I was mesmerized by Mena Cammett the first time I heard her speak in college. We were both international studies majors and met in a class called “Globalization and Identity Crisis in the Middle East.” Whenever she spoke up in class I was struck by her confidence, beauty, presence, love of the world and zest through which she pursued her passions. Honestly, I wanted to be more like her. We saw each other around and had some mutual friends in college, but our friendship really blossomed in business school.
Since then our friendship has traversed continents and cultures. When I lived in Switzerland (fun fact: I lived there for two years!), Mena lived in Cairo and I visited a lot. When Mena recently told me she landed her dream job at the World Bank, I knew I needed to hear more of her story. In honor of International Women’s Day, here is my interview with her.
Your job title is “political risk management officer.” What is that? Sounds like Olivia Pope.
Last year I had the privilege to join the World Bank Group after several years in the private sector political risk insurance industry. My group, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), at the World Bank helps investors to manage risks affecting their projects in emerging markets. Essentially, we cover them in case the host country government confiscates their assets, breaches a contract or restricts their access to foreign currency. We also insure investors against damage to their assets from politically-motivated violence, such as wars or riots.
As a senior risk management officer, I assess these risks in the Middle East and Africa by traveling to various countries, researching economic and political conditions and speaking with governments and other stakeholders. Because the World Bank Group’s mandate is to support economic development in member countries, I’m also responsible for measuring the development impact of each project we support for the host country and the local community. The projects we guarantee are often transformational — for example, renewable power projects to increase access and reduce costs of electricity in the host country without damaging the environment.
While I’m only Olivia Pope in my head, I do view myself as a gladiator, of sorts. My fight is to help investors finance much-needed projects in the world’s least developed and most fragile countries.
You wanted this job for a while — how did you land it?
I landed my dream job by letting it go. Let me explain: after graduating from business school, I networked and shared my aspirations about working at the World Bank with anyone who would listen. Finally, in 2015 I was thrilled to be shortlisted for my dream job there. But, at the exact same time, my then-company offered to transfer me to London. I knew instantly that the London adventure was one I couldn’t pass up. I thought, surely my old plans were no match for what the new opportunity had in store.
But as I boarded my flight to London, I hoped that I was not closing the door to the future I’d planned for. Ultimately, my unforeseen London chapter lasted three years and gave me new friends from dozens of countries, exposure to hundreds of investment projects all over the world, professional management experience and the confidence that comes with building a completely new life in a new place. When the World Bank job opened up once again in 2018, I was stronger in every way, and better equipped to thrive.
I’ve always been a planner, but have found that life tends to outgrow my plans because I can never foresee the full universe of possibilities. Clinging to the plan I had made for myself, whether due to fear or impatience, might have gotten me the job but would have cost me so much more.
You have lived in and visited a LOT of countries. How has all your international travel inspired who you are today?
Although I was proudly raised in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn, I always say that I grew up in Egypt. It was the place where, as a 20-year old exchange student, I rented my first apartment and paid my first bills, all in another language. It was where I experienced my first revolution and first fell in love. Cairo life made me feel like anything was within my reach.
If Egypt was where I grew up, London is where I met myself. The writer John Lanchester famously said, “It was a rule of London life that anybody could be anybody.” I landed in London among the hordes of international millennials seeking to discover themselves, create community, find their fortunes and build their lives. In that environment, many of us were able to escape the labels of our home countries and look at ourselves with a fresh perspective. Learning who I was beyond being a Black woman in America, or an over-achieving Ivy Leaguer, was freeing.
Trying new things and opening myself up to new people and experiences in London made me feel free. While there, I traveled to over 25 countries, ate things I didn’t recognize, tried out random vocabulary words, belly laughed with complete strangers and listened to their saddest stories. Even after returning home to the U.S., this freedom colors everything I do. I speak up in meetings and embark on solo adventures. I wear bright colors and confess to my friends how much I love them. Overall, I think that travel has made me more free, and more human.
What are you juggling in life right now?
At the moment, I’m finding it most difficult to juggle my career and sleep! More and more research is highlighting the connection between sleep and overall wellness. I’m a person who really needs 8 hours, but I usually get around 6. To make matters worse, my work travel schedule, which is the absolute best part of my job and a total privilege, has made jet lag a constant reality. As a result, 2018 will go down in history as the year that I finally discovered the wonders of coffee!
However, something’s got to give, and I think it will have to be me. This year I’m committing to sleeping earlier and cutting down on screen time before bed. Please hold me to it!
I have always been struck by how many strong women you have in your life. Can you tell us a bit about the women in your life who have helped you shape your current life view?
Honestly, this is something I take for granted but shouldn’t. As a child, my grandmother taught me about the world by reading me Babar and Madeline books. My mother is a renaissance woman and law professor who taught me that expertise in your field is the only way to put your altruism to work. My mentor, who hired me as an intern 10 years ago, was the only female partner at a top DC firm, and told me to never try and shrink myself because it either wouldn’t work, or would make me utterly forgettable. My current boss is incredibly gracious — she’s the busiest person I know but always finds time to say thank you, no matter how small the task.
Last but not least, my girlfriends are legends. They are hilarious and encouraging, slaying their careers, following their dreams and somehow always answering my texts. May that never change!
Any final words of wisdom for our Juggle readers?
Most mornings I post motivational quotes on Instagram. I consider it my tiny ministry. One of my favorite ones is by Franz Kafka: “Rise up, then. Mend your ways, start seeing what you are instead of calculating what you should become.”
I spent years in diligent pursuit of an image shaped by values that I did not create, but which I adopted without question. I ticked all of the academic and professional boxes, followed every fashion trend and cultivated a charming and uncontroversial persona. But in my quest to be excellent, to be beautiful, to be liked, I rarely thought about what it meant to be me. Building a new life far from home forced me to consider what I really wanted, and allowed me to get to know and ultimately define myself.
As I’ve grown in my career, in my travels and in my relationships, I have begun taking the risk of showing my authentic self, and to my relief, I’ve lost nothing. It’s still a work in progress and I’m conscious that self-discovery via international escape is not a viable option for many women in our generation. But we are all capable of asking who we would be if the world didn’t tell us who we should aspire to be, so early and so often. My wish is for all of us to decide for ourselves, and be that.