Women Who Do: How a Cup of Coffee Helped This International Programme Manager Achieve Her Dream Job
After spending nearly a decade as a volunteer in the international development sector across Africa and Asia, Lou Talbot Beirne finally got her dream job as International Programme Manager at leading international development and volunteering NGO, VMM International. Lou’s route to her dream role (and first paid role!) wasn’t easy – she spent 5 years volunteering in Uganda and doing multiple short-term mission projects in Uganda, Malawi, and Mozambique – before asking the Africa Office Program Manager of VMM out for coffee, ultimately landing her the job. Lou shares how she achieved her role before the age of 30 and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Q) How did you become interested in international development and volunteering internationally?
My parents traveled with me all over the world, and we constantly had English-language students from different countries stay with us, which is how I became interested in intercultural relations. My faith was also very formative, and I was always drawn to the idea of international mission, working to bring wholeness and healing across cultures.
I saved and fundraised and travelled and went on short-term mission teams, which is essentially volunteering but motivated by faith. After University, I knew it was the right time to go abroad for a longer period. I was sent to Uganda by a mission organization to work in an HIV laboratory for a year.
I realized that I wasn’t suited to life in a lab at all and decided to train as a counsellor in Uganda while volunteering for a women’s development project. I also volunteered as a proposal writer in Uganda. Five years later, I returned to Ireland to work at an international development organization, where I developed their volunteer support program and worked on reporting and proposal writing. I was given a lot of responsibility, and I discovered that development could be considered a mission while maintaining a high standard of structure and professionalism. From there, I moved on to VMM in my dream role as International Programme Manager.
Q) What advice would you give to someone considering a career in international development?
Volunteer, intern, travel, and volunteer some more! Unfortunately, the international development sector has few jobs and lots of people who want them. To stand out from the crowd, you need to have used your time well.
Not all of us are able to volunteer internationally, and that’s ok. Work with refugees or minority groups to gain intercultural experience, and get involved in campaigns to change situations you disagree with. What we as employers want to see is that development isn’t just a career choice for you, but that you are passionate about an initiative in a way that you’ll continue to work even when you’re not (and may never be!) being paid what you’re really worth. There isn’t much money to be made in this sector!
An international development degree is great, but not the be-all-end-all by any means. My degree is in biology! We’re really looking for people who take initiative and want to learn.
Q) What have been some of your biggest career obstacles? How did you overcome them?
Before I started working at VMM (my first paid role in international development), I volunteered at an international development organization for a year with no paid work on the horizon. I got very disillusioned knowing that there were people with far more experience than me applying for the same positions. My family pushed me to look for jobs in other industries. The development sector has an incredible community that kept me going.
Q) So how did you finally get your dream role at VMM?
Networking was what finally got me this job. It sounds cliché but it’s true! I joined a support group for missionaries and other development groups, where I met a huge number of development professionals, including the Africa Office Program Manager of VMM. When I saw my current role advertised, I asked if he would meet me for coffee. I had quite a shock when he brought along the CEO! It turned into an informal interview, and John (our CEO) told me later that it was then he knew I was right for the job.
Q) You have worked in Uganda, the U.K., Ireland, France, Malawi, and Mozambique. What advice would you give to others looking to work in a different country?
Travel and get experience working or volunteering with people from different cultures. You have to be willing to not really know what’s going to happen next year – low level overseas roles tend to be for 6 months or one year, so you’ll need to be flexible. Fixed plans don’t survive international work intact!
Q) Your current role as International Programme Manager at VMM International is your first paid role in this sector. How did you manage working in unpaid roles in order to gain experience? Would you recommend this to someone following in your footsteps?
In Ireland, I was blessed to have a husband who could support us both. During my 5 years living in Uganda, I fundraised my own living costs. I lived with no higher income than my peers in Uganda, and I would thoroughly recommend doing this. I was supported financially by a core group of friends and family, and I was backed by the Church Mission Society of the U.K. I wouldn’t recommend volunteering abroad for an extended period without an organization behind you. We are starting to offer a similar scheme within VMM for roles we don’t have funding for.
Q) You’re 30 and working in your dream job that typically takes others decades to attain. How did you do it?
I didn’t realize it was my dream job until I started. My dream job used to change annually! The call I felt was to Africa, and to working with people, and it took a long time to figure out what that meant for me. But everything I have done makes it possible for me to do this work. I have a strong health background with my university degree and working in a lab, so I can easily work with our health projects and give our volunteers travel health training. One of my internships involved setting up a new student mentoring and support scheme, my first foray into project management. As a counsellor, I give training to our volunteers on mental health and avoiding burnout, and I know how to ‘be there’ when our people are struggling overseas. It also helps me manage people well – empathy, listening skills and a good dash of humility are key to help people develop. I really do believe that every twist, turn and odd event in my life has brought me to where am now.
Q) What advice would you give to others seeking a management role in an international NGO?
Development will demand all of you. You have to really, really want to do it, and the wider and more varied your experience, the better you will do. Don’t be too fixed on your final goal, because where you end up could be nothing like you first imagined. Bear in mind, too, that development needs project managers, communications officers, IT managers, finance professionals. These are all roles you can get experience in before moving into the development sector.
Q) What characteristics and skills do you look for when hiring within your international development team?
We are a small, tightly knit team at VMM, and it’s vitally important that everyone not only gets along but that we appreciate and support one another. Primarily I look for someone who will culturally fit into our team but bring their own dynamic as well.
I expect people to be able to work on their own initiative without needing to be micro-managed. I am very hands-off (sometimes too much) and I will trust my team to get the job done because I myself am chronically swamped with work! However, my team also needs to have the humility to ask for support when it’s needed. They will always get it.
We like to have a real mix of personality and skills at VMM. Right now our interns include an Austrian trade justice activist and a Swedish philosophy professor, and one member of our staff is both a qualified beauty therapist and a truck driver. If you can add something interesting to the mix, you’ll fit right in.
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