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Four Lessons Learned from Serving In Government

Tara Sonenshine, former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, delivering the Second Annual Walter Roberts Lectures at GWU, Jan. 2013. Credit: Alexei Agaryshev.

Tara Sonenshine, former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, delivering the Second Annual Walter Roberts Lectures at GWU, Jan. 2013. Credit: Alexei Agaryshev.

Public diplomacy is about communicating—including lessons learned.  So here are a few lessons I have learned from serving in high level positions in government:

1. The first is about idealism vs. realism—how to blend them. You come into government very idealistic and you go home very realistic.  But the truth is that the first and last lesson I keep learning is about BLENDING BOTH—meaning that you have to blend ideals and aspirations with what is doable.

That’s hard. As an old friend of mine, Max Kampelman once said, there is what we ARE and what we OUGHT TO BE.  Both matter.  Resources are tight in the world, but the possibilities of what we can and want to do are endless.  So the trick is how to balance both.

At as Under Secretary at the State Department, I had to balance the need to THINK BIG and the painful reminder each day that sometimes what we had to work with was SMALL.  I had to balance, at times, the creative urge to deliver real value overseas to local citizens, and the restrictions of the State Department, the legal and administrative requirements, and the accountability to Congress.

So the first lesson is:  Strive to accommodate creativity and realism and not see them as a trade off. You can do BOTH. But not always simultaneously and not always to the full satisfaction of everyone.  But if you are open, accessible, clear, and honest—everyone is better off and better understands that mid point between the sky and the floor and that often we live somewhere in between.

2. The second lesson I learned, not only from State, but from 35 years of working on global issues is that we cannot fix others if we don’t fix ourselves.  We can’t tell governments to stay open and then shut our own down. We have to be as open and transparent as we want others to be.  We can’t tell other countries, for example, to put women at the top of their governments if we have never done that.  We can’t want things for others more than they want them for themselves.

3. The third lesson I learned is that individuals matter; however, the best way to empower individuals is through teams – but TEAM WORK is hard.  It is easy to lock yourself into a room and come up with a brilliant idea all on your own; it is harder to execute that idea or test its proposition without others.

Nobody today goes to space alone.  We go to the International Space Station even with countries we can’t agree with on Earth.  Just as we would not want to be out in the galaxy all alone, we don’t want to save the world all by ourselves. And the world is listening and watching what we do and participating in what we do… so we have to communicate with each other and with those outside our bubble and deal with different fragmented audiences while not losing sight of the big picture.

4. The last lesson I learned is that to LEAD, you also have to FOLLOW, and listen carefully to those journeying with you or behind you.  And that how as leaders in an organization we are role models and we need to be as diverse in our skill sets, knowledge and experiences as possible.  We have to set good professional and personal standards.  In government, I found the near obsession with the crisis of the day, with the flooded inbox, the fires to put out now, and not pay attention to the brief flicker of a coming flame.  We get so caught up in the work of the day, that yesterday is so long ago, and tomorrow not even possible to ponder.  So I try to be thoughtful about lessons learned from the past, and to be learned in the future.


Paying it Forward? TechWomen and Cultural Relations

Women - Tech

By Kate Mays

“When I was Secretary of State, I decided that women’s issues had to be central to American foreign policy. Not just because I am a feminist but because I believe that societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered … So I think that it behooves us, those of us that live in various countries where we do have an economic and political voice, that we need to help other women, and I really dedicated myself to that, both at the UN and then as Secretary of State.”—former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a December 2010 TED Talk

Since 2006, the World Economic Forum has published the Global Gender Gap Report because “clos[ing] global gender gaps [is] a key element of our mission to improve the state of the world.” The report finds that the more a country utilizes its female half of the population, the better off that country is. In recent years, the US has emphasized women’s rights as key foreign policy objective, including the creation in 2009 of an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s issues.

