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.
Bethan Saunders is a second-year MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). She is Belfer Center Young Leader Fellow and co-chair of the HKS organization Women in Defense, Diplomacy, and Development. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Harvard Kennedy School.
What advice do you have for young professionals who are considering graduate school?
The best advice I received when I was applying to grad school was to make sure that I had a clear vision of why I was going. I needed to ask myself: Where do I want to be at the end of this program? A graduate degree can be an opportunity to hone your skills in preparation for a new level in your career or to pivot in a different direction (as I did!). Having a guiding mission or goal is an important way to make the most of the limited time. When I started my first year at HKS, I did not know the exact job I wanted after graduating. However, I knew the key skills and networks I wanted to build through the degree that would help me in pursuit of my broader career goals. Having a strategic vision for my graduate degree has helped make my experience so rewarding.
You won The Pitch—CNAS’ annual event to elevate new and emerging voices in national security—in 2021. How has that impacted your career?
The Pitch was a game-changing opportunity for me. First and foremost, the competition challenged me to think creatively and critically about major policy issues, while also learning how to efficiently communicate my ideas in a persuasive and compelling way. As the Best in Show winner, I was also able to publish an article about my policy idea on the CNAS website. Being published by such an influential think tank gave me an important platform to showcase my ideas and continue conversations about defense innovation and climate change with national security experts. As a result of the platform I was given after winning the Pitch, I was connected with the Cambridge Project—a program that connects students in the Cambridge area with the Defense Innovation Unit to work on cutting-edge research at the intersection of technology and national security. I'm excited to be leading the project again this year and have the Pitch to thank for the connection!
I am incredibly grateful to CNAS and the Pitch competition for elevating the voices of emerging leaders in national security. It's so important to empower and support diverse perspectives, and it was an honor to be part of the competition last year and stay involved as a judge in this year's competition.
What have your experiences in the public and private sector taught you?
I am very passionate about finding ways to bridge both the private and public sector to drive impact. The United States is a global leader in innovation, but some of our most cutting-edge technology is not accessible to the U.S. government. This is particularly true in the national security space, as complex and often archaic acquisition structures and regulations prevent emerging and critical technology from reaching our warfighters. As the geopolitical landscape and national security challenges evolve, access to the best and most innovative technology is critical for the United States to ensure its competitive edge.
My experiences in both the public and private sectors have taught me how wide this divide is, but have given me a unique perspective on the incredible potential for impact through collaboration. This summer, I had the opportunity to leverage these prior experiences as an intern on the Strategic Issues team at In-Q-Tel (IQT). IQT is a not-for-profit venture capital firm that invests in cutting-edge technologies to enhance the national security of the United States. IQT's model is an inspiring example of how government, venture capital, and start-up communities can work together to drive impact and innovation.
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