July 21, 2021

#1 From Theater to Brokering Change at the UN & Navigating Parenthood with Esther Pan Sloane

#1 From Theater to Brokering Change at the UN & Navigating Parenthood with Esther Pan Sloane

In this episode, our guest is Esther Pan Sloane, Head of Partnerships, Policy and Communications at United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). Prior to joining UNCDF, Esther was a U.S. diplomat for 10 years. As Adviser at the Permanent Mission of the United States to the United Nations in New York, she was on the U.S. team that negotiated the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. She also served on the Executive Boards of UNDP, UNICEF, UNOPS, and UNFPA, pushing the agencies to become more efficient, effective, and accountable for results.

Esther graduated from Stanford University with a BA with honors in English and International Relations and earned an MA in Theater and Performance from the University of Cape Town, which she attended on a Fulbright Fellowship. Prior to joining the U.S. Foreign Service, Esther worked as a journalist in print, radio, and national magazines for the first ten years of her career. She also has a major interest in theatre, especially theatre that helps change governments. 

Listen as we talk about her career path and how she found herself making finance work for the poor at UNCDF, the personal challenges she overcame, her expertise in negotiations, and advice for someone who may be navigating their journey to parenthood.


Links:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/esther-pan-sloane-9029a5/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sloane_ep?lang=en 

UNCDF: https://www.uncdf.org/head-partnerships-policy-communications 

Transcript
Vicky:

Hello, and welcome to the Chasing Parity podcast by SheSyndicate a nonprofit dedicated to closing global economic gender gaps. I'm your host Vicky Lay and today's guest is Esther Pan Sloan. Esther has had a truly unconventional career in impact. She went from New York theater director to helping the poor access finance at the United nations capital development fund. On today's show. We talk about brokering change across governments, how to balance a family and a career and why it's so important, getting money in the hands of women. Enjoy, and let's dive in. Welcome Esther, very excited to have you on the show. Can you please start by telling our audience a little bit about yourself?

Esther:

Sure. And thank you so much for having me Vicky. My name is Esther Pan Sloan. I am the head of partnerships, policy and communications at the United Nations capital development fund. That's a UN agency that focuses on using finance to help fight poverty in the world's poorest countries, which in the UN are known as the least developed countries. I am Chinese American. I was born in the United States. My parents came as immigrants in the 1960s as students from Taiwan, but they were both born in China. And so I grew up in a bilingual household and I went to college in California, which is very far away from where I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. And I was always interested in the outside world. My town was very small, not very diverse. There were probably 10 kids of color in my 800 person, high school and three were from my family. So because of my family background, I always knew there was a bigger world outside the small town in Southern Connecticut, and I wanted to see it. So I was very excited to go to college in California. I was very eager to study abroad. So I studied in three countries in Europe. I worked in Africa in Alaska and Hawaii. I was really very, just ready to go out into the world and see everything that there was. So I worked as a journalist for the first 10 years of my career in newspapers, local newspapers, radio, and national magazine. Then I went to graduate school in drama. I had always been very interested in theater and especially theater that helped change governments. So I went to study theater that protested apartheid in South Africa. And I got my master's degree there at the university of Cape town and lived there for three years and worked as a journalist, to help support myself. And then when I came back to New York, I was really convinced I was going to be a professional theater director. So I had a day job working at a foreign policy think tank. And at night I was directing plays all around New York city. So in the cupcake cafe, the KGB bar someone's apartment, you know, the back room of somebody's grandma's apartment. And I did that for three years and it was so much fun and it was just wonderful to be plugged into this creative spirit in New York city, because there's so much talent here. And I have such respect for actors and set designers and sound designers and people who just create it was a beautiful experience, but after three years I realized I was working for free. Everyone I worked with was working for free. I was sweeping the floor before and after the performance and going down to the bodega to like buy sandwiches and get changed for the cash box. It didn't really seem like a viable profession. And at the same time, things had happened in the world. There was the US war on terror. There were attacks, there was just so much happening in the international sphere that it felt like theater was a very personal concern and a very luxurious one, really in a society like America, that you could have the space and time to think about live performance and how you could try to change someone's mind, but really around the world, people were thinking about survival or starvation. So I took the U S foreign service exam and I joined the state department, which is the United States foreign ministry in 2006. And I was really convinced that, know, I could make a difference in representing how America is seen around the world, that the image that I was seeing of America in those times, which was Guantanamo bay and Abu Ghraib, and the war on terror was not reflective of the country that I believed in. And that I. New, which was multicultural and meritocratic and embracing of all different kinds of people from all different backgrounds. So I felt that if you had different types of people telling the American story to different countries around the world, that would help. And especially if you had people who could say it in languages that you know, people in other places could understand. So I was sent to China and I spent my first assignment in China. Then I served in the UK, in Washington at a place called the operation center, which is 24 hour rapid response where the state department always has someone ready to respond to anything happening in the world. And then my last assignment with the state department was here at the U S mission to the UN in New York, where I covered the multilateral development system and watched almost a billion dollars of US money going to the main UN aid agencies every year. And I also was lucky enough to be on the team, the U S team that negotiated the sustainable development goals and that experience showed both how inspiring it is to come to something that 193 countries can agree on, but then immediately how necessary it is to then make those words into action. And not just words on paper. So I joined the UN capital development fund in 2016, because I was so impressed with its focus on the poorest countries. And it's very pragmatic dedication to helping make people less.

