Hop Around The Globe – Interview with Anika Penn

Johns Hopkins alumni can be found all around the globe: from the East Coast of the United States to villages in Sub-Saharan Africa. Imagine is starting a new series of articles – Hop Around the Globe – where we talk to different alumni, who have significant experience of international work. Our first guest is Anika Penn, a Johns Hopkins alum, an investor, entrepreneur, and global health pioneer. She now lives in New York City and works for Baille Gifford.

– When did you graduate from Johns Hopkins?

I graduated from the School of Advanced International Studies in 2010.

– Did you have any international experience before you went to Hopkins?

I worked in international health before I went to Hopkins, a few years before attending the school I worked in international HIV/AIDS policy. So yes, a bit of experience.

– You partially work from Scotland now. Is that right?

That wasn’t until after I graduated from SAIS. Yeah, I work for a company based in Scotland. Before the world shut down, that’s actually where I was. Former President [Donald Trump] announced a travel ban and my partner called and he said: “Hey, you should think about going home.” And I was like “What do you mean?” And then the next morning, my boss was like: “Hey, maybe you should go home.” And then that day, I was home. It was kind of interesting. And then I never left. My office closed while I was at Heathrow. So I just literally went straight home.

– Scotland is a little far from the United States. How did you manage to stay in stay in the loop of what’s going on here while you’re away?

I started my career in global health, and I worked in Washington, and I worked on issues of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa with folks in Europe. Often it would mean getting up just really early to have calls with folks. I did a whole bunch of research before I went to grad school on HIV/AIDS in Central Europe, in East Asia. And I would just have calls with folks really early morning or really-really late. My bosses in my team, my company is 113-year-old Scottish company. But of the two bosses, I have one is an Edinburgh and one is in California. So I’m the link. So in the morning, I talked to one boss and he’s done for the day. It’s 1 o’clock so he’s gone and the other boss is just sort of starting and what we’re finding is, as a team based in three different time zones, and we work with the China team, there’s just not a time that everyone is going to get together. So for West Coast, East Coast, and Edinburgh, the witching hour is 11 o’clock Eastern. That’s perfect. That’s everybody on my team is busy at 11 o’clock.

Also, there are times when we have stock discussions. So someone will do the research around the company, and write a report, and then everyone will have a couple days to read it, and then we’ll have a discussion. Sometimes, we’re not going to be able to find a time that works for everyone.

You’re not expected necessarily, at least at my firm, to participate in every single thing that happens in the morning in Edinburgh.

– Does it take long to adjust to this kind of schedule this kind of rhythm?

Adjusting to this kind of schedule wasn’t the adjustment, it was changing fields, that was a bigger adjustment. I’m not a morning person. I remember being in my 20s, and having to be at the World Bank, for some breakfast meeting at 6am with the Minister of Health for Uganda, and just being kind of miserable. But it is what it is, maybe I wouldn’t be as miserable now, but I also, I wouldn’t have had to get up now, I just would come downstairs and do that same thing over Zoom.

I think the nature of work has changed in the past 20 years that I’ve been working, so I’m not sure how much of it is me and doing international work versus that we’re all operating internationally. Things are just happening not nine to five.  I think there are more things that are happening internationally. It could be because I work for an investment firm now, and we don’t care where the companies are. Is it a great company? Not where is it based. Everything feels more international now. The world is just so much smaller than it was.

– What would you recommend to those who want to move abroad to work?

What I would say to someone who just graduated from undergrad is a little bit different than what I would say to someone who has 10 years of experience and a Master’s degree. But I guess, for both, I would really just say, build out a really strong network of folks, no matter what division you came from, no matter where you are, build out a really strong network of folks and continue to build that network as you are building your career. I think that if you’re 21 or 22, I’d say, don’t be afraid to just go out there. Just go and sort of figure it out. Build up expertise and networking and a set of skills, while you’re working. Maybe if you’re 45, that’s not as great advice, don’t just show up in Nairobi, and start saying: “Hey, I want to do something interesting.” You might want to do more work ahead of time and build out your networks ahead of time. But I think it’s really all about building out your networks and being open to new experiences.

You can learn more about how to build your network on Imagine.

– Any particular hardships that you can remember from your experience?

So when I was in grad school, I had this research project in Western China that I was working on. I was supposed to work for this community-based organization in Zhengzhou. I had housing that I thought was worked out. So I showed up at the place where I had a thought I’d arranged housing and there was no housing for me. So I was in Zhengzhou, so exhausted because I had just arrived I flown into Shanghai, it took this six-hour train to Zhengzhou and I showed up at the university where I thought there was housing for me. Turns out, they had no record of it. And everything in China is just so much more difficult. So I called the cab and I was an hour outside of the city. I had no idea where I was. I had two bags, very limited funds. The other thing that happened – I got a small stipend. But the small stipend had the wrong spelling of my name from Hopkins. So I didn’t have any money. I just ended up staying in this random hotel that the taxi cab driver found for me. And he took me to this very fancy Sofitel. I didn’t have Sofitel money, but he was like: “You’re a foreigner. This is where foreigners are.” And I was like, no, I was a student. He took me to this other hotel, I got a room and I had no idea where I was. I turned on the lights in the room and just all kinds of vermin scurry. So I called my professor at Hopkins, she connected me with my boss, who I wasn’t supposed to meet with for another couple of days. And he’s like, okay, we went out to dinner. And he was like: “Why are you at this hotel? This is very bad.” I remember staying up all night because I was just concerned. I didn’t want to turn the lights off, and I was just pacing around the hotel room trying to stay awake.

There are so many stories like that. I think that the key is that you just have to be flexible.

That was research I did on my own before I was on a budget because I was running a startup. Now I work for an investment firm. So my last international trip before I was in Edinburgh, I was in India. It’s like night and day, I had a driver, I stayed at the Oberoi. It was glorious.

– Can students current students hop from Hopkins contact you for LinkedIn?

I don’t mind at all. Of course, they can.

You can reach out to Anika via her LinkedIn page

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