Stuck in a job that you find interesting, but your heart isn’t in it? Then you can relate to Jonna Davis’ (@jonnadavis) story.
Jonna left the corporate world to pursue a career with more meaning.
She’s now a project director for charity: water, traveling frequently to Africa and Asia.
Dan: Episode 7 of Prologue Profiles. My name is Dan Feld. My guest today is Jonna Davis. She left her finance job to find more meaning in her career. She pursued a degree in Global Ethics but the global recession left her living back with her parents. Jonna persisted on and now enjoys her work as a program director at charity: water where she frequently travels to Asia and Africa. She’s 29 years old.
Jonna: Hi, this is Jonna Davis. I’m an advocate for water and sanitation in the developing world. And you’re listening to Prologue Profiles.
I work at an organization called charity: water and we basically fund water and sanitation programs in the developing world, so I manage our portfolio programs in West and Central Africa.
Dan: So what do you about working at charity: water?
Jonna: I have the distinct honor of being able to go and see our programs on the ground. That means that I get to engage with people who are actually receiving the services provided, understand how they’re managing those services…
Dan: …so where are you going to?
Jonna: 2011 was when I started traveling with my job and my first trip was to Cambodia. And then after that I did Ethiopia and then Malawi and then Sierra Leone and after that Ethiopia again and then Tanzania and then the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire. Oh I also went to India and Bangladesh. That’s what I’m missing.
Dan: Wow, and you’re traveling by yourself?
Jonna: Generally I travel by myself and when I go then I meet with our partner organizations or potential partners who sort of facilitate the whole visit because they know the areas of intervention.
Dan: So how do you describe your path to get to charity: water?
Jonna: My first job was in the corporate world. And what I was doing, was called transfer pricing. It was consulting companies from a tax perspective, totally interesting. Really learned a lot…didn’t really care. And I think that sort of starting from that point is similar to a lot of other people who are in the non-profit world which is just “How do I do something that I care about?”
Dan: Right, so what then happens?
Jonna: So at that point, I decided to start applying to graduate school and then I did a program which was, it turned out to be a right choice. It was called Global Ethics. And so at that point I started really becoming interested in human rights.
And during my second semester of grad school I interned at Human Rights Watch in London in the Asia division. Became really interested in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And then to take it one step farther, that summer I went to Pakistan to intern at an organization called the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. And I was doing research on religious minorities. And I find human rights to be really interesting and that it’s so like, visceral.
You can’t read a report that talks about all these terrible thing that just happen without just wanting to do something about it. So really I thought I was going in the human rights direction.
When I came back from Pakistan I was just finishing up my dissertation and then a few months later I would graduate. So I moved home to Pennsylvania with my parents because I did not have a job despite trying. It was sort of a bad time in the economy [Laughs].
Dan: Right so this was end of 2008?
Dan: When the recession started is when you finished your global ethics program.
Jonna: Yea exactly.
Dan: And you were looking for work but there was not work….
Jonna: Not for me! [Laughs]
Dan: …Is that what happened?
Jonna: So I moved back home to Pennsylvania. I was there for 1 year. That period was so difficult for me that I don’t remember it very well. But what I do remember is waking up every morning with my laptop in my bed and even before going to the bathroom or taking a shower…okay I didn’t shower that much in that period either. [Laughter]
So even before moving, I would just looking at jobs and finish up applications that I was working on. And sort of like being in that laptop position where you are like hunched your bed with your laptop on your belly and I would just apply and apply and apply. I would search and search and search and then not just do very much.
It was a really, really difficult period and this sort of goes back to this idea about my job as me and I am my job and so without something like that, I didn’t really feel like myself.
Dan: And how do you feel about that? That you see yourself as your job and vice versa?
Jonna: I think it’s a product of young people particularly in New York who have always just wanted to have that career, that thing that defines you.
Dan: Is that something you embrace? Is that something you’re trying to work on?
Jonna: That’s a good question.
Dan: …Thank you.
Jonna: [Laughs] I think it’s something that I embrace as well as want to fix because I realize that it causes problems for my personal life. Relationships have pretty much taken a second place to my work. And I wish that that bothered me a bit more, but it hasn’t. I think because I like my life so much. And I’m not just quite sure how much of a relationship would enhance it.
