Creating a purpose-driven career brought this executive to the Harvard Kennedy School.
SUSAN A. HUGHES
APRIL 27, 2022
The Mid-Career Master in Public Administration offers professionals a chance to re-engage with a learning environment and perhaps reset priorities and goals. This spoke to Sirene Abou-Chakra MC/MPA 2022.
As chief development officer for the city of Detroit, Abou-Chakra had a rewarding career. “I raised money for the mayor's top initiatives,” she explains. “I loved working with philanthropy, corporate philanthropy, and foundations to fulfill the gap funding necessary to make those policies come to life.”
Prior to that, she spent 10 years at Google as an account executive, working internationally on media strategy, messaging, and fundraising for campaigns the company supported. Coming to HKS offered her the opportunity to bridge the worlds of governance and technology.
“With the rise of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and cryptocurrency, there are a lot of questions about whether these things will serve the public good. I think we need people who understand both of those worlds to be advancing those ideas,” she says.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Abou-Chakra moved with her family in 1987, in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War. “We came to the United States for the same reason a lot of people did—to build a new life,” she says. They settled in Dearborn, Michigan, which has the largest concentration of Arab Americans outside of the Middle East. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she currently serves on the boards of City Year, the Arab American Institute National Policy Council, and the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. In 2020, she was named to Arab America Foundation’s “40 under 40” list.
It was her work with young students that cemented her desire to undertake her master’s. “I started a nonprofit called Doors of Opportunity, which was aimed at supporting immigrants in their quest to pursue college,” she says. “I think a lot of these students suffer from imposter syndrome: ‘Can I make it? Can I afford it?’ That was personal, because that was me. I needed that nudge.”
While it may be a bit unconventional to wait so long to return to school for an advanced degree, she does see the advantages. “I actually think it was more valuable to wait rather than enroll right after my undergraduate studies,” she admits. “I bring with me 14 years of real-world experience.”
“I had an authentic desire to be in a classroom again, consuming information,” she said. “And I wanted to meet exceptional people from around the world. I wanted to write my next chapter of friends, and I wanted them to be in Africa and Latin America and the Middle East and everywhere else,” she added. “Both of those things have been fulfilled.”
As commencement approaches, does she feel prepared to move forward in a new career? She paused to thoughtfully address the question. “Before I came to HKS, I believed in partnerships as a way to move things forward,” she explains. “When I was in the private sector, it was to advise the public sector. And when I was in the public sector, it was to introduce the private sector to our initiatives to advance our causes. The classes I've taken are not just about what government can do, but what are the nonprofits doing, what are corporations doing?”
She also valued the focus on quantitative results. “A lot of the classes here have been focused on interpersonal relationships, but also they've been very quant-heavy, which I think people are surprised to hear,” she says. “I think it's made me feel a lot more comfortable to talk about development now that I've got some of the finance tools behind me and now that I've equipped myself with some of the international development and economic terms that are used to think about policy, in a global sense.” She will use these skills in her new position, the Director of Innovation Labs at Dataminr, an artificial intelligence company that supports the work of global NGOs.
Commencement also gives her a sense of pride as an immigrant. “We came to America to build something and now my parents are coming to my graduation at Harvard,” she says. “It’s why I appreciate this country and the school as it has given us tremendous opportunities to make the world a better place.”
Portraits by Lydia Carmichael Rosenberg