Practitioner Profile: Isobel Coleman
“Life is a series of tiny choices you make that add up to a direction.”
Profile by Siham Nurhussein, MPA '04
Isobel Coleman directs a two-year project at the Council on Foreign Relations on women and foreign policy. The project examines the effectiveness of local and international programs that encourage the economic and civic participation of women in Middle Eastern and Southwest Asian societies. Before joining the Council as a senior fellow, Coleman was the chairperson of NursingHands, Inc., a health care services company she founded in 2000; a partner at McKinsey & Company, where she worked for over 8 years; a research fellow at the Brookings Institution; and an adjunct professor at American University, focusing on U.S.-Japan relations. Coleman holds a D. Phil and M. Phil in International Relations from Oxford University, and an A.B. in Public Policy and East Asian Studies from Princeton University.
A Multifaceted Career
Isobel Coleman’s impressive career, spanning the academic, business and policy worlds, would be the envy of any WWS grad. But when she graduated from Princeton 15 years ago, she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do. “I always had an interest in international affairs and foreign relations,” Coleman recalls. As a child, she had developed a particular interest in East Asia, and began studying Japanese in high school. Nevertheless, choosing a career was no easy task.
Coleman ultimately decided to accept a Marshall Scholarship to study International Relations at Oxford. “I basically fell into a doing a Ph.D,” she recalls. “I thought it would be a good thing to do, although I was not committed to being an academic.” She was much more interested in policy, which she felt was more action-oriented, and in business, particularly as it related to Japan.
While at Oxford, Coleman took the Foreign Service Exam and explored other opportunities in international affairs. She was invited by McKinsey & Company, to apply for a position. Although she was initially skeptical, she decided to accept an interview and was immediately offered a position. At that time, though, she opted instead to complete her D. Phil and a fellowship at the Brookings Institution.
Coleman was fascinated by McKinsey’s analytical approach to problem solving, and three years later, for reasons both professional and personal, she decided to join the prestigious firm. She had come to the realization that she did not want to join academia or the Foreign Service. Perhaps more importantly, “My husband was going through medical school and I thought it would behoove me to get a paying job.”
Coleman speaks fondly of her days at McKinsey, which she calls a “great training ground.” What was originally intended as a one to three-year stint turned into more than eight years. She quickly climbed the ranks, making partner after six years, but Coleman knew she did not want to stay with McKinsey forever. So when an opportunity presented itself, she decided to start her own business--a health services company called NursingHands, Inc. “Building a company was an incredible learning experience. I learned more during those two and a half years than I would have had I stayed at McKinsey.” She recently sold the company.
The Women and Foreign Policy Project at the Council on Foreign Relations
It was serendipity that landed Coleman her current position. She had just sold her company, and was contemplating a return to the corporate world. But her interest in foreign policy had not abated. A long-time member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Coleman called the Council’s President to help her think about possibilities. “I didn’t have a grand plan,” Coleman recalls, “but I knew I wanted the option to be in both the business and policy realms.”
As it turned out, the President of the Council had a very interesting project that he’d been trying to launch. The topic was “Women and Economics in the Developing World.”
When I asked Coleman how she came to be interested in gender issues, she was refreshingly frank: “I can’t say this is something I’ve lived and breathed.” Coming from a corporate and IR background, she is not an activist. And while her academic work has touched upon development, she has never focused on gender issues. But it was precisely this background that made Coleman an attractive candidate to head up the project--the Council was convinced that she could provide a fresh perspective. Coleman accepted the challenge and underwent an intensive six-month reading process. “I was fascinated by how much evidence there is on the critical importance of girls and women to economic and political development that hasn’t made it into the mainstream.”
Then came September 11. “September 11 opened a window for people to make a connection between the repression of women and the inability of a country to make progress on a number of levels. “Afghanistan was just an extreme example of this.” In many countries, she noted, the gender gap--particularly in education--has had a negative impact on economic and political development.
In her work at the Council, Coleman focuses on the role of women in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. In these regions, increasing civic and economic participation for women “poses a particular challenge because of certain cultural and religious traditions.” The objective of the project is to underscore the strategic importance of advancing the role of women in Muslim societies, and to develop policy recommendations that can help shape the agenda of U.S. policymakers. By emphasizing the societal benefits of creating economic and educational opportunities for women, and the importance to democracy of advancing women’s legal rights, Coleman seeks to demonstrate how the empowerment of women in Muslim societies also serves U.S. foreign policy objectives.
