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Building a Career in International Affairs, Key Insights from Gretchen Ehle

Craig Zelizer

October 1, 2019

As part of the new PCDN.global we are launching a new series, Social Change Career Profiles.  These are short insightful interviews of leading changemakers where they share tips for advancing a career of impact, suggestions for skills development, their favorite resources, and more.

Our first guest is Gretchen Ehle, Director of Institutional Giving (Government) at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. (see her bio below)

If you have a suggestion for someone we might feature in a future interview please get in contact.

A reminder to also check our award-winning Social Change Career Podcast, which provides in-depth interviews that you can listen to on the go.

Interview conducted by Dr. Craig Zelizer, CEO of PCDN, September 2019.

Can you tell us a little about your career path?

I think my focus on foreign policy and International Affairs started when I was very young. My mother was an exchange student in Austria in the late 60s coming from a very rural area in Pennsylvania. Her experience led me into a similar path becoming an exchange student to Chile my junior year of high school. We also hosted four exchange students in our home for year-long programs. Thus, exchanges and international affairs were always key to me, and a way in which we could bring the world closer together.

Following high school, I moved to Washington where I studied international affairs, focusing on Latin America and Africa. Over the course of my graduate work, I was able to do some work abroad and live abroad. This eventually got me to USAID  when I was still in graduate school where I was responsible for helping send people out to the field under the PEPFAR program. I wasn’t able to travel as much since I was still in my graduate program.

I then decided I wanted to bring the impact to me, which is why I decided to go to Meridian International Center  where we developed programs for global leaders through short-term exchanges coming into the US. I was able to see the direct impact we had on the lives of our participants. After ten years at Meridian I decided to move on to a new challenge. While at Meridian I had a great experience. I helped to grow a center from about $3.5 USD million in revenue to over $13 USD million and grow the size of staff and complexity of programs. But what I found that I really enjoyed out of the different things I was doing including management, programs, operations, was the business development component.  In taking my next step, I knew that that's where I wanted to go. That is what brought me to the Atlantic Council, working on business development for a non-profit foreign policy think tank focused on developing solutions for global challenges.

 What inspires you to do what you do?

The world that we live in has a lot of global challenges and being a part of creating solutions to these is really what inspires me.  At Meridian, my work was very micro focused on solving global challenges through influencing and training individuals. While at the Atlantic Council, it's very strategic and policy oriented, keeping with the goal of working with our friends and allies to solve global challenges.

Do you have a favorite SDG that influences your work?

Workforce development (SDG 8), for sure. And that's something that I've carried throughout my work.  I have done a lot of programs and research on entrepreneurship and migration related to entrepreneurship, specifically in China during graduate school. At Meridian we had a large entrepreneurship practice, providing training and fellowships for entrepreneurs. While at the Atlantic Council, there are centers that do address workforce development as a mechanism for peace and security.

What are the skills you've most used in your work? And how do you keep learning?

I actually wrote these down, because I thought this a great question. I’d say these skills are more of the soft skills that are required in any technical area or position.

The first thing is organization. When I left my last position, I had 66,000 emails in my inbox. The first thing I said upon starting my new job is I will work to keep my inbox organized and I’ve been successful. The second is being curious to learn beyond one’s specific job responsibilities. The next one is, I know some of us hate this, but networking; it is super important.  It’s a necessary part of how you grow as a person and within an organization. Networking is much more than a transactional relationship, it is often about building a deeper understanding as everybody wants to share their stories. It shouldn't be as hard as everybody makes it to be, networking is about creating partnerships and relationships. Another core skill is flexibility, unless you stay in the same organization for your career, each organization has its own culture that you need to learn. Self-direction and motivation are also key.  Not always relying on being tasked with things but working towards what you want to do as part of your career, in addition to what your superiors wants you to achieve. And then finally, I think this goes along with the curiosity piece is creativity which means looking at how you can be creative in your position and innovate. How can you innovate processes? How can you innovate solutions? How can you just be innovative?  Both in your day to day and big picture work.

