Episode 13: How I Found Sponsors and Changed Jobs within Microsoft, with Diana Becnel

Episode 13: How I Found Sponsors and Changed Jobs within Microsoft, with Diana Becnel

Show Notes:

Diana Becnel worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant for 8 years before deciding to switch functional areas and move into sales. Today, she is a successful Account Executive and strong advocate for helping minorities break into STEM and tech careers. On this episode, Diana breaks down the importance of finding sponsors at work and not falling for the myth that hard work will equal a promotion or raise. People need to know and hear about your success, and sponsors can help do that for you. Diana inspires us to get over our mental crap and sell ourselves at work.

Links Mentioned In Episode:

Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast

Transcription:

TRAILER

Just because you’re doing a good job doesn’t mean you’re gonna get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and women. We struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that.

PODCAST INTRO

Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.

GUEST INTRO

Hey everyone. Today you get to hear from Diana Becnel. Now, Diana is an LA native and she went to Boston university where she got her BBA and stuff and since then has worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant and most recently moving into the sales world as an account executive. Diana is super inspiring because she’s a black woman in tech who really has learned what it takes to move up in that industry, and we talk about finding sponsors and advocating for yourself, and making sure that people can really see the hard work that you’re doing and how working hard is often just not enough to cut it, like, people need to see your hard work, people need to be able to understand the value that you bring, and as women, especially, sometimes, that can feel very uncomfortable or weird, but we just have to get over that.

INTERVIEW

Priscilla Esquivel Weninger: Hey Diana, welcome to the show.

Diana Becnel: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here virtually with you today.

Priscilla: Me too. I’m super excited to have you here talk about your career in tech especially as a black woman, especially as a woman in STEM, someone who has fought really hard to have the opportunities that you have today. So yeah, let’s dive into your story. Tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how you grew up.

Diana: Sure, so I grew up in sunny, beautiful Los Angeles, California. I’m the oldest of about three kids. We grew up in LA in the city and I am back in LA now, which is awesome because I spent seven or eight years away because of different jobs in school, but back in LA and happy to be here. So, I’m excited to be here and talk about how I grew up and my experience going to college and ending up at Microsoft.

Priscilla: Yeah, so I’m really curious if you grew up with a really specific idea in terms of what you wanted to do when you grew up or were you pretty much in exploring mode?

Diana: It’s so interesting because growing up, I always had this desire to be an independent and financially secure woman, that was a huge thing that my mom and family instilled in me, but I actually never knew exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, I envy people who knew at an early age that they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, or an engineer. I wasn’t like that, but I definitely was really exposed to a lot of tech at an early age and business people, which I think greatly influenced my decisions in life. I knew that in order to end up having a good job, becoming financially secure so that I could help take care of myself and my family, that I needed to stay the course and get good grades, go to college, and then end up getting a job. The back of my mind was exposed to technology and business, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to be, and so I think the influences I had as a kid ultimately drove me to technology and business later on.

Priscilla: Yeah, so you mentioned financial security being important to you when you were looking for jobs, where did that really come from for you?

Diana: I think a lot of that came from my parents having some pretty honest conversations about money throughout my whole life and just how money really can make a difference in your life, how financial security is important, and some of the mistakes they made and things they wanted for us, and so I think that helped a lot with that, and look, I believe it’s really important to enjoy what you do, but I also think it’s important to be able to help my mom or pay bills, or buy a house, right, and create generational wealth, and so that was really important to me, and so I was definitely one of those people that was like, yeah, I want to make sure I like my job, but if I can make the money, especially early in my career to give myself freedom later on to really help others and do other things, that’s the way I look at it.

Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool that you had that super long-term view at that age because that’s something that I definitely didn’t have and I wish I had had now in my early thirties, but yeah, so that’s amazing. I know you went to BU, you went to Boston university and you ended up studying Business. How did that end up happening for you? How did you decide to go that route?

Diana: Looking back, I chose Business because I thought it gave me a little, the flexibility to still figure out what I wanted to do but know that I could make some impact and hopefully make some money after school, and so I chose Business, and originally when I was going into Business, I thought I was going to be a marketing queen. I loved the idea of marketing, I loved the excitement of it, and so I was leaning towards the marketing path and at BU, we have to concentrate in a particular, a minor, but it’s really a concentration, and so you can go everywhere from law to marketing, to finance, accounting, or information systems, which is really like computer science, and to this day, I remember the moment that I shifted my concentration and my major focus. So, for the first couple of years, I was going down the marketing path and we were in this career session and it was, I think, it was either my junior or senior year and one of the professors pulls up a slide and shows the average salaries when you graduate based on the concentration, and marketing was further down on the list and information systems, so the tech side and finance were almost double the salaries, and I remember calling my mom, like, “Mom, I am going into tech. I don’t know how hard it’s going to be but the salary and the opportunity is there,” and I remember my professor also saying to me one-on-one, there’s barely any women. There’s barely any minorities in this field, and that just triggered me. I wanted to change those statistics. That’s always been something about me, I like to prove those statistics wrong, and so I think the combination of hearing that stat and then also seeing the financial difference and the number of jobs and opportunities influenced me to make that switch in the middle of my college journey.

Priscilla: Yeah, so I know that you’re going on nine years of working at Microsoft and that was your first job after college. What ended up making you choose Microsoft and what do you love about what you do?

Diana: I joined Microsoft as a part of a college hire program. So, it’s really interesting because I had a couple of other offers that I was almost pretty much taking, and then the Microsoft offer came in and I still remember, I almost didn’t do the interview because I was like, there’s no way they’re going to hire me, and secondly, I was so tired that senior year I’d been interviewing a lot, I was working, trying to keep up with my grades and they wanted to fly us to DC, and I remember, after my interviews, I felt pretty good about it but still wasn’t sure, and they had some of their college hires talk to us and they talked to us about how not only is Microsoft one of the greatest technology companies in the world, and yes, you’re going to make good money, but it was also all the extras that Microsoft did. They talked a lot about how they care about their people, they’re big on empathy, growth mindset, you got this great gym fitness bonus, they invest in you personally, and so I remember being just blown away by all the additional things Microsoft provided, and so that’s why I ended up taking that job there when I got the offer. My first job, I was hired as what we call a consultant in the consulting organization, and really, what we were doing was going out and helping customers actually implement our software, and so I focused on a particular software that is around business applications, so we would go to big companies like Ashley Furniture, Brightstar, HP, and transform their business process when it came to financial accounting, supply chain and using some of our Microsoft software, and I was traveling to customers a lot, I was on the road a lot and really helping customers transform, which was really exciting.

Priscilla: And during your time at Microsoft, have there been any mentors or sponsors that have really helped you in your career?

