The 26-Year Old Entrepreneur with Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and Nick Clegg In Her Network
Interview with Next Woman Magazine looks into how Grassroot Diplomat was founded.
At the age of 26, London citizen diplomat Talyn Rahman-Figueroa founded an innovative diplomatic agency Grassroot Diplomat. As the first diplomatic consultancy of its kind, it is the mission of Grassroot Diplomat to bridge the gap between governments and civil society.
As a frustrated graduate, Talyn decided to take forward her Master’s degree, United Nations training and high-level contacts to create a new social enterprise consultancy, working for the betterment of society.
Originally founded in 2011, Grassroot Diplomat has already managed projects in 10 countries worldwide. Talyn now manages a 14-person team, including two former diplomats. Her network includes top diplomats and celebrities such as Desmond Tutu, Sir Bob Geldof and Kofi Annan.
Her début novel, based on a popular fighting video-game, will be released in February 2012.
1. How did you come up with the idea for Grassroot Diplomat and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?
Since graduating from university, my biggest ambition was to work for the government and represent my country abroad as a diplomat. I engaged myself in international summits and conferences to learn and network with officials who were already serving their country on the world stage. I realised that having a Bachelor’s degree wasn’t enough to gain entrance into the Foreign Office, so I decided to partake in a Master’s degree that comprised acquiring technical and practical skills in the art of diplomacy.
During this time, I took the initiative to get extra training at the House of Commons, European Union Commission, the United Nations in New York and I even spent the summer in Morocco to learn about North African and Middle Eastern politics.
Yet, even with this level of exposure, the economic climate at the time made it quite difficult for a graduate like myself to compete against senior level candidates for government positions.
Frustrated, I sought advice from an acquaintance who headed a department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At the time, I was using Grassroot Diplomat as a way to brand myself in the job market. Seeing ambition and potential, my acquaintance suggested that I turn Grassroot Diplomat into a consultancy service for non-government organisations and foreign embassies. This sounded perfect to me because I had experience working in the third sector for many years and was equipped with the skills and expertise necessary to become a diplomatic consultant. I actually began to set-up Grassroot Diplomat as a business the very next day and a month later, I had my very first paid client.
2. What makes your company different from your competitors?
Grassroot Diplomat is the only diplomatic consultancy of its kind to bridge the gap between governments and civil society. We have no allegiance to one particular government and assist on strengthening diplomatic initiatives around the world. As a diplomatic agency, we believe in engaging dialogue between the people and the government that represent them and we do so by harnessing the priorities of governments that align with the people's interest. The diplomatic grassroot aspect of this organisation provides a unique and peculiar angle to our mission. By marrying traditional diplomacy and innovation together, Grassroot Diplomat is in a distinct and favourable position to provide break stereotypes that harm relationships on the global stage.
3. When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?
I noticed that many diplomatic societies and consultancies in this area tend to be made up of Caucasian middle-aged men who have all served in the government at one point in their life. I strongly believe that diversity is an essential mix that is necessary for an organisation to be credible on the global stage. I needed a good balance of men and women from different social and professional backgrounds.
Our senior adviser, Charles Crawford is a former British Ambassador who is still very active in the diplomatic field. Hayk Berikyan is a former Armenian diplomat with much expertise in trade negotiations and foreign policy. Ellee Seymour is an experienced journalist and PR consultant who has worked with leading politicians of major political parties in the UK. Adrian Henriques is an expert on social accountability and has worked with several NGOs and companies on corporate responsibility issues. Based in the US, we chose Christina Mitchell for her grassroots experience in Africa. Finally, our legal adviser Syed Ejaz Kabir is from Bangladesh and specialises in anti-corruption laws that is necessary in overcoming barriers with corrupt governments in major continents. My team also consists of graduates interested in foreign affairs but have little or no experience in the field. I wanted to provide an opportunity to young people wanting to break into the government sector by offering them short-term positions.
4. Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?
Finding customers in this climate is difficult but much of the business we receive is from word-of-mouth and networking. Our website is our biggest selling point and having a likable personality has made it easier for potential clients to trust us and the work that we do.
I am proud to say that we are currently representing clients in Canada, Ghana, Pakistan and Britain, and have had interest from organisations in India, the Pacific Islands, Brazil, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Norway and Afghanistan.
5. Who are your customers and partners now?
It is not possible to mention all of my clients but I would like to highlight the work of ‘Emerging Students’, a British student magazine which explores international affairs and university culture and ‘Diplomatic Insight’ – Pakistan’s diplomatic magazine. The ‘Kay Morris Foundation’ is an excellent organisation we are supporting to help alleviate sickness and poverty of deprived children and pregnant women throughout communities in Africa.
We have strong partnership with several embassies and government institutions and we work very closely with the African Asia Scholars Global Network, ADRg Ambassadors and the United Nations in attracting clients to our Corporate Social Responsibility programme. The list of partners is rapidly growing.
6. What are the advantages of gender diversity in a startup? Are there any disadvantages?
I strongly believe in gender diversity – it is an area that I have advocated very strongly for in all the organisations I have worked in. Balance creates harmony and harmony creates an atmosphere of confidence and creativity. I think it is very important to illustrate good work that women do but not at the expense of their male colleagues.
By starting a company from scratch, an entrepreneur has excellent opportunities to lay the foundations of equality and diversity into the workplace before the business grows and expands.
7. What does your day look like?
As an entrepreneur, my day never looks the same. I work from a business club twice a week where I invite many partners and potential clients to explore Grassroot Diplomat. I love meeting new people and take much pleasure in attending networking events and conferences during weekdays or evenings. Having my own business, it is sometimes very difficult to not work during the weekends but I take that time to plan the next two weeks so that I am constantly seeking ways to attract attention to the company.
8. Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing?
I don’t have much of an opinion of the attitudes towards entrepreneurs but women in general have been discriminated in the workplace for a very long time.
Speaking as a diplomacy expert, women in Britain were finally given the same opportunities as men to build their diplomatic career once the marriage bar was lifted in the 1970s.
We are slowly seeing a rise in female diplomats because women have been provided the opportunity to build on their career for the last 30 year, but we have yet to see many women in the political or diplomatic field in general. Although I’m not a diplomat, as a young entrepreneur in a similar field, I hope to act as a good role model for other young women to break into industries that has a history of strong male leaders.
Entrepreneurship is a wonderful opportunity for bright sparks to create trends in an industry they have always had a healthy interest in. Let’s see how far I can innovate in this rigid industry.
9. How would you describe your leadership style today?
I’ve always been a confident person who is good at delegating tasks, but as an entrepreneur working alongside governments, I was sure that my age would hinder how seriously I would be taken by experienced diplomats and officials. I think a good leader needs to be practical on how much they can achieve alone and not be afraid of asking for help when needed. This is why I created a team made up of veteran professionals who have much experience in their field. I’m 26 years old and I know I have much to learn still, but I am confident that my vision and ideas can flourish with the support of my team and associates who know the diplomatic field better than I do.
10. What is the one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?
I think women have a lot of advantages to their disposal that they may be unaware of. I often find that it is easier for me to get information out of leading officials than a male colleague.
Being bubbly and charismatic certainly has its benefits. It never hurts to be nice to those who are skeptical about your work.