John Worne, in his piece “Schools, Hospitals, or Cultural Relations?,” presents an International Relations positioning spectrum that ranges from “giving” (aid) to “fighting” (military action).  Cultural relations spans the middle points on the spectrum: “helping, sharing and boasting” (access, influence, and messaging).  Worne justifies spending on cultural relations because, “at its best, cultural relations means more ‘helping and sharing’, less ‘shouting and fighting’ and maybe one day a less urgent need to ‘give.’” Considering the correlation between women’s greater participation in society and that society’s prosperity, it makes sense for the US to focus some of its efforts and resources on bringing women to the table; eventually, hopefully, those women will reach out and do the same for others in their society.

techwomen.Facebook1-300x225A current initiative that strives to “help and share” is TechWomen, a US-based mentorship program that connects emerging female tech entrepreneurs from the Middle East and Africa with American women mentors who come mostly from Silicon Valley tech companies. These “Emerging Leaders” are paired with both professional and cultural mentors, to foster not only professional development opportunities but also to facilitate mutual understanding and cultural acclimation during their time in America. A public-private partnership, TechWomen is an initiative of the State Department and managed by the Institute of International Education.

Announced in April 2010, TechWomen piloted in Spring 2011, bringing over to the US 37 women from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the Palestinian territories, where they engaged in a five-week project-based mentorship that included professional networking as well as a concluding trip to DC for workshops. The program was enough of a success in 2011 that it not only continued in 2012 but also expanded to include women from Tunisia and Yemen. In 2013, it’s expanding even more to include women from Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The Emerging Leaders are all women who have already begun careers in the tech industry; the idea is to develop them further to become real leaders in their field.

TechWomen is notable for its dual focus on empowering women through education, and focusing that education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The initiative was developed in response to President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, where he called for greater collaboration between the American and Muslim populations to address seven main issues. TechWomen hits on two: women’s rights and economic development and opportunity (through the development of science and technology).

The program has both short-term and long-term goals. In the immediate, of course, the goal is to bolster the mentees’ skills, by sharing tips and ideas, and building their confidence. A main theme in the stories shared on TechWomen’s blog speaks to the power of simply providing a common and supportive space in which these women would feel comfortable vocalizing their ideas. In the case of Evelyn Zoubi, the validation she received from her peers and mentor for her idea (, a website that digitizes wardrobes), was empowering and invigorating. For another Emerging Leader, Thekra, the most powerful workshop taught her to “speak the thoughts I have and not be afraid to take some risks.” These outcomes – confidence-building, creating a network of support and ideas – are mostly intangible, but are nonetheless important in creating a large, sustainable TechWomen network in the Middle East and Africa.

There are so far some real tangible outcomes to the program as well. The mentorship is project-based, so the mentees pick up practical skills and learn more about the tech field from mentors who are on the cutting-edge of the industry. They are also afforded opportunities to network with other leaders in the field to pitch their ideas. Evelyn’s pitch led to a connection with a US organization. Thekra’s idea, EduGirl – an NGO that would build a mentorship model to educate girls in neglected areas in Jordan – encompasses both the skills she learned through her mentorship, and touches on the longer-term goal for TechWomen, which is that the Emerging Leaders will go back to their countries and share their knowledge, to become mentors themselves for younger generations of women in STEM.

While the main focus of TechWomen is to expand opportunities and education, another major tool of cultural diplomacy is woven throughout the program: exchange. During their stay in the US, the Emerging Leaders have opportunities to visit schoolsto see the American education system in action. The program also encourages a two-way exchange. Once the 5-week program is complete, TechWomen mentor delegations travel to some of the mentees’ countries to “focus on: expanding networks of women in the technology sectors, creating and strengthening partnerships, and ensuring the sustainability of Mentor/Emerging Leader relationships.” (excerpted from the TechWomen website. In a video appeal for more TechWomen mentors, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasizes not only the benefits for the mentees, but the opportunity for growth and enrichment for the US mentors.