Diana: I love mentors. I think you should have all types of mentors, whether they’re just peer mentors who are in the same position as you as well as executives, but I think the number one thing that is so critical especially early on in your career is finding a sponsor, and when I say sponsor, someone who is going to actually advocate for you in those rooms where they make decisions about your promotions, programs that you can be a part of, bonus leadership, all of those things, right? You really have to have a sponsor who can speak up and advocate and has the influence in those rooms for you. So, I think that is one of the most important things I would tell people in corporate America to find. I know we talk a lot about mentors which that is a hundred percent really important, but if you can find a mentor who’s also your sponsor, that is going to change your career, and that’s what happened for me. So, I had two sponsors that really knew my work and they would advocate for me, get my promotions, get my bonuses, and that translated into really good career progression, and then when I was ready to switch out of the consultant role, I had this network of sponsors and mentors, and people that I had worked with and talk to that helped me transition into the new roles that I wanted, and definitely, at these big companies, it’s not always easy to do that. It’s not always easy to jump from consultant to sales or really a product technical person, and so you got to have a sponsor and a mentor who can help you do that.

Priscilla: I totally agree, and I think also what’s interesting about the sponsor thing is that it speaks to how it’s not enough to just be really great at what you do. People have to know about the work that you’re doing, and sometimes that can feel, especially for women, a little uncomfortable to talk about what we’ve done and the impact that we’ve had. So, how did you showcase the strengths that you had and how did you make yourself more visible?

Diana: Yeah, that’s a great question and a great point. All your life, even from when you’re a little kid, if you do a good job, you’re going to get a good grade, so if you do well on the test, you’re going to get a good grade and you’re compensated for doing well, but then when you go to the career and your professional life, to your point, just because you’re doing a good job, doesn’t mean you’re going to get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and, to your point, women, we struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that probably in my first year of my career and one of my sponsors and then another one of my mentors, they’ve helped me put decks and emails together highlighting the things that I was doing, and so my cadence now with even my current manager is on our one-on-ones or if I get an email, I forward it to her, I share that I let her see that direct feedback. If a customer said something really good, I forward it to her and share that. In our one-on-ones, I highlight the things that went well and that I did, and so I think that’s really important to do, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, but I know that I have to advocate for myself in order to get that promotion or that good review. The second thing is really making sure that you build confidence in who you are and always go above and beyond. Most people, especially at a company like Microsoft, they’re there for a reason; they work hard, they’re good at their jobs, so you have to differentiate yourself. And so you have to talk to your manager openly saying, “What do I need to do to get promoted? What are the things that I need to differentiate myself from the other person who’s competing with me for that promotion?” So, have that open and honest conversation so that you clearly understand what is required, and then take the actions and even with what he or she said you need to do, go above that. I try and do above my requirements from my boss to show off, like you said, and advocate for yourself that you deserve to keep moving up.

Priscilla: And so, what happened when you decided to transition out of the consultant role? What was next for you after that?

Diana: I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I honestly believe you have to go after and always think about your next career move.

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Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.

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INTERVIEW [CONTINUED]

Diana: One of my sponsors actually told me, he says every time he gets a job, he has a three-year plan and it doesn’t always work out like that. Sometimes it may take him five years, some time, it took him seven years, some time, it took him two years, but he always has a plan for his next move within the next three years, and so I believe that you should always be thinking about what’s your next step because it takes a while to get there, and then secondly, a lot of things do just fall in your lap. Some things do just happen. Opportunities happen to come up and you have to be ready to take advantage of them, and so I think if you listen to a lot of people in their careers, they’ll tell you they thought they were going one way and then an opportunity popped up, and so I think that does happen a lot and that happened with me, but I also was super proactive about thinking about what I wanted to do next, and doing the networking, gaining the skills that would set me up for that next role that I wanted, finding a sponsor and shadowing, practicing, all of that is really important to be proactive about  while you’re going in your career journey.

Priscilla: What was a skill set that for you was a little challenging to get but you figured out a way to fill some kind of gap that you think you had?

Diana: Yeah, that’s a good question, and probably the last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about that because I was at that point where I wanted to move on to my next role and figure out my next role, and so one of the missing skill sets for me in my current job was really negotiation. We call it like “challenger” mindset where you’re really pushing a customer, and I am not the type of person that likes asking anyone for anything especially when it comes to money, so I would never be a good cold caller, but I knew I needed to be able to have some more negotiation skills, and so I spent the last year shadowing some different salespeople. I read several books and I listened to podcasts as well as do different trainings and that’s really where I was able to see it in action and also start practicing it more, and so when I went to interview for this new role that I got, I could speak to that and talk about the readings that I had done, talk about the shadowing that I had done and really bring everything in my experience to the table as this kind of package, like, across the board of skill sets that I had.

Priscilla: Okay, so now you’re in a sales role, right, with Microsoft? Why did you decide to make that change? What prompted that?

Diana: One of the main reasons I decided I wanted to change was because I was currently consulting in a particular technical focus and I wanted to broaden my horizon and I also wanted to have more ownership across the board. So, in consulting, you own a single project, and then in this sales role, you own the entire account, the entire customer, and so I wanted to have more of that ownership. The other main thing is I knew that negotiation and sales was not my strong point, and I stalk a lot of people on LinkedIn, someone who’s a VP, I say, what did they do to get there? And 90% of the time, I was finding they had some type of sales role, and that is because at the end of the day, Microsoft is a for-profit company; we have to sell product and licenses in order to make money, and so that is a huge skill set that is valued from leadership, being able to close deals, being able to grow your accounts and really help customers transform using Microsoft technology, especially when you think about the competition Microsoft has across Amazon, Google, Apple, and so I was like, this is a skillset, this is a type of role that I don’t have. I wasn’t able to say, “Oh, I closed $3 million with these different customers,” and I know how to manage a pipeline, like, all those things I couldn’t say I did, and so that’s what made me decide to go into sales because I knew it would make me a little uncomfortable, but I thought I could be good at it with the right practice and experience and I knew it would add this major bucket of skillset to my resume that I was lacking in preparation for whatever I do next.

Priscilla: Totally makes sense how it could be a little scary and daunting to go into that space but at the same time, you’re right, you’re bringing in the revenue and it’s one of the most highly valued positions that you can be in if you’re successful, and so I’m curious, are you one of the few women on your sales team? What does that look like?

Diana: Yup, I am one of the few women. I am probably one of the youngest people and I’m a black woman, so there’s probably like three things going on: you have the age thing, you have the sex thing, and then the race thing, but then on top of that, I’m talking to customers about transforming their business and driving business outcomes by spending a lot of money with us, and I know they look at me and I’m young and a woman and black, and there’s definitely stereotypes that come with that, and I would say that I deal with that in probably three ways. So, the first is, and I struggled with this a little bit in the beginning but I’m getting better and better every day, is that building the confidence and having the expertise and the knowledge. The first thing is, you’re stereotyped with those three things and people think you don’t know because you’re young or you’re a woman, or you’re black it’s, so number one, knowing that I know what I’m talking about and know my stuff, so I always make sure I’m up to date on that part. That’s something I can control. So, really building that confidence, knowing that I know what I talk about, and then the second thing is knowing that I deserve to be at the table and that there’s a reason that I have this job, and there’s a reason that they brought me on and I deserve to be at the table. I’m here to have a fresh perspective, I’m here to drive change and really be there for customers in a way that maybe others can’t be, and so I just always remind myself of that too. And then, the third thing is understanding and knowing the stereotypes that exist but never letting it stop you or agreeing with it, always pushing forward through it and proving people wrong.

