In this alumni spotlight: “Five years on - where are they now?”, we have the pleasure of speaking with 2019 Young Women to Watch in International Affairs Finalist Dr Erin Watson about her remarkable journey across public policy, business, and international affairs.
Dr Erin Watson is an internationally recognised expert at the nexus of public policy, business, and global affairs. Erin is a Director at Mandala Partners, an economic, policy and strategy firm. With 14 years in the private sector, academia and think tanks, Erin has consulted globally to clients including the United Nations to listed (NYSE) big tech specialising in contemporary policy issues in the Indo-Pacific region. Erin has represented Australia at 8 G20s and directed and curated programs across India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
Erin is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and Founder and Co-Chair of the Australia Latam Emerging Leaders Dialogue. In 2023 Erin was appointed Co-chair of the G20 India’s Think20 and in 2022, she was named one of Australia’s Top 100 Innovators for thought leadership. Previously Erin was a Senior Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre and Director of Asialink Diplomacy. From 2016-2022 Erin was Chair of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, a federally funded centre at Curtin University.
An influential communicator, Erin is a regular contributor to ABC Australia and has appeared on Q&A and the Drum, a contributor across the Sky News Australia network, and appears on international networks including NewsX and CNN News18 in India and TRT World in Turkey.
Erin holds a Doctor of Philosophy from Monash University where she conducted research into women’s entrepreneurship in the Indian diaspora. Erin holds a Graduate Certificate in Applied Finance, Bachelor of Social Science, Diploma of Management and Diploma of Business Management (HR).
You are currently working as Director at Mandala. What are your day-to-day responsibilities, and what has been your proudest achievement in this role so far?
I am relatively new to Mandala Partners and have hit the ground running! As Director I am responsible for business development, project leadership, thought leadership, and firm development. On any given day I can be providing feedback and direction to our teams, seeking new analytical techniques for our clients, writing a proposal, attending a networking event, presenting to a client, speaking at a conference, or working with colleagues on a new internal process.
My proudest achievement so far is getting here in the first place! I am proud of making that step from academia and think tanks to the private sector, which is less common in Australia.
Looking back at your recognition as one of the Young Women to Watch in International Affairs in 2019, how has it influenced your professional journey and personal growth over the past five years?
At the time it was positive feedback that I was on the right path and doing the right things career-wise. You don’t always get that reassurance. I also think it was a really influential piece of work that the YAIA did for women more broadly and has helped the sector not only find out who the up and comers are but elevate and promote their careers. I really commend YAIA for this initiative.
What advice would you offer to women who are interested in nominating themselves for the Young Women to Watch in International Affairs List?
I would tell anyone to throw their hat in the ring. Even if you don’t make the final list, you have promoted yourself and are getting your name out there to the judges. You will be noticed regardless.
Foreign policy remains a male-dominated field. What strategies have you employed to navigate it and what advice would you offer to young women aspiring to pursue careers in this field?
Just go for it. Given the disproportionate representation in the sector you will find both men and women being your biggest supporters (or otherwise…). There are groups you can find like Women in IR who meet regularly in Melbourne. You can seek out women mentors specifically or find men who you have a good relationship with and respect your craft. Once you know who these people are, listen, learn, and have a lot of fun. I always think the most likable folks are the ones who go far.
The other thing you can do, regardless of gender, is to seek out a niche. There’s a lot of people in foreign affairs so you need to make sure you are unique. For me, I decided to double down on my business background and after my PhD completed a graduate qualification in finance (also male dominated!). It meant I had a tangible piece of paper that said I understood business which a lot of policy folk don’t and vice versa.
I do think it helps to learn some personal strategies to manage setbacks as well. Just the other day I was asked at an event if I was there as someone’s spouse! My approach is to let things come out in the wash - that could be when they realise you’re the panelist or author of the report!
What experiences or moments helped you identify your passion in public and international policy, and how did you pursue it?
Going to India in 2012 as an intern at UN ESCAP kicked off my interest in India. I have been around 45 times since – 5 this year alone as Co-chair of the T20 India. After returning in 2012 the way I got back was to start a small business running short term programs for Australian university students in India. That business gave me a really good understanding of life on the ground and in different parts of the country – I could start to really understand the economy, the politics, religion, climate. I also started a PhD and chose to focus on women entrepreneurs in the Indian diaspora. I wrote for Lowy, the Australian, and other publications whenever I could. This helped me carve out a niche in an area of international relations that was really growing for Australia.
Contrasting this more grassroots approach, when I went to Argentina for G20 in 2018 and also Chile ahead of the APEC meetings I noticed a gap in engagement for young Australians in Latin America. Borja Martel Seward and I established the Australia Latam Emerging Leaders Dialogue and hosted the first event in Buenos Aires. We’ve had 50 volunteers in 8 countries and are always growing. It was very clear what the region needed, and so we created a mechanism to make it happen.
These have been the big two passion projects of my career and they still get me excited most days. Finding passion projects like this are also a good opportunity to build skills which can lead to the next opportunity. Running a business in India with students definitely got me in the door for Asialink at 31 - the youngest executive on the team by quite a few years!
Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations? What impact do you hope to make in the coming years?
Professionally, I am really solidifying at this level in the private sector then I will work towards the next step. I am a strong believer that you have to do some hard-yards at each level -not always in terms of time, but certainly effort and depth of experience. The content of my work is really exciting in the current global climate where I get to bring my expertise in international relations to the private sector and help clients to solve their big regulatory and policy challenges. I really want to have an impact on Australia and India commercial relationships and similarly in other regions like Southeast Asia and Latin America.
Personally, I will also continue my board and not for profit work to further institutionalise relationships between Australia and Latin America. My husband is involved with a medical charity in Sri Lanka, so we plan to continue focusing on this as well.
I should also mention that life is also important – family, sport (especially running and tennis), and getting out in the garden are a personal priority for me. I try to find a balance because at some point, everything becomes work. For example I pull back from travel when I stop enjoying it, similarly with the media. It gives you a chance to miss it and enjoy these privileges again.
Nominations for the 2024 Young Women to Watch List are now open!
Nominate (or self-nominate!) an outstanding woman before midnight on January 31st 2024.