(Summer ’17) Anna Thomas, G
Anna Thomas (G, Management)
Blog Post #4: Here’s (and Cheers) to Just Showing Up
September 3, 2017
My last week in Georgia (or, as I prefer to say, my last week for now) was an exercise in stamina. While I’d enjoyed the signature Georgian hospitality throughout the summer, my final few days seemed to invite a bonanza of supras (Georgian feasts), toasts, and dancing while dodging flying corks from evidently bottomless wine cellars. It was a fitting coda to a really, really exceptional 10 weeks. The first 95% of my time in Tbilisi was spent working, and the final 5% was a celebration of that hard work – outcomes still at large – and the mutual support, encouragement, and tough love shared with my new family.
If I haven’t convinced you to move to Georgia yet, I need to revisit my Communications for Leaders notes on persuasive writing.
For my final blog post, I want to focus on this “5%”: the part of my experience, and of Georgian working culture, and of my project in particular, that centers on just honoring the inputs. As an American, I’m accustomed to a professional environment that rewards results, that salivates over data, and that hungers for continuous improvement. The phrase “A for effort” is a punchline, not a guideline, and the Silicon Valley mindset, now exported en masse, shoots down hard work as a venerable quality (instead, all the best just “work smart!”) I think we’re all familiar with the exhausting whack-a-mole inbox experience, or with the new corporate practice of always pairing positive feedback with an opportunity to be better. No one has time to rejoice over small victories anymore, or even acknowledge hard work of times past.
But thankfully, this “bottom line” way of thinking has not yet consumed Georgia. The country, and my teams at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the US Embassy, and the Millennium Challenge Account, largely still believe in a linear relationship between what goes in and what ought to come out. To some, this mentality may seem naïve, especially if it doesn’t also come hand-in-hand with the discipline of actually evaluating expectations versus reality. To me, though, it was refreshing.
I felt a constant squeeze from within all summer long to deliver on my project, professional, and personal goals. Before I sat down to crank, or before I said “yes” to a new request or an invitation, I instinctively considered whether it would help chip away at one of my big summer to-dos. This approach certainly helped my productivity: I concluded my internship feeling like I’d done a lot of “stuff”. It also enabled me to squeeze a lot out of my weekends and free time, and I’ll never regret the stacked itineraries of hiking, monastery-hopping, café tourism, and wine tasting (though I could probably have done without the associated infusion of cigarette smoke into all my clothing). But this mindset also accelerated time, and occasionally coaxed me to forgo reflection and re-setting in favor of raw accomplishment.
If I were to start the summer anew – and I joked with my team that I might just reappear as next summer’s intern – I’d embrace the Georgian habit of applauding mere progress. Not only does this feed into team morale (and help build mutually supportive team relationships), but it also affords a subtle, but critical, opportunity to check in on project direction. After a week of late nights, are we cheering for just surviving, or for the momentum we’ve injected into a stagnant initiative? In the wake of a heated workshop, are we proud that no one killed each other, or happy about the end decision, no matter how tense the lead-up? Are we celebrating the absence of something bad, or actually moving toward something good?
As I wrapped up a weekend in Azerbaijan and entered the first of many final-week parties, I felt great about my initial summer checklist. Together, my colleagues and I had identified TVET success stories, interviewed SDSU students from both the American and Georgian campuses, built out comprehensive sponsorship pitch materials, and seen the U.S. Vice President through his Georgia visit without incident, among other items. But I could have come up with this laundry list of discrete achievements in a second. It took the full week of celebrations to actually start to understand how the pieces will contribute – and, in some cases, already are contributing – to better economic opportunity for Georgians. It took all the parties, and toasts, and teammate banter to discern the optimism in the room – the sentiment that what we’d worked so hard on actually has grown roots to make a difference.
