I didn't expect to embark on a career in conservation -- which to me meant wading in marshes with binoculars wearing a birding vest. The past five months working for the World Wildlife Fund in Laos has changed all that. After a year of applying to jobs in management consulting and private wealth firms in Boston and New York, I ended up here -- in Vientiane, Laos. Vientiane is a rural city. The Mekong river runs along its western edge, with sandbanks and small shrubs appearing in the river basin during the dry season. Coconut and banana trees spring up among apartments and alleyways.
This city is one of incredible contrasts as the old world meets the new: rampant construction, with Vietnamese migrants hammering away at all hours, perched on scaffolding made from young tree branches, beneath which young Lao monks in bright orange robes pass by, absorbed in their smartphones. French bakeries crowd the city center, filled with Aussie backpackers. Sushi spots, Ray's Grill and BBQ and Spanish tapas bars are nearby. Beyond these, grasslands start to open up. Further outside the city limits are villages -- some of which have changed little in hundreds of years.
Working on environmental issues in a landscape such as this -- one that is rapidly sensing the forces of capitalism, of development, of material wealth, of the West -- is a delicate balance between preserving what's left of an old, largely subsistence way of life and letting Laos' rich natural resources go to make way for hydropower dams, mining projects, and railroads.
It's fascinating to work at WWF-Laos. The office is filled with geologists, environmental scientists, economists, and journalists, all of whom spend each day crafting solutions, grounded in the best available science, to foster sustainable development here. Half of my colleagues are Lao and half are falang (foreigners). I'm learning every day what's right, what's respectful and courteous, and what's embarrassing. Part of living and working in such a multicultural environment for me has been simply listening and watching. Because modes of communication can be quite different among falang (direct) and Lao (indirect, quieter, less-confrontational), I try to pick up on other cues -- giggles, eye aversions, nods, blinks. It's WWF policy to hire local staff whenever possible; and despite the barriers to communication, the rewards of relationships built by laughing through misinterpretations I know will be some of the strongest working ones of my adult life.
My interests lie in the business and policy angles of conservation, and I've quickly learned that environmental concerns are key components of private and public sector decisions. WWF's work lies at the intersection of economic, social and environmental needs -- encouraging development while ensuring the protection of natural resources. Conservation work is vital, particularly in emerging economies, as failure to account for a country's natural capital during initial investment booms can lead to decreased food and water security and energy independence.
For me, conservation is a nod of respect to those who have not been part of development decisions but whose lives will be utterly changed because of them.
It's incredibly meaningful for me (especially given the history of violence against Laos by Americans during the Vietnam War) to know that I'm part of an effort to give Laotians the option to continue farming in the future if they so choose instead of taking a more degrading job to survive. Validating human connection with the natural world, and securing this relationship for future generations, is what gets me up in the morning -- and brings out my best work each day.
I left a lot behind when I came to work in Laos -- and what I have gained is not what I expected. A friend once gave me valuable career advice: work with people you respect, make sure you chose a job in which you will be able to have an impact, and make sure you chose a profession in which you will always learn. Take risks early in your career. I am challenged at WWF, not just because of the magnitude of the projects, but also because my tasks each day are inextricably linked to a culture I am only beginning to understand. I admire my female Lao coworkers, as gender roles are still quite traditional in this country; and few women are allowed time at work over staying at home. I look up to my falang bosses as many of them have chosen the expat life over the comforts of home. I wonder if this path could become less daunting after one year.
For recent graduates considering their next career moves: it's terrifying and exciting to consider launching a life abroad. There's no denying that it involves sacrifice, toppling of old routines and starting anew, of rebuilding yourself in a foreign land, and missing those you love considerably. But I fully believe the demand for innovative solutions to growing shortages of natural resources will only grow in the years to come; and for those looking for paths into business, industry, or policy -- environmental and otherwise -- conservation in the developing world could be the key to success.