Vicky:

Wow. That is so incredible. What I love about your story, about how you got into development work and the UN is that you came from a really different corner of the room. It's having a background in journalism and then your love for drama and theater that changes governments it's a unique approach to getting into impact. Can you tell me , how did you connect the dots for yourself and when did you know that, I want to go and work on the SDGs, when did it become, Hey, it's my side thing to my day job to, wow. This is actually the work that I know I was born to do. Or this is actually the work that I know I want to be focusing on in my career.

Esther:

That's a really interesting question. I don't think there was ever an aha moment. There were a lot of times when I was a diplomat, when it was so hard, you are sent overseas. It's so challenging to balance work and family. You're in very tough environments. When I was in China, I was doing a hundred visa interviews a day, so polluted, you couldn't go outside in the time that it was there. I got pregnant and I was so violently ill that every time I like smelled anything, and this is China, right? So fish, you know, live ducks people all over the place. Every time I smelled anything, I would vomit.. So I just spent like my last eight months in China, just throwing up all the time and then, because there's such widespread pollution, I was really worried that my child would have, you know, lasting birth defects because I was eating like heavy metal and there's lead in the water and all sorts of things, you know, luckily he's okay. Yeah, there are a lot of challenges. And I think in any career, you know, if you do banking, they're going to be all the scutwork years of being a junior banker, where you're doing spreadsheets and working millions of hours a day. So I think there's that real kind of in every field, there's a sense that you have to pay your dues, right? And in the state department, that means you go to Pakistan and, India and Somalia and really hard places. And then maybe then you could have the skills eventually to serve in someplace like Geneva or Washington, but the good part of paying your dues is that you learn from the bottom up, right? You really there's no shortcut to building skills. And so you learn how to be diplomatic in very tough situations and you learn how to be resilient. Work through the night and keep your temper and all of these skills where you are judging people all the time, you're representing something bigger than yourself. You have to make accurate assessments of people and character. You have to make decisions based on limited information. you know , I think all those skills really stay with you. So I had no idea I would be anywhere near impact investing I mean, impact investing didn't exist 10 years ago, as far as I knew and it didn't even really exist for the UN until I'd say three or four years ago where the UN historically has not had much to do with the financial industry. The UN is a multilateral institution in the past. It dealt with governments or other multilateral institutions like the world bank and development agendas. Before this one, before SDGs very focused on government to government action or government to UN or world bank action. The sustainable development goals are really the first agenda that sees the private sector as an equal actor in the need to achieve development. And so all of these movements that we're seeing now, the openness to new partnerships, the engaging with the private sector, looking to actors like family offices, having blended finance funds, all that's very new. So I feel just very lucky that I happen to be in a place where we could take, not advantage, but be part of creating essentially a new industry, right? The intersection of development and investment finance. That's very exciting, but I wouldn't say it was deliberate at all. I would say in my career, I just chose what seemed like the most exciting and challenging option at any one time. I was, my first job was in Alaska because I wanted to go to Alaska. know, I worked at the newspaper there. It sounded awesome. Then I worked at radio for Europe in Prague because I wanted to go to Prague, so at each point I actually had one, one friend, who's now a colleague who was assessing me for a job. And she said, , it's very clear that you just did whatever you wanted because there's no through line in my resume. Right? Like you're not going to see anybody else who did the same kind of jumps that I did. But it's because I just always wanted to go. To the most exciting thing. And I think that has served me well because the world is now so changeable that there isn't any set path, , maybe if you want to be a banker, you can go work at a big bank and then move to a private equity shop and then be a partner somewhere else. Like maybe that path still exists. But in the field that I started in journalism, there are like six jobs left. So if you think you're going to join one industry and stay in that for the rest of your career, you're wrong. And we've seen with the pandemic and other dislocations that it's very risky to assume that you will be doing the same thing with the same skill set for your whole life. So I think it just teaches us all that we have to be flexible.

