Career Advice from the Global Fund for Women’s CEO

Kavita Ramdas is the president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, the worled's largest grant-making organization focusing on women's empowerment. Photo by: Terry Lorant

Does being genuinely interested in international development guarantee you success in the field? Not unless you have a repertoire of well-honed, must-have skills to complement that passion.

Kavita Ramdas’ example – and that of most successful development professionals – oozes the mastery of one essential skill: adaptability.

By the time Ramdas graduated high school, she’d traveled all over the world and attended a dozen schools. According to her, working with community and grassroots organizations in rural and urban India “changed the way in which I thought about what I wanted my life to be.” Consequently, she moved to the U.S. to pursue her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Mount Holyoke College and Princeton University, respectively. Today, the Indian national heads up the world’s largest grant-making body for women’s empowerment.

Devex recently spoke to the Global Fund for Women president and CEO about some must-have skills for leaving one’s mark in the dynamic development sphere.

What are three skills that you consider essential for succeeding in gender and development?

The first is you must learn a language other than your own, and other than English, in which you’re fluent. I think for most Americans, particularly, this is one of the major barriers that they have to working in international development. And, particularly if you hope to work with women, women have traditionally been excluded from so many educational opportunities that they rarely would speak another language other than their own, and if you don’t speak that language your chances of being able to communicate or be connected to them or really move forward on agendas is really not going to be there.

The second thing I think is very important in doing international work is to have a good working knowledge of geography. Again, something most Americans don’t learn. They have no idea of where most parts of the world are, they don’t understand what, you know, what difference it makes if you have a river or a mountain range between you and something else. They don’t understand if people are actually from the same community but they’ve been divided because of colonial histories and legacies.

And I would say the same about history. I think in order to really have a good understanding and to be working in gender and development, if you don’t have a good understanding of geography and if you don’t have a good understanding of world history and how those things are connected, you won’t have a very good understanding of why is it that women are treated as second class citizens not just in the so-called developing world but really in every part of the world. I think that’s profoundly important and very often underestimated.

And then lastly, I think a very solid understanding of the way the current economic system works. So, I think many times, particularly young women are afraid of, or are sort of driven away from studying economics because they think they don’t have enough math and they’ve already talked themselves into believing they’re bad at math. Or the world has talked them into believing they’re bad at math.

I think it’s profoundly important for those of us who want to address gender inequality to have a good working knowledge of economics so that we are not intimidated when people come and tell us, “Oh, well, we have to do it this way because this is the requirement of the private sector.” We must know what that’s about, we must know factors of supply and demand, we must know what is fair and unjust about the ways in which economies work. And, I think fewer and fewer young women that I meet are comfortable and well-equipped to understand issues around economies. They’ve been encouraged to stay away from it because it’s become more and more mathematical, but I think it’s profoundly important as a core understanding to do this work.

What’s your advice on networking and crafting a good resume or cover letter?

Talk about the things that you have really done and talk about the things you’re passionate about. Remember that in the U.S., there’s a very high premium on marketing yourself, which I think is a big thing for those of us who grew up in other parts of the world to remember. We are brought up in parts where it’s not actually considered civilized to be so self-promoting. In the U.S., it’s exactly the opposite. So, [it’s important] to be more confident about presenting yourself in ways that other people can actually see what you’ve done and how you’ve done it.

Ask other people to take a look at your resume before you send it out. Get some advice from others who can help you with that. I mean I just think that’s an important piece. And I think, in terms of making sure that somebody else takes a look at it, ask a few people to look at it – ask your American friends if you’re a foreign student. Remember that Americans like short sentences and their English is different than the [British] English that many of us have grown up with. So, those are the things that [count] if you’re looking for jobs in America.

Read more from our interview with Kavita Ramdas.

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