Hillary Clinton’s appeal for more mentors from American tech companies.

On the TechWomen blog, mentors’ cultural exchange experiences are well-documented, alongside the stories from the mentees themselves.

Speaking of the blog, the technical communication infrastructure around the TechWomen initiative seems to be an important piece of its sustainability: there is a robust website, an active presence on social media, and a blog that posts throughout the year. While US mentorship only occurs in the fall, and the delegations take a few trips after that, the conversation around TechWomen appears year-long, so that engagement remains fairly active.

To my mind, TechWomen has been a successful program because of its specificity in mission and audience. The ambitious vision of creating a professional network that can support the next generation of women leaders in technology in the Middle East and Africa (and continue to be self-perpetuating within the regions) is grounded in concrete efforts like the projects-based mentorship, professional development workshops, and networking opportunities.  Hopefully the success of these kinds of initiatives will lead to others with larger targeted audiences – opening up educational opportunities for women who are not already on a career path. TechGirls is a promising initiative that reaches younger women to encourage careers in science and technology. Thekra’s EduGirl is a great example of the next step for this movement – an initiative that comes from within the region and reaches out to disadvantaged girls and women.

Kate Mays is a graduate student at the George Washington University.

The above post is from Take Five’s new Student Perspective series. Graduate students studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University are encouraged to think about themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and write on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and to communication.  The posts involve thoughtful commentary on the writer’s chosen theme, linking to class readings and discussions. 

Opportunity is Calling – How Mobile Phones Can Increase Entrepreneurship among Women in Developing Countries

“I get more respect now,” she says. “Before people in the village wouldn’t talk to me but they do now.”

~Jamirun Nesa on owning a business (BBC News, October 2002)

Image source:

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), especially mobile phones, can have a huge impacton the business opportunities available to women in developing countries by providing access to markets, conserving time, connecting women with other business owners and fostering empowerment.

A common business opportunity is to sell goods that are either grown or handmade; however, many of the poor, especially women, have restricted access to markets because of time constraints, lack of transportation and safety concerns, among other factors. A cell phone easily addresses all of these issues. Without leaving their homes, women can call to check prices, find buyers for their products or place orders.

Additionally, even if women want to start businesses, they are typically responsible for the bulk of household activities and childcare, which is time consuming. In this respect, the efficiency and time saved by using a cell phone is invaluable. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), in partnership with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, recently released a report focusing on how connectivity can create entrepreneurial opportunities for women in India. One of the profiled entrepreneurs, Sunita, runs a silkworm breeding business. She not only uses her cell phone for market access, but also to remotely activate a water pump for her silkworm shed – saving her the 3-4 km walk to turn it on and off.

Another benefit of ICTs which is raised in ICRW’s report is that women can connect with other entrepreneurs. Social norms, distance and time constraints that would usually prevent these groups from forming are eased by cell phone ownership. As a result, many women form self-help groups with other entrepreneurs to establish business connections, stimulate creativity, identify best practices, answer questions and serve as a general support network.

Finally, the phones themselves can become a business.  In places where cell phones or landlines are scarce, individuals who have a mobile can sell minutes – a modern phone booth.  As an example, the Grameen Foundation established a program to give small loans to poor women to start this type of business.

Overall, by allowing women to access markets and making tasks less time-consuming, cell phones lower or eliminate some of the barriers to starting and operating a business. In turn, owning a business leaves many women feeling incredibly empowered. Women entrepreneurs can challenge social norms, gain respect from their family and community, improve their individual confidence and set examples for future generations.

From a policy perspective, programs that focus on increasing women’s access to ICTs are a relatively inexpensive way to address many problems that women entrepreneurs face in the developing world.

On an individual level, you can donate old phones to organizations that reuse or recycle them to provide phones to developing countries.  Some organizations, such as Hope Phones, will even accept broken phones and pay for shipping.

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