From practical jokes with George Bush Sr. to asking Brad Pitt for ID, Payal’s found herself in some pretty funny situations over the course of her (very successful) career – spanning non-profits, marketing, banking, and government relations. She recently uprooted herself to London-town, but squeezed in time for an interview to dish the dirt on dropping names in DC, reneged job offers, and what not to do if she’s your mentor.
Payal, you worked for President Clinton – that’s kind of amazing! Truth be told, you’ve actually had a few of those jobs that everyone wants. What’s your secret?
Yes, I worked for the Clinton Foundation in foreign policy where I prepared briefs and talking points for any trip or meeting he had with a foreign official. It was a lot of writing and research – I learned a lot but I still never knew more than the President!
My secret? I think it’s about preparing as much as you can and networking in such a way so that when you go for the official interview, you already have the job. Before President Clinton, I worked for Dr. Jeff Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute and Special Advisor to Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals. It was my job to figure out how to make the MDGs and international development in general more relevant and relatable to the masses as well as how to generate interest and funding. It was my boss and mentor at the World Affairs Council who opened the door for me. She knew the right people and told them how incredibly inspired I was by their work and how I wanted to get involved – it was her endorsement and connections that paved my way. A cold application would never have done it.
So it’s all about leveraging your past experiences to get to the next opportunity. You always need to make sure you have champions and that you use them in the best way you can.
I know you have some pretty good stories from these jobs… Spill it! ;)
For some reason, at one of the Clinton Global Initiative meetings, they decided I should do security. Keep in mind I’m 4 foot 11, and I look like a 10 year old little Indian girl. I had to check IDs and I guess I didn’t look closely enough because I not only asked Jesse Jackson for ID, I also asked Brad Pitt!
Another time, President George Bush Sr. came to President Clinton’s office but he wasn’t in so President Bush decided to play a practical joke on President Clinton. He staged all kinds of different photos with us, some where we’re hugging and some where he’s arguing with a member of the team. He sent the photos to President Clinton as a bundle to him saying, “See, I’m much closer with your staff than you are!”
Back to serious stuff, now how did you manage to transition between such different jobs?
Yes, I’ve had some real transitions, but my work has almost always been at the intersection of international development and the private sector so there’s also been a theme, which is important for anyone’s career ‘story’. You can’t totally plan your career trajectory as things happen along the way, but where you start and how you tell your story are key.
I actually started out working at Google in advertising! Everyone says it was my biggest mistake quitting but I wanted to move into the non-profit world. You have to think very carefully about your first job and then about becoming pigeonholed. I later went to business school so I wasn’t forever seen as a ‘non-profit person’. Perception was unfortunately that non-profit and government people weren’t as smart or agile so I decided to do a joint MBA/MPA. I also wanted to get the ‘hard’ skills and I did an internship at Citi at the same time, launching a new credit card with AT&T, which was great as I was really interested in the telecom industry.
Lots of people talk about the importance of networking when it comes to both finding jobs and succeeding at work but many find it really tough. What’s your take on this?
Networking isn’t natural for anyone but you just have to make it mandatory in your life. Say “I will go to one event a month” and commit to that as a minimum. Bring a networking wingman even if that helps you feel less intimidated. I get it – it’s hard to go up to a circle of people and break in to the conversation so having a partner in crime can help.
I used to attend all kinds of meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations and I went to some of the staff members in advance, asking them to look out for me and introduce me to a few people. Introductions are great because they automatically give you an endorsement. It’s especially hard when you look young and want to be taken seriously. You have to do everything you can to build credibility, whether that’s being shameless about who you are and the work you do, or by asking a really good question that forces people to take note.
You’ve spent a lot of time in DC. What’s it like?
DC is a very different place. People are a lot more intellectually curious, but also wonky. So it’s kind of a bunch of nerds… in a great way. Everything is about policy. Even if you’re at a bar, the topics of conversation are very substantive – “Did you read Kerry’s speech about Syria?”
DC is also a place where there’s a real mix of work and play. Most events are over cocktails, lunches, or breakfasts. There’s a high premium on mixing that together, so unsurprisingly it’s all about who you know and the sense of status you convey. I find DC much more hierarchical, and dropping a name can take you very far. If you mention you talked to Senator XX yesterday, people perk up. So the way to succeed is to be out there and network your butt off. You say ‘let’s grab lunch’ and you actually do. I think, in the end, it’s important to realize these initial relationships are transactional – how can this person be useful to me and how can I be useful to this person.
This mix of personal and professional can either propel your career in a great way, or it can be totally detrimental. Gossip, drinking, not being discreet? It’s really hard to fix a bad reputation.
Unpaid internships are a hot topic in DC. What’s your view?
They’re definitely not the most equitable as many can’t afford them, but a whole lot of people I know are where they are because they had internships and started building networks early. This is especially true on the Hill. It definitely is tough financially, but it can be a major differentiator and so you need to think very strategically to maximize your return on investment (and see it as that – an investment). Don’t think that the contacts you build will only be senior colleagues. Your fellow interns will become a huge network a few years down the road. Interns from the Clinton Foundation, for example, are now people who are doing incredibly senior things across industries – a few are even publicly elected officials. They’re high hitting, important players so that peer element shouldn’t be forgotten.
You mentor a number of new graduates. What skills do you think are key for people entering the job market?
I was fine with the hard skills subjects at university but I didn’t enjoy that as much so didn’t focus on these topics. When I graduated, I was always asked why I didn’t I do more econometrics, etc. So if you’re still in school, I would recommend making sure you take some tough classes to give yourself more credibility.
What I really struggle with, though, is the sense of ego and entitlement that I see amongst a lot of younger people. I had it myself! You have to be more humble. I talked to a graduate a while ago and she said ‘I don’t want to do any admin.’ I thought ‘well you’re 22…’ I still do schedules, and will photocopy and staple stuff. So having some humility is important.
Any last advice for people earlier on in their careers?
I wish people would do their due diligence. People will often email me and say they want to speak because they’re interested in International Development…. Ok, but what exactly are you interested in? International Development is such a huge field, and they’ve clearly not done any research into my background.
This is really about learning how to cater to your audience. You should always do enough research so that when you’re in the room, you hit the buzzwords and things they want to hear. I learned this the hard way at a meeting once, and how you should always research the person you’re meeting in addition to the company in an interview scenario. It was a final meeting before I was due to take an amazing opportunity and I had it. Until… they reneged because I didn’t research the senior person who interviewed me. Apparently I had offended the woman because I hadn’t looked into who she was or what she did.
Following up is also key. I’m a big ‘let me connect you with’ person and I often do that with my mentees. Now, obviously you want them to follow through and contact the person and handle it professionally since it reflects on you. But I also expect them to follow back up with me and people often miss the memo on that part. I want to know how it goes and if I don’t hear about it, I’m not going to connect them again with other people who might be useful.
Got any burning questions for Payal? Post a comment below.