Working in international markets means seeking opportunities outside of familiar markets, and that requires engaging with people from different regions and cultures. For Mikael Baker, senior information and communications technology (ICT) advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), developing a global mindset is key to working effectively in these markets. “In international development, like many fields, it’s important to be able to effectively work with people from different cultures. Learning about other cultures, being humble, and being adaptable are all key to working my field,” he states.
USAID is the world's premier international development agency. Baker’s team at USAID, the Development Informatics team, works at the intersection of international development and technology. His team’s work enables digital societies and governments in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) and advances the data-driven design of USAID programs. This work includes thought leadership, developing resources, and developing tools to improve national data governance policies, improve data ecosystems, scale-up best practices for appropriate use of technology in development, and accelerate the digitalization of government services in LMICS. He states while all seven of the global mindset competencies are important to his day-to-day work, cultural curiosity and tolerance for ambiguity stick out as being the most important. “I would say adaptability, cultural curiosity, and tolerance of ambiguity are the most important. Adaptability, because priorities can quickly change in a project or initiative, where it once appeared feasible but may no longer be viable after circumstances and environmental factors change. Cultural curiosity, because you need to dig in, research other cultures, and take stock of their work styles to understand how team and power dynamics work in those cultures. Then, tolerance of ambiguity, because there's a lot of uncertainty in this field. Uncertainty comes from many sources, but some key contributors are shifting political winds both in the US and abroad and the complexity of attempting to address challenging human development problems,” Baker explains.
Baker was born in Kenya and spent most of his childhood living abroad. “I was born in Kenya and I'm part of a multiracial and multicultural family. I spent the majority of my childhood growing up in Kenya, Botswana, Ghana, Egypt, basically abroad almost all my childhood...,” he says. This upbringing helped to mold his global mindset. He recalls a recent example where his unique upbringing and global mindset contributed to completing a successful work project. “A recent example was when my team recently delivered a virtual training workshop on data-driven project design to some colleagues based in Kenya. I used my cultural curiosity and my experiences from Kenya to both include local humor in some of the workshop activities, and to help facilitate active engagement in virtual breakout room activities. It ended up being a great workshop, and the participants shared some glowing feedback afterward,” Baker says.
Even with a global upbringing, Baker says there are still several challenges working in an international field, including political landscape and sustainability, just to name a few. “Political landscapes both in the US and in the countries where we work drive our priorities. From the USAID and the US side, it's sort of a swinging pendulum where priorities at home can change rapidly when a new administration comes into power. Sustainability is a huge challenge in terms of the long-term viability of international development projects. Sometimes a project appears to be running smoothly and contributing to promising outcomes, but then after it ends, unless the proper local buy-in is there and resources are in place to sustain the outcomes, the success may not continue. Participatory approaches to international development tend to be more sustainable than top-down approaches that don’t adequately factor in local context and perspectives,” he explains.
Baker says its proximity to the nation’s capital, international student body and faculty, and socially responsible business electives are what led him to Maryland Smith. He suggests that current students and fellow alumni that want to work in international fields should get as much international experience as early as possible, whether through school, work, or volunteering. “Get out and get field or international experience, whether it be in school or after you finish school. Get overseas as soon as you can, and pursue a volunteer opportunity, if that's what’ll help get you the overseas experience... some programs to look at would include MBAs Without Borders, the Peace Corps, Emerging Market Development Advisors Program, Engineers Without Borders, and Global Health Corps. In my case, after the MBA at Maryland, I worked for about a year and a half with a global health NGO based in DC and then decided to do the MBAs Without Borders fellowship in Uganda for a year. I think my year in Uganda working for a start-up sanitation social enterprise, Sanitation Solutions Group, was great for expanding my global mindset, cementing skills I developed in the Smith MBA program, and helping me accelerate my transition into the field of international development,” he says.
Baker ends with encouraging more people in business school to consider impactful careers in international development. “I feel that not enough people in business schools, even the social impact-oriented people, are considering careers in international development. There are plenty of opportunities in international development for people that come from a business school background, whether it is working for a business abroad, supporting economic-growth programs, doing data and technology-related work, developing partnerships, project management, operations management, or financial management... there's a lot of applicability between business school education and international development.”
The mission of the Center for Global Business is to connect the diverse members of the Smith School community to the world and the world to the Smith School. Through these global alumni stories, the center connects the Maryland Smith community with alumni who have successfully utilized a global mindset in their careers.
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