Zahra Khan leads NYU Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights’ research and collective action efforts for migrant construction workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. Zahra holds an M.A. in International Development Studies and BA in International Affairs from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Prior to joining the Center, Zahra led all programs for Care Consulting, CARE.org’s advisory arm where she helped large multinational corporations identify and correct labor rights challenges affecting women, children and migrant workers across their agriculture supply chains in Asia and West and East Africa. Before that, she spent three years working at iDE mainly based out of Bangladesh to create livelihood opportunities for smallholder farming communities.
When did you realize you wanted an international career?
I grew up in Saudi Arabia to Indian immigrant parents and attended an international school. As a third culture kid with friends from all around the world, I had the privilege of drawing from other cultures and perspective to make sense of the world from a young age. An international career felt like the most natural path. My passion for international development specifically stemmed from my visits to India every summer where I was exposed to the challenges low-income communities in the country faced and that women faced in communities of all socio-economic backgrounds. My experiences there instilled in me gratitude for all the freedoms I had and a sense of responsibility to be part of change that would afford all people the same opportunities.
What is your current position? What did the path look like to get there?
I am currently leading NYU Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights’ research and collective action efforts to support migrant construction workers rights in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. I never thought I’d focus my career on changing the behavior of companies. During my graduate school years at the Elliott School, I focused my research on democracy and good governance and women’s empowerment. After graduating, my IDS colleague and friend Kevin Robbins shared a job opportunity on his team at iDE in Bangladesh to design market-based solutions to poverty particularly focused on supporting female agro-entrepreneurs. I was accepted as an intern for three months but I went on to stay for two amazing years. I worked to diagnose problems focusing on the factors that keep farmers poor, designed sustainable, pragmatic recommendations, engaged with market actors to pilot those recommendations and eventually scaled them to ultimately help increase the incomes of communities. In my two years there, I helped to raise $10 million to support women’s entrepreneurship and it was an incredibly rewarding experience.
After iDE, I moved back to the US and took on a job with CARE USA’s consulting arm where I advised Fortune 100 Food and Bev companies on how to empower women farmers, workers and retailers across a variety of different supply chains while also supporting a company’s bottom line. My time working with Corporate Social Responsibility leads at multinational companies and observing the challenges they experienced pushing for change internally, led me to feel somewhat disillusioned by “shared value” solutions. In my experience, the solutions that make that cut often do not go far enough to meaningfully empower vulnerable communities and can sometimes only serve a company’s marketing goals. I took on the position at NYU to work on designing more labor conscious, competitive business models without needing to center my solutions around the interests of billionaire CEOs. I didn’t have this path planned out and faced a lot of rejection especially in the early job-hunting years. I found my way and continue to find my way by continuously observing the impact of my work and seeking advice from mentors and colleagues to learn about all the ideas and approaches to combatting inequality that are out there and carefully discerning which solutions actually create meaningful change.
What part of your experience at the Elliott School best prepared you for post-grad career?
I truly loved my time at Elliott. Learning from my IDS classmates and the final capstone project were the two most valuable parts of my two graduate years at Elliott. Our team worked with The Urban Institute to conduct a study to assess local government provision of decentralized services in solid waste and roads in Kosovo. I had come into the graduate program fresh from undergrad and it was my first time collecting extensive data in a non-English speaking country, interviewing senior government leaders and drafting recommendations. Thankfully, one of our more seasoned colleagues, Simon Boehler, who had worked previously at GIZ, coached us through it and we managed to submit a deliverable we were proud of. Conducting research, analyzing data and producing a report for a real client in the safe space of the graduate program prepared me to hit the ground running in my first job and I continue to build from that foundation.
What advice do you have for prospective students who are considering a graduate degree in international development?
It’s important to first ask yourself why you want a degree in international development. I think a lot of people go into it unsure of the jobs they want to pursue after, hoping simply to become someone of global significance. Most of the jobs in this field are not actually glamorous at all because poverty, war and oppression are not glamorous subjects. Working in this line of work looks like going into the field and listening to peoples’ needs, understanding the motivations of all actors, and advocating for change. In some cases, that change looks like putting out quality research and furthering good ideas to influence governments and businesses. The international development space is more entrepreneurial and focused on how to use external funding to kickstart change in communities that otherwise lack the capital to realize their visions. Ultimately, it is about building relationships. It is therefore vital in this line of work to be proximate to the communities you are hoping to support, and/or the actors in positions of power you want to influence whether they be donors, companies or foreign governments. It is incredibly rewarding, but it is not easy and it is not a path for those seeking a lot of money or fame.
What did you value most about living and studying in D.C.?
Living in DC, you become very quickly, very informed about everything happening in the world. Global politics is all anyone ever talks about! During my DC years, I felt like an imposter trying to keep up with all the incredibly intelligent people around me from all over the world. When I left though, I realized I had learned so much and was able to ask the right questions to help me get to the bottom of complicated political and economic problems. Also, there are few experiences more beautiful than riding a bike across the mall on a crisp fall day.
If you would be any type of food/drink, what food/drink would you be?
In the monsoon season in India, my relatives would gather together a ton of alphonso mangoes and put them in a bucket of ice water. The ritual was to come together, tell stories all while rolling mangoes in our hands and drinking its pulp straight from the top. I’d like to be like the humble mango. The bringer of joy, of community with a South Asian heart.
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The #ElliottProud profile series is managed by the Elliott School Office of Graduate Admissions and highlights graduate program alumni to answer common questions posed by prospective, incoming, and current students. For more information on this series or to submit questions, e-mail the Office of Graduate Admissions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed by students profiled do not necessarily represent those of organizations they work for, are affiliated with, or the Elliott School of International Affairs.