Working with the United Nations to tackle world hunger
UBC Sauder Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) alumna Selina Chan always dreamed of pursuing an international career, especially one with social purpose. Through tenacity and strategic networking, Chan achieved her goal of working for a top humanitarian aid organization.
A traditional route for many Commerce graduates, Chan moved to Toronto after graduating from the UBC Sauder School of Business in 2009 and took a job as a business analyst for a large management consulting firm. While there, she began volunteering in the community and found the mission-driven work immensely rewarding.
“I began thinking of next steps in terms of where my career could go and I felt that progressing vertically was not necessarily the only experience I wanted to gain,” recalls Chan. “So I started searching for roles in the non-profit sector.”
In 2015, Chan found a job posting at the United Nations that sparked her interest. It was as a change management consultant with the World Food Programme (WFP). The job seemed perfect, but the recruitment process was rigorous. Chan turned to her LinkedIn network of over 1,400 people for help.
“I found that I had colleagues who had second connections that worked at the World Food Programme,” says Chan. “By leveraging those connections, I did some informal interviews, which helped me learn about the organization and ultimately land the job.”
Pursuing meaningful work with global impact
The WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security. In 2020, it provided assistance to 114 million people in over 80 countries affected by acute food insecurity and hunger. The number of food insecure people has increased due to the global health pandemic.
“COVID-19 has changed the way that our organization works,” says Chan. “It is always the poor who get poorer when crises hit and the amount of people that are hungry has increased dramatically since last year.”
In accepting the position in Rome, Chan embarked on a career that would test her in ways she could not have imagined. Five years into the job, she is now Head of Strategy, Training, and Communication within the Supply Chain Cash-Based Transfers team.
Cash-based transfers are an innovation in the delivery of humanitarian aid. Rather than give people food, WFP transfers them cash. There are multiple benefits to this approach. Cash-based transfers support local markets and give people greater freedom, choice and dignity as they are able to shop for their own dry goods and fresh food.
“We work with select retailers to map their end-to-end supply chain, removing inefficiencies and ultimately improving prices, quality, service and access for everyone,” explains Chan. “WFP provides targeted people with vouchers, bank notes or electronic funds that they use to shop in stores owned and operated by local retailers.”
Part of a team honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize
In 2020, the WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to “combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas, and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”
For Chan, the recognition was a wonderful affirmation of her team’s efforts and dedication to creating sustainable markets to conquer world hunger.
“I truly love the sense of purpose I get from my work. I have been very lucky to have worked with so many wonderful colleagues all over the world. I will always treasure and value that experience, in addition to the pride that I feel for the work we all do.”
Working with the United Nations has given Chan experience in international relations, procurement, logistics, supply chain management, nutrition, security, transport, emergency preparedness, as well as expert-level project management skills. Reflecting on her day-to-day responsibilities, Chan says she continues to draw upon the business skills she learned at UBC Sauder.
“In non-profit organizations, you need leaders with business skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving,” notes Chan. “You need to be able to work as a team, but also take one step back and find different methods for maximizing your impact.”
Advice for those seeking an international career
Chan urges business students to consider a variety of avenues when they graduate, including exploring the many job opportunities that NGOs and non-profits offer.
“Don’t be afraid to work hard, especially early in your career. Also, don’t be afraid to make a change in your career. Although it was scary to leave the private sector, working at the United Nations has been the most rewarding experience of my life.”
She also emphasizes the importance of building a professional network.
“Strategic networking is the way to go. It’s so important to have strong and genuine connections everywhere, so you can call upon them when you need them.”
It was networking that helped Chan land her role with the United Nations and will undoubtedly continue to serve her well in a career that requires her to partner with businesses, government agencies and non-profits all over the world. By applying her education and business experience to humanitarian work, she has found fulfilment in a profession outside the conventional domain of business graduates.