Vicky:

Absolutely this need for flexibility and not having a through line throughout your career. Totally agree with that. Absolutely can empathize no shortcut to building skills. And you were talking about how, some of the skills you learned about being resilient, keeping you a temper being flexible in your career. All of these things are such important skills and important character building attributes for people who are trying to do something or move the needle in some way, but often it's not really. It's not really something that they go about on purpose, it's, it's something that comes out throughout the career and they see where they can add value in your perspective, where do you think you add the most value in terms of this intersection of development and finance as you were talking about it what is your greatest skill in terms of the intersection of development and finance and how are you using some of your, I guess background in drama theater, journalism to try to influence change?.

Esther:

What an interesting question. I think the skill that I bring to the table is that because I was a diplomat, I know how to translate, right? I understand that you have to learn a new language to go to a new place. And it's become very evident to me that the development world and the financial world speak totally different languages. So I think I've become pretty adept at translating development concepts and the way the UN measures things, the way the UN thinks about development projects, the way the UN works on the ground to investors. And I think I've become pretty good at translating to UN people what investors are looking for in terms of return, in terms of rigor of analytics and what they're assessing. I mean, it's a work in progress. I'm taking a class right now with seven of my colleagues given by the university of Cape town business school on Impact investing in Africa and that's going through modules on deal sourcing and credit scoring and analyzing fund managers because many of us are coming from development backgrounds. So we don't know that aspect of it. But, you know, I used to go into negotiations where I would be facing three hostile Latin American countries, a middle Eastern country. That was Incredibly socially conservative two Nordics that are incredibly socially progressive and you know, an Asian country. And we would all have to agree on something big. And the only way you get there is by translating right by listening very carefully, trying to figure out what people really need. And this is a skill that I would say I got from studying drama. Drama is all about conflict, and character. So when you are reading a play, when you're analyzing a character, you have to understand what is that character's motivation, what do they want? And what are their obstacles and negotiations are exactly the same. So I am meeting someone from a country where I've never been I have to figure out what does this person want? What are their goals? What are the obstacles to that? And then how do I match what they want with what I want? And one thing I learned quickly is that the way to succeed in negotiations and strangely, this seems to have a lot of overlap with the business dealings that we're doing is to solve other people's problems. So I know what my position is going in from my government on this issue, say, it's, the human right to water, but then that person's going to come in with their position. Maybe it's not the same as mine, but there's probably some overlap and. This is where the part of keeping your temper and managing your emotions comes in a lot of times in negotiations, they break down, not over substance, but over style because someone pissed somebody else off because someone raised their voice at the wrong time because your body language is aggressive because spoke dismissively. , know, negotiators are human people. So they respond to the people across from them. And I have seen over and over that if someone speaks in the wrong way at the wrong time, the whole thing breaks down because you're already starting from a point where people not trusting each other. And there's a lot of motives ascribed to one country by another. So It's really a minefield all around you. So you have to have an accurate assessment of who you are, your own strengths and weaknesses, your position, your goal, and then that for everybody else you're dealing with, and then you have to try to figure out how do I get. Everyone else as much success as possible, because that helps me achieve my success in the second committee of the United nations, the economic and social council, where I was working, the decisions are made by consensus. So everyone has to agree or you fail in the security council. It's a different negotiation because , there are five vetoes and the permanent members have much more decision-making power, but consensus decision-making is very different for an American, right? In America, it's all majority rules. So you take a vote, six people out of 10 agree, then that's what you do. And the other four people, too bad for you, but in consensus decision-making you have to make sure everyone is happy enough with the outcome that they can live with it. And so then your job as a negotiator is not only to achieve your own position it's to achieve enough of everyone else's positions that they agree. And so it becomes a fascinating game. I love negotiations. It was my favorite part of being at the UN because you're literally in a room with like 30. characters that are formed by national consciousness, A Russian thinks differently from a Peruvian who thinks differently from a Chinese person who thinks differently from an Icelandic person. And then you're all in this room and you have to agree on some very emotional topics. What should we say about development finance, or how do we feel about intellectual property rights? And so it's like a puzzle where there's infinite varieties of what is possible many, many ways to fail, and then only a few ways to complete the puzzle. So I love that. I thought it was so much fun..

Vicky:

That sounds amazing. I would love to be in one of those rooms. I didn't even know that there was a process of you know, decision made by consensus. And that actually is how the UN goes about these hairy emotional topics.

Esther:

It's not, every part of the UN. So the UN has six committees and the first committee is peace and security. So everybody knows that as the security council, the consensus decision-making is specifically the second committee, the economic and social council, and it's still possible to vote on resolutions. But at the time that I was serving at the UN, it was considered very bad form to vote on economic and social council resolutions, because they're all about development. And so the idea was that every country should agree on development to send a unified signal to the world of how important poverty eradication is. In recent years, some topics have gotten very political and so there are more votes, but generally the goal was to have everybody agree.

Vicky:

On the same thing.