Priscilla: What advice do you have for anyone who might be in college or even, like, early career who wants to break into tech? What do you think are some tips that you would offer that person?

Diana: Sure. Number one, do it and don’t feel intimidated by it. I was intimidated by it and I think a lot of people, especially minorities and women are, you don’t have to be the best coder in the world or even be super technical. So, I think my advice is to not be intimidated. Know that we need you and know there’s so much support out there. When I think about the changes when I started to now, there’s so many programs, so many different online boot camps, support groups, mentors there to help you pass those classes to help you learn coding and all these things. Go out there, do it, come to tech, and there’s so much opportunity here. You don’t have to be super technical or you can, you can build things or you can sell technology, you can market it, you can implement it. There’s so many different ways you can go. So, I really encourage you to leverage the resources out there. Come into tech and you really get to change the world, and it’s a great place to be.

Priscilla: Awesome. That’s a great place to end, Diana. Thank you so much for all the insight that you just offered us with overcoming obstacles and having an amazing career at Microsoft.

Diana: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time, it was great talking to you today.

OUTRO

Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.

Episode 09: How to Leave the Private Sector as a Child of Immigrants, with Lily Trieu

Episode 09: How to Leave the Private Sector as a Child of Immigrants, with Lily Trieu

Show Notes:

On this episode, Lily Trieu, a Houston native and daughter of immigrants from Southeast Asia, tells us how she made a bold career switch from the private sector to the nonprofit education world. After 9 years in the consumer & packaged goods space, Lily enjoyed a healthy six-figure salary, bonus, company car and her parents’ pride – but she just wasn’t happy or excited about moving up in her company. After realizing she wanted out, Lily went on a journey that involved getting an MBA and asking for help to make a big jump into a much more fulfilling career. Lily shares the challenges she encountered- emotionally, psychologically, career-wise, and financially – but also what made her move completely worth it.

Links Mentioned In Episode:

Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast

Transcription:

TEASER:

Lily: Half of me was like, I want to make them proud and I want to live up to their vision of success. But the other half of me is, you know, my parents also brought up this family in the United States because they wanted us to also live fulfilled and happy lives.

PODCAST INTRODUCTION

Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.

GUEST INTRODUCTION

Priscilla: Hey, have you ever thought about leaving your private sector high-paying stable career to pursue a more fulfilling and meaningful path in the nonprofit or public sector? Well, that’s exactly what we dive into this week when we hear Lily Trieu’s story, Lily left a nine-year private sector career in the consumer and product goods space to pivot into education and public affairs through the MBA. Today, she’s the Texas Director of Public Affairs at Teach for America, and has finally found what she’s looking for in her career path. On this episode, she talks candidly about how she made the switch as the child of immigrants from Vietnam, how she used the MBA to make this jump, and what she gave up, but also gained in the process.

INTERVIEW

Priscilla: Hey, everyone, I am so excited to have Lily Trieu on today’s episode. Welcome, Lily.

Lily: Hi, Priscilla. Thanks for having me.

Priscilla: Of course. So today we’re going to dive into Lily’s story of how she pivoted from a career in the private sector into the nonprofit world, and what it was like doing this as a child of immigrants. So why don’t we start with Lily, share a little bit about where you’re from and how you grew up.

 Lily: Sure, yeah. I’d be remiss to not start off by saying I’m a Houstonian. I grew up in Houston, in Southwest Houston, super diverse community. And I think that community is a large part of what formed my values and my belief systems. I’m a first-generation Asian-American. My parents are actually refugees from Vietnam. So my parents came to the US in the early ’80s. They were that last batch of boat people who came over from Vietnam. So they literally arrived by boat. It took my mom 13 months to get to the US. And so they settled in Chicago and I was actually born in Chicago, but like they always say, they moved to Texas as quickly as they could. And so I spent basically all of my childhood education in Houston, and really grew up in that environment. I then went to UT Austin for my undergrad, and was a double major by accident. I ended up graduating with a marketing degree and a degree in Asian Studies. Loved Austin but after graduating, moved on and started a career in the private sector that allowed for me to move several times across the country. So that’s the gist of my background and the places that I’ve been. But at the end of the day, I really think that my parents’ experience and my identity as the child of immigrants really informs the way I approach life.

Priscilla: Yeah. And what do you think made you gravitate towards applying to the business school and heading in that direction?

Lily: Oh, my gosh. That’s such a great question. Because my parents were refugees, when they came to the US, they did not speak very much English, really none at all. So they were not very well-educated because they grew up in Vietnam during the war. They both had less than a middle school education. So when they came to the US, they didn’t really have a lot of career opportunities, and they decided to go into the convenience store business because they knew people who did that work. So they thought, “Okay, we’ll go. We’ll learn the trade. We’ll save up our money and hopefully become small business owners.” Which they were able to luckily do. So I grew up in a convenience store business. As a kid growing up, I was like, “Oh, I hate business. I hate doing this,” because I had to work there, right, on the weekends and summers and every break. And as a kid, I was like, “I hate this. I don’t want to do it.” So ironically in high school, when I was trying to pick a major and I knew I was going to go to UT, I kept gravitating towards the business school, and I kept gravitating towards the marketing degree even though my entire childhood, I said I didn’t want to do it. So it really just, I think, was really based on the environment I knew, right. I think as a first-generation Asian-American, as the first person in my family to go to college, you gravitate towards what you know. And what I knew was the convenience store business. I knew brands. I knew products. I knew the basic interactions in that business. And so I decided to go into business. So it wasn’t like a deep passion or anything. It was just something that felt natural in the moment. I chose to be a marketing major really by chance. So I didn’t have a clear direction.

I actually remember, my first semester of freshman year, going to an info session that Procter & Gamble hosted for undergrads. And I remember sitting in the room not knowing who this company was, what was going on. And they put up on the projector, this slide with all of their brands and logos. And I remember being 18 and thinking, “Holy crap, they own all of these brands?” And then their next slide, it was like a map of the world, and it showed where all of their global offices were across the country. And I just remember being 18 and thinking that’s amazing, that one company owns all these brands, and that this one company is in all these places in the world. It felt like world domination to my simple 18-year-old mind. And so freshman year, first semester, that’s when I decided I’m going to go into the consumer goods industry. This is super cool. So that’s what I went after.

