A note to college seniors from Melanie Chuen, Dalberg’s Director of Global Operations
Before I came to Dalberg, I worked in analyst recruiting at an investment bank. I loved being able to support undergraduates as they were making post-college plans and trying to figure out how to succeed in a professional environment. My role has changed since then, but a creature of old habits, I’ve started to reflect on what I would say to college seniors when we hit campuses again this fall:
As you are going throughout your job search, think through a number of factors – what drives you? What skills and training will you receive? What is the firm’s culture like, and do you fit in?
There is no right path. I see that in the myriad of career trajectories my colleagues have taken to arrive at Dalberg. Many of our consultants have spent a few years working for some of the larger strategy consulting firms. These firms have great training programs that allow new hires to build a solid set of professional and analytical skills. Each firm is different, and since you spend a large part of your time at work, you need to make sure that you are interested in and passionate about what you are doing.
Our work, although still strategy consulting, is a little different. For example, last year we conducted a study on the off-grid solar lighting market across Africa, with the ultimate aim of growing markets and increasing access to energy at the bottom of the pyramid. We’ve also done things like craft a business plan for a funding mechanism that improves the affordability of and access to life-saving ACT medicines, and we designed an organizational structure for an innovative agricultural agency in an East African country. We take typical consulting skills and apply them to the development context.
Content is important, but early in your career, you also need to think about professional development. How does your prospective firm think about developing its people and investing in training? Do you want to emulate the leaders and alumni of that firm?
At Dalberg, we have two theories of change – one that focuses on the change we want to see in the development sector and what our unique role will be in this as a firm, and another that focuses on developing our staff into development leaders. We’ve had some exciting transitions within our management team recently. Shashi Buluswar has become Director of the LIGTT Institute at Lawrence Berkeley, focusing on innovating new technologies to address development challenges. Daniella Ballou-Aares recently joined the State Department as Senior Advisor on International Development to Secretary Clinton. It is particularly encouraging to me to see my colleagues taking on interesting roles that have the potential to make a great impact in the world.
Whether our staff stay at Dalberg or go on to lead other organizations, we want to equip them with the skills they need to succeed. We use our semi-annual review process and quarterly staff morale surveys to get a sense for how we can develop our team and improve our staff experience. Our consultants also take a leadership role in training and developing their colleagues. I am currently working with a team of consultants to design original content for a four-day off-site that will gather our 150 global team members in Nairobi, Kenya and focus on interactive training and strengthening our firm culture.
That’s an important last point: culture. My favorite thing about Dalberg is our people and our quirky culture. We have smart, driven people who are deeply passionate, knowledgeable and doing something about the challenging issues that impact our world. We also have a team that is dedicated to building our firm. We’re a private sector company that focuses on social sector issues, which means we don’t have the resources that some of our purely private colleagues might. We’re a little scrappier. You can expect to roll up your sleeves here. The entrepreneurial nature of our firm is part of our fabric.
We also have a lot of fun. I mentioned our quirky culture – it is not uncommon to hear offices regaling their latest adventures and asserting why their office deserves the most bragging rights as the coolest place to work at Dalberg, or to have our founder send some elaborate April Fools’ Day joke to the entire firm, or to see emails traded back and forth in haiku. There is a camaraderie, wit and familiarity within Dalberg that I adore, and I cannot underscore how important it is to your work experience.
Like I said before, there are a number of paths open to you. That’s what’s so exciting about the fall of your senior year! Take a deep breath, look in to different options, and think through what interests you, what skills you can build, and whether you can see yourself at a particular firm. And, good luck!
As Director of Global Operations, Melanie Chuen oversees Dalberg’s business development, knowledge management, thought leadership and human capital functions. She is based in San Francisco.