Esther:

Exactly. So you'd have a resolution on say water, or, , there's a poverty eradication resolution every year that says how important poverty eradication is to the UN. So you really want everyone to agree on the poverty eradication resolution by consensus, because you really don't want, less than a unified from the United nations on an issue. That's that important?

Vicky:

Can you give us an example of an emotional topic that caused quite a lot of tension and maybe went against something that you personally felt passionate about. And then how did you navigate towards, the puzzle solving as you call it?

Esther:

Yeah, I can give you a couple of examples. , The first thing for diplomats is that they are always representing the position of their government, right? And sometimes that's easy and sometimes it's hard because the position of your government is not always what you personally believe. But you know, when you sign up that your job is to represent your government, and if you can't do it, you should step aside. So I was very lucky that in the 10 years that I was a diplomat, it happened to coincide with eight years of the Obama administration. So the positions we were taking on sustainable development, gender equality, women's rights, human rights were very consistent with my own positions. So that was lucky. But if it had been a different government, as it was when I joined the foreign service in 2006, it doesn't matter. You still have to represent those positions, the positions of your democratically elected government. So one issue that was difficult for the United States negotiators was the idea of intellectual property rights. So IPR is huge issue between the U S and many other countries, because so many Americans hold patents and American companies hold the intellectual property rights to many, many things. So say now the vaccine, right for COVID. There's is a strong argument in the developing world that rich countries should not enforce intellectual property rights on things like medicine or on things like drought resistant wheat, because the poor world needs them. The argument from the developed country side is that without intellectual property rights, there's no incentive for private sector actors to create these products. And that drugs for example, are very expensive to develop. So if there was no way for those companies to recoup their investment, they wouldn't work in these areas. And then there would be no innovation in that space. There are very good arguments on both sides. So. That's an example where in negotiations us negotiators used to, and I don't think this has changed but, , you know, I left the government 2016, so something might be different now. US negotiators used to always take a very strong line intellectual property rights and how important it was to protect those. But that was often very unpopular in development discussions with our developing country colleagues. That's one example. Another example that's very controversial to this day is sexual and reproductive health and rights. So that is the ability of a woman to decide the number, timing, and spacing of her. I think that's the phrasing, but it's essentially the right of a woman to decide how many kids she's going to have. So that means access to birth control, access to reproductive health services, and that type of healthcare, many governments around the world, including at times the United States government oppose women having those rights. And there are many socially conservative countries represented at the United nations. So there is always every year around a commission called the commission on status of women in March. There's always an argument over sexual and reproductive health and rights. In some years, they drop the sexual in some years, reproductive doesn't make it through. So it becomes a very politicized argument over how much freedom a woman should have to decide her own kind of childbearing situation. That's another one linked to that would be say the issue of women's rights in general. That was a very difficult negotiation in the SDGs. So SDG five is on gender imagine Iceland facing off against Saudi Arabia and on a lot of the provisions in SDG five, that's what it was. It was the most socially conservative countries versus the most gender equal countries. And then that's issues like women's rights to inherit women's right to own business. Women's right. To have custody over their children, women's rights to fill in the blank. And some countries in the world are very progressive on those issues and some countries are quite conservative. So you have to somehow find a middle ground where Saudi Arabia and Iceland are going to agree. And that's not easy.

Vicky:

No, I can imagine it would not. be easy. And when you think about these topics, Women's rights. And you've had all of these amazing conversations trying to broker consensus across two very diverse perspectives. Sometimes in the case you said 30, a room,, so 30 different characters having heard and been involved in all of these different discussions around specifically gender equality and women's rights. Where do you think is a big issue area that you would love more impact interventions to be created? If you could wave a magic wand and fix something, what would that be?

Esther:

Access to finance. So there's a great wall street leader here in the United States called Sally Krawcheck. And she started a company called Ellevest, which is all about helping women invest money and save. And she says nothing bad happens when women have more money. And I agree. So I think so many of the issues that we see, the challenges that women face around the world are linked to lack of education, lack of access to money and lack of access to decision-making power. So if you could fix one of those things, I'm not sure access to finance is the first one, probably it's education or child marriage, or something like that from a development perspective. But know, My perspective sitting at UN CDF, we see that women are so capable that they're carrying so many burdens, that women are heading something like 60% of the households in Africa. And yet they are handicapped at every stage. They are paid less, their jobs are less secure. They have more childcare burdens. They do unpaid care work. They have more barriers at every aspect of starting, owning, expanding, growing a business. It's harder for them to get loans when they do get loans, they're smaller amounts. It's harder for them to bring their goods to market. It's more dangerous, right? At every level, there are challenges for women. So if you could break down one of those barriers, Hey female farmer or female entrepreneur, I'm going to make it easier for you to get a loan,. Maybe you borrow $5 and you pay me back next month. Maybe you borrow $500,000 and expand your factory into another city. But if we could make that easier than I think that's one key barrier, that's stopping women from reaching their potential. And we have seen that when you take barriers out of the way of women, they will soar.

