The SC Interview Series is an effort to highlight the work creative professionals are doing that “move the needle” in how we work and perceive the world around us. The next interview in our series features Roxanne Alvarez, a career professional with nearly 20 years of experience working at the intersection of gender, financial inclusion, and entrepreneurship. Roxanne’s academic career has taken her from American University to the prestigious University of Chicago where she earned her Master’s in Social Work focusing on Program and Policy Development, and finally to George Mason University where she focused on entrepreneurship and microfinance. Her professional career has included stints at Accion International, the UN Foundation, and the Microfinance Information eXchange (MIX), among a variety of mentorships, research positions, and advisory councils. Roxanne has a wealth of knowledge to share in gender equity and economic empowerment, in both a local and international context. She joins us from her office in Seattle, Washington.
Josef Scarantino: Roxanne, welcome and many thanks for participating in the SC Interview Series. I’d like to begin by asking you to tell a little about yourself.
Roxanne Alvarez: Thank you for inviting me, Josef! I recently moved to Seattle from Washington, D.C., where I lived off and on for more than 20 years. It is quite a change! But I am a person with a fairly high tolerance for risk and a high level of wanderlust, so the move is welcome. I am hoping to continue my work in the global development field, focusing specifically on the economic and social development of women and girls. However, with the recent political shifts happening, I am now open again to working domestically on gender inequities as well. We’ll see what opportunities emerge for me in Seattle!
JS: You’ve had a career spanning close to 20 years in the nonprofit sector, ranging from community grassroots organizations to large foundations to universities. You’ve had a heavy focus on issues pertaining to gender, microfinance, and economic empowerment. Where did your interest in these areas begin and what is the common thread that ties these subjects together?
RA: I think my interest in these areas sprung mainly from my work as a counseling social worker. I worked at a rape crisis center in Chicago and a domestic violence shelter in Miami and while there were many life challenges that clients often presented in our meetings together, one of the commonalities I could see was the desire to be economically independent and the entrepreneurial resilience that many of them showed to better their own lives. This was very inspiring to see given some of their circumstances. But I was not prepared yet to identify with the economics of it all, as I had focused my studies and training in other social sciences. However, over time I came to appreciate economics and the intersection of philanthropy and business to address our toughest social problems. It was while pursuing my second Master’s degree in economics that I got very interested in microfinance and exploring the premise that with access to financial services and products, entrepreneurship could serve as a catalyst for people to improve their lives.
JS: From 2012 to 2015, you worked at the UN Foundation managing the external partnerships (among other areas) around the UNF’s gender empowerment work. You also designed and launched a professional development initiative for UNF staff called M.O.V.E.S., which stands for Mutually beneficial, Organic, Voluntary, Exchange for Staff. What can you tell us about that initiative and how it impacted your colleagues?
RA: While I enjoyed my day-to-day work for the almost four years I was at UNF, my proudest accomplishment there was creating a new kind of professional development and quasi-mentorship program, which we called M.O.V.E.S. I pitched M.O.V.E.S. to UNF’s executive leadership and it received full support, which allowed me to implement the program in both our Washington D.C. and New York City offices and to reach the then-300 staff members. I worked with many colleagues I recruited internally to identify career development topics of interest and planned large networking events, small working-group/skill-building meetings, and created an online community focused on career-building topics. I am very proud of this professional achievement because it allowed me the opportunity to provide superior service, excel above and beyond my daily work, and help others improve themselves. Additionally, I also learned and grew professionally through many valuable lessons about project management, marketing, and building collaborative partnerships.
I heard a lot of positive feedback about M.O.V.E.S. from my colleagues at all levels of the organization – from junior staff to the Vice Presidents and C-Suite team. One of the best compliments I got was from a colleague who couldn’t attend many of our events, actually. Her schedule was such that getting to any M.O.V.E.S. meeting was very tough. But she told me that, nevertheless, just knowing that M.O.V.E.S. existed at UNF made her proud to work there. That was a very professionally satisfying moment for me. I had created M.O.V.E.S. based on my strong beliefs in the power of social capital and open communities to create positive social change and it seemed to be resonating with the staff.
JS: You are fairly active on social media, particularly on Twitter as @microfinanseer, under which name you also consulted to organizations in areas of microfinance and entrepreneurship. For many in the U.S., especially those outside of the Washington, DC area, microfinance is a foreign term. For the uninitiated readers among us, give a brief overview of microfinance and where your interest lies in that field.
RA: Microfinance is a broad term that describes a field that studies, promotes, and provides access to financial services and education to low-income populations. Many often think of only microcredit when they hear microfinance, which is a financial product consisting of small loans of working capital for very small businesses (or microentrepreneurs) across the globe. Microcredit has even become quite popular domestically since our most recent recession in 2008-09. The underlying philosophy to microfinance is with equal access to financial tools and resources, the economically vulnerable can be self-reliant in getting out of poverty. I think now the broader term “financial inclusion” is how many in the field talk about reaching more of the un- and underbanked.