How do you unwind or relax?

I do a lot of volunteer work which I enjoy a lot (maybe it isn’t so relaxing). I’m a sustaining member of the Junior League of Washington  And I do strategic work for my sorority, and then I'm a member and have a leadership role of the Rotary Club of Dupont Circle.

I'm also a big sports fan, you can find me out rooting on my favorite team whenever they are playing. My husband and I also enjoy taking walks and hikes with our dog, Dingus, in Rock Creek. I also enjoy traveling, and try to get out of the city to some new place every chance I get.

What are your three tips for others trying to build a career in impact?

The first point is I received some really good advice from a former boss of who said don’t be afraid to reach out to your network (people who already know you). She stressed organizations need good people and that if you’re looking for a position it isn’t just a one-way street. Reaching out to your network, is the best way to put yourself forward as a good candidate to fill a role that an organization needs. The second is, especially for more junior people that are looking for careers is to find several mentors.  Mentorship takes all different forms. It can be regular communication, or a coffee once in a while, it just needs to be somebody that you can go to and share ideas. The person can be a peer, someone more senior than you or even someone you may have supervised (I have a mentorship relationship with a former employee I supervised).  The third is paying it forward. When people reach out to you to have a coffee or talk about what they're looking to do in their careers, you should also reciprocate that with more junior people. Finally, is to always say thank you, people are busy and giving your time, they should receive a similar thank you that you would send to an interviewee.

What resources do you use to stay informed?

Of course, the Atlantic Council has some great blogs and publications on Foreign Policy issues. I love podcasts and am always looking for recommendations, but some of my favorites are the Daily by the New York Times, and the Global Goals Project. I can't say enough about LinkedIn. At first, I was suspect of LinkedIn being a valuable resource.  But, when I sit down at my computer in the morning, I open LinkedIn and Outlook.

With LinkedIn, I can see what my network is commenting on as well as what they are posting. Since my network is very diverse (not everyone is from my field) this gives me a good taste of the things that I should be following regarding trends and the big picture.

Craig Comments


For me, LinkedIn used to be so boring, but now, it’s one of my favorite platforms (along with Twitter). LinkedIn is actually becoming a place of engagement, including purpose filled networking, and not just for promotional content or looking for jobs.


Yes. Like attending the Concordia Summit. I took the 35-page participant list and looked to see who I know or is a second-degree connection that I want to know. I wrote to them LinkedIn a brief message I see you're going to be at Concordia, if we run into each other it would be a great to chat.  So, it's a great way to manage those connections as well.


Gretchen Ehle has over 15 years of experience in project management, strategic planning, business development and financial and performance monitoring. She has worked with a variety of clients including multiple USG agencies, foreign governments, corporate entities, nonprofits and foundations focusing on a wide variety of issues from international development to education.

In her current role at the Atlantic Council, Gretchen provides programmatic centers and initiative with strategic guidance on government business development activities while supporting administrative compliance and processes for government funding.

In her role at Meridian International Center, she managed a team of 25 full time employees working on 40 - 50 projects annually. She was responsible for achieving and exceeding revenue targets and a diversification of division revenue through government and foundation grant writing, business development activities, and corporate outreach. Ms. Ehle has a keen interest in leveraging corporate social responsibility programs to meet social challenges.

Ms. Ehle was the founding managing editor of an academic journal, developing a fundraising strategy, monitoring budgets, managing advisory boards and coordinating publication and deliverable schedules. Her other roles include management positions with USAID, George Mason University, and as a consultant receiving direct funding from Kauffman, MacArthur, and National Science Foundations.

Ms. Ehle has a B.A. from The George Washington University, an M.A. from George Mason University in International Commerce, and has completed all required coursework toward a PhD in Public Policy at George Mason University. She is an avid volunteer and has served on multiple nonprofit boards. She has extensive international experience, working, living, and studying throughout the world.

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