OID: Thanks for talking to OID today. Tell everyone about yourself: where you’re from, why you’re getting your Master’s at GWU, your concentration, etc.
Allison DeMaio: Hi Everyone! I’m a second year IDS student from CHICAGO! It was a hard decision between a M.A. in Development or Economics or an MBA, but in the end my passion is development and my means to reach that goal is through business, which is my concentration. (I had some clever name for my concentration that I forget now, but it goes something like Development through the Private Sector, Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs), Impact Investing, Social Entrepreneurship, Value Chains and Inclusive Business.) I am especially interested in how small local businesses and social enterprises can create not only jobs in a community, but how that employment can lead to other sustainable improvements without the need for handouts.
OID: So often in development you hear that there is no “silver bullet” to fix the world’s problems. Why have you chosen your area of concentration? Why do you think it is the most helpful or the most interesting area?
Allison DeMaio: A silver bullet definitely does not exist. I really thought Microfinance was it for a while, and interned with an MFI (microfinance institution), wrote my undergraduate thesis on microfinance, really drank the Kool-Aid. And I am not saying that it doesn’t work, because it is a fantastic tool. But through experience, as well as a fantastic class at GW, I came to realize that’s just what it is, a tool in a larger kit. When combined with the right user and other materials, like education and good laws, it can make a great house. But with an inexperienced user or the wrong environment using the same tool to build that same house make things worse off.
I still like microfinance, but I am currently trying to move a bit further up the chain to helping small and medium businesses that hire more people and contribute greatly to their local economies. I chose business because that is what makes sense to me. I am from a family of Midwestern traders, my great-grandpa started a grain trading business in Missouri that he passed along to his son. My dad is an investor, my cousin and uncle are bond traders, and the list goes on. My family might think that what I do is totally different and crazy at times, but honestly I am not that far outside their comfort zone, just reapplying what I grew up with in a different context. To me, business is fascinating, just like to some of our other classmates who focus on health, gender, agriculture, government, or education as their calling. I think that is what makes our program so unique, we each bring a different tool to the kit, and are perfecting how to use it so that together we can build a stronger house.
OID: You have chosen a newly emerging field within development. Do you feel that this experience has colored your future in any way? Do you think this will change the courses you take or the future jobs that you apply for?
Allison DeMaio: I am really enjoying trying to break into this area of development, it is new and exciting, and much of the work is truly groundbreaking. But like Alejandro said a few weeks ago, trying to be a trailblazer has made some things a bit more difficult, especially in finding classes. I had great luck with one of my consortium classes at Georgetown, and would recommend to everyone to take at least one class outside of the Elliott School, if not for content, then to get the perspective of a different group of people as well as the DC staple of NETWORKING. One of my Georgetown classmates was also in Mozambique for the summer, and it was great to see her and realize how much we had in common. I have also taken classes in the business school and public policy school, which have been great compliments to the IDS core classes.
As far as future jobs go, this position is helping me further narrow down where I want to be and what I want to do. I still have a few decisions to make, but this summer has definitely helped provide some clarity, as did my internship during the school year. But who knows, one of my fall classes might blow me away, and I am keeping myself open to all possibilities at the moment.
OID: Where are you this summer? How did you get this position?
Allison DeMaio: Despite every intention of staying in DC this summer, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime that I could not pass up. I am currently in Maputo, Mozambique. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique 2009 to 2011 and always knew I wanted to come back someday, I just didn’t think it would be this fast. For those of you who do not know, Mozambique is in southern Africa, just north of South Africa and south of Tanzania, on the Indian Ocean. Some of my recent favorite responses to the statement “I am in Mozambique” have included: “I am going to Morocco in a few weeks, we should meet up,” “I have a friend that works in Zambia, do you know them,” and “I went to an Ethiopian restaurant last week, it was good.” Many people just cannot conceptualize the size of Africa, but here is that same conversation in an American context. Me: “I live in DC.” Response: “I am going to Seattle next week, let’s hang out,” “I have a friend in Florida, do you know them,” and “I went to a Texas steak house last week, Yum!”
If you took questions 1 and 2 and put it into a job description; that is what I am doing here. My organization helps small Mozambican businesses connect with markets by facilitating linkages between large multinational companies (such as the extractive industries in Mozambique), as well as facilitating financing by hand holding these companies through the loan process at local banks. I got this position through a series of fortunate events. I had a great internship with a development finance institution (they give loans and guarantees to US companies looking to set up projects in developing countries). Through that I came into contact with my current organization, which was looking to begin operations in Mozambique. I really liked their model and conveyed my interest in a summer position, but for months nothing really came of it, mainly because they did not have the funding. I got my foot in their door by working remotely for them a few hours a week on small administrative things, as well as taking an internship in DC with another development organization. Then out of the blue in June I got an email from the project team asking me if I would be interested in this position in Mozambique. Obviously I jumped at the chance, and in less than 2 weeks I dropped everything else, and here I am.
