Category Archives: Careers

When do you know enough?

During a recent workshop with the Op-Ed Project, a program launched by Echoing Green Fellow Katie Orenstein that is bringing more women’s voices into public discourse, I struggled with an exercise designed to help the participants talk about our areas of expertise. In the workshop with me was a stunning array of women with tremendous accomplishments under their belts.

The exercise was simple, I thought at first, just a fill-in-the-blank exercise. My name is Yasmina and I am an expert in _______ because _________. The only instructions were to make it narrow, specific and short. Little did I know that I would struggle so mightily with this simple task, even after watching over a dozen women go through the exercise before it was my turn.

Make it narrow. Sounds simple enough, but I couldn’t do it. I was so worried about not communicating the breadth of my knowledge, that I picked an area of expertise that was both hard to communicate, and far from unique. It was something about helping entrepreneurs solve major global challenges. Huh? One by one, each woman struggled to state one area of expertise that was narrow, and in which they had more expertise than others in the room.

An expert in International Affairs? No, try “I’m an expert in backpacking across Kyrgyzstan as a journalist.”

An expert in children’s literature? No, try “I’m an expert in Free to be You and Me.”

As I listened I found these new answers painfully narrow. Yet the revised answers made me far more curious to learn from these diverse accomplished women. And of course, one can be expert in lots of different things. But why bother figuring out how to describe a narrow expertise? Because someday, you may need to share what you know with someone else, and it they will probably want to know something specific. But as I try to think about what I know that makes me some kind of expert, it seems impossible to think of anything for which there aren’t 5 people I know that have deeper expertise. So maybe there’s another way to get at this. In the past few weeks several people have asked me to speak to them to share my expertise (who knew?). All of these people are working on projects with real social impact with organizations I deeply respect, and I haven’t hesitated to share with them what I know.

I have a momentary pause – do I know enough to be of assistance? And then I decide I’ll let them decide. I’ll share what I know, no more, no less, and they’ll decide if it’s helpful. They may not reveal to me whether it is truly useful, but worst case scenario, they’ll know I tried to be helpful. And I’ll learn a little more about what I know. Because whether or not I ever figure out what I’m an expert in, I do want to learn how my knowledge can help others.

So, after my recent conversations with people who seemed interested in what I know, here’s take two:

My name is Yasmina and I’m an expert in how to tell the story of a social enterprise because I’ve been working with social entrepreneurs on 5 continents for 15 years, helping them share their stories at events, through media and in academia.

It’s a start.  What’s your expertise? Remember, narrow. specific, short.

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Antonia Bowring – Inspiring on many dimensions

In this, my second profile in the series “Celebrating a Whole Life,” I am privileged to write about Antonia Bowring, a woman who has inspired me for many years and who truly deserves to be celebrated. Antonia is someone who I have admired for her thoughtful choices and honesty, but what first amazed me about her was something I discovered in a freezer.

I was impressed by Antonia from the moment I met her. She was facilitating the first staff retreat I attended with Acumen Fund nine years ago, and her approach to guiding us through complex and sometimes delicate conversations was both intimate and commanding. She had the complete trust of our CEO, and I was so curious about her story – who was this woman who could pop into our three day meeting to help us as we shaped some of the key elements of our strategy as a freelance consultant.

So I was already curious about her when on our second day at the offsite retreat I opened the freezer to find ice cubes and found small frozen pouches of milk and naively asked what they were. She was nearby and told me she was pumping milk for a baby she had at home. The whole concept was foreign to me at the time (though it is all too familiar now) and I suddenly had to replay the past 24 hours. In the past day of marathon working sessions, interspersed with the kind of intense social time that was possible for a team of about 11, she had been finding time to fulfill this commitment to an infant somewhere hours away.

Antonia became somewhat of a beacon for me as I thought about having a family years later. Wondering how it would all work, I would think of her and know that it was possible to achieve tremendous professional respect even in the midst of nursing a baby.  This may seem obvious to the many many women who do this every day, but to me, at that moment that I peered into the freezer, it was a revelation.