Priscilla: Yeah. It’s really funny how sometimes these life-altering career decisions are made at such a young age and often off of a whim. And it sounds like that’s sort of what happened to you, but yeah. So what was your first job out of college, and what was it like adjusting to that?

Lily: Oh, gosh, it was horrible for so many reasons. So I joined Kimberly-Clark. I graduated in 2008, which means I joined Kimberly-Clark right at the start of the economic recession. So on the one hand, I was really grateful to have a job and it was a great job. But it forced me to have to move to Wisconsin. And like I said, I was born in Chicago. I grew up in Houston. My parents are from Southeast Asia. I had never been in an environment like Wisconsin before. So like the culture shock, that was real. I grew up in this super diverse part of Houston, super diverse campus. And then I get to Kimberly-Clark in Wisconsin, and I was one of three people of color in my department, and that was hard. It was cold. The job was in supply chain. And as you recalled, I said my major was marketing. And so I knew nothing about this first job in supply chain. And it was just a tough time. The first year, they did layoffs and luckily I wasn’t affected, but it was tough. But I will say it was a fantastic experience in the sense that it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. And as a young person, you learn how to move away from everyone in life. I learned a whole new trade basically. I had to learn all about supply chain really quickly. You just become really resilient through that experience. And not to mention, honestly, everyone at the company is so kind and I’m still such good friends with so many of those coworkers.

Priscilla: Yeah. So at what point did you start to consider switching over to the nonprofit industry? At what point did that happen for you?

Lily: Yeah, it came out of nowhere. The last couple of years I was at Kimberly-Clark, by then I’d been there six, seven years. I knew everyone and I was really comfortable. My boss actually asked me, “Hey, it’s time for us to start thinking about your next role. What do you want to do next?” They’re great that way. They always push you to grow and to move into new challenges. But I remember sitting there and thinking, “Okay, if I could have any job in this company, what would it be?” Any company, any position, CEO all the way down to mail room, what would I want to do? And I literally could not think of a single thing I wanted to do. So I took that as that’s a bad sign. At the time I was still in my 20s, I think, maybe almost 30. And I was like, “This is not good. If I’m already not motivated and I don’t have anything to aspire to in this company, it’s probably time to make a change.” And so what I really did is I really just started volunteering a lot in my community. I was back in Houston by then. And I was like, you know what, I’m going to go out and I’m just going to try a lot of things. And I just started volunteering with all kinds of nonprofits to figure out what are the things that I genuinely enjoy. And I think by default of volunteering with nonprofits, I started to think, “Hey, stuff over here is pretty cool,” and I actually do have a deep passion for a social impact and mission-driven organizations. And so that just started to make sense for me.

Priscilla: Yeah, I can imagine just how scary that must have felt to be deep into your corporate career, having all that stability, your parents are proud of you, suddenly looking at completely changing courses.

Lily: Oh, it was terrifying. It was terrifying because (a) I didn’t know anything about the nonprofit sector. My assumption was that everyone in the nonprofit sector was broke. Nobody made any money. The second thing was, I was like, oh my gosh, if this is really what I want to do, where do I even begin? I’d had this career slinging consumer products to major retailers. How do you even transfer that experience into something in the nonprofit sector? And in the beginning, it really felt like a far-fetched goal to make that kind of a switch. And I really didn’t know what that would look like.

Priscilla: Totally. And I’m assuming a lot of your friends were in the private sector, right?

Lily: — friends from private sector. And I think that’s one of the things about my network and my group of friends and my tribe is the vast majority of us are children of immigrants, and we’re mostly first, second generation. And so we all live this pressure of there’s a very unique definition of success, that you need to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or an engineer. Nonprofit doesn’t make that list. So because of that, my circle of friends, very few of them did this kind of work. And so, again, I had to just go and knock on doors of people I would meet when I was volunteering. It’d be like, “Hey, what do you think of this? What do you know? Can you help me?” So it’s just a lot of asking for help.

Priscilla: And did you get a lot of pushback from your parents when you told them that you wanted to make this switch?

Lily: I don’t think I even told them initially. I think initially, I was just like, I don’t like what I do. I want to make a change. And I think the first thing I actually told them was, “I think I’m going back to grad school.” I did not lead the conversation with I want to quit my job to go and do nonprofit work. Because by then I was making, honestly, a really comfortable six-figure salary. I was getting a nice bonus every year. I had a company car. My parents thought I was living the dream. I was living their dream. So the idea of letting all that go and giving up this life I’d built, this life that they had dreamt for me when they came to the United States, I just knew I couldn’t go to them with that until I had a firm idea of what that would look like, because I think that would have been terrifying for them. I think half of me was like, I want to make them proud and I want to live up to their vision of success. But the other half of me is my parents also came here and brought up this family in the United States because they wanted us to also live fulfilled and happy lives. And so that’s just a delicate balance. And so for me, it was like, okay, I’m 29, 30 years old. I can do this for another 30, 40 years but I’ll probably be miserable. So how do I make a change that won’t feel so traumatic for them, but that will really bring me a more fulfilling and just a more rewarding career?

Priscilla: This life decision brought you to business school, which is where you and I crossed paths. Tell us about how that MBA helped you make the transition.

Lily: Yeah, business school was pivotal. I think being a full-time MBA, you really get to spend two years just focusing on yourself, right. And you get to determine how to use every second of your time. Because before, I was volunteering, but I still had a nine to five. I had to work 40, 50, 60 hours a week still. So this whole finding myself process, you really couldn’t do except for the weekends and evenings. Business school allows you to really dig deep. I think the other thing about business school is it’s also just the exposure to the people that you’re around. And so I got to meet obviously folks like you, who bring a lot of experience and a lot of experience that I don’t have. And that gives me perspective that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It also gives you an excuse to, again, I guess you’ll hear this theme a lot, to knock on people’s door and be like, “Help me. I’m a student. Answer my questions.” So I think all of those were things that really just made business school a good opportunity to just figure out what did I want to do.

Priscilla: Yeah. And in the end you decided to transition into education specifically. So how did you use your time and your degree to transition into education?

Lily:  Honestly, that was the hardest part. So when you’re a student, people are willing to bring you on to do projects for them because it’s short-term, and you’re probably not getting paid very much. And in this industry, if you’re getting paid at all. And so in the two years of business school, a lot of people said yes to me because I was a graduate student from a top tier school. And so everyone was like, “Yeah, come do this project, do this work.” But when it was time to graduate and to find a full-time job, it was difficult because (a) I’m still new. I have two years of experience, but two years of part-time experience. So I’m still not really a professional in the space. I’m still pretty new and green. The second thing is I knew a lot more than when I did when I started, but when I graduated, there was still so much I didn’t know. So people would ask me about what is it exactly you want to do in education? And it’s sometimes hard to be able to verbalize this is exactly what I want to do, because you don’t know what you don’t know. And so I would give really general answers, “Oh, I just want to do something at the intersection of policy and strategy.” And people were like, “That doesn’t mean anything. What do you actually want to do?” So it was hard. And then the last thing is you’re competing against a lot of people in the space that have other degrees. I was literally interviewing with candidates who have PhDs in education policy. And here I’m like, yeah, I worked at KIPP DC for three months. Yeah, she has a whole dissertation on that topic, but I have three months experience. So that was hard. It was really a struggle. And there were definitely moments where I was like, oh my gosh, I might not be able to find a job in education after all of this work.