OID: How is this experience different than your time with the Peace Corps in Mozambique? Do you feel that having an understanding of the country has helped you or hindered you in any way? Do you wish you had gone somewhere completely different or do you feel you could now be considered a specialist in Mozambique?
Allison DeMaio: Other than being in the same country, this position is about as far from my Peace Corps experience as I can get. I was an education volunteer living in a rural town of about 200 people where I carried water every day and did not have cell coverage. Now I am in the capital city, with indoor pluming and internet! I am currently relaxing at a café that overlooks the bay surrounded by ex-pats, their children and nannies. Maputo is a very nice city, with a lot going on every night—with concerts, art shows, restaurants and the like. But most days I really miss my village, the pace of life and the close community there. There is a very large ex-pat community in Maputo, though the majority of them are currently Portuguese (now that their economy has slowed, they seem to have moved here in droves). There are also a lot of former Peace Corps volunteers here, including some from my group. I went to a concert with a bunch of them a few weeks ago, the picture shows PC Moz volunteers from groups number 12, 13, 14 (me) 16 and 17, with services spanning 2007 to today. Clearly, I am not the only one with saudades, but another reason for the huge return rate among volunteers might be the boom in both the private and aid sectors of the country. Couple this with our Portuguese-language background, which makes PC Moz volunteers a hot recruit. I would not consider myself a specialist by any means; there is still so much to learn here and I am picking up more every day. Having been a volunteer here has definitely made the move here super easy; my previous experience made it so I could really hit the ground running. I don’t know if I would have been able to take on this short of a project in a country that I did not have experience in, and hopefully my employer is finding that my background is benefiting them just as much.
OID: Returning from two years in a developing country and then going to grad school must have been a big adjustment. Have you found the RPCVs to be a welcoming community? Any advice for other RPCVs in DC? Any advice for others coming to DC from time abroad?
Allison DeMaio: There is currently a group of volunteers coming through Maputo to finish their service and go back to the States, so I seem to be having this conversation a lot recently. The Peace Corps network is one of the greatest things about service. You get home and have an instant group of people to not only get your foot in the door for jobs, but also people to just talk to and share your experiences. Most other people will get tired of your village life stories pretty quickly, but fellow volunteers have been there and can relate and probably tell a counter story to put yours to shame. Immediately upon returning to Chicago, I was on an RPCV softball team and had a blast just meeting volunteers from Mongolia to Peru that had gotten back decades ago, or just a few months back. In DC they put on networking events and happy hours, and the semi-annual career fair at headquarters is one of the best around. Use the network, especially for jobs and informational interviews, we are always really happy to talk to other RPCVs. There are so many Peace Corps volunteers in DC, and luckily for me there are about 10 from my group alone that I try to see pretty regularly.
For those of you just getting back from any abroad experience, the transition can be a little difficult at times. I struggled in grocery stores, going in for a single item and coming out hours later with half the store. Big crowds were also rough some days, and going to Bonaroo right away might not have been the best idea, but trial by fire seemed to work for me. I got back in December and was not starting school until August, so the best thing I did was take a couple of classes at a local college in Chicago just to get back into school mode and a routine. Any experiences in a developing country will really make you put your life in America in perspective. But you cannot let it control everything you do, and it will shock you how fast you really do re-adapt and pick up old habits. Now that I am back in the swing of American life, I try to do something Mozambican at least once a month to keep the memories alive. But don’t talk about Peace Corps all the time, your friends will get sick of it pretty quickly.
OID: The first-years are about to embark on their grad-school journey. Do you have any advice for them on how to get through their first year? Do you have any course recommendations or time-management strategies?
Allison DeMaio: Welcome first-years! Here are my top three bits of advice, in descending order, which I learned from experience:
- Don’t move into an apartment sight unseen. It might not have heat, hot water or a fridge. Then the washer will break, followed by the front door. Then you will just have to move again at a super inconvenient time during the semester. You will spend a lot of time there, so make sure you don’t just jump at the first cheap place and find something that suits you.
- Don’t take 12 credits while working 25+ hours a week. That was stupid. But work. My internships have been the perfect compliment to my studies, and have opened the door to other things as well. You cannot learn everything about development from a class, and working with several different organizations will help you figure out what you want to do and where you want to be after graduation. Try out something that you wouldn’t normally do: worst-case scenario is that it’s only a semester and you learned some valuable lessons. Best case, you really love it and change paths.
- Most importantly: get to know your classmates outside of the classroom. For those of you working full-time this might be harder, but it is worth it. These will be the people you will not only spend all of your time with for the next 2 years, but they are who you will use to network with once you get out of school. Even if your interests are different, they are great people and will become some of your best friends.