In this Career Spotlight, we have the unique opportunity of speaking with Dana Throssell, Consultant at KPMG, about her South-East Asian expertise and insights into international security, human rights, and humanitarian affairs.
A recent graduate focusing on policy and program consulting at KPMG, Dana’s unorthodox pivot to the private sector exemplifies the widespread applications of nuanced knowledge in international security and humanitarian affairs. Since undertaking a Bachelor of Asian Studies and a Bachelor of International Security (and having recently graduated with First Class Honours) at ANU, Dana has continued to demonstrate a sincere commitment to enhancing Australia’s ties with the Indo-Pacific, especially across Indonesia and South-East Asia. She is proficient in Bahasa Indonesia and German.
Utilising the in-country insights and skills she strengthened as a New Colombo Plan Scholar in 2019, Dana later initiated and managed the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership’s ‘Break the Chain’ program. This innovative project brought together young leaders from across the region with the common aim to heighten awareness of, and ideate solutions for, the plight of vulnerable communities enduring modern slavery, human trafficking, and forced labour. Her expertise in transnational manifestations of non-traditional security threats, the intersections of gender and radicalisation, and advocating human rights, deem her an ideal leader to provide young Australians interested in international affairs with insight into a career in the often-overlooked private sector.
Given your unique academic background, what led you to a career with one of the big four? Have you found your deep understanding of international affairs and issues beneficial to your role and, if so, how?
To be honest, throughout my degree, I really hadn’t planned on becoming a consultant. It was only something that occurred to me as an option when I was in my final year of university and began looking for graduate positions. I spoke to friends who had done similar degrees, and while most of them were looking for jobs in the public service, some had also followed careers into consultancy.
When I actually began investigating these graduate positions, I found that KPMG does a lot of work in policy – something I was interested in as a result of my studies in International Security and Asian Studies. I also found that a career in consultancy also supports future options like travel, work overseas, or further learning, which I found really encouraging. But I think what really drew me into working in Policy, Programs, and Evaluation consultancy was the flexibility and scope of work - in the KPMG graduate program, you get to jump onto multiple engagements across different sectors and institutions throughout the year. I really liked the idea of gaining an understanding of the different private, government, and NGO perspectives on policy issues and saw this role as an opportunity to try out really varied work in a way that would be unique to my professional development.
On the second question – I believe that my background working and studying in international affairs has been deeply beneficial to my work in both practical and intangible ways. Practically, I have already seen how the knowledge of international affairs and language skills that I have developed through this work will help me to bring value to any future engagements involving international affairs, global companies, and relevant government departments - of which there seems to be many. More intangibly, working in this field and living abroad has provided me with countless experiences that I draw upon daily. For example, when working in international affairs you quickly have to develop: cross-cultural communication; a willingness to challenge your own assumptions, mindset, and approaches; resilience when faced with overwhelmingly new circumstances; and an understanding of contexts that may be completely different to your own. As a result, I would definitely recommend that every single young person has a chance to work in international affairs, and I would also invite any young person in international affairs to deeply consider consultancy as a future career.
In 2019, you wrote an incredible 25,000-word thesis on the intersection of gender and violent extremism in Indonesia (in Indonesian!), having gathered your own data in the process. This was then followed by an Honours thesis at the ANU discussing similar issues. What were some of your key learnings from these projects and how are they now enhancing your work as a Consultant?
Both my ‘skripsi’ (thesis) that I wrote while in Indonesia and my Honours thesis from last year played a massive part in my university studies and my career thus far, so I think I carry a lot of learnings from both of these projects with me each day.
Alongside the in-depth knowledge (and a plethora of fun facts) that such long-term projects allow you to develop, I also came out of both projects with much stronger research, analytic, and writing skills. I would definitely recommend any student undertake a large research project at some point in their studies, because the process of constantly critiquing, re-visiting, and editing your work is something that I found really challenging, but also really rewarding. Even if you have taken tertiary academic studies, it is not often you get the opportunity to work on a singular project for six months or even a whole year, while trying to refine it and challenge every assumption as you go.
These skills I gained from both of those projects have definitely enhanced the work I can deliver as a consultant, helping me to be both a better problem-solver and a better communicator. The process also helped me learn how to take constructive criticism from my supervisor – something that is always good to learn!
Most students of internationally focused disciplines aspire for careers in the public and civil sectors. Why do you think the private sector is often overlooked for youth interested in international affairs, and what advice do you have for them?
I think this work is often overlooked because many people still don’t understand what private sector bodies like consultancy firms actually do. When I was studying, I didn’t really understand these firms either, which is why I hadn’t considered it as a career path until my final year. Before looking into the breadth of work in consultancy (including my work in policy, programs, and evaluation), I had only associated private firms with careers like business, tax, and auditing! So, I would advise people interested in a career in international affairs to look at multiple options and think broadly about where you see yourself over the next few years. There are so many different options out there, and a lot of these options will provide you with the professional development and skills that you need to build a long-lasting career in international relations.
Do you see the extensive leadership and project management experience you gained through your co-curricular activities and youth diplomacy as having enhanced your professional development?
Yes, 100%. I believe that my experience in leadership roles, both in youth organisations and otherwise, have been the most central and impactful experiences in my professional development so far.
Roles within youth organisations can teach you how to collaborate with people from all backgrounds, they force you to think innovatively about real-life problems (often with limited resources), and most of all, they allow you a chance to develop skills and capabilities that you will not through university or even through conventional internships.
For example, as project manager for Break the Chain, I was given the chance to fully ideate and design a programme from scratch, conduct extensive stakeholder consultations, run two recruitment drives, manage a team across 5 time-zones, coordinate social media campaigns and communications, manage funding and sponsorships, and run a fully-online, innovative forum tackling issues of modern slavery, human trafficking, and forced labour. Many of those skills I had no prior experience in before this role.
The chance to become a leader and to try your hand at project management and coordination is something that many people will not until much later in their career. These kinds of organisations allow youth to have access to those types of leadership at a much earlier age, and I think that is wonderful.
The issues you have advocated solutions for are confronting and, often, horrifying – yet you have demonstrated, through your leadership, the importance of overcoming challenges to find innovative solutions beyond borders. What else does leadership mean to you?
On a related note, to me, I think leadership means being proactive and not waiting for someone else to tell you what to do. When it comes to youth leadership, some of the best leaders I have met are people who have kick-started their own projects or initiatives; it takes real leadership to have the courage and determination to put your idea out there and get started, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. On a smaller scale, this means continuously doing what needs to be done to get a project finished or an idea realised, even when it’s not easy or glamorous. Obviously, there are other qualities that have to come alongside this to be a strong leader, including empathy, humility, patience, flexibility, and good communication. But at the end of the day, I think you have to be determined and proactive to really lead by example.
International security and human rights are incredibly important fields of discourse and social action, and often go hand-in-hand. What advice would you give to young Australians interested in exploring their passion for these areas in their career?
Work to tackle human rights in any capacity is incredibly necessary, and there are certainly viable careers for those who are interested in doing the work, both here in Australia and abroad. However, this work can be hard and overwhelming at times, especially when working in non-profit or volunteer organisations.
So, I think it is so important to find like-minded people who are in this fight with you. Those will be the people you can draw energy from, the ones who will inspire you, and the ones who will understand your frustrations. Once you find people who care about the same issues, you will be amazed by the creativity, innovation, and enthusiasm that you can create together.