Just over six years since first founding the organisation, we have the pleasure of talking to our founder and CEO, Mercedes Page, for this Career Spotlight interview.
Biography: Mercedes is the founder and CEO of Young Australians in International Affairs. She was a finalist in the 2019 Women's Agenda Leadership Awards and in 2018 was named by the Financial Review and Qantas as one of Australia's 100 Women of Influence. In 2016 she was awarded the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) Unleashed Award for promoting young Australians’ engagement with Asia. In 2015 she was recognised by FYA as one of Australia’s Top 50 Young Social Pioneers.
Mercedes works for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Before joining DFAT, Mercedes previously had a number of roles in the private sector and at one of Australia's leading think-tanks, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. She was previously a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow and a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Pacific Forum, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and recognised by the World Economic Forum as a Global Shaper. She is an alumna of the US State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program and a past participant of the EU-Australia Leadership Forum. She currently sits on the Youth Working Group of the Global Diplomatic Forum.
In addition to being CEO of YAIA, you are also the founder of the organisation. What led you to found YAIA back in 2014?
At a very broad level the organisation was born out of the recognition that Australia faces its most challenging international environment since the Second World War. We are seeing seismic global power shifts, growing regional tensions and direct challenges to the rules-based order that has underpinned the international system and guaranteed peace and prosperity for the past 75 years. It’s going to be harder and harder for Australia to navigate and uphold our interests and values in a much more complex international environment. With such big challenges on our horizon, to me it seemed really important we are engaging younger Australians in discussions about how we navigate this future, that we are including diverse and fresh perspectives in policy discussions and that we are building up young Australians’ leadership skills now so we are able to meet the challenges Australia faces in the 21st century head on.
And yet, no one was!
So, I decided to start an organisation myself.
How did you go about setting up the organisation?
At the time I started YAIA I was 23 and still at university doing my final semester of my master’s degree at the University of Adelaide.
I had no experience setting up or running an organisation before but during university I’d been involved in lots of extra-curricular activities and volunteer work. Through this I had a pretty good network and understanding of the youth and international affairs landscape across Australia.
I started to map out the potential for such an organisation, including what gap it could/would fill and what (if any) its value add would be. I then thought about what its vision and mission would be; what would it actually do; how it would be structured; and what legal and governance structures would need to be put in place to get it off the ground.
There was a whole lot I knew that I would need to do but didn’t have the skills to do myself, and in order to get a team of people with the right skills I knew the organisation had to have some kind of initial profile. So I set up a very professional generic Gmail account and started a Facebook page. As soon as I launched this initial social media presence for the organisation, I was overwhelmed with inquiries from young professionals and students around the country asking how they could get involved. It was a promising beginning! At the same time, I reached out to people in my network to set up a “launch team” to help get things off the ground as we spread the word and recruited our first official group of volunteers. Fast forward six years and some of these first volunteers are still with YAIA today!
Those first few months were a whirlwind of activity, as we navigated all the different components of setting up an organisation across the country. Due to the sheer amount of interest, the organisation grew much quicker and larger than I ever imagined.
And as for my thesis…while it worked out in the end, in hindsight starting a not-for profit at the same time as writing a thesis was probably not the best idea!
What have been some of the highs and lows in running YAIA for over six years?
The greatest high has genuinely been meeting such incredible people who have come through the organisation over the past six years. It’s been such a privilege to work with so many talented volunteers and fellows, and it’s their work that makes YAIA possible. I get frustrated when people say younger generations are entitled and lazy, as I’ve never met a generation that works so hard, is so generous with their free time and genuinely want to make the world a better place. The fact that YAIA is entirely run by volunteers is a testament to this.
Another high is to have a platform to execute ideas when they strike. I had the idea for our fellowship program while stuck on the crowded subway in Beijing back in 2014, and by the time I got home I had mapped everything out. We started promoting the first intake of the fellowship program the next day. Just over five years and around 140 fellows later, the program is still going strong! Similarly, the idea for YAIA's Young Women to Watch list came because I saw a connection on LinkedIn in another industry win a well-deserved recognition. It struck me that there was nothing similar in the international affairs space, which was rubbish because it's an overwhelmingly male-dominated sector and there are so many brilliant, talented young women out there who deserve to be recognised. So, I decided YAIA would create and publish our own list to coincide with International Women's Day! We published our inaugural list in 2019 and recently published our 2020 list.
Having a platform to turn ideas into realities which have such an impact certainly goes into the 'high' category.
There have also been lows along the way. Running YAIA in a volunteer capacity on top of a demanding full-time job while also balancing family, friends and a social life has always been a challenge. I essentially work two full-time jobs - both of which I'm very passionate about - but managing my time and trying to create stricter boundaries for myself is certainly an on-going work in progress!
Another low is that while we’ve had some great people involved in the organisation over the years, running an organisation staffed by volunteers has also been challenging. We’ve had to get a lot better at making sure the people we bring on aren’t just resume-builders but are also genuinely passionate about our work. We don't have any ongoing financial resources, yet we accomplish more than many institutions with paid employees and funding for programs, and that's only possible with a strong team of volunteers.
Have your experiences running YAIA helped you in your career?
Absolutely! Running a not-for-profit has given me invaluable experience early on in my career in not only managing people (around 300 people over 6 years) but also in designing and delivering nation-wide projects, problem solving, conflict resolution, event management, social media, marketing, business administration, finance, stakeholder management, graphic design, fundraising, building and maintaining networks, strategic planning…the list goes on.
These are all valuable and transferable skills and experiences, so all of these things have helped me in my day jobs, whether that has been in think tanks, the private sector or now working in government.
Finally, what advice would you give to students and young Australians looking to pursue a dynamic career in international affairs?
I used to hate it when people said to me that your career is a marathon not a sprint, but it’s absolutely true: your career really is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t compare yourself to other people, worry that you didn’t get that particular job or you aren’t at the same level as somebody else. I know it can be difficult to navigate the international affairs space as there are so many options and potential pathways. It can be overwhelming not knowing exactly what you want to do or how to work your way to the job you do want to do, as there is no linear progression.
But if you work hard, find something that you are passionate about, seek out and open yourself up to opportunities, and most of all, enjoy yourself, it will all work out!
To contact Mercedes, please email firstname.lastname@example.org