Alithnayn Abdulkareem pivoted careers three times before finding her purpose

When Alithnayn Abdulkareem graduated from university in 2012, she knew she wanted her work to matter. It was a simple enough goal, but her path to achieving it was far from straightforward. Three continents, two master’s degrees and thousands of hours studying, working and networking later, Alithnayn has explored all the possibilities available to her in the corporate sector and creative industries, and found a balance that allows her to show up as her most authentic self.
For #MCNWorkLife, Alithnayn was gracious enough to dissect her choices over the last decade, offer her insights on choosing the right second degree to help you closer align with your career goals and share her personal philosophies on finding fulfilment in your work.

Hi Alithnayn, if you were at a writer’s convention and you had to write a two sentence bio about yourself, how would you describe yourself?

I am a development practitioner and freelance writer based in Washington DC. I love dogs, cooking, dancing and staying in my house lol.

What did you want to be growing up?

A journalist.

What is your primary occupation now?

I help manage programs that combine government and private sector funding to help SME’s in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

How long have you been on this career path?

In 2017, when I first heard the term international development and realized it gave me the opportunity to participate in work that prioritized social impact before profits alone.

You have pivoted careers thrice since you graduated from university 10 years ago, can you walk us through these career pivots?

Sure. In my early career days, I pursued opportunities with an unhealthy amount of idealism. So when the harsh realities of these sectors confronted me, I often escaped into another career to console myself. Time and experience however have taught me that every sector has its bad and good, so I have become better at managing my expectations and focusing on securing the necessary skills to do the best work.

Your first job following your Master’s degree was with a non-profit all the way in Uganda. How does one go from master’s degree to non-profit work thousands of kilometres away from everything you’ve ever known?

Haha. So I have always had a deep curiosity about the world and I have never been afraid to visit new places by myself.  And my curiosity was not the type that the occasional  two week vacation could solve. For reference, my dream job in my early twenties was to become an ambassador, but the opaque nature of Nigerian political appointments and my lack of connections made that door inaccessible to me. The next best option was to find as many opportunities that took me to different places in the world. Uganda was an opportunity for me to discover another part of Africa while having the chance to serve a community at the most fundamental grassroots level. I remain very proud of my time there.

You seemed to enjoy the work in Uganda, so why did you leave?

Same old story. My Nigerian passport. I was not approved for a work visa. I filed an appeal and after 8 months of having my passport held by the government with no news of progress, I threw in the towel. I wrote about the experience here.

You spent a few years building a career as an art curator. How did you get into the art industry?

Pure luck. I was working as a magazine writer when I saw an event for Lagos social media week. I had always been keen on art and cinema but I didn’t know a career was possible till I attended that event and met who would become my first creative boss and an enduring mentor.

What was the most surprising connection you made between  your time as a curator and your current role now?

For me it was discovering how strong the linkage between art and politics is. I don’t say this lightly but art made me a stronger public servant. The brilliant ways that visual art can interrogate and expand upon socio political concepts is incredibly important for our times. It is necessary because art is a clear bridge. It provides a way for a normal person to understand something as complicated as climate change or energy transition, or gender equality. If we only relied on the dense 70+ page reports from big organizations, we would all be left more confused.

What was the most rewarding part of your work as a curator?

The artistic community I got to be part of. I have so much respect for artists and I am honored to call some truly brilliant people my friends. Also, an opportunity to see the diversity that Nigerians are capable of. There are so many artworks and films that a larger audience may never discover due to distribution challenges. This can feed into a limited understanding of what African art and/or cinema is. I got to see the full picture, which was pretty amazing.

You packed up a third time since your Master’s degree back in 2013 and moved to your third continent in 10 years to start an MPP at Georgetown. What inspired this pivot?

This was my most pragmatic pivot. I was clear that I was committed to social impact work for the long term, but I was from a creative background. I needed technical knowledge. I also wanted to travel…again lol. I did my research and looked at the policy and development programs that gave scholarships to Africans. I should say I got incredibly lucky with Georgetown. I didn’t just join the best foreign affairs program in the world, I got to move to the global headquarters of development and secured a scholarship that gave me full freedom upon graduation (most of these scholarships require you to move back home for some years).

How is an MPP fellowship different from a traditional Master’s Degree or an MBA?

