It has been a year after the massive earthquake shook Nepal on April 25, 2015. It has nudged me to appreciate and take stock of all the changes of the past year. It was last year that I became an Atlas Corps fellow and I have had incredible opportunities to grow and learn. It has been an enormous milestone in my professional life. To summate my Atlas Corps experience in a couple of pages may not be enough however, I will attempt to ponder over a few major learning experiences that I have had.
A good match between the fellow and the host
It is crucial to be matched with a host organization whose values and working culture resonates with you. Selected for VaxTrac I was glad to be serving at a small nonprofit with a startup culture. With a background of working for nonprofits in Nepal, it was a well-placed experience for comparison. At VaxTrac, I worked in a small team of less than 10 staff members, which also gave me an opportunity to witness and involve in various aspects of organizational strategy for internal and external processes. This will probably be one of the biggest takeaways for me when I return to my home country and to build upon the knowledge and skills I have gained here.
Rolling your ‘r’
At first, the cultural gap can be daunting. One of the biggest differences among different cultures can be the method of communication. It reflects most clearly when you are trying to communicate within teams. I think it was easier for me to break on the surface by trying to understand and emulate my team’s method of communication.
My challenge with communication definitely started with the basic problem of understanding a very different accent. It took me a few months to just understand the fast-paced ‘rolling-of-r’ accent, and I am still not completely there yet. It always helps to speak up more openly about it so that the team members can understand the gap in communication and challenge it creates to put your best foot forward in a professional environment.
It definitely helped that I worked in a small team in a shared co-working space, which allowed frequent and open communication. Most importantly, my team always made an effort to reach out, which meant that the organization has common values and an organizational culture of teamwork that resonates throughout.
Taking ideas to completion
The working culture in Nepal, particularly in start-up nonprofit is very relaxed. Although there is admirable passion, there generally lacks a structure that can be a valuable driver to take ideas towards completion and implementation. One of my goals for the fellowship was to learn project coordination and management tools that can be a valuable knowledge with multiple applications in any non-profit environment. At VaxTrac, I managed its project in Nepal. Managing a project in my home country definitely placed me in a much better position to fill in the gaps that cultural differences can create. While project management is a daunting undertaking and takes years of experience, I have definitely built a foundation to cultivate a behavior of structured approach to new initiatives and everything that I do.
Emphasis on extroversion
One of the observations I made during my fellowship and my stay in DC, the ‘networking hub’ of the country has been about how there is an incredible emphasis on extroversion as a valuable trait. Introversion is often misunderstood as not being at par and as an introvert it was definitely challenging for me to create relationships in the typical crowded DC happy hours. Something that worked for me was to have more one-on-one approaches to creating successful professional and personal relationships.
‘Femininity’ and Leadership
I have worked with leaders who are strong-willed, guiding and firm and I have also worked with leaders with a softer approach to leadership who have been amazing harbingers of change in their communities. During my work in Nepal as well as here, I have observed that leadership is defined by a set of characteristics that is typically considered masculine. If you project characteristics that is normally considered ‘feminine’ in a patriarchal society, it is considered as non-leadership material. In most organizational hierarchy, being tough and unwavering in approach is considered a leadership trait. For example, soft-spokenness is rarely considered a leadership trait. Similarly if you are not competitively hustling, also a so-called ‘masculine’ trait, you do not care enough for your job. Taking a step back and pausing to reflect before commenting or making decisions is often looked upon as lack of competitiveness.
Femininity in leadership is definitely something that I will focus on during the future direction of my work. I would like my work to reflect the multiple styles of leadership and on expanding the definition of leadership to include an array of characteristics, even the so-called ‘feminine’ ones.
Building transformational relationships
A relationship that fosters mutual growth differentiates a transformational relationship from a transactional one. Through the course of my fellowship, the emphasis on the ‘other’ and active and non-judgmental listening has been one of my major take-aways. Even beyond the boundaries of professional sphere and even after the fellowship is long over, I will carry the lesson to give emphasis to the stories of people around me that can be so vibrant and diverse.
Finally, I am incredibly grateful to the fellowship experience that has allowed me to see a tiny fraction of the larger world and the various kinds of stories and lives people lead, forever increasing the horizon of my life.