Amandla! Woman to Watch
Nchimunya D. Ndulo
Senior International Attorney, Millennium Challenge Corporation, USA.
I had exposure to the law growing up with family members in the profession. During my undergraduate studies, I found myself interested in the legal issues in my social sciences coursework. I recall in my law school application, I mentioned that I wanted to be able to help others build capacity and advise them on how to better negotiate and advocate for their positions, especially in the international development space. I came pretty close to that in practice. Now, as a lawyer, I like the intellectual challenge posed by the law, the range of issues and the different sides and arguments to different issues. But overall, I like the tool that the law presents for people, by knowing its limitations and the possibilities it presents, to help put themselves in a better position, whether through negotiating a fairer contract, litigating a claim, or advocating for change.
There have been a few: being admitted to the bar, successful motions for summary judgment, successful negotiations, receiving a Special Act/Service Award in my first year of joining an institution, but the proudest moments come from client satisfaction—when a client tells you that you helped put them in a better position. I recall when I was leaving my last role, receiving an e-mail from a Minister of a country where I had advised on a large strategic project. In his e-mail, he thanked me for my work and contributions and stated that I had left “an indelible mark” on the country. I did not expect this compliment at all but felt proud that I had made a positive contribution.
I would have become more comfortable at an earlier stage about charting a different path. Coming out of law school, there is a lot of pressure to follow a certain path and to get certain jobs. Get the training that you need of course but follow your interests. Don’t be afraid if your interests and opportunities drive you in a different direction. Define success relative to where you are coming from and where you want to go, on your own terms. So far, I have followed a different path filled with a lot of amazing opportunities.
I recall one particular challenge. While working on a project a few years ago, it became clear from encounters that the client was uncomfortable with me advising on the project, and it became evident that the concerns stemmed from me being a woman. In meetings where I was joined by a male colleague, the client would turn to him for answers, and in conversations and meetings, I was referred to as “the lady,” while my male colleagues were referred to by their first names. I knew that I had to win the confidence of the client in order to be successful in my role. I decided that their confidence would be won by balancing my recognition of the cultural sensitivities with showing my competence and leveraging my authenticity and intuition. In conversations and meetings that followed, I remained cognizant of cultural sensitivities in my speech and actions and remained patient as the client warmed up to me. I made sure I studied and understood the project and its issues. I researched and proposed solutions to the issues presented. Shortly thereafter, the relationship changed, the client reached out to me directly, had confidence in my advice, and entrusted our team with more projects. The next time I attended a high-level meeting concerning the project, the client referred to me as “my sister,” at that point, I knew we had made some progress. We have become good friends since.
I have five main points of advice. First, take up opportunities and responsibilities as they are presented to you at work, opportunities that allow you to continue to grow and develop new skillsets. Be intellectually curious. Second, get to know your colleagues. You may make some good and long-term friendships and connections, but also try to understand the relationships and social dynamics of your workplace. The last thing you want is to get on the wrong side of someone you later find out is your boss’ greatest confidant. Third, get to know where you stand professionally at work. Request frequent feedback, it allows you to grow and improve but also lets you know where you stand at work. Ask what you need to do to be considered for a promotion. These aren’t always easy conversations to have but they will help you understand if your employer is interested in your growth and development and if there are opportunities for you where you are. Fourth, develop your network—networks are a key source of support and opportunities as you advance professionally. Finally, seek mentors, mentorship can make a difference between a person who can and who does succeed.