You could say that you are on a “career adventure” instead of a career path. Welcome to “Choose Your Own Adventure”! Our “career adventure” interview series charts the joys & challenges, and many different directions our career adventures can take us. Anything from career changes, working remotely, freelancing, contracting, self-employment, starting your own business, working on your own projects alongside your day job, having a side hustle or a portfolio career – all depending on what choices we make, what steps we choose to take, what opportunities or challenges that come our way in the most unlikely of places that help you to choose your own adventure.
Aubrey Menarndt lived in Mongolia as a Luce Scholar from 2015 to 2016. She’s worked on international democracy and governance issues. Aubrey is an expert on political transitions, elections, and democracy. She’s been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Politico, the South China Morning Post, and more. Aubrey earned an MPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree from Smith College. She is a Critical Language Scholar (Russian) and a Truman National Security Project Fellow. Young Mongols is her first book.
Thank you, Aubrey, for speaking with us to tell us about your career adventures that have taken you to Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Central America, and the United States!
1. Tell us about yourself
Almost three years ago, I started my own consulting firm which focuses on democracy and governance work. I’ve worked for clients on projects all over the world which have focused on, for example, helping countries better manage their natural resources, countering disinformation, providing better educational opportunities, improving government service delivery, ensuring the rights of gender and sexual minorities, and more.
I also serve as an international elections observer and have observed elections in the Kyrgyz Republic, Georgia, Belarus, North Macedonia, and Ukraine. Next week, I’m headed to Azerbaijan to observe their parliamentary elections.
I recently wrote my first book! It’s called Young Mongols: Forging Democracy in the Wild, Wild East and it will be published by Penguin Random House SEA in March 2020. The book is based on hundreds of interviews that I have conducted with Mongolian activists and leaders since I lived in Ulaanbaatar as a Luce Scholar from 2015-2016. If you’re interested, you can learn more about the book at youngmongols.com
2. What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a project to require oil, gas, and mining companies that are listed on US stock exchange to disclose their payments to foreign governments. This rule could help citizens in other countries hold their government officials accountable and make better-informed decisions about the extraction of their natural resources.
3. Could you tell us about how your career adventure(s) started, about what experiences, challenges or opportunities you came across over the years that led you to choose your own adventure? Where has your career adventure taken you in the past leading you to where you are now?
In high school, I had a teacher who worked to rehabilitate survivors of landmine accidents in Central America. I got involved with the project and volunteered for the group throughout high school and college. I eventually won a fellowship to spend a month in Nicaragua working with the group. I was asked to help a cafe that was run by people with disabilities achieve financial solvency. I found the work challenging and rewarding, which motivated me to seek out similar work going forward.
When I graduated from college, I was determined to get my Ph.D. in Political Science and become a professor. Unfortunately, I had graduated at the height of the financial crisis and universities were full of applications from people far more qualified than I was. I was rejected from all 14 of the schools I’d applied to, despite receiving top marks, doing all the activities, winning awards, etc. I was bereft. I was lucky to get a fellowship with EMILY’s List to work on a targeted 2008 political campaign in Michigan. I worked about 100 hours a week for a mere $1,000 per month and no health insurance, but I found that I loved fighting to get Democratic candidates elected. I did a few more campaigns in other parts of the country, then took a job at a national security NGO in Washington, DC. Finally, I applied to graduate school again– this time, I was accepted everywhere that I applied. My goals changed– I did a master’s degree instead of a doctorate and I decided not to pursue a career as an academic– but the process taught me that timing is important and persistence pays off.
4. What past projects or anything that you have worked on spark joy for you when you look back at what you have worked on?
The first article that I was paid to write was a short story in Ms. magazine about feminist activists in Mongolia. When my pitch was accepted, I actually jumped up and down on my bed yelling to my partner that I was going to be a paid freelance journalist. I asked my mom to buy copies for me back home and was thrilled to see my first by-line in print.
5. How do you choose what to work on?
I very deliberately seek out clients based on my passions and talents. I have a strong set of democracy and human rights-related values and choose projects that fit within that framework. Unfortunately, working as a consultant means that I spend a lot of my time bidding or applying for projects and hoping that I get chosen to work on them.
6. What advice, practical or otherwise, would you give to someone looking to start a career adventure similar to your own?
Learn a language! Emphasis on “a” language. I speak four foreign languages badly. I wish, instead, that I spoke one fluently.
7. Could you describe your day-to-day at “the office(s)”?
I don’t have a typical day at the office, which can be frustrating. I sometimes don’t know what country I’ll be in until shortly before I’m there. It’s an exciting way to live but is not conducive to developing routines or planning.
I’m writing to you now from the airport in Baku, Azerbaijan. I just spent the week here observing their parliamentary elections. As a long-term election observer (like I was last spring in Ukraine), over the course of two months, I meet with interlocutors from government, civil society, and business to understand more about their stakes in the electoral process. As a short-term observer (like I was this week in Azerbaijan), fellow observers from all over the world and I visit polling stations on election day to observe the electoral process. There are observers stationed throughout the country, and our observations are compiled and analyzed to produce recommendations for the country to improve its electoral processes.
As soon as I get back to Hong Kong, I’ll be back to work on this oil, gas, and mining payment disclosure project. I will work with civil society organizations around the world to help them draft compelling comments that illustrate how the proposed US Securities and Exchange Commission rule will impact their countries.
8. Where do you feel you work best and thrive the most?
I work best at my kitchen table. I have two small dogs who like to sit on a pillow next to me, which makes working from home less lonely. I work best when I’m home long enough to establish a regular routine that includes exercise.
9. What inspires and drives you every day?
It is within our power to make life so much better for all people. I can only contribute a tiny bit to that overarching goal but each day, I get out of bed and do what I can to promote transparency, democratic governance, and equitable access to a good life for all people.
10. What advice would you give to your younger self, knowing what you know now?
Don’t let romantic relationships hold you back. When you have the right partner, they will support your dreams, even if that means being apart for a while.
Feel free to contact us at Project Anywhere if you have any questions about any of our career adventure stories. Come back soon to read more career adventures! Contact us here if you’d like to be featured here to share your own career adventures story or if you would like to write a guest blog for Project Anywhere.