Vicky:

And how do you remove barriers for women? What is the biggest barrier for a woman to access finance?

Esther:

In so many of these countries that we work in the least developed countries in the world, it's really interconnected with a bunch of other issues, right? So it's education. many women are not allowed to go to school, or if they do, they leave before finishing secondary school, it's location, many women live in rural areas. It's early marriage, where many women are having many children when they're quite young themselves, it's not having equal rights of ownership. So women farm land that they don't own. And if their husband dies and they have to move, so when UN women, the agency at the United nations that works on women's rights, when they talk about normative structures and systems change, they mean, what is the structure of society that affects how a woman lives her life. What are the laws governing? If her husband can beat her? What are the laws about if she can inherit from her father, does she have a right to an identification in her own name? Does she have a right to apply for government services? Can she register her children by herself without being married? At every level, there are laws and regulations and structures that affect how a woman exists in society. As a very small example in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to move around by themselves. If you can't drive, you need a male escort, you can't work, you can't go to a job by yourself. You can't come home. So your, freedom to act as limited, your ability to be an economic contributor to your society is limited. Your ability to seek higher education is limited. It's not one thing, it's all of those things, And so we have to change laws. You have to change gender norms, you have to change male attitudes. You have to change expectations from older women about how much work unpaid care work. Young women are doing around the house. You have to change all of those things. , I would say probably the first entry point would be education that if you can send a girl to school, know, for every year of education, a girl gets past secondary school. The lives of her children are measurably better. So they live longer. They are more likely to get education. Their health is better, so that investment of sending a girl through school and helping her get educated, pays off multiple times, both for her, her children, the rest of her family and for her society. So if there's one place to start, it would be getting more girls into school and letting them finish school, letting them go through school as far as they want to go.

Vicky:

Yeah, I've definitely read about the impact dividends of sending a go-to school, not just for the local community and the economy, which she is participating in, but also from the perspective of climate. And I know educating women and giving them access or, some rights around their own family planning, as you mentioned previously, that helps dramatically to to the climate problem.

Esther:

Absolutely. You know, and In every society, as women become more educated and move up on the income scale, they have fewer children, one can argue about the pros and cons of that, but it's certainly much better to be one of the few children of an educated woman than one of the many, many children of an uneducated woman, the children are likely to have better outcomes in life. We see that there are multiple spillover effects that are very positive from that one decision to help educate a woman.

Vicky:

Yeah. And that's a great segue to some of the discussions that I wanted to share on this podcast because you and I have talked a lot about family planning. You've given me great advice. Just about my own personal decisions. I don't have children have been thinking about it, but sort of at that place where I haven't decided actually, you know, I have to be thinking about all of these things around my career and the impact work that I want to do. Can you please help anyone in our audience who is maybe at that point of decision-making share your own personal story of how you decided you wanted to be a mother, how you fit it in with your crazy schedule of traveling to all these countries. And any advice you can give for someone who may be in navigating their journey into motherhood.

Esther:

