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Published: June 2012
TALYN RAHMAN-FIGUEROA is a passionate and dedicated leader of foreign policy who established Grassroot Diplomat in 2008. As the “Grassroot Diplomat”, Rahman-Figueroa has been empowering women and young people on the world stage from the age of 22. Shruti Athavale found out more.
Shruti Athavale: Grassroot Diplomacy, the diplomatic consultancy group you founded, has a very ambitious goal. How did you come up with the idea to create such a group?
TRF: Ever since I graduated from university, I’ve always had a healthy interest in working for the government and representing my country abroad. In order to learn about global policies, I participated in several international summits that were led by the United Nations and used this opportunity to network with government officials who were already serving their country on the world stage. In between my degrees, I also sat on the executive board of several non-government organizations that dealt with issues like women’s rights, nuclear disarmament, UN reform and climate change. And as a member of these organizations, I saw first-hand how difficult it was for NGOs to make a real mark on policy when there was no solid structure in place.
I started Grassroot Diplomat mainly because I wanted to use my diplomatic skills and connections to enhance the interest of the people. I started to become jaded with the fact that diplomats and politicians were only promoting political and national interest without real input from their people. I wanted to be a change-maker and I knew that if I were ever in a government job, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to change much at all even from the inside. Rules and protocol are put in place for a reason. Innovation in diplomacy is incredibly rare, but I hope that by becoming a grassroot diplomat, my supporters and I can work to strengthen the voice of the people to their government representatives.
SA: How important is networking in diplomacy? Could you please share specific stories from your past?
TRF: Networking is absolutely pivotal not just in diplomacy, but in industries across the board. Diplomacy is a network of alliances, so forming new relationships and strengthening former ones is incredibly important in cross-promoting national interest. I go to networking events at least once a week as a means to expand my connections and teach a new audience about grassroot diplomacy.
I attended a rather large business exhibition a month ago to network with people in the corporate world. This was a new experience for me because the work that I do has little in common with expanding profit margins but, within this environment, I was able to try out my corporate social responsibility pitch to headhunters and corporate divisions that have little idea about government work.
SA: Would you mind sharing any particularly rewarding experiences you have had since you started Grassroot Diplomacy?
TRF: I think the most humbling experience for me at the moment is getting emails from diplomats from different parts of the world wanting to join Grassroot Diplomat as consultants. I receive many emails of support stating how the work that we do on the ground is something that diplomats need much focus on and have seemed to have lost sight of and it is great to hear that diplomatic and policy practitioners see relevance in the concept of grassroot diplomacy which I am pioneering. Grassroot diplomacy is a new concept examining the necessity to bridge the gap between civil society and political leaders and it is incredibly rewarding to be educating students and professionals alike in this new form of diplomacy so early in my career.
SA: Under the “programs” tab of your website, it mentions that you applied to 105 jobs before deciding to start your own business. What types of jobs did you consider before realizing your true passion?
TRF: When I was studying, I was under the impression that to get into government jobs, you had to have extensive experience in policy research. So I spent at least two years picking up jobs that only focused on research itself, but what I completely overlooked – as most students do – is that as a student, all you are doing is research and you don’t necessarily need the title “Researcher” from a company to prove that you can research. Unfortunately, I wasted a lot of time on research internships when I really should have been working in practical fields such as healthcare or commerce to really diversify some of my experiences.
Most of the jobs I was applying for were only in research or policy analysis which meant that I was pigeon-holing myself in a very specific field which, contrary to popular belief, isn’t in much demand. I was too stubborn to consider the corporate world and wasn’t given proper advice on how to broaden my horizons. Also, when speaking to government officials on how they got their jobs, they made it seem like it was as simple as passing an entrance exam before they got offered the job but of course we don’t know what they did prior to that, which is something I’m trying to shed light to as part of my Career Coaching Sessions to students.
SA: I read about the possibility of students attending a one-on-one coaching session with you in order to help them realize their potential. Could you give a few examples of the types of tips you give them? And what is the most common mistake that students make in their job search and applications?
Networking for society.
TRF: I started the career coaching session because as an employer, I was seeing the same mistakes being made by candidates over and over. Many students are under the impression that doing six government internships means having an easier time getting into the government sector. Unfortunately, in this job climate, that is far from the truth. The United Nations rarely take on graduates with little experience other than through the competitive exams and even then, the chances of getting through are really slim. My coaching session isn’t just a critique of the candidates resume and cover letter but an opportunity to help them explore other routes into their ideal career.
I recommend students to be interested in several fields but in order to help them manage those interests, it is important to find commons links. If you are able to show your employers that you can find root causes to global problems and link those problems in some sort of intangible spider web, you have already proven that not only do you know the subject well enough to talk about, but you have strong research and analytical skills that may not necessarily be present in your CV. For example, climate change is not just about the environment but has links to refugee issues, human rights, civil and social disruptions, and national identity issues. A candidate interested in climate change may not have thought about the reasons why this policy issue is prioritized differently by other countries even if the issue is a global matter.
SA: What advice would you offer to young graduates who are struggling to find the perfect job match in the current economic environment?
TRF: I advise my candidates to take up internships that are not formally attached to government issues. The United Nations has thousands of jobs all over the world that require staff to get down and dirty with policy issues. Think about this. If you were placed in a UN field operation in the slums of Burundi, would be you able to use any of the skills you learned at university? Most of the time, the answer is no, so try to pick up technical and practical skills that can be used in real-life and sometimes dangerous situations. Language skills are essential too and these are the skills that UN officials are looking out for.
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