I want to export this “95-5” model (so-called by my reformed consultant brain) back to Cambridge. In an environment so affected – even plagued – by efficiency and speed and “humblebragging”, not nearly enough time is spent just patting ourselves on the back. In the coming term, I’m making a small commitment to indulge in the “treat yourself” mentality when I’m 95% of the way through writing a grueling term paper. I’m making a small commitment to encouraging my teams to pause and compliment ourselves for our focus after 95 minutes of hard work. And I’m making a small commitment to send out one “yay us!” text message for every $95 my nonprofit raises. Maybe these individual practices won’t galvanize unexpected improvement in project work, but – at least for me – they’ll make me proud to be affiliated with whatever it is that I’m doing, and that attitude rubs off.
Now, if only I could learn to give a toast like a Georgian. That will be a goal for my return internship.
Thank you, all, and thank you, Sakartvelo! You’ll always be a home to me.
Blog Post #3: Not Always Smooth Sailing
August 10, 2017
Mike Pence won the Vice Presidency. The Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship. Both Mike Pence and the Golden State Warriors (or at least their trophy) won the travel lottery: a trip to Georgia in August 2017! (Note to Georgia tourism apparatus: hire me.)
It’s been a busy summer over here, to say the least. Between getting seasick on a shipping boat simulator, staging the set for the Second Lady’s local TV interview, and being squeezed into a seat amongst the entire Georgian national basketball team on a flight from Kyiv, I’ve racked up what is surely more than one internship’s worth of memorable moments. My résumé will be pleased to know that most have emerged from the line of duty. This is a small country, and education is a big topic, and the United States is a major partner, and so I’ve been fortunate to observe – and participate in – a lot of the action while carrying out my work.
Since I last checked in, I’ve had the opportunity to pivot a bit of my focus from university education to TVET (technical and vocational education and training). Like in the U.S., TVET in Georgia is critical for employment matching, particularly in rural and vulnerable communities where a university degree is unattainable. Also like in the U.S., TVET in Georgia has struggled to transition from a brand centered on “last resort” or “under-achieving” to a more accurate image of pragmatic, often lucrative career preparation. For many of Georgia’s core and emerging industries, TVET is both a cheaper and a faster education option to securing employment and realizing sustainable salaries than a traditional four-year Bachelor’s track. Agriculture, fishing, tourism, IT, hospitality, veterinary science: all of these fields are host to jobs just waiting for candidates with the right skills.
As part of Compact II, the Millennium Challenge Corporation is contributing over $15M in revamping and revitalizing TVET in Georgia through investments in both large- and small-scale projects. The ultimate purpose is to deliver high-quality vocational education that is specifically designed around employer-requested skills, and to grow public awareness of the individual and community gains from such training. Nearly 30,000 Georgians are expected to benefit from these initial investments, which include complete makeovers for 10 TVET centers around the country.
It was at one of these centers, the Batumi State Maritime Academy, that I found my sea legs. As part of their grant, the Academy was gifted a state-of-the-art simulator that almost felt like a carnival ride. The floor tipped left as the thunderstorm outside slashed the side of the boat; the heavy thuds from the raindrops made it difficult to communicate with colleagues. Stomach lurching, I had to exit the experience of docking into Batumi port before I re-lived my infamous Capri ferry experience from 2013 (a story for another day, and another blog).
This setup might sound frivolous, but several of the students I spoke with had actually never been on a boat before. Fascinated by marine biology, or international trade, or mechanical engineering, they have chosen career – and therefore education – paths in which sailing is but one part of the job description. Without the simulator, raw on-the-job docking training would take at least twice as long, cost twice as much, and perhaps result in half the outcomes, as the stress and chaos of live action scenarios might limit knowledge retention. A very small investment with the potential to support massive economic outcomes. For these young men and women, many of whom come from rural areas in the regions surrounding the Black Sea port city of Batumi, employment in the marine industry is the only realistic option to ensure financial security with proximity to family and hometowns. For the IT college I visited in the remote mountains of the Svaneti region, these job opportunities are even more important. Without income access close to home, Georgians are forced to migrate to Tbilisi or emigrate, which threatens community sustainability, to say nothing of the missed economic potential from eschewing local industry development.
