April 30, 2024

Around the Table with Abi Olvera

Three Questions with the Make Room Email Newsletter

Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.

Abi Olvera is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) focusing on the AI-bio-cyber risks nexus and early biothreat detection. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of CSR.

1. In addition to your work and background in tech governance, you also have robust experiences in other fields such as urban planning and economic development. Can you talk about how these various field interests intersect and guide you across your career?

At first, I was worried that having too many interests like this would mean I wasn't fully specializing in anything. However, after reading about past highly successful people, being well-versed in multiple subjects appears to be more the norm. For example, Nobel Prize winner and astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, in addition to Albert Einstein, were deep into their field, as well as musicians.

I started in university and grad school wanting to know all about why international poverty and inequality persist and grow. The question is still of utmost importance. Throughout volunteering and reading books and articles, I also had a burning desire to know more about the impact of AI and tech/biotech development on current world issues. Once I started reading about urban planning, I couldn't unsee how our built infrastructure encourages behaviors like speeding in ways that other countries' infrastructure doesn't. Learning about these has not only been fun but also got me interested in systems thinking and innovation policy, two critical topics that make me better at approaching sticky and nuanced policy questions.

2. What advice do you have for someone who is early in their career?

I often see early career folks freeze because they feel that they need to know exactly what to do for the rest of their careers. I've never really felt sure of what position or career track I wanted, apart from wanting to make sure I led a socially impactful life. I think people overestimate how much planning or intentionality other professionals have throughout their careers. I spent some time asking some of my more well-established colleagues how they built such illustrious careers. It often comes down to doing what seems exciting to you, and as far as planning, the most common trope is planning your next role so that it serves the role you want after that. Notably, few people were planning their careers much further than that. I've also found that as I progress in my career, my knowledge of the gaps and bottlenecks in the policy process grows, so I get a better sense of what I'd be excited to tackle next. To early career folks, I'd say to prioritize doing what excites you, not just because it energizes you but also because you'll likely succeed and stand out more when you're intrinsically motivated by your role.

3. How has mentorship influenced your career?

I owe my career and success to my mentors. I won a national fellowship as an undergrad, which paid for my master's and included entrance into the U.S. Foreign Service. While I was one of only twenty students to win nationwide, I was not aware of the fellowship until a mentor flagged it for me. This same mentor, a professor at the University of Richmond, also helped me prepare for the tough interview process, where I had to be ready to answer questions on foreign affairs questions. As someone who had only become a foreign affairs major in my third year in university (the same year I became a finalist), I was up against all odds. Later, my mentors submitted 16 letters of recommendation on my behalf each, because I chose to apply to all 16 universities that the fellowship offered to pay for. I had been worried that I wouldn't get into any. I ended up getting into Yale. At every step in my career, I've asked my mentors for explanations for what happened between the lines about why meetings went a certain way, which next role to accept, and even how to think through career transitions. If there's one thing that got me here, it's the mentors who helped me every step of the way.


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