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INTERVIEW CONT’D

Priscilla: Yeah, which is really scary after such a significant investment. So you and I are very much the opposite. I went into business school from education nonprofit, transitioned into private sector. You were doing the opposite of that. When you were interviewing for jobs, do you feel like your corporate background really helped you in your interviews? I personally always felt like private sector folks were very much highly valued within education.

Lily: It definitely helped. It helped in that in every interview, I was probably always the most prepared candidate. I was always the most data-driven candidate. I was always the one that thought about things in frameworks and in terms of strategic mindset. So I think employers always really loved that. The thing was though, at the end of the day, I was always lacking that in-depth experience. Having all of those great business skills is still hard to compensate when you’re interviewing against someone who’s been a teacher or a teacher coach for 10 years. They’re just going to more intimately understand the problems and the struggles that we have in the system better than I will. And so for me, it was like, you literally have to find someone who not only values your private sector skills. Because I totally agree with you, people really do value those private sector skills and those skills will really take you a long way, but you also need someone who’s willing to take a chance on you. And my experience has been in order to get that, you have to show folks that you are so willing to learn and you’re so willing to work your way up. Because while folks really value private sector skills, they also worry, are you going to be someone who’s willing to learn the system from the bottom up? Are you just going to come over and expect this well-paid cushy job because that’s where you came from, because sweetheart, that’s not how we do it in the nonprofit sector. We all work really hard. We all work really long hours. We all have to earn our keep. And so that was always the challenge, trying to find someone who would take a chance on me, knowing that I don’t bring 5, 10 years of education experience.

Priscilla: So where did you land after your MBA?

Lily: Yeah. So I graduated in May of 2019, and I was looking for jobs for the first couple of months. And actually one of my coworkers from my internship at KIPP DC connected me with one of his close contacts at Teach for America. And so they brought me on board in August of 2019. So I’ve been there a little over a year now. I am the director of public affairs for the state of Texas at Teach for America. So primarily what that means is I steward all forms of public funding. So any dollars that we get that comes from the state or local government. So it’s a little bit of lobbying. It’s a little bit of a relationship management. That’s where I still use some of my sales expertise. And then I also do some work involving AmeriCorps and state programs that bring in dollars into our program.

Priscilla: That’s super cool and very impactful, very much at the intersection of all of those different things that you were looking for, so congrats. So I want to switch gears a little bit and talk finances, talk money. I think one of the biggest concerns that people have, when they’re switching from private sector to nonprofit, is this huge concern around getting paid significantly less. So can you walk us through how you thought around compensation as you were going through this transition?

Lily: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think this is the thing that makes most folks really nervous when they’re making that switch from private sector to the nonprofit public sector. I won’t sugarcoat it. You’re not going to make as much in this sector as you might in the private sector, or at least it’s not as easy to make as much in the nonprofit and the public sector. But it does vary, if you work for a really large national or global nonprofit, then there’s more funding.

So for me, working at Teach for America, my compensation is really competitive because Teach for America is a national nonprofit. And so to recruit and retain talent, they do have to be somewhat competitive. Now that being said, I graduated making a lot less than most of my peers in the MBA. So I can share that my thought process throughout the whole experience was, like I shared, I was making a comfortable six-figure salary. When I decided to quit my job to get my MBA and make this career switch, I had to ask myself, “Am I in a place to do this? What are my salary expectations? What’s my minimum? What is the floor of what I am willing to accept that will allow for me to have the quality of life and the financial stability that I still wanted?” And that’s a really personal decision.

I was really lucky coming in because I was a Pell Grant recipient. I didn’t have any undergraduate debt. And then I was able to just save a ton of money. And because of my private sector career and because of a lot of the planning I did going in, I graduated the MBA with very little to no debt. So that was something that allowed for me to say, “I’m going to take a decently large pay cut because I knew I could sustain my lifestyle after the MBA.” But that’s not the case for everyone. And so that’s not the case, then there are alternatives. So if you can’t quit your job and make a big career switch and lose half of your salary or whatever it is, then maybe you make a gradual shift. Maybe you start off working at a big national nonprofit or maybe you start off working in corporate social responsibility, or maybe you work in a public sector or a social impact consulting company. There are other options that you can explore that maybe will provide you more salary flexibility. But I won’t sugar coat it, if you work in the nonprofit public sector space, starting salaries will be low. And I think what really motivated me was knowing that I would be able to work my way back up. No salary is permanent, but I took probably a 20-25% pay cut when I decided to make that switch.

Priscilla: Yeah. And I appreciate you being so candid because I do think people need to go into this transition with eyes wide open and having a very strategic plan in place, understanding the tradeoffs. And in your case, recognizing that personally fulfilling work and mission-aligned work for you was worth making that temporary sacrifice. So do you feel like now in your new job, you feel a lot more excited and more aligned and have found what you’re looking for?

Lily: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. The first and foremost, the work I do just has so much meaning. I wake up every day and I know exactly why I do the work I do. Secondly, I’m building another skill. I love the work I do now and I love education, but there’s nothing that’s stopping me from saying, “Okay, maybe I’ll work for the Chamber of Commerce doing education work” or “I’ll make another switch back into private sector doing lobbying work.” These are all things that I could do down the road. So I don’t feel limited at all. I just feel like my career just continues to grow and grow.

And then I think the last thing I’ll really say about all of this is your time just feels so much fuller. Before, I would try to rush through my nine to five, so that at the end of my workday, I could go and do the things I actually like to do. Now it feels like that’s a part of my life. And so when I’m done with work, I feel like I’ve just had a really productive day and I don’t feel like, okay, now I have to go and do the things I actually wanted to do today. And that is something that I think is just so fulfilling. And it just opens you up to so many more opportunities. And so because of that, I’m so much more engaged in the city and in my community in such a different way now, because this new lifestyle has allowed for me to have that time and capacity to do it.

Priscilla: Well, Lily, thank you so much for being with us today. I feel like this conversation is super inspiring for anyone who’s looking to try to make this leap. I love the faith in yourself that you have shown through this whole process. And thank you for being an example of that.

Lily: This has been so fun. Thank you for what you’re doing and keep it up.

OUTRO

Priscilla: Thanks for tuning in to the Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.