It had a big impact on me years later when I was nursing my first child and returned to work. Rather than aim for subtlety in managing the oh-so-fun process of pumping 3 times a day at work for months, I decided to be relaxed and open about it, wondering if perhaps some younger woman might make a mental note, as I had, that this was something that people do, and it can work.

Antonia has stayed in Acumen Fund’s orbit, and I have continued to watch her career and life with fascination, moving from success to success, now the mother of two beautiful boys and the COO of the Open Space Institute. The Open Space Institute (OSI) protects scenic, natural, and historic landscapes for the public as well as for the sake of environmental conservation. She manages the systems and finances of an organization that has protected more than 116,000 acres and made more than 70 loans and grants for nearly $80 million to protect 1.6 million acres valued at over $530 million. From her work in women’s microfinance internationally to serving as a portfolio manager at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation – one of New York’s most innovative education philanthropies – and now serving on the board of ioby, a grassroots environmental organization, she has found so many ways to make a difference on so many important issues.

When I decided to write this series of posts I knew I would reach out to her. In part because I already owed her a tremendous debt for cracking open the idea of combining mothering and contributing professionally in such a powerful way, but also because I wanted to better understand her story.

We had dinner together recently and I was able to form a more nuanced picture of her work at the Open Space Institute, balancing the needs of two children a few years older than my own with her leadership responsibilities. She was refreshingly honest about tradeoffs she had made, but I saw that the same art that I had observed when I first met her to put the pieces together was still in full effect. She agreed to answer my five questions, and I had one more for her before we parted ways after our dinner. “What is the bottom line, when it comes to work – what can’t be given up?” Her response – “Making a difference.” I was so glad we’d stayed in touch and that I would have a chance to celebrate Antonia, and thank her, in writing, for helping show me a path I could learn from.

Here’s how Antonia answered the 5 questions I pose to all of the women I highlight in my Celebrating a Whole Life series.

1.     How do you define success?

When I “started out”, I defined it as “making a difference”.  By that I meant a difference in resolving the inequalities faced by many people – my focus was economic inequalities faced by women in developing countries.  I still want to make a difference….but my tableau right now is more local.  I can’t work if it doesn’t have a positive benefit for society one way or another.  But my definition of success now also includes raising two strong, capable, thoughtful, adventure seeking young men.  Oh yes, I’d love to define success by winning a tennis tournament. I know it will happen ONE DAY.

2.     What is your greatest struggle?

It’s such a cliché.  Its feeling like I don’t do much of anything well because I’m so scattered.  I do “ok” work; I’m an “ok” mom; I’m an OK athlete, I’m an ok board member; I’m not sure if I even rise to the ranks of “ok” life partner.

3.     What are you proudest of?

Hands down, my two boys.

4.     Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life? 

I don’t recall her name.  She is the publisher of Julia Child’s cookbook series. (I can look it up.)  She was a pioneer in believing in the book and its impact.  And now in her 80s in VT, she is still a pioneer raising organic cattle.  I love that she still has a sense of adventure, creativity and she hasn’t just stopped “thinking” and watches TV all the time.

5.     If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?

 I’d cook, I’d have friends over, I’d eat and drink with them, and we’d all have scintillating conversations because I’d have time to keep up on news and read books about philosophy!  (And I’d listen more to my boys in a non distracted way.)

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Filed under Careers, Celebrating a Whole Life, Work and Life

Ariel Kaminer: An Honest Voice

This is the first in a series of posts called Celebrating a Whole Life. I’m thrilled to be writing tonight about Ariel Kaminer, who’s warmth and encouragement gave me the confidence to start with her.

Ariel and I met through our children, two toddlers who picked each other out to become friends.  I’ll never forget the two of them, 2 years old, holding hands at a Halloween parade. It’s not always wise to assume that the friendship of small children will correlate with the potential for friendship among their parents, but as my husband Marlowe and I got to know Ariel and her husband better, I started to really look forward to our random park meetings or playdate discussions. And when Ariel and I conveniently became pregnant at around the same time, we had even more to talk about.