A critical component of Coleman’s work is building a constituency of policymakers who are committed to addressing the issues of women and foreign policy. She believes that there has been “phased progress” on this front. “There was a lot of attention to women’s issues in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and Hillary Clinton did a huge amount to increase awareness.” In addition, international conferences such as Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995) helped to raise awareness of gender issues.
The current reality, however, is lots of talk, not enough action. In the U.S. government, there have been efforts to address gender issues through the creation of specialized offices (for example, the State Department’s Office for International Women’s Issues and USAID’s Women in Development Office.) Coleman expressed her concern that the continued operation of such offices may actually reinforce perceptions of gender as a marginal, rather than mainstream, issue. “You shouldn’t need a small office to ensure that a gender perspective is incorporated; it should already be mainstream.”
Coleman compares progress on women’s issues to that of other “soft” issues--human rights, the environment and health, to name a few. “AIDS started out as something affecting a small segment of the population. For a lot of people, there was no direct impact, so they didn’t care. Now, 50 percent of those infected are women and children. We’re seeing a pandemic.”
According to Coleman, there is growing awareness that the participation of women in economic and civic life can influence the fate of a society, from health to family planning to government accountability. But given the cultural and religious taboos that have to be overcome, the big question is how you change the role of women in some societies. Nevertheless, Coleman believes that the gradual mainstreaming of gender is a step in the right direction. “Before, the World Bank said [gender] was beyond its realm. Now, they realize it’s not beyond their mandate, because you can’t improve health without addressing these issues.”
A Week in the Life of Isobel Coleman
Coleman is extremely busy in her new role. When asked what she had planned for the current week, she glanced at her calendar and described a staggering array of activities. Among her major responsibilities are:
Lectures. The week we spoke, Coleman was scheduled to give lectures at Middlebury College and here at Princeton. The purpose of these talks, Coleman says, is to disseminate research and interact with people from a wide set of disciplines. “It’s an interactive process.”
Writing on women and foreign policy. Coleman frequently writes opinion pieces to bring gender issues to the forefront of policy. In keeping with her “mainstreaming” agenda, she recently submitted an Op-Ed to the Wall Street Journal. (“I don’t want to just preach to the choir.”) Her latest Op-Ed was based on a recent trip to Egypt, Dubai, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Meetings. Coleman organizes meetings at the Council for members who are “interested observers of foreign policy” (including media, legal experts, NGOs, etc.). For example, later that week she was meeting with human rights advocates from Afghanistan. Some meetings are conducted via conference call. In addition, Coleman frequently attends other talks at the Council “just to stay current.”
Although Coleman’s career has spanned a number of fields, she insists that the skills involved have remained remarkably consistent. Among the skills Coleman believes are critical are the ability to:
Write well and clearly
Articulate clearly and cogently
Present oneself with a sense of confidence and directness
Hold one’s own in a group with different perspectives
Argue a case and interact with colleagues
Handle stress and pressure gracefully
Be analytical in one’s approach to problem-solving, and break problems down into their component parts
Think and organize one’s thoughts clearly
Read a lot, synthesize quickly and make connections between disparate things.
Indeed, Coleman’s swift immersion into gender and foreign policy was reminiscent of her earlier work experience. At McKinsey, Coleman notes, one might work on an international expansion strategy for a Japanese bank and, that same month, try to launch new business for an insurance company in the U.S. “I would need to talk to people, read quickly, absorb a fact base, and then layer my impressions onto that,” she recalls. “That’s very similar to the work I’ve done here.”
Words of Advice
A firm believer in the “power of the person,” Coleman’s biggest piece of advice for young people is to “take classes on subjects you’re genuinely interested in...and work with good people.” Coleman adds, “Princeton is an amazing place to make connections. Professors are flattered by students interested in what they are doing.”
Citing her career as an example, she also emphasized that there are many different ways to end up doing foreign policy work--whether you’re a lifer in the State Department, an academic, or a business person engaged in international issues. “There is no one path,” Coleman stresses. “You should look at all different options.”
This willingness to take chances has served Coleman well. “My career has exceeded my expectations. I can’t say that when I started out I knew what I wanted to do... But if someone had asked me when I graduated from Princeton 15 years ago what my dream job would be, being a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations might well have been up there.” (It should also be noted that, amidst all the hard work, Coleman has successfully balanced her professional and personal lives. She and her husband have four kids, and she was pregnant at the time she delivered her WWS lecture.)
When asked what her next career move would be, Coleman responded, “I am maybe one-third of the way through my career. I feel like I have another 30 years ahead.”
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