Once I started reading about how entrepreneurship and access to financial services could serve the most financially vulnerable, particularly women abroad, I was hooked! It touched on all of the professional areas within business and social work that I wanted to understand and work in all at once.
Intellectually for me, it was like a combination of Adam Smith and Simone de Beauvoir.
JS: You’ve been incredibly active as a mentor and serving in different capacities with mentorship organizations at various junctures of your career. How important has mentorship been to those you’ve worked with, and what are simple ways that busy professionals can get more involved being mentors?
RA: I have benefitted greatly from formal and informal mentors – people who took an interest in my professional growth and made time to offer guidance or support when I asked for it. Sometimes they were my supervisors, or a teacher I admired, but more often they were colleagues I worked alongside whose work style and experience appealed to me. We can learn from many in the workplace, not just the most “senior-level” or the most professionally experienced.
Mentoring doesn’t have to take up a lot of time. Simply leading by a great example can inspire the next generation of professionals to do their best. However, if you have the opportunity to participate in a mentorship program (some employers have formal mentoring programs as a staff benefit), I think it is very worthwhile. Often mentees are not asking for much time, but instead hoping to have access to your experience and guidance given your own career choices and paths. I find just spending a couple of hours a month can mean so much to a person just starting their career. I have heard from those I have mentored – some formally and others who have told me they considered me a mentor – that sometimes you just want someone to empathize with the struggle of finding the right job or getting a business off the ground. Other times you have a more direct request like connecting to certain people or organizations and hope to be able to learn from someone else’s career stories. However, while it doesn’t need to take much time, it certainly does take time and energy to support others and so people looking for mentors should keep that in mind and respect that time. I think you don’t find a mentor, real mentors find you. The more you invest in yourself and become someone worth investing in and supporting, the more people you will find willing to mentor you when you need it.
JS: Thinking strategically, what are you currently working on that excites you and what is next for your career?
RA: This year is starting off in a very inspiring way with my move to the Pacific Northwest. I am looking forward to learning a great deal in my new environment. I think it is important to always stay inspired to learn. Sometimes that means finding a new perspective and moving out of our comfort zones to challenge our assumptions and make way for new experiences. My hope is that in opening my eyes to new opportunities from a new vantage point, I can find more ways to apply myself to work on the issues that I care about the most. I picture I will always be working on projects and with organizations that are focused on improving the human condition for as many as possible.
JS: What advice would you have for others following in your footsteps or considering a career focusing on gender, financial inclusion, and international development? Where would someone start?
RA: I wish I could say that my path to get to this point in my career was straight-forward. It certainly was not! But that is what I am most proud of, to be honest. My professional life is woven together by experiences that I pursued because of my passion for a project or an opportunity to work with a great organization or team. I think education is very important and informing ourselves with techniques and theories are good starting points. My life likely would have looked a lot different if I had not attended college and then graduate school to read, take in, and debate ideas.
But beyond schooling, it is imperative to get out into the world, market yourself well about what you care about, and take positions or projects that move you closer to the work you want to do. It is fine not to get the “perfect” job right out of school or even not to stay in a position for a long period simply for appearances of stability.
A great piece of advice I heard once was to be loyal to your career and not just your job. Be open to where the road takes you and you will be surprised the directions you can go in your career.
For example, right after one of my clinical social work jobs, I took a position in grants development at a university. This was a completely new area for me given that I had not had any formal business training or experience. However, I was lucky that the person who hired me was willing to show me quite a bit and believed in my natural abilities to learn quickly and adapt well. That position opened so many doors for me and eventually led to my interest in economics more formally. I credit that position and my supervisor there with really shaping my career into something I couldn’t have imagined years before. By the end of my tenure in that university position, I was co-teaching a grants and budget development course.
JS: Would you like to offer any closing thoughts to our readers?
RA: First, I’d like to thank you again for the opportunity to share my ideas and thanks to your readers for reading them. I’ll leave you with this quick story. While I was mentoring a young woman in D.C. a couple of years back, I had us do a writing exercise that allowed us to provide advice to our younger selves. It is an exercise that I had heard about before and thought it would be fun for us to do the same. In that letter I offer myself (and others) what I have learned in hindsight about life and work. You can read the whole letter here: http://passthetorchforwomen.org/2015/06/25/advice-to-my-younger-self-roxanne-alvarez/
I think the last line sums up what I’ve learned over the years and often offer as a key to feeling professionally accomplished:
As long as you are always working on projects and with organizations aligned with your values, you will always feel successful.
JS: Roxanne, thanks again for participating in the SC Interview Series. It has been a real pleasure. For more information on Roxanne’s expertise and background, contact her through LinkedIn or find her on Twitter, where she shares insights on entrepreneurship, business, economics, gender equity, philanthropy, and culture.