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When Allison Shapira MC/MPA 2010 was studying to become an opera singer, she never thought her training would benefit women in Africa. But in her journey to discover her own voice, Shapira realized that her greatest gift was helping others articulate their own passions. And now, she teaches women around the world to speak up and be heard.
Shapira had dreamed of performing opera since she was a little girl. She enrolled in Boston University’s highly selective vocal performance program and practiced for hours each day—until, during her sophomore year, a teacher told her she wasn’t good enough to make it as a professional opera singer. Shapira wasn’t exactly crestfallen; she had been slowly losing her passion for the art form and wanted instead to be more exposed to global issues. So she stopped singing, switched her major to Italian literature, and interned at the Israeli and Italian consulates in Boston during her junior year.
Languages come easily to Shapira—she speaks 11 with varying degrees of proficiency—and she thrived at the consulates so much that, after graduation, she received an offer from the Israelis to come back as an entry-level public diplomacy officer. Part of her job included public speaking. “I’d never given a speech before,” says Shapira. “I think my last speech was at my bat mitzvah when I was 13. So I joined Toastmasters to learn how to speak, and I realized I was good at it. So I started teaching diplomats how to speak in public.”
It was at the consulate that she heard about a position at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) running the Wexner Israel Fellowship program at the Center for Public Leadership. After four rounds of interviews, she got the job. “It was the right fit in so many ways,” says Shapira.
She ended up working six years at HKS. During two of these years, she studied part time for her Mid-Career MPA degree. She also taught public speaking in the Center for Public Leadership’s Latino Leadership Initiative, in HKS Communications program workshops, and in David Gergen’s course, “The Arts of Communication.”
Shapira notes that giving a speech is different from opera, where perfection was the goal. “Public speaking is about being authentic and passionate," she says. “I use this concept as a teaching point to liberate people from the feeling that they need to give a perfect speech, which is nearly impossible. No one expects a perfect speech.”
A couple years after graduation, she lined up a job in Washington, D.C., resigned from her position at HKS, gave up her Cambridge apartment, and went to D.C. to sign the job offer. But by that point, something about the position didn’t feel right, so she declined the job.
Meanwhile, Shapira—now jobless and homeless—had started to sing again after a hiatus of 13 years—and this time, she taught herself guitar. She played folk music at open mic nights in the Boston area and then went to Europe for three weeks, where she met with fellow HKS alumni and shared her own music in four different countries. She came back to Cambridge to record her first CD. At the same time, she says, “I was interviewing for jobs in Geneva, New York, and Boston, but had this dual identity as a Harvard Square folk singer and a Kennedy School graduate searching for her next world-changing job.”
She knew she wanted to relocate from Boston, so she revisited D.C. for a week to network. “People were so enthusiastic about me and my background and my potential," says Shapira. "Everywhere I went, I ran into Kennedy School graduates—on the Metro, on the bus, at an event . . . it just felt like coming home. And I thought, why don’t I take my expertise in public speaking across cultures, which I developed at HKS, and bring it to D.C. to help nonprofits, companies, and the federal government all speak more effectively?"
"I realized that instead of trying to fit myself into a box at someone else’s office, I had developed my own unique skill set that I could build a company around,” Shapira adds. While her company—Global Public Speaking—is her focus, she also has time to chair the HKS Washington, D.C. alumni network.
A project Shapira holds dear is her work with Vital Voices, a nonprofit that helps women around the world develop their leadership potential. In December 2013, she went with Vital Voices to Uganda to teach women from around the globe how to communicate effectively.
“I didn’t even think about helping women in other countries until I happened to meet with someone who asked if I would be interested in traveling and teaching communication to women so they could run for office. And I thought, ‘Yeah! I’d love to do that!’”
In her recent trip to Uganda, she taught 50 women leaders from 25 countries how to speak about themselves, how to pitch ideas to potential funders, and how to inspire others to join them.
“It was incredible to witness how valuable public speaking was to people across different sectors, industries, and cultures,” she says. “Many women come from countries where it’s considered rude for a woman to speak in public or promote herself. When we reframed the conversation so that they spoke about their work and their mission instead of about themselves, they were able to speak with passion and authority about both themselves and their work."
“My goal wasn’t simply to teach the women to speak up—my goal was to help them inspire others so that they didn’t have to speak alone. This called on so much of what I learned at the Kennedy School: Professor Ron Heifetz’s adaptive leadership to help women ‘stay alive’ through the dangers of speaking publicly and Professor Brian Mandell’s negotiation strategies to help them build coalitions. And then, like any Kennedy School course, I made sure there was plenty of time for the women to share their experiences and teach one another.”
Shapira also plans to focus on helping veterans transition to civilian life. “They’re starting to think, ‘What am I going to do with my life if I’m not in the military?’” Her goal is to help them with their professional presentation and networking skills.
Shapira feels lucky. “I didn’t find my voice until moving to D.C., after going through the process of giving up everything I knew and finding myself as a folk singer first, not as a failed opera singer—and then finding my voice professionally.”
And now that she has discovered her passion, she is well positioned to empower others to find and share theirs.