Episode 07: How I Became a U.S. Diplomat and Overcame Imposter Syndrome, with Sharlina Hussain-Morgan

Episode 07: How I Became a U.S. Diplomat and Overcame Imposter Syndrome, with Sharlina Hussain-Morgan

Show Notes:

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have an international career in diplomacy?

On this episode, we hear from Sharlina Hussain-Morgan, a foreign service officer, who is also a child of immigrants from Bangladesh. Sharlina has a B.A. in Political Science from MIT, and a MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown. After working abroad in Egypt, she met a girlfriend who was a Foreign Service Officer and encouraged her to apply to become a Diplomat herself. Sharlina had never really imagined taking this path, but she took the steps and has now been in the field for nearly 10 years. Sharlina details what the process looks like to apply for the Foreign Service, what they’re looking for in applicants, and what are the glamorous and not-so-glamorous parts of the job. Sharlina’s story is a great reminder to pursue your passions despite parental pressure to take a more traditional path.

Links Mentioned In Episode:

Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast

Critical Language Scholarship Program – A summer study abroad opportunity for American college and university students to learn languages essential to America’s engagement with the world, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Transcription:

TEASER

Sharlina: I was 25 and they looked at me and they’re like, “Wait, you’re here representing the United States Government?” They were just floored because they didn’t expect a 25-year-old Brown woman who actually spoke literally the same language as their own parents.

PODCAST INTRODUCTION

Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.

GUEST INTRODUCTION

Priscilla: Hey, have you ever wondered what it would be like to have an international career that takes you all over the world? Well, on this episode, you get to hear from US Diplomat Sharlina Hussein Morgan, who breaks down what it means to be a diplomat, what it takes to succeed and what it’s been like to be a child of immigrants from Bangladesh, traveling abroad, and representing the US Government. Sharlina is an MIT and Georgetown grad, and she keeps it real on the glamorous and not so glamorous moments of working abroad.

Priscilla: Sharlina, welcome to the show. I’m so excited to have you here today.

Sharlina: Thank you so much for having me.

Priscilla: So today we’re going to be discussing the topic of what it’s like to be a US diplomat. So why don’t we just get started with you sharing a little bit about your personal background.

Sharlina: Thanks again for having me. My name is Sharlina Hussein Morgan. I was born and raised in New York. I grew up in Queens, New York City for the first 12 years of my life before we moved upstate to Upstate, New York. My parents are originally immigrants from a small country called Bangladesh, which is a little bit east to India. And they’ve been in the United States the longer they’ve been in Bangladesh. And I grew up with an older brother. And I guess, I don’t know if you could say a typical Asian or South Asian-American family, my parents are first-generation, my brother and I were the first in our family to go to college in the United States.

And it was very much of a working class immigrant story. My parents first started out when they first came to the United States, they were working in Burger King. And my parents scraped together money because my dad had a dream of having a small business in the US. So they finally were able to buy a small hotel in Upstate New York, which is where we settled when I was in my middle school years. And they put together enough money to put my brother and I through school. And my brother followed the immigrant parent expectations and became an engineer, but I was the black sheep and I was very interested in foreign affairs.

We’re a Muslim South Asian-American family. And I was in high school when 9/11 happened, which really was a formative experience for me. And so it really encouraged me to look more outside of the United States and think about what our relationship is with other countries around the world. So that’s where I landed to study for undergrad, political science, but at an atypical place, at MIT.

Priscilla: How did you end up at MIT?

Sharlina: Yeah, it’s really funny. A lot of people were like, “I didn’t even know that political science is a major offered at MIT.” And actually it’s one of the top 10 in the country. But I came from a very interesting perspective. My brother was an engineer. He really encouraged me to pursue my interest in math and science. I was really good in math and science when I was younger, but I didn’t like it as something that I wanted to pursue as a career. But so when it came time to apply to colleges, I kind of applied to MIT as a fluke, but I wanted to go somewhere that was diverse and wanted diverse experiences. And when I visited MIT, I was very impressed with how much the students got along with each other. And I didn’t want this super competitive environment. And so when I got accepted, I was just amazed and couldn’t believe it. And I think the entire four years at MIT, I was like, “Were they sure about accepting me?” But, you know, I think that comes with a lot of the experience as a first-generation, especially you doubt yourself and you’re not quite sure if they really meant to include you in the space, but it really was a great place. I was looking at other colleges that are typical for liberal arts, but honestly it was really a great place for me to go, even though not many diplomats really start out at MIT. It’s not a place where you learn about the foreign service. You spend a lot more time thinking quantitatively versus qualitatively about different topics and career ideas.

Priscilla: Cool. So when you were in college, did you start to think about becoming a US diplomat? When did that come onto your radar?

Sharlina: Yeah, it didn’t really come onto my radar that much. A lot of my colleagues telling me about their experiences about how long they applied and were tenacious in pursuing diplomacy as a career. And I applaud them for it. Just I didn’t really know that was a field for me to consider. And honestly still just fighting my parents’ expectations. My dad and my mom were like, “Okay. If you’re not going to become a doctor or an engineer, I think the one last option is lawyer.” And they were just still pushing me to do that. And it didn’t really come to fruition. And so I was fighting a lot of different things and I was interested in a lot of different things. And so when I left college, I was working in DC because I knew that’s where I wanted to be for policy, but I still was lost. There are so many people who learn early on that they want to become a diplomat. But for me, I was still very lost and I just knew I wanted to work in policy. I wanted to work in international affairs or domestic policy and how things work on the Hill. It took me a while to land to where I am now.

Priscilla: What was that first job for you in DC? And how did that take you to realizing, “Oh, diplomacy is something I might want to pursue”?

Sharlina: Yeah. I mean, I actually was working in consulting in Washington on education issues and it was paying the bills to be honest, but it wasn’t really speaking to my soul. And the good thing about landing in a place like Washington is that you are more aware of what other opportunities there are out there, especially in the policy realm. So I actually left my consulting gig for unpaid internships, which sadly until this day are really still very common in Washington, but they have become almost the expectation to pave your resume into something more settled. And I did two different unpaid internships to see what I was interested in. And one was on the Hill, to see how much I would be interested in working on international affairs on the Hill. And while it was interesting, it wasn’t the kind of stuff that was really keeping me excited.

And so I actually went to grad school at Georgetown and that’s when I started learning more about foreign service. I mean, Georgetown has a school of foreign service. I wasn’t at their school but I was at the school of government, and I was learning more and more about these options. But I still, to be very honest, I knew it was there but I didn’t really take it seriously as something that I could do, because I think I still had a lot of imposter syndrome and not thinking that I could be a diplomat.