While the “Bill Gates never got a college degree” trope is a dangerous one to let loose in an emerging country like Georgia, challenging the primacy of the Bachelor’s degree – especially as the only higher education option, without which one may as well pack up for Doha – is healthy. More than healthy, it’s productive. At an agricultural college in the lush region of Guria, TVET graduates are returning to teach, having embraced early retirement from organic farm successes. At a fishing institute in coastal Poti, team members are being coached by Finnish experts to efficiently (and sustainably) kick-start an export category that has massive as-yet-untapped potential. Across the country, an underground communications problem-solving competition will reward winners with guaranteed jobs, a vanguard approach to employer-education collaboration. The “if we build it, they will come” mentality – previous weakened under negative impressions of TVET – is being challenged by the clear victories from a more balanced skill supply and demand market: Georgian TVET students are helping to build these industries, rather than just waiting, fruitlessly, unqualified, for their dream job to appear.
To misuse another idiom, however, Rome was not built in a day, and investments in TVET now do not bear instantaneous results. As I discussed in a previous blog post, one of the largest challenges I’ve encountered this summer is the need for project patience. So, rather than expect immediate outcomes from the specific development effort I’m contributing to, I have learned to seek gratification in the other signals that Georgia is progressing. The inauguration of low cost flights to Europe, the opening of the country’s first H&M outlet, and – yes – a visit from the U.S. Vice President: these are all signs that this country is being put on the map. Which is great, because I’ve grown quite fond of Georgia.
Blog Post #2. What’s In Your Wallet?
July 9, 2017
It’s been four weeks since I touched down in Tbilisi, and I’m pretty Georgian by now. I know about (and respect) the invisible “third lane” on the two-way highway; I understand that the café menu arrives 30 minutes after we do; I am used to every man and every WiFi network being named “Giorgi”; and I even have my own Georgian name: Anuki Tomashvili (or Aniko Tomasava, depending on who I’m talking to). It’s been a highly efficient month.
That efficiency is due, in no small part, to the tireless, and occasionally thankless, work that my colleagues are putting into improving education in Georgia. I’ll admit that I showed up here expecting the “capability building” portion of my internship to be significant. As a reformed international consultant, I’m accustomed to divergent working cultures. I’ve spent time in other former Soviet countries where assertive, self-starting problem-solving is just taking root, and where colleagues are still shaking the embedded practice of always waiting for orders. In fact, I was advised by some of my Georgian teammates that patience and gentle coaching would become habit. Instead, I’ve found an incredibly hard-working, resourceful, and humble bunch whose impressive command of our projects has created the space for me to focus on my specific value-add.
And what, exactly, is that? True to my consultant byline, I’m the analyst of, architect for, and principal agent in sustainability planning for the San Diego State University program. This initiative is a cornerstone of the whole Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact investment, but its future is precarious: without external financial support and local ownership, the American STEM degree pathway, which relies on scholarships to attract the best and brightest young Georgian minds, will hit a dead end. Enter a collaborative effort to recruit and engage international and local partners and sponsors.
In the first couple of weeks, I felt like all of my work was coming up very short. The messages and stories I was crafting weren’t resonating with our target audiences. Despite the nothing-to-something nature of many leaders’ professional narratives (a constant whether in the US or Georgia), no one seemed to be motivated to help create opportunity for the next generation of economic stewards.
Facing a phalanx of indifference and even outright rejection, I was ready to surrender on this project. It was only when we received a certain follow-up email from a large American corporation that things started to make sense. The email only referenced one message from the barrage of marketing song they’d received, and it was one that I’d honestly forgotten including. What had piqued this organization’s interest was not a plea to change a student’s life or a promise of a more productive and hopeful Georgia. Instead, the company responded to an implied direct funnel to talented graduates. In the midst of exploring expanded operations in Georgia, this group was curious about how to cut down on hiring and training costs and ensure competitive advantage. The idea of being able to sponsor future full-time hires and steal the most brilliant local resources away from competitors was intriguing. Nowhere in the ensuing discussion did they mention the do-good angle.
