By Fatima Alzahraa Sharouf
High expectations. Immense pressure. This is the reality for many who are among the first to attend college from their family. Courtney Welsh, currently the CEO of the Global Nomads Group, can attest to this.
From a small town in Virginia to becoming a CEO of a non-profit in New York, Courtney’s journey was not a simple one. After business school and getting a degree in finance, she began her career as a management consultant in New York City.
“I hated it and was not very good at it,” she said. “It was not the best thing for me, simply because it wasn’t my passion.”
Giving up and leaving her job without another plan in place wasn’t an option. To find more meaning, Courtney decided to volunteer with a philanthropist. She and the other volunteers did a study to identify programs that supported people who were the first-generation to attend college. Courtney kept in touch with the philanthropist and he eventually offered her a new job. Courtney took the riskiest decision in her life; she left the job she hated and started working on a program to help first-generation college-goers successfully get into college.
“I was in my early twenties and naive. I didn’t realize that this was very risky and that I should be worried since I didn't have an education or nonprofit background,” she said.
With no experience, Courtney found herself in a totally new environment and needed to adapt to a new situation. Her first five years in the role were a terrific learning experience. She then decided to pursue additional educational knowledge and earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard.
After 10 years of working with the community-based organization, Courtney made another difficult decision; she left her job to be part of the New York City Department of Education. The department was in the process of reforming and Courtney was hired as part of the team tasked with developing a program to train school leaders who were going into chronically failing schools.
“I decided that I wanted to go work on the system of schooling,” Courtney said.
Later, she left the Department of Education to work on her own as a consultant. One of her clients was Global Nomads Group (GNG), a non-profit organization that fosters dialogue and understanding among the world's youth by leveraging technology. GNG enables conversations between middle school and high school students who otherwise would not meet. These exchanges are intended to promote empathy, peace and build 21st century workforce skills. After consulting for a couple of years with GNG, she decided to apply for her first role in international education and became CEO of the organization.
“I think, as a CEO, I'm responsible for making sure the right people are in the room to come up with the right ideas, ” said Courtney. “I need to create a context for people to develop great ideas; not to create the perception that I'm the one who has all the great ideas.”
I asked Courtney about her greatest challenges.
“If you don't surround yourself with a strong team, it can be incredibly lonely,” she said. “Being surrounded by a strong team eases the work. Leaders of organizations aren’t only responsible for their own work but are also responsible for the team’s work, careers and livelihoods.”
It was interesting to hear Courtney explain how she spends time supporting colleagues and making sure they are doing well, but also that she needs support as well from her colleagues. Having a strong team is essential, especially when it comes to providing motivation around the tough task of fundraising.
Regarding her goals in leading the organization, Courtney shared: “I want to create the conditions for the Global Nomads Group to thrive and flourish. I want to do this in a way that draws on the talents and wisdom of our team and the youth we serve and is sustainable in the long-term.”
Advice for aspiring innovators
Two key points that Courtney shared as advice for students who want to follow in her footsteps are:
1- Everything needs to be grounded in data. Having intuition and gut instinct about different topics are very important, but it also has to be supported by data. There is always a need to have the discipline to ground your instincts in reality using data.
2- Find ways to test your ideas in small ways before you go big. “Get clear on what your hypothesis is, what you believe to be true and then think about how you can test whether or not that actually is true in the real world,” she said.
Courtney's story underscores that every individual's journey is unique. The paths usually aren't crystal clear. As a refugee in Lebanon, I know that my career trajectory will also be quite unique. I believe that I can follow Courtney’s steps in writing my own success story. Courtney’s advice has opened my eyes and put me on the right path to help other refugees around the world. Now I have the base to build on.
I learned that every stage of my life is important and even if I am young and a refugee at the same time I still have the ability to use the circumstances to innovate and change the world.
Surrounding myself with strong and positive people will push me to do as best as I can. This interview helped me to understand how to deal with the real world. Now I can start working on achieving my goals and being practical at the same time. Earning experience can help pave the way to success.
Fatima Alzahraa Sharouf is a Business Administration who is part of the Global Education Movement, a Southern New Hampshire University initiative on a mission to provide higher education and a path to work for refugees. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
Fatima wrote this story after going through the Global Innovators Academy's Interview an Innovator experience.