Absolutely. And I would just, I would amend that and say, it's parenthood, right? This is something that women end up spending so much time thinking about, but it's for men also, right? These choices are the same for young people. They're not exactly the same of course, men in relationships now have to make these same decisions and planning that women do. So don't discount this just because you're a man, because these issues are probably going to come up too. So I always, yeah, exactly. It's not just a woman's job. So I always knew I wanted to have kids. I grew up in a traditional Chinese family. I have about 25 first cousins on each side. I'm one of three. Each of my parents was one of six. So I was just surrounded by tons of family all the time. And I just kind of thought that was how the world was, you know? And I had so much fun growing up with a brother and a sister. I just felt like we were such a team against the world. And especially we grew up in a town that was so white. The only other Chinese kids, we knew where each other, so it was just like just having my own team. I just felt that was such a comfort, and so much fun that you always have somebody to play with. Like you're never by yourself unless you want to be by yourself. So when I started out my career, I was very, very work-focused. I didn't think about marriage. I didn't think about children. I was just like, I got to get stuff done, you know? And I remember when I was leaving my job at Newsweek, I had an editor who said, great job, so exciting. You're 23. Just make sure you backwards plan your children. And I was like, excuse me, children. I'm 23. and she said,, look around, , half the editors at Newsweek are women, but most of them have no children or they have adopted children from Asia that they, you know, got in their late forties. . So it was really, I think the first kind of wave of women who had really achieved what they wanted to professionally, but then. , had trouble conceiving or had trouble having children of their own. And around that time, I read a book called creating a life by Sylvia Anne Hewlett, who is a gender economist. She works, I think at Columbia or she used to, and she has always studied the economic value of women's work. she's been a real pioneer on kind of on-ramps and off-ramps for women, the economic cost of having women leave your labor force, know, things like that. She had her last baby at 51. So she had some kids when she was very young and then she had her last child when she was much older. And so she wrote this book from the perspective of, I know what it's like to be a young mom. I know what it's like to lose jobs because I was pregnant. I know what it's like to really desperately want to get pregnant and not be able to. So I, know, I'm an economist and I'm bringing all these labor statistics to this story, but I also want you to know that I feel it very personally and she set out to write a book to celebrate the 50th anniversary of feminism. Like look at all these great professional gains women have made. This was in the late nineties, early two thousands. And she started interviewing all these very high profile women, , chief of surgery at a big hospital, managing director of a big bank, opera singers, , famous, accomplished women. And she found that all of them had no children and that it wasn't by choice. They called it a creeping. Non-choice a creeping non choice. and so when she dug into it, she was like why did you not have children, Jesse Norman, famous opera singer . And it was just the same pattern kept coming up, or the woman would say, well, I was in med school. Then I was in grad school that I went to business school then I was promoted. Then I was put in charge of the Americas. Right. Like I was always too busy. And then when it was time for me to look around and I got serious about it, I couldn't conceive or all the men were older and then my husband had already been married and he had children. He didn't want more. Right. So There was this real pattern that all of these very successful women had planned their careers very effectively, but not their families. And they found themselves in a situation where they didn't have children and it wasn't their choice. They thought they had more time than they really did. So the point of this book and the women in it, you know, share these unbelievably personal stories about their own struggles and things. And the reason they do that is so that young women don't assume that they have much more time to make these important decisions than they really do. So the message of from this first generation of pioneers was just because, you know, an actress has a baby at 46. doesn't mean it's easy and doesn't mean it's going to happen to you. So if you want children, you have to backwards plan your children. Just like my editor told me the way you plan your career. So an ambitious woman may say, I want to be a managing director of a bank by the time I'm 50. So that means, boom, boom, boom. Here are the benchmarks along the way. In the same way. The book was encouraging people to be really honest about human fertility, that, you know, I had my children at 34 and 36 and that was advanced maternal age. I had a geriatric pregnancy and I was like, excuse me, pardon me? But that's what it is biologically. Because you know, you're meant to have children between like 13 and 30. Ideally of course that's

Vicky:

Oh, my God. I'm out of that window.

Esther:

no, but I mean, of course that's changed over time. But in the United States now the biggest growth rate is women in their forties having children. So there, there have been advances of technology. Remember this book was written 20 years ago, so things are different, but they're not that different. So the message of the book was just look, if you want to have a family, make sure it's in your plan. Don't just assume you're going to look around and there'll be a nice guy there. Waiting for you. So I really took that to heart. I was like, yeah, what the heck? The time I was 29, I was back in New York after kind of all my travels. I had an awesome life. I had so many friends, I was directing, I was doing everything I wanted to do. And I felt very far away from having children or making the decisions, but it made me start thinking about it. And so when I got into my next relationship, which turned out to be my now husband, I was serious about it from the beginning. And I was clear that I wanted children I was clear that that's where I wanted this relationship to go. And I think it just helped me focus my thinking, you know, otherwise I could have had my nice fun life for another 10 years and then, looked around and been like, where is everybody? Where are those babies at?

Vicky:

Yeah, no, totally, totally appreciate that. Love that you shared that journey too, because I feel like there would be so many women out there going, I haven't even thought about that or, you know, what, converseley, what happens if you don't know if want children. Then how do you backwards plan something if you don't know if you want it similar to planning a career, sometimes there's no through line.

Esther:

Absolutely well, and, and having kids is hard, right? We've talked about

Vicky:

like you can't give them back.

Esther:

I know you can't give them back. It's 24, 7 for life. And I have had more than one girlfriend who has locked herself into the bathroom, crying to get away from her own children. So, you know, it's not all sweet roses here. Yeah, no, it's scary. It's scary to have responsibility for human life. When we left the hospital with the baby, we're like, you're letting us take this baby. Like shouldn't I sign something. Is this legal? We're not really qualified. I took that five-hour course, you know? Yeah. And it's non-stop and then the thing that I think people maybe don't realize when you're young is that so much of parenting is sacrifice, right? Giving up something you want to make something possible for your children. You know, most young people who have grown up in our comfortable, modern technological society have not done tons of sacrificing, not like my parents did as refugees or your parents did, so that can be really hard. And then there are going to be real. Trade-offs there's going to be, you are exhausted. You are so tired, you want to die. And the baby cries and which of you is going to get up. They're going to be so many test points like that, where it's so hard, it's harder than anything you've done before. And you're not sure you can get through it. So yeah, for people who aren't sure like you should be sure, like, this is not something you kind of want to do and just back into, right. Like that's not a good idea, but you should also leave yourself the option so that maybe it takes you a long time to be sure. But then when, if you decide yes, then you can still do You're not too old.