I was immediately reminded of my team project from Sustainability Lab (“S-Lab”). We were working with a fair wage clothing company, who wasn’t sure whether their high-wage-employee-empowerment angle had any tread in a sweatshop-conditioned population. To test the power of their message, my team and I ran a series of Facebook ads featuring a constant image with different wording displayed across the top. We employed three types of copy: a “shock” that shared the despicable nature of most clothing companies’ wage strategies; a “warm fuzzy” to excite customers by the good cause they’d be supporting; and a “quality play” that simply informed customers of how superior the clothing was. We then tracked click-through rates, and were surprised to see that the latter two messages – and especially the lattermost – were the most popular. We concluded that our peers and community members were less interested in feeling like they were sacrificing something for a good cause, and instead wanted to know what kind of tangible advantage their investment would afford.
Back here in Tbilisi, I realized that perhaps the same held true for corporations considering social responsibility projects. Even with a budget specifically allocated to impact initiatives, private companies still want to see a return, and how better to incent support than by articulating the direct gains? I spoke with several Georgian colleagues, and they affirmed my hunch. In Georgia, there has never been a culture of philanthropy or private giving – the tax system does not reward donations, and the vestiges of the communist era result in an assumption that everything works itself out without charity. So, here as well as internationally, we’d need to pivot our approach and solicit commitments and partnerships with a business case rather than a guilt trip.
Fast forward to now, and this work is ongoing. Raising millions of scholarship dollars is not a cake walk regardless of how compelling the messaging might be. But at least I know we’re en route to putting our money where our mouth is, somewhat literally speaking.
Speaking of money – I’ve been really delighted by the volume of cheap or free events and activities in Tbilisi. The renowned ballet is heavily subsidized by the arts-favoring government; cooking classes are the price of the ingredients; a world-class jazz concert is just bonus with dinner. In the past week, I’ve taken full advantage of this vibrant and accommodating city by participating in a rooftop oil painting workshop, hiking through the impossibly beautiful Khada Gorge, and dancing salsa until the earliest hours (fun fact: the Latin dance subculture here is very real, very impressive, and very welcoming, even to two left feet like mine.) I could get used to this work-life balance, though in a world in which “work” has no excuse to not mean “impact”.
ნახვამდის / nakhvamdis / until next time!
Blog Post #1. Dispatch from Tbilisi: Joining the MCC Caravan
June 18, 2017
გამარჯობა! Gamarjoba! And hello from the other Georgia, reporting live from week one.
If you had to look Georgia (or “Sakartvelo” to Georgians) up on a map, you’re not alone: this country, a young 25 years old, is both small in size and secluded in location. Nestled in the Caucasus region and bordering Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey, Georgia is situated on the bridge between Europe and Asia, and between the tensions and conflicts of Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Middle East.
To say that Georgia has persevered is an understatement. Over two millennia of existence, the country’s guests – whether invited or not – included the Mongols, the Persians, the Ottomans, and, most recently, the Soviets. Separatist movements, a political revolution, and a war with Russia in the first two decades of independence seriously tested the country’s strength. And yet, throughout time and despite its many conquerors, Georgia has protected and promoted a truly beautiful and unique culture. The architecture, the wine, the food, and the performing arts continue are all world-famous; the landscapes are unreal, and the history impressive; and, now, the 2017 NBA champion Zaza Pachulia, a Tbilisi native, might galvanize a sports legacy. I can’t imagine a more interesting or enjoyable place to spend a summer.
But there’s always a catch, and here, the GDP per capita below $4,000 and unemployment rate of up to 50% for some groups serve as severe blockades to the promised land of the European Union and true first-world status. Enter the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
The MCC is a small US Government agency that has introduced an alternative model to international aid and development. Established in 2004 and now operating in over 40 countries, the MCC is designed to operate with the efficiency and efficacy of a private company. This is reflected in the name – “Corporation” – and the top agency title of CEO. Translated into practice, the MCC only considers projects in countries deemed qualified based on a set of policy indicators, and requires host countries to co-develop – and then fully implement – a time-bound “compact” that addresses an actionable development problem through impactful and measurable solutions. The MCC values capability building, accountability, and data-informed decision-making, which happen to be some of my favorite things as well.
