Deirdre White

President and CEO, PYXERA Global (formerly CDC Development Solutions), Washington, DC, 2010-present

Career Trajectory

CDC Development Solutions, Senior Vice President & COO, Washington, DC, 2002-10

Arthur D. Little, Senior Manager, Moscow, Russia and Arlington, VA, 1995-2002

IREX, Director of Russian Operations, Moscow, Russia 1992-95

American Councils on International Education: ACTR/ACCELS, Curriculum Consultant, Moscow, Russia, 1991-92

Welt Publishing, Managing Editor, Washington, DC, 1988-91

Academic Background

University of Pennsylvania, BA (Russian and Soviet Studies), 1988

How do you define your cause?

The work we do as an organization, and the work I've done most of my career, has been geared to improving the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. That's a very broad cause. For quite a while my cause was more limited, specifically to economic development and creating jobs. Over time, I have evolved that definition to go beyond economic development and job creation to include other aspects that improve people's lives. Things are much more interconnected than we like to think in the development community.

What drew you to this cause and your field?

I've always been very interested in things international, in international travel. It probably goes back to my roots. I spent the first year of my life living in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. My father was part of President Johnson's campaign to eradicate smallpox. He was a public health official who represented the Centers for Disease Control. I had the international involvement bug from an early age.

On the flip-side of that, my mother was a civil rights attorney. So I think between my father in public health and my mother as a teacher and civil rights attorney, it was inevitable that I would do something focused on helping people who have less.

How would you describe your field?

The field of international development is undergoing a revolution. Probably a slower revolution than it should be having, but certainly there have been major changes in the field in recent years, for a variety of reasons. People are starting to realize that some of the more traditional donor-driven development approaches are not as effective or helpful for the constituencies that they are supposed to serve.

The traditional institutional donors are trying to figure out a better way to have more impact. Also, many other people are becoming interested in development, whether because it's the right thing to do or because it's part of our national and economic security. Some of those new players that are getting involved are corporations. So at PYXERA Global today, we really find ourselves at the nexus where the public, private, and social sectors come together to improve human well-being.

Individuals are also taking a more active role in the challenges we face globally. The ability to work together to resolve global issues starts with individuals who understand and can relate to cultures different from their own. The US Center for Citizen Diplomacy (USCCD), a national organization that recently merged with PYXERA Global, is dedicated to increasing the numbers of Americans involved in international affairs at a people-to-people level. Individuals who consciously reach out to people from other cultures while embodying the characteristics of a diplomat—tact, civility, dedication to mutual respect and dialogue—are acting as "citizen diplomats." USCCD offers citizens access to opportunities for global engagement at a multitude of educational, international exchange, cultural, and faith-based organizations. As individuals cultivate a worldview that is broader than their own country, this has a positive impact on national and economic security at home.

How would you describe your career path?

I was very focused on the educational exchange part of my job at both ACTR (American Councils on International Education: ACTR/ ACCELS) and IREX (see chapter 9 for references to both organizations). At ACTR I worked on student exchanges; at IREX I focused on scholarly exchange. While I was working for IREX, an opportunity came along to manage the Russian-American Bankers Forum Program. Observing these business exchange programs and how they were changing the landscape in Russia and how building small businesses was really working to create an alternative power source to government . . . I became fascinated with professional development and business creation.

I met with some folks from Arthur D. Little, the management consulting company, because they were starting up their Management Education Institute in Russia. It was just supposed to be just an informational interview, and I ended up with a position offer. I took the job at Arthur D. Little and really shifted more to management education and then to post-privatization restructuring—taking the formerly state-owned enterprises and looking at how to privatize them and how to restructure them so that they could actually survive in a market economy.

What are the major day-to-day activities of your current position?

There definitely is no typical day. Our organization has changed so dramatically during the past ten years that what I do day-to-day has changed dramatically as well. I used to know every single thing that went on in the organization; now I no longer do, and that's a good thing (laughs). But sometimes it's a hard thing.

