top of page

Career Spotlight: Helen Zhang, Co-Founder of Intrigue Media and Director at Schmidt Futures

In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking with Co-Founder of Intrigue Media, Director at Schmidt Futures, and former Australian diplomat Helen Zhang about her remarkable career across geopolitics, tech, business, and diplomacy.



Helen is a Director at Schmidt Futures, focused on venture funding the future of geopolitics in our fast-changing world, and the co-founder of Intrigue Media. Intrigue Media produces expert but irreverent briefings on global affairs issues at the intersection of geopolitics, tech, and business.  


Helen previously worked at Google on content policy issues for Google Search, served as an Australian diplomat in Tel Aviv and as Consul in Hong Kong, and negotiated Australian free trade agreements. She’s also a Mandarin interpreter, lawyer, and an experienced public speaker (particularly on AI and geopolitics).


Helen is a 2019 Fulbright Scholar and Master in Public Administration graduate from the Harvard Kennedy School, where she specialised in geo-tech policies. Helen was recognised as one of AALA’s ‘40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians’ in 2020. 


Helen was born in Fujian Province, China, and grew up in western Sydney, Australia. She’s currently based in Washington DC. 




Reflecting on the start of your career, what experiences helped you identify your passions in international affairs and technology? How did you go about pursuing them?


Moving from southern China to Australia at age seven was a formative experience for me. It piqued my curiosity in learning about new places, cultures, and languages (1990s Australia was a first test case for me!). 


This seeded my early desire to pursue international affairs as a career, which culminated in me once calling the reception desk of DFAT while still in high school and asking how I could get a job there (“to first finish your schooling!”, was the bemused response). 


Fast forward to 2016, and I was on diplomatic posting to Tel Aviv, Israel. I became fixated on the disinformation campaigns which swirled around global events like the Rohingya crisis, Brexit campaign, and 2016 US elections, and realised the critical role of ‘big tech’ in shaping geopolitics. 


I then focused on these issues during my graduate school studies at the Harvard Kennedy School, and worked on them on the Google Search global product policy team, including on online harms and information integrity. 


It was while at Google that I co-founded Intrigue Media with another ex-DFATer, John Fowler, and we embarked on a mission to make geopolitics more relevant and accessible for everyone. I believe our mission is more critical than ever, because geopolitics has become centrestage in our world yet again. 

 


As the Co-founder of Intrigue Media, can you tell us more about the organisation and its inception?


Like many great ideas, Intrigue Media was born during the pandemic…! But the idea was seeded during my cofounder John and my experiences studying at graduate schools. We were both mid-career professionals taking sabbaticals to expand our horizons, and quickly realised that many of our peers wanted to learn more about how geopolitics impacts them, but lacked a high-quality and entertaining product to meet those needs.


We initially started as a weekly Substack, with a promise to each other that we’d each write 500 words every week on a topical international issue, covering everything from trade negotiations to Eurovision. We were pleasantly surprised to organically grow to thousands of subscribers within the first six months. I think this was because of our ‘expert but irreverent’ tone, global coverage on complex issues that were overlooked by the mainstream media, ‘optimistic contrarian’ takes, and our ‘former-diplomat’ insights.


We then raised some seed funding from Australian and US investors, and grew the business to where it is today with nearly 100 thousand subscribers from around the world. Our flagship product is a daily newsletter called ‘International Intrigue’, which is free for all subscribers, and we are quickly building more verticals and products in the coming year – watch this space!

 


How do you approach making complex global affairs issues engaging and accessible for a broader audience? 


To paraphrase many literary figures, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” This sentiment dictates a lot of Intrigue Media’s in-house style. We keep our writing factual, concise, precise, and to the point, noting that brevity is queen. Our language is simple, we avoid jargon, and we try to ‘show, not tell’ our readers what to think about an issue. This objectivity is key in building trust with our readers, and the new generation of content consumers who are much more discerning about their content creators. 


We deploy humour as a tool, albeit sparingly and intentionally, knowing that it’s not the right tool for every situation. As much as possible, we try and take an irreverent tone, which is particularly rare in the field of geopolitical writing. On the content and formatting side, we try and keep our visuals entertaining, engaging (e.g. through interactive maps or other multimedia sources), and creative – our memes have reached cult status level thanks to our Managing Editor, Jeremy Dicker’s Insta account (@dickerpiccs – a real handle, I promise). 


