, a job I’d long salivated over. A friend invited me to an after-work event organised for the “young” people who come from all of the OECD’s member countries to intern there, or those who work at the OECD and don’t already have a Paris-based friend circle. The first time I went, to a dark bar in the 15th arrondissement, I spotted a girl wearing a bright red dress that fit her perfectly, and began a conversation about clothes from Zara. Besides being wise and beautiful and super-smart, she was gentle, and had kind eyes. I liked her so much, I got her number and we met the next week to have Saturday brunch. Despite her crazy schedule and the fact that we lived on opposite sides of Paris, a friendship blossomed, and though we’d met at a networking event, we never talked about work. But when she did talk about education policy, her brown eyes alit with true passion for the topic, I could relate, and she listened without judgment to my career and personal worries. Paris has the OECD and UNESCO, but you can find people of all ages passionate about policy and global issues wherever there is a major UN agency. Bonn has its group, Geneva has the massive UNING community, New York has its UN interns. Many of them also hang out at Internations 🙂

CouchSurfing.

Besides being a way to host people, CouchSurfing attracts every brand of crunchy granola former hippies, many of whom are passionate about environmental conservation, and will happily join you for an Al Gore book club or show you how to start composting. Simply using the ‘Events’ feature to create an event around a topic of your interest, or look for the group nearest your geographic area and write a post inviting people who are equally passionate about sustainable fashion or refugee relocation to get in touch.

Student events.

Many of us first got introduced to human rights and social justice work at university. And universities that offer international development degrees often host events to foster networking, increase awareness, and sometimes even raise funds for a particular issue. International development degrees are not specific to global capitals; BYU in Utah has a thriving programme, as does Dhaka, Perth, and Santiago. Look for the major universities in your town or city, and pencil the events on their website – many of which are free and open to the public – into your calendar.

 

Do you have any suggestions for Katrina on how to meet like-minded people? Where have you met your best friends?

 

3 tips to a job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

“It’s fun and challenging to work with a large group of really intelligent people,” says Mike Simon, who spent two years at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BGMF)’s business intelligence department.

The attire is casual, the work environment is stunning – pine wood panelling and whiteboards everywhere, ready to capture any itinerant idea that may solve global poverty.

The pace is fast – you’ll be expected to contribute to the debate around pressing issues of our time, to think fast and implement quickly (lean startup style), and take charge of your own professional development.

And the Foundation operates very much like a startup. Large atriums offer space to relax – because you might well be spending evenings in the office. People come to work wearing big black backpacks, and jeans.

Working at BGMF is not for the lackadaisical, and the sharp, intelligent, and extremely diverse group of individuals who make up the Foundation reflect its commitment to recruiting the brightest. So how do you become part of that elite group, working at what one of the Foundation’s Deputy Directors describes as a “purpose driven organization, with smart colleagues and amazing benefits” ?

1. Be pro-privatisation.

Bill Gates might want every child to grow up with a computer – but he wants to make sure it’s a Microsoft computer.

Along with several other American billionaires pouring millions into their own initiatives, BGMF aims to solve structural inequalities in science, education, public health, and agriculture, through private solutions.

This doesn’t sit well with everyone. NYU education historian Diane Ravitch criticises the Gates Foundation’s “persistent funding of groups that want to privatize public education,” and BGMF also has a reputation for supporting the commercialisation of seeds – death to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

You don’t get that option. When working at an international organisation like BGMF, your voice is expected to fall in line with the overarching rhetoric of the organisation’s mission and vision. In this case, it’s relentless improvement (read: fail fast, startup style), and implementing to solve the individual’s problem, not necessarily prioritising the best interests of the entire community.

2. Speak only about the issues, not the Gates.

“We’re not allowed to say anything about the Foundation,” an employee at the Nigeria office told me. “You need permission to even use [Bill Gate’s] name publicly.”

Discretion is incredibly important, and you’ll need to be very good at being very quiet outside the office about your projects, your observations, and your opinions.

“Microsoft is all about intellectual property,” says Jeff Raikes, who ran the Foundation for six years, “and so is the Gates Foundation.” The products of your work will become intellectual property of the Foundation, accomplishments for your CV, ultimately attributed to the brilliance of Bill and Melinda Gates. Not you.

But you’ll be left with the feeling of having contributed to the world’s largest philanthropic organisation, working alongside some of the brightest in the international development field, and those lines on your CV will speak volumes for years to come.

3. Get good at innovation jargon.

Back when we were in college, my roommate Rachel and I spent each year testing out different careers, and then comparing notes. Between us, we tried out the titles of investment banker, Democratic Party brownnoser, personal assistant to the blind, philanthropy consultant, human rights activist etc. Sometimes, fed up of the changes and desperate to find where I truly fit, I’d turn to her and lament woefully that it was all too much.