I still do a lot of the operations work, the budgeting and projections. But I also spend a lot of time devising our long-term strategy and making sure we are keeping our clients happy. Twice a year I do formal feedback calls to all of our clients, and that number is growing. I provide a lot of input on the strategic direction of products, particularly the ones that are long term, more complex programs.

I speak at various meetings and panels in DC, around the United States, and internationally. Last year, I spent a lot of time on the road—more than one hundred days. So what am I doing when I'm on the road? Visiting our field offices and project sites, meeting with the client representatives on the ground, attending these conferences, meeting with potential clients, and even sometimes, as I did this year in India, doing hands-on project design.

How have you maintained a healthy balance between your work and personal life?

I think that is the biggest challenge (sighs). I'm not doing a particularly good job at it, I must admit. But I think that one of the things we're able to do well as a smaller organization is to be very flexible with people. If we know that people have been on the road a lot and need some down time, we give them down time. If you objectively step back, you'd say I have a better work-life balance today than I did a few years ago (laughs).

What is your best advice for developing effective networking skills?

I have never considered myself a good networker. I'm not the person who walks into the room and feels comfortable meeting people. My best advice is: force yourself to do it. Most people don't love being there any more than you do. They welcome having a conversation with someone. Take every opportunity to do it, especially when you're working in a place like DC. There's a luncheon or a breakfast or a presentation that is genuinely of interest almost every day of the week. If your schedule and office allow, get out as much as you can into the community of your peers.

As early in your career as possible, when people start asking you to make a presentation, or to be the face of something, never turn down that opportunity, no matter how small you think it is. You never know what will happen. When you're the one who is speaking, you automatically get to network; someone automatically comes to talk to you.

Do you have a mentor? How has he or she affected your life and career?

Interestingly, yes, one person who really stands out is Steve Hurley. Steve was the person who hired me at Arthur D. Little all those years ago. We both went on to do different things, but we reconnected about six years ago. I see Steve at a quarterly business meeting and talk to him at least on a biweekly basis. He's truly someone who helped me think through difficult issues. He's a great resource.

Do you consider yourself a mentor to others?

Our staff is very young, and there are a number of people who have grown up with this organization. Particularly our vice president, who has been here ten years and she's only thirty-three. I think she and others very much consider me a mentor and feel that I'm open to playing that role. But I am also asked more and more by other folks in the development community, who are ten years my junior, to talk through where they are going with their careers. So outside of the organization, I've started to have more of those opportunities as well.

What awards and honors have meant the most to you?

I had an opportunity to be part of the Bellagio Initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation. Last year they brought together forty-eight people from around the world who they considered to be leaders in the development space. To be considered one of those forty-eight was certainly one of the biggest honors I've ever had.

Are you involved in community service?

I've done community service literally all my life, working at So Others Might Eat as a kid, volunteering at schools, volunteering at the Washington International Center for many years. Any time that I have now goes toward my kids' school. Every year, each of the classes picks an international focus, a country, or a region. I help those classes learn about that country—music, language, customs, and costumes. I spend a lot of time sewing costumes; I'm the seamstress (laughs).

What are some lessons you have learned as your career has evolved?

Force yourself to do things that you don't like—networking, public speaking. Finances are not my favorite thing, but I forced myself to learn and to understand fiscal management. We wouldn't be alive as an organization if I hadn't forced myself to learn accounting.

Any final advice?

We find that many entry-level personnel have huge expectations of what their job is going to be. The reality is, you have to . . . I don't want to use the term "earn your stripes," but you have to show the organization and your supervisors that you can excel at the little stuff. Then they will give you more to do. But if you consider the little stuff beneath you . . . at least in our organization, no one considers anything beneath them. Be willing to take on absolutely whatever needs to be done, and do it really well. You will move forward quickly.

 
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