From Entrepreneur to UN Analyst: A Pandemic Career Change

One decade ago, a new college undergraduate started a jewelry company, Etkie, with one Navajo artisan employee on a sandy sidewalk in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fast forward to today, Etkie now employs twelve full-time artisans employed from home in Navajo Nation. Along with managing partnerships at Etkie, founder Sydney Alfonso is forging her way through her first year as a Partnerships Analyst for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Lab under the United Nations. While a dream destination organization for many, Sydney’s unique career path was one created from a few happenstance opportunities, a dash of aptly timed courage, and tons of dedication.

Over a call, Sydney tells me how her jewelry company, Etkie, was originally sparked after a post-graduation trip to Turkey, where she was captivated by beautiful artisan pieces and the makers way of life. Once back in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, she wondered, what was limiting the Navajo artisans who lived in her hometown from also leading a quality life with a livable wage? In her early twenties, she unabashedly (and perhaps naively) approached a Navajo artisan and essentially asked if she would like to join what would become known as Etkie. It was the first step of many to eventually build a team of twelve full-time artisans, providing a livable wage for their work and ultimately helping pave a path out of poverty for these female artisans. It was this hands-on experience with Etkie that, in turn, provided Sydney with the real-life experience in navigating diverse community partnerships that were ultimately filled with countless challenges, but also an unshakable sense of fulfillment.

In early 2020, once Etkie was supported by a carefully assembled, dedicated team, Sydney relocated to Paris and returned to school to obtain her master’s degree in International Public Management from Sciences Po, also known as The Paris Institute of Political Studies. Nearing graduation and managing Etkie from afar, Sydney found herself interested in working with the highly coveted United Nations. However, she learned she would need to entertain the idea of an internship to even be considered for a role. Already a decade into her entrepreneurial career, Sydney was admittedly hesitant to start in a position that many consider only suitable for unseasoned twenty-year-olds. But once offered the opportunity, her pioneering spirit made a go of it and she relatively quickly progressed from intern to Partnership’s Analyst thanks to her aptitude and commitment. In Sydney’s additional role under the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Lab, she drives a holistic approach towards sustainable development. The day-to-day primarily involves phone calls, meetings, strategic questioning, and if not most importantly, effective narrative shaping. She states that they essentially, “Ask a lot of questions,” to help facilitate and encourage action on the part of their member nations and prominent players. Sydney mentions that much care is taken to be cognizant of each member nation’s individual voice and culture, navigating what is said and to whom, and being strategic with whom they work with to both exert and maintain influence. This has similarities to her work at Etkie with an increased focus on organizational/systems unity.

This feedback aligns with the lecture, Corporate Sustainability, presented by Bruno Sarda, a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at ASU. According to Mr. Sarda, consciously avoiding communicating forcefully is required for success within a large organization. While this may seem counterintuitive, this behavior could backfire and put off the very constituents you are aiming to persuade. He states, what is most important is to persuade with grace, to have and to continue to keep a seat at the table, as this is the only way to ensure your voice will continue to be heard. The drawback to this potentially being the appearance of lack of progress, which might be reframed as a short-term tradeoff for longer-term influence. And likewise, while Sydney has experienced a very accelerated path from intern to her current role, she has also come to terms with a newfound large organizational hierarchy involving less directly impactful work than she had grown accustomed to with her start-up, which can admittedly be frustrating at times.

As a trade-off, group-based projects are what highly engage Sydney’s accomplished spirit. Some examples include the SDG Lab awareness campaign, “So What?” a project series aiming to communicate “Why We Do What We Do?” to their constituents. Along with UN members, she enjoys working with major global organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). And since Switzerland (where Sydney is now located) is an international finance hub, her job has included aspects of grant making and the facilitation of relationships between financial partners and UN initiatives. In fact, they have a financial networking conference coming up this fall aptly titled, “Building Bridges.” This project has been an all-encompassing, major focus for her team, some employees even leaving momentarily to work on this full-time as part of an all-hands-on-deck approach.

So, what’s Sydney’s biggest piece of advice to graduates (of any age) starting out? She pragmatically states that finding great people to work with can really make or break the job. Sydney is grateful to work under her current leader, an influential woman who has the wherewithal to successfully navigate the complex organizational web, all while being incredibly supportive of Sydney’s role and advancement within and outside of her team. As noted, Sydney’s move from strappy entrepreneur to global organization analyst has been successful due primarily to the alignment of key champions, and an understanding of the importance of and shift towards large organization/systems dynamics.

To anyone pressured to have it all figured out, I hope this interview will provide you with a sense of relief. And if you happen to know someone with your “dream job,” reach out! It may just help you to understand how to progress on your own path.

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