And so when I graduated from Georgetown, once again, I was successful in getting a different scholarship, which anyone who’s interested in learning languages, it’s the critical language scholarship by the State Department. And I moved to Egypt to learn and participate in that program. And when it finished, I was at a crossroads where I had to decide what I wanted to do. And so I decided to stay. And I was working there as a consultant on gender issues and working on human rights issues, and a girlfriend of mine who was actually a foreign service officer, she told me, “Hey, why don’t you apply?” And I was like, “Why me?” She’s like, “Why not you?” And the great thing about the foreign service process is that it’s a very transparent and easy process. Easy not in the sense of getting in, but it’s not like a closed interview situation. It’s you have to take a test and then you keep progressing through that process. And then if you’re lucky, you make it all the way at the end.

Priscilla: So how long were you in Egypt?

Sharlina: I was in Egypt for almost a year. I was there right up until approximately six months before the Arab Springs. I was there from 2009 to 2010. And that was a really good experience for me. I mean, COVID times are a little different right now, but in a normal circumstance, I do recommend for folks who are interested in working in international affairs to dive in and get out there.

Priscilla: Do you feel like when you apply to become a US diplomat, your international experience factored into getting accepted or was that not really as much of a factor?

Sharlina: I think it was definitely a factor, but I say it with a disclaimer, to say that just because you don’t have international experience doesn’t mean you could not be selected. I think it was important for me because it was a formative experience for me. When you go through the foreign service officer process, they’re looking for a specific type of person. And to be able to demonstrate the skills that you need to not only succeed but thrive in a career like this, the kind of skills I got while I was in Egypt, I think, were really instrumental to show that I was ready for that.

Priscilla: For those who are listening and are wondering, well, what does a US diplomat actually do? What were you sort of imagining when you were applying? So before you became one.

Sharlina: Yeah. Honestly, I didn’t really know. My girlfriend who was there was already on her first assignment in Egypt as a diplomat. And she’s what we call a public diplomacy, ConEd officer. And I am also a public diplomacy ConEd officer. And in plain terms, you can come in to being a diplomat with different specialties, so you can work in public diplomacy, which is what I do, which is basically the public affairs arm of the US Government overseas. And you could be working on politics. You’ll be a political officer, which is looking at what are the political issues in the country you’re in economically. And then there are other types of specialties that you could work. And also, of course, last but very much not least, one of our most important types of officers are what we called consular officers, which is making sure that we can provide every service that an American citizen would need overseas. And as you can imagine, during COVID times, has been instrumental to make sure we can provide consular services to our American citizens when they’re in a moment of crisis outside of the United States. So those are the different types of officers, but at the end of the day, we could all be doing any type of that work, because we like to say that it’s what we — the term, the phrase is very well-known in our line of work is called the needs of the service. You sign up to be a diplomat because you’re signing up to help and represent not only United States but also to be there in a time of crisis for anything an American would need.

And so even if I’m a public diplomacy officer, if I’m overseas and my colleague asked me, “Hey, can you help with making sure that this American citizen is safe?” That is my job. And I make sure that I can assist with that. But in general on a day-to-day, it really looks very different every day. And I think that’s what intrigued so many of us to still stay in, even though it can be a hard lifestyle because it’s not the same every day, as you can imagine, not just COVID but there are crises and things that happen anytime and anywhere.

Once I joined the foreign service, I actually moved back to Egypt. That was my second assignment. But when I was there, it was during a time of protracted crisis after the Arab Spring. And any time you move somewhere, you may think that it will be the same every day, but it actually can be very different because of whatever is happening at that time. And so I think that for someone who’s interested in this line of work, you have to be willing to throw caution to the wind a little bit and be willing to fly by the seat of your pants sometimes, which to be very honest, I didn’t come in with that type of perspective. It’s really funny because so many of us are so type A and we like to have things controlled. And so I think that the funny thing is we hold on to and control the little things we can because everything else is so unpredictable, if that makes sense.

Priscilla: Yeah. And so you talked a little bit about how there’s this test and this process, what are they testing? Is it logic, aptitude? And then how long was that process for you?

Sharlina: So for me, apparently, it was not that long. It took me a little bit under a year, but I understand that the process has actually been truncated a little bit. So to answer your first part of the question, basic level of what issues may be occurring throughout the world. So whether it’s COVID or a health crisis, economic crisis, or nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula, et cetera. So a little bit of aptitude, of course. But whenever I talk to mentees or others who are just interested in this type of work and they’re like, “What do I need to do to prepare for something like this?” All I say are a couple of things, you need to just be a regular reader of something like The Economist or the New York Times, and just brush up on your middle school slash high school civics or AP Government, because there is definitely a test of what was this amendment and basic elements of American civic background. So those are the two basic aspects of the things that you need.

And then, of course, something that is very crucial to this type of career, which is writing, and not writing long papers. So it’s not about writing long papers. And if anyone who’s interested in not just foreign affairs but just policy in general, I encourage them to think through how to write something short and succinct. So when we say, when you want to prepare for any type of interview, they ask you to prepare your elevator pitch, right? So elevator pitch, but the written style. If you had to be in the elevator, so to speak, but in a written form, how could you write in maybe even three sentences what are the most important aspects of X issue? And that is what they’re looking for also, your ability to in the very quick situation, how quickly can you synthesize information and then convey it to someone during a moment of crisis, which happens as you can imagine all the time.

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INTERVIEW CONT’D

Priscilla: So once you became a diplomat and it was official, what did you realize that you enjoyed the most about maybe your first assignment or maybe even your second assignment and what interested you about it?

Sharlina: Yeah. I was incredibly lucky. My first assignment was in London in the United Kingdom. And as many people maybe already know, London is a really fantastic city, and I’m a New Yorker. So that’s really hard for me to admit. But it was incredible. I was there during the 2012 Olympics. One part of my portfolio in what we call our public diplomacy shop was cultural affairs. And cultural affairs, what does that mean? It’s like, how can we bridge the cultural divide between the US and whatever country you’re in? And so, of course, whoever’s listening will be like, “Okay. Who cares?” What kind of cultural divide is there between the US and the UK besides beer preferences, right? And that’s why it was actually interesting, when you get your first assignment, it’s this very momentous thing that we call flag day. And you get a flag for where you’re going and your family is there to support you and cheer you on because you don’t know where you’re going until that moment. And I got this flag for the United Kingdom. And I was like, ‘What? I thought I was going somewhere else. I don’t know, Cape Verde or something very different and new.” And so I was like, “Oh, this is going to be not so great.” But then I got there and I was like, “Wow, London is such an incredible city. And the UK is actually so diverse.” As you can imagine, London could be as diverse, if not more diverse than New York City. I actually don’t know the numbers. And so for me, actually, what was really interesting was that as a child of Bangladeshi immigrants, there are actually a lot of Bangladeshi and South Asian immigrants to the United Kingdom as well. And at that time, so this was 2011, I was also working on the 10th anniversary slash memorial for 9/11. And at that time, I don’t know if readers or listeners can remember, but we were still very much mired in foreign policy blunders in the Middle East. And so a lot of the immigrants to the United Kingdom took that very seriously and they actually harbored very serious anti-American sentiment. And so for me, my boss was great. He was just like, “You’re just going to go out and learn on the job.” And so he put me out, there was an opportunity to engage with the local university, with a lot of Bangladeshi- British students.