“That’s okay,” she’d say, “You’re simply pivoting.”

Ah, “pivoting.”

It sounded smart, but was really just a way to say: hmm, that didn’t quite work, let’s try something else. However, in order to succeed at the Gates Foundation, you’ve got to make words like “pivoting” a core part of your vocabulary, along with the hundreds of other semi-meaningless buzzwords popularised by the advent of Silicon Valley’s success into popular culture.

“I like to think of our partner network as a hub of innovation,” says Susan Desmond-Hellman, the Foundation’s current CEO. What’s a partner network? What’s an innovation hub? What do either have to do with sustainable development?

Learn the meaning of these buzzwords, sprinkle them liberally throughout your CV, Cover Letter, and responses to interview questions, and watch your peers nod knowingly.

Apply here for vacancies at the Gates Foundation.

Struggling with your CV and Cover Letter? Get my tested templates here.

Ultra-specialization: the secret to being a successful consultant

We sit across from each other, broad cups of peppermint tea cupped in our hands, oblivious to everyone else.

I am seduced by his wavy blond hair and blue eyes, easy smile and rich vocabulary. Earlier that evening, he told me about graduating from the world’s top university, and his new job in the capital city, with a large, sort of bureaucratic and slow organisation.

“Doesn’t seem like you,” I say. “Wouldn’t you rather do something else?”

“It’s a 9 to 5,” he says. “I want to do something after five p.m., something more flexible.”

“What are you thinking of doing?” I ask him, totally jazzed to find a kindred spirit in entrepreneurial passions.

Obviously, I want to launch right into a sales pitch for becoming a consultant, but the moment is not quite right.

“Well, they have the best hot pot at my favourite restaurant in Shanghai,” he says, face full of nostalgia. “I thought about opening a hot pot place, maybe make it fusion cuisine.”

I lean back, slowly sipping my tea. All previous sentiment evaporates immediately; I am unimpressed by his silly business ideas.

“What do you think of that idea?” he asks with his boyish grin, and I wonder, do they teach them this charm at the Ivy Leagues?

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” I say in a flat voice, setting down my cup. “Go ask your clients. They are your buyers, it’s what they think that counts.”

“I’m still curious to know your opinion,” he insists, and I think, damn, he’s good.

“I don’t want to play in the $2 sandbox,” I say. “I’d rather play in the $200 sandbox.”

He looks a little nonplussed. I decide to try a different tack.

“Think about what you’re already good at,” I tell him, trying to also say, ‘Dude! Forget the Chinese restaurant!’

That brilliant white smile reappears: “I’ve done tennis coaching at $50/hour!” he says. His face lights up, and it’s immediately obvious that he is more than very good at tennis, not least from his rate.

“But just I don’t know how I’d scale that,” eyes turn towards his now-empty cup.
“Just record lessons on the fastest backhand ever,” I tell him, “And then put it online. That’s your scaling-up strategy.”

“Yeah, but nobody learns tennis online,” he counters swiftly.

“My brother learnt the breaststroke from YouTube videos,” I respond, slowly. “And everything I know about classical dance is from watching videos of the New York City ballet.

“What about those kids in Belarus, who can’t play tennis outside most of the year? Or the ones in Egypt who love the game but can’t afford to rent a court for an hour?” I say, remembering the hours batting the fuzzy green ball against the walls of our tiny city apartment as an eight-year-old.

“That’s true,” he says, eyes distant.

The conversation moves on to travel and growing up in a country in which your parents no longer live; like me, he spent his influential 13 years in a place where education outranks entrepreneurship, with parents who pushed learning from books over lemonade stands on the street, and an expensive education that makes you think, I should have a LinkedIn-worthy job title.
Who would he be if all he did was teach tennis on the internet?

But consulting is counter-intuitive, in that, even in the NGO world where everyone is obsessed about getting that prestigious position at the U.N., it’s not about playing the prestige game, it’s about high-quality service to tightly-defined, “niched-down” clientele that you want so much to succeed, they feel it instantly. Think less “climate change and sustainability” and more “project management for five-year projects run by certification schemes in Southeast Asia. After two full months studying the consultancies published every day, 33 conversations on Skype and in person with my colleagues and old friends, to learn what most bugged them about their projects and where they really needed help, and endless hours perusing the websites of the organisations that interested me, I knew my clients so well, I could even predict which projects they would not invest in.

To my own surprise and delight, my clients – people passionate about improving livelihoods, just like me – have been a joy to get to know. Interview after interview, my heart swells with feeling; I want so much for their projects to succeed, I’d happily work for free. Instead, thanks to gentle goading from my mentors, I’ve worked on asking them to pay me the rate I believe is fair, and they say, “Fine, of course, no problem,” or “Yeah, sure, totally.”