Vicky:

Hmm. And so many of my peers at the moment are at that place where there's rule trade-offs and this sacrifice of having children just freaks them out. And then they haven't fully decided. So I love the idea of leaving yourself space or time to make that decision.

Esther:

And now I'm going to argue like your mother's point of view. You know, the traditional point of view is like Vicky. You are already much more successful than any woman of any prior generation, right? You are so young. You're at the top of your firm, you're at the top of your industry. Like how much more do you got to prove? And at the end of the day, will your professional success be enough of an accomplishment for you in your life? Or will you want more family around you? That's just a question it's not to you specifically, but it's definitely something I thought about because I was working really hard in industries that really, you know, I didn't know if I was ever going to be a director, I was like, am I going to be 45 and temping, like all my actor, friends, and at a certain point it's like, yeah, the job is wonderful. You can love your job. You can be so good at your job, but that's only one part of who you are as a human, ? You engage with your family, you have loving relationships with nephews and nieces and brothers and sisters and all those things. And it doesn't have to be your own children, but I think people should plan or I think it has been shown to be part of a healthy life that you also make space in your life for loving relationships, of whatever kind. Maybe you have a dog, maybe you know, foster children who knows what it is, but just to have something that's not work.

Vicky:

Agreed. Absolutely. I had a great conversation with our CEO recently of our firm and he was giving me similar advice saying you've gotta be okay being mediocre at everything. And I was like, Being mediocre.

Esther:

You're like, not me.

Vicky:

Not me. I'm like, never put in that bucket, but that kind of makes sense. I totally ties in with what you just said of, you gotta be okay. Giving up something for the other, knowing what the trade-offs are and making space for loving relationships. That's definitely become a real core theme in the last couple of years for me. Especially post, depression as you know, my background and real, shifting gears and focus for my life. But I think some of the challenges of deciding it almost stems in a fear or a lack of self confidence. Because I'm thinking everyone's telling me, you got to really want children and I feel kind of guilty kind of like going in half-hearted or going in, because I want to make sure that I don't make mistake when I'm 50 and feel like, I wanted children, if that doesn't seem a good enough reason to do so. And

Esther:

I agree with

Vicky:

of, yeah. I feel like I yeah, I felt guilty.

Esther:

Yeah. I don't think fear of missing out is a good reason to have kids because that's not going to be enough when you have to wake up in the middle of the night or when you're scooping up vomit with your bare hands, right? Like it's not going to be enough, so you have to really want it. And if you don't want it, why feel guilty? You're going to have such a nice life. You'll have a clean apartment. You'll have all this free time. You can have hobbies, you can have adult conversations, you have 20 years worth more of earnings that you can save and not have to like spend on, you know, education. I have a lot of envy for my child, free friends, because in so many ways, it's like, you can just do what you want in life. And maybe that's exactly what you want. Like what's wrong with that.

Vicky:

Yeah. Thank you for saying that because I feel like there actually may be some people out there and I don't know which camp I'm in yet, but I think there may be some people out there who maybe for them, it's trying to fight that fear of missing out and doing it for the wrong reasons. Like that. would be the worst thing to do. So yeah, definitely advocating for both sides of the table and, you know, loving and honoring whatever choice anyone decides. Right.

Esther:

Absolutely. And also, I mean, there are very gendered expectations as well. So a lot of the pressure towards women to have children is because women are seen as mothers and that's it. Or it's like, somehow you're incomplete. If you don't have children like which dynasty does that thinking come out of? We now have the ability because of the sacrifices of so many generations before us to be anything we want, ? We're not limited to roles as wives and mothers. We're not here just to support the men in our lives. So if that's true in our work lives, why shouldn't it be true in our family lives as well? Why shouldn't we be able to reap the benefits of all this very hard, won freedom and have whatever kind of relationships we want in our personal life.

Vicky:

Absolutely. And, sitting on the table of having, having really ticked a lot of the boxes, you've got an amazing career. You've done serious impact with your work. And you have a loving family, any hurdles that you personally faced that, really stand out. And how did you overcome them?.