Dan: How comfortable are you with that?
Jonna: If you ask me when I was 18, did I think when I was 29 I would be not married and a career person, and not have kids, I would be like “Ugh, what a loser.” [Laughs] But if you asked me when I was at Ernst & Young and not just finding meaning in my job, all I wanted to be was someone who could find that happiness and just be constantly interested in what I did. So I think probably for me just like 23-on, I want to be that person.
Dan: So why work in water and sanitation?
Jonna: International development has so many ethical complexities. And in terms of this sort of different sectors of development, I find water and sanitation to be very straightforward, relative to others.
So for example if I’m working in gender-based violence, that’s a bit more controversial. But water and sanitation, you are human, I’m pretty sure that you need water. [Laughs] So you can’t argue with it. I mean, how you go about making those services available to people is completely different. And that’s the controversial part but it’s just so basic.
A really sad statistic is that roughly one third or wells installed in Africa are non-functional. And this is just because people haven’t focused necessarily on understanding the cost that it’s going to take to continue to manage the infrastructure and replace parts and just sort of building capacity of people to actually manage the infrastructure.
Dan: Where’s an example of something that worked, like “Oh yea, this works.”?
Jonna: There are a ton of hand pumps in rural India, particularly in this area where we’re working called Uttar Pradesh. In the 90s, the government had just installed, installed, installed, but now a lot of those pumps aren’t working anymore and the program that we were doing is basically funding individual mechanics to go and fix those pumps for a fee. With the ultimate goal of business itself being sustainable on its own without external intervention.
And when we visited the program, you can just see how much it works! I mean every community that we visited of cause, they were like, “You know, we call these guys, they fix it”. And there was actually a team of women mechanics which they were just the coolest people. They chose to be involved in this program and they’re changing people’s assumptions about women.Walking into a community and saying, “I’m going to fix your hand pump” when maybe the thing is sunken, it’s really heavy, it’s hard to fix, it’s a technical problem that most people don’t think that women can solve.
And the fact that this team is really, really excellent at what they do, and they’re continuing to do business so people must be trusting them and they’re changing people’s assumptions. And they’re also providing safe access to water. It’s great.
Jonna: Despite how positive I’m sounding on this interview [Laughs] I’ve become a lot more cynical and I look back on the person that I was when I was trying to get out of the corporate world and I sort of am annoyed with her.
Because there’s this assumption among people who want to sort of to change the world or want to help people that just because you want to help, means that you should. And I’ve really come to think having seen what I’ve seen in my job, that you really need to think about what you personally can bring to the table.
And as long as you’re clear with yourself and others about why you’re there, yes you can want to help people and that’s a nice thing, but a lot of people just do it for themselves to sort of feel good and expand their horizons and that’s totally legit but I think if you, this sounds terrible, if you go around acting like you just want to help people, I don’t know if that’s always the truth. And that’s okay.
Dan: What other misconceptions about those who work in the social good area?
Jonna: That we don’t get paid. [Laughs] I have a lot of interesting conversations on planes. And I talk to people about what I do and they’re like, “Oh that’s so great that you’re volunteering your time”. And I’m not.
What we do requires professionalism and skill and you have to learn it. And again, just because you want to help doesn’t mean that you can. I’ve had the fortunate experience of learning a lot on the job and people took a chance on me and that doesn’t happen to everyone.
So the fact is NGOs need to be able to compete with the private sector for talented people. And you have to pay them. You’re never going to get paid as much as someone else in the private sector but you should be able to compete.
Dan: What advice would you give to someone who’s looking for more satisfaction in their job?
Jonna: I would say surround yourself with different people. Find a way to engage with people who might have similar interests. So for me, grad school helped a ton. I realized that I wasn’t the only crazy person who might want to do what I was wanting to do. So just sort of change the conversation.
I think it’s really easy to listen to the people around you who might just think you’re a little off and sort of continue in that cycle. And just take any opportunity that you can to learn more about what it is that you might want to do. Even if it means exploring a million things, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do them but you can always talk about them and think about them and just take some time.Maybe travel a little bit, if you can. Travel is a luxury that we can’t all afford but even if you can just take time out to reflect upon what it is that means something to you.
This post originally appeared at PROLOGUE PROFILES.