Ariel is a widely read and extremely talented writer and editor who writes The Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine, and has also been the NYT’s City Critic and Editor of the Arts & Leisure section.   I love The Ethicist, and it’s always the first thing I flip to in the Magazine, but I wasn’t going to go and admit that.  What I always wanted to ask her about was how she juggled writing multiple extremely popular columns for the New York Times while being so clearly dedicated to her family. But I felt like I shouldn’t go there – our common ground was not work, but those two little ones that had essentially introduced us. So I never really brought it up.

But then our second children, both daughters, made a secret pact before they were even born to arrive on the same day. And when we found ourselves on April 22nd at the same hospital, just down the hall from each other, with our older children playing with balloons together in the hallway of NYU’s maternity ward, I sensed that our friendship would grow deeper. And it has.

As I’ve gotten to know Ariel, I’ve come to really admire her unfussy approach to embracing motherhood and a career as a successful editor and writer on ethics, culture and the city.

She may be responsible for wrestling major ethical dilemmas to the ground, but she doesn’t act like it. She has an approach to the ups and downs of life with a career and family that reminds me to take things a little less seriously. I ran into her shortly before a one-night trip away from her family, the only one she’s ever had, after her second daughter was born, and rather than talk about feelings of guilt or worry, she shared her excitement about a rare opportunity to sleep past six am. A new, and better, twist on traveling for work.

It’s impossible to know what all the daily challenges are for any particular person are, but Ariel is among the most candid people I know about the juggling act, and also the most humorous. I find the more time I spend with her, the more I reflect on how these dilemmas are truly the side-effect of a privileged life where having a family and pursuing satisfying work co-exist. So we should smile about it. I celebrate Ariel for bringing humor to this wild ride and reminding me in ways both subtle and direct that we who get to make these choices are the lucky ones, and also how funny this stuff can be.

Here’s how Ariel answered the 5 questions I’ll pose to all of the women I highlight in my Celebrating a Whole Life series.

1.       How do you define success?

Accomplishing the goals you set forth for yourself. Btw I’m terrible at setting forth goals for myself.

2.       What is your greatest struggle?

See above.

3.       What are you proudest of?

My friendships and my family. I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and I’d like to do more work that I’m more proud of. But in truth, lots of people could have done it. Which is to say, if I’m useful to my employer, or to the world of journalism in general, terrific. But I’m irreplaceable to my daughters, and I’m proudest of all that I’ve been there for them.

4.       Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life?

My mother was my big inspiration. She founded and ran an innovative company that helped thousands and thousands of kids. But she was home every night for dinner, and she always made her own children feel that they were the very center of her world. She was the happiest person I know.

5.       If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?

Exercise, read books, do my modest part to help heal the world. Where do I apply for this 8th day, and how long does it take to kick in?

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Celebrating a Whole Life

This year I’m going to throw a party. A year long celebration of something I haven’t quite defined yet. This is my, dare I say it, New Year’s resolution.

I saw a dear friend recently. We were meeting up with our two kids of roughly the same age in tow, and we had a great conversation, in the moments that we weren’t chasing after our kids. And the conversation worked its way around to careers – she just got a very impressive PhD and is thinking through next steps.

And in this conversation, we talked about the way that being a mother and a professional can have a slight dampening effect on one’s career. She mentioned how rare it was to meet a tenured female professor with kids. The reasons for this phenomenon boils down to something we called, for the purpose of simplicity, “choices.”

No blame, no victims, just choices.

The choices I make are not just about being with my children, but about trying to create some sort of whole life. But it feels like unchartered territory and every move is shadowed by a totally useless sense that I’m not making the right choices. What has been most useful to me in this process is conversations with women who are a few years ahead of me working on this same project of making a life. Women with kids or serious commitments to family, with careers, with a powerful sense of their unique contribution to the world. I have met a few of these women over the course of my life, and they amaze and inspire me.

