There’s a major deficit of career advice for college women. There are plenty of quality resources like the Daily Muse and 40:20 Vision for recent grads and young professional women. But the most popularized piece of advice to college women, even at a place like Princeton, is to find a good husband before graduating. So as I move onto the next chapter of my life, I want to share some advice with the incredibly talented young women of Georgetown:
1) Establish a “central theme” and support it with diverse experiences
When someone asks you “tell me about yourself” (an introductory question in many interviews) you should be able to give a succinct answer. Your activities should be tied together by a central theme rooted in a sincere passion. For examples of people who have effectively explored their “central passions,” check out the profiles of Rhodes and Marshall scholars (and note the gender disparity especially for the Marshall).
A mistake that I see a lot of young college women making is having their personal brand be too broad. “Economic development in Africa” is too broad. “China” is too broad. Another problem that I see is that people will claim to be passionate/ knowledgeable about a topic that they have no formal experience in. You cannot claim to be an education policy expert if you have never worked in a school or on education policy. Tutoring with DC Reads or DC Schools is not enough. You need a variety of meaningful and diverse experiences for this theme to be convincing.
For the majority of my undergraduate experience, my “central theme” was financial access and literacy, which borders on being too broad. I worked at a large international microfinance NGO in DC, interned at a locally-run microfinance institution in Tanzania, coordinated the youth delegation to the Global Microcredit Summit, and managed a student-run microfinance institution for low-income DC small business owners. By the time I entered consulting interviews, I could convincingly say that I was passionate about financial inclusion, which made me a memorable and competitive candidate. Other examples of young women who have done this well include Joanna Foote (SFS ’13) with immigration and Emily Oehlsen (SFS ’13) with labor economics.
2) Tell everyone you know what you care about
After you think long and hard about what your central theme will be, tell EVERYONE you know. Drop it to your professors during office hours. Mention it to your friends when dining at Leo’s. Post articles about the topic on Facebook. Be honest about what you’re looking for and, all of a sudden, you’ve turned your social network into personal opportunity hunters. And do the same for others – it’s all about reciprocity. I’ve forwarded opportunities to friends who are interested in subjects like security studies in Central Asia, healthcare policy for low-income families in the U.S., and women’s health in the developing world. These are memorable “central themes,” so when something shows up in my inbox through listservs or other friends, it’s so easy to just forward the opportunity to the relevant person with the hope (but not expectation) that they will do the same for me. (P.S. – I am now looking for part-time/volunteer opportunities to address the digital divide in the United States).
3) Don’t look for opportunities. Create them.
Okay – now you have your central passion and everyone knows about it. The next step is to be honest about where your gaps or weaknesses lie and think of innovative ways to address them. This is especially important when you have just created or shifted your central passion.
What a lot of young college women do it scan the available opportunities and settle if they can’t find something that they want. A perfect example is studying abroad. Many will just accept whatever program Georgetown offers rather than critically thinking what they want out of the experience and then crafting an experience that will fulfill that need. Yes, this is more work, but it’s worth it if an independent study or even dropping out for the semester better suits your professional and personal needs.
When looking for internships, try to optimize for the individual or organization that you want to work with rather than scanning for publically listed opportunities on sites like Idealist. Once you identify the sector leader that you want to mentor you, send a cold email or ideally have someone introduce you. Briefly state your experience (attach a resume if relevant), why you want to work for that person, and what you bring to the table. The worst that can happen is that they don’t respond after one or two follow up emails. For those interested in international development opportunities, I recommend that students reach out to Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs, Ashoka Fellows, government ministries, and investments of impact investors like Acumen Fund and Grey Ghost Ventures.
4) Demonstrate transformational leadership
When McKinsey is asked what they look for in applicants, the answer is “transformational leadership.” What does this really mean? It means that you can point out ways that the organization is better when you leave than it was when you joined. It is not just about reaching the highest levels of leadership; it’s about how you specifically affected the established role. There are a few easy ways to get transformational leadership experience at a young age: 1) entrepreneurial activity (you can start something yourself or join a young startup) and 2) involvement in low-skill, under-served regions. If you are in an established role or organization, ASK for the opportunity to lead a project. If the project already exists, pitch why you are the best person for the job. If the project is your idea, pitch how it fits into the broader strategy of the organization. The objective is for you to credit yourself with a specific deliverable that will continue to better the entire organization after you leave.
It is clear that college women need to be better at defining and proactively pursuing what we want. Do not settle and do not sit down. Act deliberately and actively seek challenges that feed into your broader narrative. If you have any questions, would like any help, or care to discuss these ideas further, please feel free to reach out to me directly (Net ID: ao298).