Lina Wynn (MBA Exec 2013) is taking a year’s leave from the fast-paced Australian corporate world to volunteer with CARE International as part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program. Lina talks about the challenges, what she’s learned, and how difference is not so different after all.
You spent more than 16 years working in industry. What prompted you to take one year leave to volunteer with the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, funded by the Australian Government?
I have always felt that I wanted and needed to do more to alleviate extreme poverty. The seeds were planted when I was a little girl growing up in Indonesia. At the same time, I also intuitively understood that going off to volunteer at a charity or orphanage is probably not how I can achieve the most impact. Conversely, I recognised that I could learn a lot and develop my skills faster by working in the private sector.
As the primary breadwinner for my family and having two children (12 and 14 years old), it was definitely not a decision that I came to lightly but I’m very lucky that after leaving my corporate job, I had a window of opportunity and space, to invest in something that I have always wanted to do but never had the opportunity to up to now.
After leaving my job, I spent approximately 6 months intensively researching the philanthropy and NGO sector by reading lots of books, talking to people, joining a non-profit board, and doing online courses. I even travelled with my family to Nepal and throughout South East Asia to better understand how we can best help.
After coming home from our travels in February 2015, I was humbled by how little I understood about the sector and decided that I needed to spend more time at the frontline - in the field - so I could get an inside-out perspective instead of an outside-in perspective trying to understand the problem from a first world country. I started researching ways to volunteer overseas and the rest as they say is history.
You are stationed in Myanmar with CARE International, a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. What is your current role?
As the Vocational Training Curriculum Development Advisor, I am helping CARE develop urban livelihood options as part of a multi-year project also funded by the Australian Government entitled: Improve Access to Safe Employment for Migrant Women in Urban Myanmar.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in this role? What has surprised and inspired you?
Throughout my corporate career I developed skillsets and competencies for working across cultures; however, working in a developing country has its own unique set of challenges such as language barriers and lack of infrastructure and human capital.
Before coming to Myanmar, I romanticised the idea of “working in international development”. My perceptions were shaped to a large degree by mainstream media and the narrative tends to highlight the life-changing, heroic and glamorous aspects of international aid & development work. Think Australian nurse goes to Africa to fight Ebola crisis, young Australian fundraising to help remote villages access water, photo-shoots of celebrities in Cambodia or Africa touring UN facilities, etc.
One of the things that surprised me the most is how my day-to-day work looks suspiciously like my old corporate job. I work normal office hours (8.30 AM to 5 PM Monday to Friday with 1 hour lunch break); I use emails and access the internet (when the electricity is working and internet is not down); I conduct research using the internet (less from Harvard Business Review but more from Stanford Social Innovation Review); and I continue to apply my analytical and problem solving skills.
The biggest difference is not the application of skills but the goals. Before I was working with internal stakeholders (e.g. marketing, IT, legal) to design and market new services to clients, now I’m working with external stakeholders (e.g. other aid agencies, local NGOs, private sector employers, training providers) to design a solution to help disadvantaged women access formal sector employment.
The Australian Volunteers for International Development program is about Connecting people, changing lives, reaching our region. What have you learned while volunteering through AVID with CARE International?
I realised the many similarities between the NGO and private sectors. Sure, there are some key differences, such as their overriding mission, but they both have capital and funding requirements. Both have similar operational needs and must have human capital, processes and systems to serve their clients or beneficiaries.
On a personal level I’ve learned to not take things for granted, learning a new language is harder than I thought, the unfamiliar will become familiar, be grateful, and let go of expectations.
How do the skills and knowledge you developed at AGSM translate to the work you do with CARE International?
At AGSM, my analytical skills were challenged and developed on a daily basis. It was impossible to graduate without being able to break down complex problems and craft a practical and at times innovative solution. That skillset has been central to my daily working experience at CARE.
As new AGSMers embark on their course of study, many of them are thinking about their future careers, what one piece of advice would you give them?
For new AGSMers, today’s world will most likely be quite different from the world they graduate into. Traditional industries are being disrupted and new industries and business models are being created at an unprecedented rate. Rather than focus on one particular career path, I would encourage new AGSMers to invest time in understanding themselves, their strengths and their weaknesses.
When I was a fresh graduate, I used to spend quite a bit of time agonising about what the best career path was for me. As I grow older, I realise that it is as much about the journey as the destination. I’ve learnt to value what I learnt along the way and the person that I have become. Follow your interests because it is hard to invest time to continually improve your craft in things that you are not interested in.
Beyond that, if I had to choose one piece of advice, then it would be tip no. 14 of a blogpost that I wrote recently for my son’s 14th birthday which is: Trust yourself. For times when you truly cannot decide (even after meticulously weighing up the pros and cons), learn to trust your instinct. Go with what your heart tells you to do. If you still don’t know what to do, toss a coin.