In 2011, the MCC completed its first compact with Georgia, focused on infrastructure and agribusiness. Now, in its second and likely final compact, the MCC is focused on some of my other favorite things: education, skill-building, and employment empowerment to ultimately yield economic advancement for the country. Here in Tbilisi, there are only two full-time American team members, the Resident Country Director and her deputy, who oversee the design, implementation, and evaluation of the compact projects and who serve as liaisons for the larger MCC team back in DC. The Millennium Challenge Account team comprises over 20 Georgians who are actually responsible for delivering on the compact goals, and with whom the two- (or three-, counting yours truly) person team works in parallel.
Georgia Compact II has three primary projects: school rehabilitation and teacher training; a revamp of the technical/vocational education system; and a higher education partnership with San Diego State University focused on building out American-credentialed STEM programs in the country through three pilot universities. My role this summer is basically to serve as chief storyteller. I’ll be collecting and packaging success narratives, which will become marketing materials and fodder for partner/donor/investor conversations, as well as lessons learned, which will help refine the final implementation stages and inform future MCC country compacts covering this sector. These responsibilities will require field visits, meetings with many stakeholders, and a lot of strategic thinking. They will demand a clear vision and goals, but also the patience to readjust when, as always, things don’t go according to plan. Perhaps above all, they will require flexibility as I navigate a culture, a context, and a community that is literally foreign to me. I carry hope that some of Georgia’s proven perseverance rubs off.
One of my goals for the summer is to really dig into the fieldwork, which might indicate whether a field-based role could be a good fit later in my career. Likewise, I want to explore the MCC and its local partner-centered development model to see if it can satisfy my desire for a fast paced, dynamic organization, typically found in the private sector, that also improves the world, a mission that I usually associate with nonprofits and NGOs. Finally, I want to take advantage of the summer craze (the busiest time for the team, in the heat of construction season and planning for the new school years) to test my ability to prioritize, adapt, and assert myself in a maelstrom of activity. To balance this pressure, I hope to become well acquainted with Georgia’s many gifts, including the blessings of nature, bohemian cafés, and – yes – wine.
The largest challenge I anticipate is building success narratives for projects whose full impact won’t be seen for at least another couple years, and probably many more than that. Because the MCC model uses taxpayer dollars essentially as “seed funding” for development efforts, we can’t yet say for sure how many people have seen improved lives or enhanced career options or a more advanced nation as a result of the compact. The positive effects of science labs, STEM scholarships, trained teachers, and more vocational opportunities are not instantaneous. The success of the compact also hinges on its sustainability after the MCC departs in 2019: someone, or some company, or some government has to endow (or at least endorse) these investments to introduce a reinforcing feedback loop of economic growth (no big deal, I took System Dynamics I AND II.) There is certainly a fire aflame under all of us.
As I sign off and head into another week, I’ll leave you with an image of my slice of Georgia. Picture a small courtyard surrounded by small apartments, which feature beautiful, authentic 18th century design with the wear and tear of two centuries. Picture ivy and grapevines winding up the bricks and around the wrought iron balconies, and laundry strung on frayed rope across the center of the lot. Picture a Georgian couple knocking back a second carafe of qvevri (Georgian wine) as two children throw a semi-deflated basketball at a misshapen hoop precariously swinging from a nail in a mulberry tree. Picture plates heaping with beetroot salads and grilled meat and walnut paste on cornbread being passed amongst neighbors as they welcome my return with the familiar “gamarjoba”, which they insist upon using even though their English undoubtedly eclipses my Georgian. My apartment block is a microcosm of the country’s values, which are not so different from my own: food, family, flora, and – of course – a few bottles of wine. I think I’m going to have a great summer here.
This summer, Anna will spend 10 weeks in the Republic of Georgia working with the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Georgian government on a project scaling STEM education to universities across the country. Anna will focus on engaging local and foreign communities by interviewing current STEM students to assess program progress, identifying clear and compelling messaging around program success, and building relationships with potential partners and future phase sponsors. The ultimate goal is to build awareness of, and support for, the STEM education improvement efforts, and create a path toward program sustainability.
Check back for her updates!