They impact people’s lives, care for their families, and walk in the world as pioneers of a new kind of achievement. One that, as far as I know, remains largely uncelebrated. And it absolutely should be celebrated. Hence the New Year’s resolution. To more fully understand and celebrate this thing that some women do so beautifully and that I would like to do well. Rather than aim to “master” this ability to create a multi-faceted life, I’d like to commit to celebrating the women who inspire me, and to imagine a world where people (not just women) are honored for the wholeness of their life, not just the spikes in their ability to lead others, make money, make a name for themselves.

So, rather than wish for a different world, I’ll see if I can help build it, one celebration at a time. Stay tuned…and share your thoughts here on what a “whole life” looks like and who inspires you.

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A Dream Job

Your dream job may not be the same as my dream job, but a dream job for anyone has these qualities – it is dynamic, it is fulfilling and it matters. We’ve just posted a job for someone who would work with me on communications, and I truly believe it is a dream job for the right person.

I lead Acumen Fund’s communication efforts, and have the privilege of supporting Acumen Fund’s core mission of changing the way the world tackles poverty through our work to communicate stories of what works, to spread ideas and new approaches, and to expand our impact through our community around the world.

Change can come about in many ways. Today, I watch young people getting arrested on TV for Occupy efforts across the country and know that they are part of a change we need to see in how our country allocates opportunity. Last week, I stood with my colleagues and talked to our global community of supporters about a change in how the world tackles the gaping holes in access to critical goods and services faced by the world’s poor through the catalytic role of entrepreneurship.

In all the great changes of the past many decades, the storytellers have played a role. We’re looking for someone who understands the power of storytelling, of media, of language. This is the job for someone who has been drawn to the fields of journalism and communications because of an unflappable faith that, despite the constraints of contemporary media, there is a way to use words, images and stories to communicate truth, to inspire, and to drive change.

And this is the dream job for someone who wants to use their skills and networks in media and communications to help articulate and amplify a bold new approach to tackling global poverty.  If this is you, or someone you know, check out the job posting!

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Net Impact Redefined for a New Generation

It’s 4 o’clock in the morning in Portland, Oregon and my 6-month old daughter thinks we’re on East Coast time. So she is as awake and happy as she gets, and I, somehow, am not.

I’m here for the annual Net Impact conference, a gathering of MBA students and professionals that want to use business skills to change world. This is my sixth time at the conference, and my third time speaking at the conference, including their first European conference in Geneva in in 2008, which I blogged here. What keeps me coming back to this event is the feeling I get when I’m there with the thousands of participants that there truly is enough talent and commitment in the world to do what needs to be done. To discover, to persuade, to implement, to do all the things necessary to create a world that is both sustainable and just.

I’ve been aware of Net Impact since I helped organize a conference on business, technology and the environment called Ecotech in 1997. That was so long ago that my conference didn’t have a website, but I remember reaching out to a group called Students for Responsible Business (SRB), an offshoot of BSR, and wondering what it was like to be an MBA that was passionate about sustainability. I wouldn’t have guessed that almost 5 years later, I would launch a Net Impact chapter at Stanford Business School.

SRB became Net Impact, and has been evolving ever since, even as the very concept of socially responsible business has morphed into a broader understanding that the tools of business can be applied in almost any setting, and that social responsibility should really be no different from the basic duty of any company to operate in ways that are responsible. In a sense, the founders of this organization understood that responsibility could not be a side project, but had to be a core principle. At this conference I heard from folks like Hannah Jones at Nike, who talked about the importance of innovation, and Ben Packard of Starbucks, who spoke on the topic of transparency.

Net Impact is often a place where companies announce new initiatives, share their best practices and recruit for new talent. But the bar is getting higher for the next generation of emerging business professionals.

In the almost 20 years since this community first formed both the world of CSR and the students themselves have changed. They are not just looking for good companies to work for. In the sessions I participated in on impact investing, I heard questions from students who plan to start social enterprises, become impact investors, or who are interested in being a part of a movement that challenges the assumptions of business as usual fundamentally.

Being with them, in addition to the dear friends I’ve made here, gives me hope for the future.

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