Guest post: Inspirational talk by Ann Mei Chang of USAID

Monday, 13 July 2015

On July 3, just before the long holiday weekend, those of us attending Girls Who Code (@GirlsWhoCode) at Twitter this summer plus the regular group of summer interns had the pleasure of hearing from Ann Mei Chang (@annmei), who is the Executive Director of the USAID Global Development Lab (@GlobalDevLab).

Ann Mei started by telling her story: from her background in computer science to her shift from the private sector to the public sector. Growing up in New Jersey, Ann Mei said she was picked on for being the only Chinese girl in a white neighborhood and school. She noted that the empathy she felt for disadvantaged people stemmed from her childhood experience, and was ultimately a factor that led her to move into public service.

After working for 23 years in Silicon Valley — for Apple, Intuit and Google, to name a few, in software engineering and management positions – Ann Mei said she realized she wanted to make a difference in the second half of her career for those who had never even seen the computers with which she worked every day. To accomplish this goal, she took a fellowship at the State Department that provided her a unique opportunity to see the ins and outs of the public sector and discover ways in which she could apply the skills she learned in Silicon Valley.

At the State Department, Ann Mei felt valued — she brought something special to the table. She noted this feeling was very different from that of Silicon Valley, where “engineers are very replaceable. The people sitting around you could easily do your job.” After that first fellowship at State, her goal was to change the way government approaches problems. Just six months ago she took a new role at USAID to run the Global Development Lab, which develops projects to address and eliminate extreme global poverty.

As to the differences between the private and public sector, Ann Mei summed it up with “culture.” At the big tech companies, coworkers are very direct and often engage in debates. In government, she noticed her colleagues were very diplomatic and polite — not so direct. But she also noted that the problem-solving abilities and discipline she learned in the tech sector were easily applicable to her new role at the Global Development Lab.

Here she works with her team to take science, technology and innovation to address problems such as natural disasters, agriculture, healthcare, economic development and political turmoil in developing countries. For example, the Lab helped bring an electronic payment system to Afghanistan, which lessened corruption by providing direct payment to teachers, police and other civic workers. Her team also helped develop a “pay as you go” solar energy system to rural areas. Not only did it end up costing the citizens less than their use of kerosene, it provided renewable energy to those who previously hadn’t had access.

Ann Mei’s advice to high school students is consistent with her own career path: take risks and have confidence in yourself. An inspiring speaker, Ann Mei moved all of us to consider our place in the world, and made me think of ways I can make a difference with the skills I’ve gained at Girls Who Code. It was an incredible experience to learn about Ann Mei’s work, one for which I am very grateful. I can’t wait to see what she does next!