Thanks to a relentless focus on what my clients need (rather than what I’m most passionate about this month), my consulting business has grown from a restless desire to do more into a business serving large international orgnisations poised at the forefront of anti-poverty work, and phone calls from old friends to say, “We’re looking for someone, do you think you could help us with this project?”

Start from what you know how to do in your sleep, remember that studying your clients never stops, and let the people you want to serve guide you to your first (and second and fifth) contract.

Because there are some things they don’t teach you at Harvard.

How to tell if you’ll get that consultancy

“Do you like telling people what to do?” Jennifer had asked me, only half joking, during our informal interview for my first major consulting role.

“Oh, yes, very much,” I’d laughed back, half serious, remembering a childhood full of being called “bossy,” later tempered by lots of literature on emotional intelligence.

One week later, I was hired to manage a 15-person team on a United Nations project, wearing my favourite blue blazer for added confidence, installing a new email address on my laptop.

That year was one of my favorites, not solely because of the steep learning curve and the feeling of being challenged, learning on the go, and the chance to do what I was truly passionate about – but also because of the inherent benefits that come with being a consultant:  interesting, high-level work, a global team, maybe the flexibility to work from home, and the chance to contribute to work that really matters, all without the challenges of a full-time job. Who wouldn’t want to be a consultant?

Yet so often, these exciting, dynamic contracts can feel so out of reach. Several years ago, at a meditation event, I met a tall woman with cornrowed hair and eyes glittering with intelligence, who introduced herself as a higher education specialist with PhD in education and  looking for a new challenge.

“What do you do?” Diana then asked me, curious but nonchalant.

“I’m a consultant,” I told her, “and I’m working on an environmental risk management and mitigation project with USAID.”

“How in the world does a 23-year-old get hired to be a consultant?!” she cried, stunned.

But that’s exactly the point: since it’s so often short-term and all about deliverables, getting hired as a consultant is almost never about age, race, nationality, or socio-economic status and far more based on your chances of doing a good job, which should, ideally, be 100% or higher.

“I’d love to get a consultancy at the World Bank, or even something in India,” Diana continued, “but I’m not sure how to actually get a contract. And I always thought they want someone with a lot of experience.”

Not necessarily. Consultancies are like Rubik’s cubes: you simply need to get the colours to match.

Here’s how can you predict your chances of success on a consultancy (and then demonstrate that in the application):

1. The Harry meets Sally moment.
Just like with meeting your soulmate, finding the right consultancy position doesn’t get announced on a loudspeaker. Rather, you’ll know it when what they need and what you can (and like) to do are a natural click.

Right before finding the UN project position advertised on Idealist, I’d applied to (and been rejected by) five other consultancies. In each case, the job sounded interesting, the project goals I could get on board with, and the organization was respectable enough that I’d work for them. But none were a natural, obvious fit that guaranteed synergy; either because I did not have the right education, nor previous work experience that perfectly overlapped with the consultancy’s duties, or I lacked a passion for their theme. Last week, I was invited to interview for a contract with a different UN agency: from the moment I read the job description, I thought, I am exactly what they’re looking for and they will not find a better fit.

After all, Sally wasn’t the most beautiful and Harry not the richest. But it was a soundless, fairly uneventful click from the very beginning.

2. The “Sure, I’ve done that!” Feeling
As a consultant, you’re there to perform, and perform well, from day one: spotting problems before they are serious, planning the day’s work before it has to be executed, and proposing ideas before your boss asks for results. You can accurately predict your chances of success doing this if, when reading the job description, you get that feeling of “Sure, I’ve already done this!” – which will tell you that you have a good chance of getting the role, and will come through in your application as confidence in your ability to hit the ground running.

3. You’d happily say adios to sick leave.

As a consultant, you generally don’t get the perks and benefits of a full time job, like paid time off, paid sick leave, and days off to look after a sick relative, or even maternity leave. Consultancies mean being on-call all the time, and working around the needs of the project. Plus, the schedule can wear you out.”Since I started, I haven’t had a break,” said a friend at the OECD. “I haven’t had a proper week of vacation in over six months.”

Instead, vacation benefits are paid to you in dollars while you’re on the job (i.e. You factor in those costs when setting your rate), and I’ve always thought this was a fair, if sometmes inconvenient deal.

Nonetheless, I’m sometimes envious of friends who take three-week vacations without a glance at their inbox, and my brother who can rely on his team when he’s not at work. They, however, envy my ability to take a day off without asking for permission, and the fact that I set my own salary – consulting has its own set of perks.

Have you applied for a UN consultancy? Tell me in the comments below – what’s surprised you about the application process?