Good question! I still got the traditional masters in development economics and the flexible nature of my degree allowed me to take MBA-level electives as well. My fellowship was simply an add on to the existing degree requirements. I had the chance to be mentored by exceptional American diplomats on strategic thought, communications and active negotiations.

A traditional MBA is more focused on upskilling students on running organizations successfully. An economics degree takes a much wider lens approach. For instance, a policy/development student studies the causes of poverty, factors that encourage growth among countries, how education and health affect things like GDP, etc. An MBA is more concerned with how to make sure a company produces the most amount of things for the smallest amount of money. Or how to make sure that a company operates in such a manner that its stock remains favourable for its shareholders. How to align the numbers etc.

Alithnayn serving as a company representative at the launch of the Africa tech for trade initiative.

Did all your previous experience, master’s included, prepare you at all for corporate America?

Nothing prepared me for America much less corporate America. As a person who mostly held creative jobs, it was a real adjustment learning to speak the language of corporate America. It is still an adjustment but I am giving myself the grace and I have been gifted with a fantastic set of co-workers and managers.

During this entire time, you also held a career as a freelance writer, contributing for many prominent literary and journalistic platforms. How did you deal with gaining public recognition as a writer while your professional career was in flux? 

Most of my twenties were filled with a lot of uncertainty, even the writing. I don’t think I took special notice of the recognition I was getting because I was never around to even enjoy my own hype lol.

(If yes) How do you juggle all the responsibilities from all your creative and occupational endeavours?

Accepting that writing( for now) is more of an active hobby than a profession. It removes the pressure for me to “succeed” and allows me to keep my creative streak alive.

Do you still freelance as a writer?

Yes. I assist a few local galleries to create exhibition texts and artist statements.

Were there any events in the year plus since you graduated that helped cement for you the reality that you were now a corporate public policy consultant instead of a writer (hobbyist)?

Yes. When I realized I would never stop being a creative which meant writing would always be there for me. In addition to seeing just how much the spaces I found myself in, needed people with my lived experience to help them reframe their thinking on certain issues.

What’s a typical day in your work life like?

Meetings with prospective companies who want to partner with our program. Reviewing proposals from these companies, conducting due diligence and risk assessments on these companies, drafting budgets according to donor requirements. And random admin tasks.

What is the thing you like the most about what you do?

Despite my personal frustrations with the industry, its amazing that I am doing exactly what I wanted to do after grad school. I am working with private companies to support programs that are empowering people to make money rather than just handing down charity(which is not always a bad thing btw). The fact that I get to focus on Africa is an exceptional cherry on top. 

What is the thing you like the least?

Bureaucracy. Nothing could prepare me for the amount of things that have to be written a certain way. As a creative writer I had to unlearn most of my instincts.

Do you believe in work buddies? 

In theory, yes.

Alithnayn with other young African immigrant professionals invited to meet with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

What’s your stance on ‘work spouses?’

I don’t have one but I’m not opposed to people having one.

If you had the power to permanently address a misrepresentation/stereotype you have to deal with as a POC consultant working in the global public policy sector, what would it be?

Oh this is easy. Expecting POC to be activists. Just treat us fairly and let us work and go home.

What is next in the cards for you career wise?

For once in my life i’m not obsessing over the future. I’m focusing more on the present and really learning the demands of an extremely complex global donor system. The only difference between privileged expatriates and locals is that they have been learning the rules longer than us. Once you know the rules, the sky is the limit.

Can you give us a tip you swear by for successfully managing a work/life balance?

Right now it is remote work. Not having to commute and dress up everyday changed my life for the better.

Second thing is saying no more often. There are a lot of things that suck up time and have no value. Say no to them. This is not the same thing as aspire to perspire. Think of it more like discipline as self care.

Do you have any advice for younger women who want to do what you do? 

This is hard because so much of my trajectory was not entirely of my own making. I will say, if you believe in God, pray for grace. 

Secondly, be relentless. I was relentless nonstop for almost a decade. I applied to every opportunity I came across with my writing and with my social impact work. I was vocal about what I wanted, I reached out to people to give me advice and I didn’t let the insane amount of rejections paralyze me(even when it really hurt)

The third is to learn to listen to your inner voice. I made some avoidable mistakes because I was comparing myself to people too much and trying to mimic their steps even though we were on different paths. If I listened to my voice I would have spent less time chasing some useless paths. Learn to listen to your inner voice and then let it guide your strategy.


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