Esther:

Yeah. Well, I think they're hurdles on every aspect of that. When I took the foreign service exam, I had not yet met my now husband and my security clearance took so long because they checked every place I lived for 10 years. And in those 10 years, I happened to live in like something like eight countries. So it took two years to get approved, to join the foreign service. And in that time I had met my now husband and started dating him seriously. So when I got the offer, I was like, Hey, look, I got the offer to join the foreign service. And he said the what? So like, you know, he had, he'd been living in another city, come back to New York. He was like, ready to settle down and be with his parents. And I was like, I'm ready to go overseas. So it was a very difficult discussion. And I think this is the same kind of conflict that's faced by many young couples now, which is both of you are highly educated. Both of you are ambitious to be successful in life. As a family unit, somebody has to make sacrifices. And it's very hard to decide who that is. And so in most families that I know where they're high achieving two partners, you end up taking turns, right? So someone gives up on this job and goes to follow you to get education somewhere else. Then it's your turn to take a hit, but you, you can't think about it that way because of course that's bad for your relationship. you have to think of yourself as a team or a unit, and you say what's the best choice for the team, right? It's not individual players on the team. So when we were dating, my husband took the first hit and he quit his job in finance. After he'd gotten his MBA and moved with me to Asia. He ended up, getting a job in Hong Kong, working there in finance and getting a job in London, working there and finance, but it was very hard, it totally interrupted his career path. He was following my job. We were in Asia. So people would bow to him lower in meetings than me. Like people would say to him, you're following a woman around what's wrong with you. So it was just like not, it was a very challenging situation. Plus my work was very difficult. It was really polluted. He has asthma, you know, there were so many challenges at that time. It put a ton of strain on our relationship, but what was good about it is, what we were talking about before. It's the challenges that make you grow, right? If your life is always easy, you have never been tested. You don't actually know how strong you are. It's the things that you think are going to break you that make you stronger. So like childbirth, I've given birth to two babies. And as it happened, I didn't take drugs either time. It was just like a happy coincidence where things went quickly and whatever, but now it's what are you going to do? That's going to scare me. I pushed a nine pound, two ounce baby out of my body with no pain medication. What do you got? I feel like I'm a read. Yeah, exactly. So it's you know, I've had some intimidating work environments or whatever, and I was like, yeah, bring it on. Like, I'm happy to talk to you about whatever. So it's stuff like that, where it just proves and you know, I'm really a wimp when it comes to physical pain. Like if I stub my toe, I'll cry, but somehow my body was able to get through that. So that gives you confidence that you. Are not going to break. And it's the same with really challenging work assignments with really challenging work environments, with difficult environments, with hostile work environments, all of those things teach you how to manage your own team, how to keep your cool. When you know, the delegate from south America is yelling at you, all of these things. So I think young people don't recognize, and maybe especially in fields where young people take leadership roles very quickly, they don't realize that all of that testing actually builds you up, that you learn something from going through all those hard times and that if you jump and skip it, then you've missed some of that testing and , that seasoning so I would say because we had a really tough time at the beginning of our relationship, now I have a very open line of communication with my husband. We both have made sacrifices for each other. We both support each other's careers and we know that the. Sacrifices that each of us make and the contributions, each of us make are critical to raising our children, especially in this pandemic year. They were home half the time we were working from home where they just started going back to school two weeks ago. My husband's riding them on bicycles to school twice a day. So he's still working, but he takes two hours in the morning two hours in the afternoon to get on the bike and ride five miles to pick them up and then five miles back.

Vicky:

I love your husband, by the way.

Esther:

he's awesome. He's such a great guy, right? I'm so lucky. And so this is the other thing is like my life is only possible because my mother made so many sacrifices and my grandmother made so many sacrifices and all the women who worked in every industry before us made sacrifices, that's why I am able to have this rewarding career and this wonderful husband, I have a wonderful husband because his mother made a lot of sacrifices, but she also raised him to be a certain way to respect women. Like we have to realize as young women working now or youngish women, in my case, it's whatever that we enjoy these benefits and privileges because so many other women just bit it and sucked it up for us. They marched, they were spit on, they were arrested, they were beaten up. They did all that to win us the rights that we enjoy now. And we have to fight to keep them and expand them for others. That's our moral responsibility.

Vicky:

I feel so inspired right now. I'm like, yes, she's absolutely speaking truth. I feel like that is such a beautiful way for us to close off our discussion. Can you give us one passing nugget? Tell me what is the key message you want to send to all the women and men listening right now.

Esther:

My key message is find a problem and solve it. So I read in a book, once problems are solved by those who see them. And I think that's very true, There are billionaires who fly around and private jets and they do not see a billion, poor people. But if you see a problem, like there's garbage in your street, pick it up, or there's a law that doesn't make that much sense to you. Try to change that law. Do one thing. Do something. If you see that problem, you just go solve it. And then that will make the world better for everybody.

Vicky:

Amazing. See a problem, go and solve it. Thank you so much, Esther. We've loved having you on this show. You have been amazing and your career is so inspiring. Thank you for all that you do for women around the world.

Esther:

Thank you, Vicky. And it's always a pleasure to speak with you..