My first tour, I was 25 and they looked at me and they’re like, “Wait, you’re here representing the United States Government?” They were just floored because they didn’t expect a 25-year-old Brown woman who actually spoke literally the same language as their own parents. I grew up speaking Bangla in my house because my mother was like, “I refuse to let this language not get passed down to the next generation.” And so she made sure that we only spoke Bangla in our house growing up. And lo and behold, here I am on my first tour, and all of a sudden I had to flip from English to Bangla and speak about the war to these students as if their face had already not been amazed. And they were like, “Wait, she’s speaking Bangla to us and explaining the Iraq war to me.” And I was just like that to me was just incredible because I realized that I think it really hit home all of a sudden that I was this representative of the US Government, and I had this immense power to shape narratives and change how we talk about things. And I don’t want to say we change minds because I think public affairs means you’re trying to change the narrative or trying to change the opinions. And we can’t change the opinions of other citizens overnight, especially on some topics that are so, so complicated, the US involvement in the Middle East. But me speaking in Bangla as a 25-year-old Brown American diplomat, I think, was just a moment for them to realize that it’s really easy to vilify the US as this kind of amorphous thing that they read about in the paper. But when they see someone who looks just like them, who is able to become a diplomat in the United States, it just floored them that that could even be. And so I think that was a moment where I was like, “Not only do I have power, but look at what is possible in the United States that honestly is not possible in most parts of the world.” And so that time, it was kind of that amazing experience that I always look back at.

Priscilla: That’s so powerful. And it seems like it was like a full circle moment for you.

Sharlina: Yeah, absolutely. And there I was, I had no idea as a 25-year-old I could even have this power.

Priscilla: Very cool. So what were the most glamorous and then the not so glamorous parts of your job? If you had to keep it real with people, what are the parts that maybe are not so exciting or just more challenging? What would those be for you?

Sharlina: So there are definitely so many glamorous moments in the story I just told you. It doesn’t sound glamorous probably to the average person, but for me it was because I was like, “Wow, look at me being able to change opinions.” But there were definitely the ones I think a lot of people were like, “This is definitely glamorous.” So part of my cultural affairs job was, at that time, Sundance actually had not broken outside the United States yet. And we worked with Robert Redford’s team to get Sundance into the United Kingdom. That was really glamorous for me to meet him and to work with some of the stars and the film folks out of the US, who are coming to the United Kingdom.

And also, I’m a huge sports fan. I was a kid in New York City in the ’90s with my brother, so I love basketball. And so I was able to work with the NBA folks in the United Kingdom and help them during, of course, at that time 2012 during the Olympic year to work with all the amazing basketball players who came to London. I met Grant Hill for the first time as part of a sports diplomacy reception. And I was like, “Man, you really are tall in real life.” That was amazing as a kid who grew up in the ’90s. And so that was really fantastic.

But yes, there are definitely a lot more not glamorous moments. What the really not glamorous part is you’re moving every few years. You’re leaving and uprooting friends and/or family members, depending on where you are. And you’re living far away from the United States. You miss the holidays. You miss things like Trader Joe’s, which sounds super silly. But when you’re far away, all of a sudden you start to realize the random things that you miss. I’ve been working in Washington the last few years, so it’s been really great. The ability to just have a need and then just go out to Target five seconds later is amazing. You cannot do that in other countries. So I think it is important to remind others that whether you’re working in foreign affairs as a US Government person or just in general like you’re working overseas, there are many not glamorous moments.

And I think the other thing to say as a representative of the US Government, I think we are also people, right? So we all have our own perspectives. We all come in very informed and educated about a lot of different things and we have strong opinions. And at the end of the day, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the policy matches with your opinion everywhere you go. And so that is definitely the not glamorous part. And that has happened throughout my almost 10 years in this career anywhere I’ve been. You’re there to represent what the folks back in Washington deem as the essential part of our bilateral relationship between that country and the United States. So as long as we’re advancing our most important US interests, that’s what your job is. So I think that’s important to have that get checked as well.

Priscilla: Well, my last question for you, what’s the most fun story that you can tell about your time working abroad?

Sharlina: Well, a fun story is that when I was working in London on the Olympics, I was working with my colleagues. And keep in mind, this is my first tour. So I’m still very junior and I was working on a reception/an event, actually for, at that time, First Lady Michelle Obama. And we were working around the clock to make sure everything was set up right. All the athletes were coming in and the folks who were invited were coming in. And I was working with the First Lady’s team from the White House would come in to also work what we call their advance team.

So I was working with them and we’re all so exhausted. And I was just like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe this is happening. All these people are coming.” And I got chewed out by one of the folks from the White House team because they were like, “Does this podium look exactly right?” So in public affairs, right, we set up the events, we have to do all these things. We have to think through every possible scenario. And so we’re right off the podium, setting up all these things. And I was like, “Yeah, everything looks right. The flag is in the right place. Everything, the backdrop, et cetera.” And they’re like, “I don’t think this podium looks right for the First Lady.” And I was like, “What?” And they were like, “Do you know how tall she is?” And I was like, “No. I know she’s tall but I don’t know how tall.” And they’re like, “Oh, she’s this” — I don’t even remember anymore, but she’s this tall, and she likes to wear a kitten heels. So I had to lie down on the floor by the podium to make sure we had just the right level of what is it called? The risers so that someone can — so that the First Lady — and I was so nervous.

And so right when that event happened, and the First Lady who is by the way, one of the most kindest down to earth people I have ever met, she stood on that riser. And I don’t know if anyone around me noticed that I had a huge sigh of relief, but it was like just right. It was the first event that was launched to kick off the entire weekend of events for the First Lady for the Olympics. And so I was so worried and mortified, but then it all was fine. And in the end she was so thankful and gracious and so sweet that I was like, “Thank God that worked out,” but let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.

Priscilla: Oh, my God. Wow. That probably felt so high stakes too, even though it’s like a minor detail. Oh, my God.

Sharlina: Yeah. So minor, right? Especially for a junior officer, we were like, “Okay. This is a lot.” So it just goes to show that every little thing that you see has so many intricate details in the back that someone is doing. So now it’s funny whenever I look at any kind of event. I’m like, “Oh, who did that? Oh, who did the Twitter?” Who was actually running that Twitter because that was probably the staff member, and I think they did a really good job.

Priscilla: Very cool. Well, Sharlina, this has been such a great conversation. I’m excited for people that are interested in this career path to listen to your story and to feel encouraged because I loved what you said about not letting imposter syndrome get in the way of your dreams. And you went after it, and you’ve been living your dream. So really cool. Thank you.

Sharlina: Great. Thank you so much, Priscilla.

OUTRO

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