by Christie Vilsack
I was grieving the loss of a former student, Molly, who had committed suicide on a day that I was also composing an email to Sharon, a 15 year-old Kenyan girl I’d agreed to mentor. In thinking about how to tell her about the satisfaction I get from teaching and mentoring young women, I realized that in my job at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), three millennial women have mentored me. It’s proof that women can keep learning and growing in their jobs, regardless of age, as long as they support each other.
After an unsuccessful run for Congress at 62, I accepted a job at USAID in 2013. I signed on to help USAID’s Education team teach millions of children to read in developing countries, provide access to education in conflict and crisis countries, and provide a chance for youth to get their first jobs. I had experience in all of these areas. Plus, I brought political clout and connections to the task.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that our 40 year-old office manager said she didn’t need or want my help. Undaunted, I took the job anyway, sure that I could win her confidence. She was polite, but she routinely canceled strategy meetings and told me horror stories about political appointees. She was a career foreign service officer with a bright future. “We just want to be left alone to do our jobs,” she said.
I needed to be the external yin to her internal yang to successfully implement our goals, create new partners and encourage buy-in from Congress and Main Street.
“Where is B.A. Rudolph when I need her?” I wondered. I met B.A. at a book club when I moved to Washington. I could never have guessed that four years later, after she died of cancer, I would join USAID where B.A. served as Chief of Staff to the Administrator in the1980’s. The last time I saw her, she lent me a book about Gertrude Bell, who traveled to and wrote about remote areas of the world in the early 1900’s.
Despite mentoring many young women over the 45 years of my career and working collegially with women much younger than I in political campaigns, it seemed clear that wasn’t going to happen with my colleague.
I know that as Chief of Staff B.A. navigated the issues of a diverse workforce to assure the agency’s goals were met. As a political appointee and contemporary, I was sure her advice could have helped me navigate this relationship.
I hope she would approve of the decision I made to do no harm. I learned that my colleague needed to survive three management years in Washington for a promotion when she returned to the field. I didn’t want to stand in the way of another woman’s career and I didn’t want our team distracted by turf battles. I wanted to collaborate, but if that wasn’t possible, I needed to find a quiet way to succeed without her.
She did her job. I did mine. We both succeeded, but we could have done so much more together. She never asked my advice -personal or professional – but eventually she showed up in my office, occasionally, at the end of the day to worry aloud about her management skills and work-life balance. I listened. Just before she left for her next assignment, I signed papers nominating her for an award.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that B.A. was there for me in the guise of three much younger women. In the four years I’ve worked at USAID, two young professionals assisted me in navigating the system and carrying out my work plan. Each in her own way excelled.
They moved me from feature writer to blogger, from columnist to Twitter. They freed me from mundane tasks and kept me organized. They also offered advice about partnerships and took on projects of their own. They were more partners than assistants and I’ve relied on their judgment for most decisions I’ve made.
A third Millennial, a communications specialist, encouraged me to try a TED-x talk. She and my assistant urged me to practice, showed patience as I struggled to memorize and overcome my fear of public speaking. They held their breaths on performance day, and celebrated my success as their own. I have thrived at USAID because of them. And because of them, I will find a way to work with young women in my next job.
About the author: Christie Vilsack was the Senior Advisor for International Education at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2013 to 2016, where she sought to improve children’s reading skills and provide equitable access to education in crisis and conflict settings. Prior to USAID, she taught secondary and college English and journalism. Her experience inside the classroom led to a focus on education as Iowa’s First Lady, as a candidate for Congress and now as the spokesperson for USAID Education. Born and raised in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, Christie is a graduate of Kirkland College in Clinton, New York. She earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. Christie has committed her life to education and public service.