We don’t always get it right – and have always taken the mantra of ‘building in public’ to ensure that we own up to our mistakes. This has been critical in helping us build an international community of loyal Intriguers who follow our work in breaking down complex geopolitical issues on the daily. It’s heartening to see that our readers range from all corners of the world, including from Ukraine, India, the US, and of course, Australia. 



Your extensive career spans roles including Australian diplomat, Global Public Policy Manager at Google, and Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University. How did these experiences contribute to shaping your current work at Schmidt Futures?


I work on venture philanthropy at Schmidt Futures. This basically means that I try to find opportunities to fund initiatives that wouldn’t get off the ground but for philanthropic funding (due to risk or lack of access to traditional funding sources). The idea is that this funding then helps these ideas turn into reality. My ‘patch’ includes issues at the intersection of technology and geopolitics, which are two things I think a lot about on the daily and are fields I’ve had the fortunate experience of working in. 


My career certainly wasn’t by design. Even though it might look that way with the benefit of hindsight and the ability to retrospectively thread things together, I don’t think I could have imagined that this would be what I did after graduating from undergraduate. It’s been more of an a la carte menu and leaning into opportunities that seem interesting to me (with a big spoonful of luck). I’ve also been fortunate enough to have had funding and a network who’ve supported me through these transitions. 


Since leaving the public service (to pursue Intrigue Media), I’ve learned that one can still serve in the public interest and chase that as their ‘professional north star’. The world we live in is now filled with more fascinating and dynamic roles that are not in the traditional careers handbook we were handed in high school or undergraduate. I am excited to see where the geopolitical and tech space goes, and what new innovative ways there will be to make impact here.  



Being recognised as one of the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians in 2020, what changes would you like to see to encourage greater representation in the field of international affairs? How can emerging leaders contribute to this movement?


It was a huge honour to be recognised, and I’ve been trying to ‘pay it forward’ through connecting with the actually-young generation of Asian-Australians, and it’s been very encouraging! 


We need greater representation of Asian-Australians in leadership positions across all industries in Australia, particularly in underrepresented fields like diplomacy, international affairs, and politics. This is critical in showing younger people that emerging leaders and people of colour have a role to play in shaping the future of Australia. 


This has been a push and pull problem, and I hope it’s changing. On the push side (and of course as a generalisation), many first-generation Asian-Australians have felt an immense cultural pressure to enter other professions that were more financially secure and ‘recognised’ by their families. I certainly felt that push to study law (and was frankly a very dud lawyer). This is changing as more first-generation Asian-Australians become more established in the fabric of Australian society and cultural values shift.


On the pull side, I believe these institutions need to implement real diversity targets. This means diversity in socio-economic, cultural, linguistic, and professional backgrounds. This also means recognising that many first-generation Asian-Australians lack the privilege of the networks and resources of more established communities, and ensuring that they account for this in their recruitment practices. Of course – there’s no silver bullet but I do think Australia is moving in the right direction here.  



Finally, what advice would you give to students and young professionals looking to pursue a career in geopolitics?


First, I’d advise them to subscribe to International Intrigue, a briefing written by ex-diplomats to help them get across the most complex geopolitical events of the day in five minutes or less. ;) 


Second, I’d commend them on their decision to study or work in geopolitics! Geopolitics is more important and relevant now in every industry than it has been for the past 30 years. The golden era of predictable geopolitics is well and truly over, with ‘poly-crises’ now compounding the fracturing landscape and US-China accelerating their ‘de-risking’ from each other. You won’t be short on jobs after graduation!


Third, I’d recommend rethinking the ways to work in ‘geopolitics’. Rather than seeing entering DFAT or a multilateral organisation as the only way to work in ‘geopolitics’, I’d think about ‘geopolitics’ as a function that is horizontally applicable and relevant to many verticals. Corporate babble aside, what I mean is to see geopolitics as an expertise, which requires one to understand international affairs and apply it to your core business, and assess how your business might be impacted by shifting global trends. 


Finally, I’d nudge folks to think about how geopolitics is changing and try to pursue roles that will become more relevant in the future. This means thinking about climate change, AI and technology, critical minerals, and the future of warfare. It’s an exciting time to be in geopolitics, and your skills will be needed more than ever – stick with it and get creative! 



Thank you, Helen, for your time and your valuable advice and insights!



Comments


bottom of page