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.
Kehinde Togun is the managing director of public engagement at Humanity United. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of Humanity United.
What resources are most useful for people early in their career?
I think of resources across multiple spectrums. One constant “resource” for me has been relationships with potential mentors and career champions. I consider mentors to be folks who know my desired life plan and who can help me think through the options and remind me to take risks; career champions are senior leaders in the institutions I’ve worked in who are invested in my success and will advocate on my behalf in rooms I’m not in. As I’ve gotten further in my career a network of peers has become equally invaluable. Another useful resource for me were early and mid-career fellowships that both fostered my network and exposed me to ideas and people who helped shape my thinking. These fellowships also served as a signal from the professional community I sought to be a part of, propelling my career forward. Finally, having paid internships was a significant resource and one of the reasons I am where I am today. Like many young professionals, my first full time job was at an organization where I had previously interned, and I couldn’t have done any internships without getting paid; it would’ve meant taking on even more student loans. One of the most impactful steps organizations can take is to offer young people a paycheck to level the playing field. Applying for and getting fellowships, finding mentors and champions are indispensable, but the first step is knowing that you can start to make a living working as a young professional.
You’ve worked in the nonprofit space, as well as the private sector. How have those experiences influenced your career path?
I’ve been fortunate to have my experiences build on each other. I knew implicitly that my political analysis and project management experience in international nonprofits were transferable skills, but this was proven daily when I transitioned to working with companies. Similarly, now that I’ve moved into philanthropy, I find myself drawing heavily on my experience leading strategy and conducting risk analysis in the private sector. I have two main takeaways thus far: 1) most people’s careers are nonlinear and one of the best pieces of advice I got early on was to go after enriching opportunities instead of fancy titles. The latter is more likely to come if you have a wealth of experience and a track record building relationships and delivering results. 2) I wish my younger self hadn’t created a false choice between doing “good” in the nonprofit world or reaping financial benefit in the private sector. Coming out of grad school, I imagined my only path to making a difference in the world was working at a nonprofit. However, years later, I realize that there are pros and cons of both sectors. I was fortunate to find several kindred spirits in the private sector whose goal was to also improve society—just as there are among nonprofit professionals.
You’re also an adjunct lecturer in the political science department at Rutgers University- Newark. What motivated you to start teaching?
I loved my experience studying international development at Georgetown, but I struggled with being one of few people of color and one of a few African students in a graduate program where we’d all leave to pursue careers in policy or international development. That experience of being one of too few continued as I became a foreign policy professional, so I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about ways to expand the seats at the table. There are definitely systemic barriers to entry, and I’m grateful for the work that folks like Amb. Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley and Carlos Mark Vera are doing to reduce those barriers. For me, one way to make a difference was to design a course that intentionally exposes students at my alma mater—mostly first generation and predominantly students of color—to foreign policy leaders who look like them. In my Foreign Policy in Practice seminar, students had a chance to engage nonprofit, government, and private sector leaders who were focused on addressing foreign policy. They also got to create podcasts, write policy memos, and make presentations—skills that would prove useful if they chose this career path. My hope is that when they begin to conceive of their career paths after undergrad, they can envision themselves in roles at the State Department, in international nonprofits, think tanks, etc., where they might have otherwise not seen themselves as belonging.
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