Valuing intergenerational exchanges within the UN staff body © Freepik

Just keep swimming!
A candid intergenerational conversation about career navigation at the UN between one of UNCTAD’s longest serving staff members and a new employee
1 Apr 2024

I joined the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as a consultant after completing my Masters degree at the Geneva Graduate Institute last summer and the first few weeks felt straight out of a dream. The wonderful campus with Lac Leman and the mountains putting on a show, the new work wardrobe, the novelty of the cafeteria (a live grill station, with pizzas on demand!), the buzz in Building E during the Human Rights Council sessions and the quiet evening walks past the flags all lit up after a fulfilling day at work, made me feel extremely lucky to get this chance to contribute to a cause bigger than my own. 

Just as quickly as the salad bar runs out during the lunch rush hour, the realities of UN life such as figuring out CDL submissions, rentals, contracts and navigating life’s uncertainties as a newly minted working professional caught up with me.

The proverbial reality check. How does a young person figure it out here?

Ask any UN Staff member and they have one piece of advice to my existential questions, that is: ‘Just keep swimming.’ A quote from the hit Disney Pixar film Finding Nemo. Applicable to both the main character Nemo and the many interns and consultants like me across the UN system. Determined to understand life better at the UN, I set out swimming to find some answers.

I had to look no further than Simonetta Zarrilli. She retired in February 2024 as Chief of the Trade, Gender and Development Programme within the Division on International Trade and Commodities (DITC) at UNCTAD after a successful career of 35 years. Just for some context, Simonetta has been a United Nations staff member for longer than I have been alive. She also happened to be my supervisor at UNCTAD and has been a mentor, guide and a champion for women and youth throughout her career. 

I spoke to Simonetta from sunny Brazil about her time at the UN, her career over the last 35 years and finally, some advice for young people like me who are just starting off in a post-pandemic world.

How did you begin your career at the UN? Please share your experiences from when you joined the UN and what drew you to a career in this sector.

In the late 80s I was working in Rome in the private sector. After two years there, I was looking for new experiences and challenges and by chance I saw an advertisement in a newspaper (because there was no internet at that time) referring to openings for ‘an international career,’ which at the time I didn’t know meant working for the UN!

I started my career in UNCTAD and my whole career unfolded there. At the very beginning, I was in a team in charge of technical cooperation. We dealt with tariffs and preferential trade schemes for developing countries. I started discovering countries and cities I had no knowledge of, which was extremely exciting personally and professionally, and a great learning experience. However, intense traveling can also become exhausting. After around three years there, I moved to another team who dealt with trade and environment. The new job involved less travelling and more research work in an unexplored field. 

Over the last 35 years, how have your professional experiences at the UN shaped who you are today?

Who I am today personally and professionally is very much linked to my work at the UN. Professionally, the UN opened my mind to a wealth of issues, and I learned to look at them from many different points of view. The opportunities you have and the challenges you face vary depending on many factors, often out of our control. Such as: if you are in the Global North or in the Global South, if you have had access to good education, if you have digital skills and access to the internet, if you live in a peaceful and democratic country, if the community you belong to value you and let you contribute to it, if you are a woman or a man… and the list goes on.

They say that change is the only constant. How did your job evolve from when you started until you retired from UNCTAD?

A main characteristic of my UN career has been that I’ve tried to deal with emerging issues. I have already mentioned the work on trade and environment, but I also worked on biotechnology, on genetically modified organisms, on health and environmental services and on biofuels. When I worked on those issues and on their implications for developing countries, they were all very new. 

My passion for current issues brought me to work on trade and gender. In 2010, I was assigned by the then UNCTAD Secretary-General to set up a work program on the issues. The topic was completely new to me and to many colleagues in UNCTAD and elsewhere. As a result of my work, I received the WTO Gender Equality Pioneer Award in November 2023. 

It was a proud moment for the team to see you receive the award for all your efforts in pioneering research.  How did you adapt to changing technologies or methods in your field over the last couple of years especially when Covid-19 hit?

I had a small team and reaching out to many countries by traveling and conducting gender and trade training there soon proved to be unfeasible. Then the idea came to develop online courses on trade and gender. We developed the course material and innovative multimedia presentations hosted on an interactive online platform. Hundreds of stakeholders from dozens of different countries could be supported through these means. The Covid-19 pandemic meant that we could only deliver remote capacity-building activity. But even now, online courses remain a highly effective way to develop and expand the community of trade and gender experts. Since 2015, we have trained over 2,200 government officials, academics, NGOs, and civil society representatives from 176 countries.

Can you share an experience that took you out of your comfort zone while working at the UN?

I moved from my first job very much focused on providing information to traders in developing countries about preferential tariff schemes from which they could benefit when exporting to developed countries, to my second job that was quite research-intensive. The nature of the two jobs was quite different and I had to learn to adapt as soon as I started. It was my decision to move from a job to another, but I had underestimated the challenges that it would imply. However, I have no regrets as it was a necessary move to make me a more versatile UN staff member and be better equipped to deal with the many different tasks that working for the UN implies.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received from a former mentor or boss or colleague?

Perhaps it was the following: during the UN, and likely any career, there are exciting and fully rewarding periods. There are also periods where work is less interesting, colleagues may be less pleasant, the work environment may be less conducive to fulfillment. However, never give up. Better moments will come for sure.

Thank you for the words of encouragement. It means a lot for young people like me trying to navigate a career in the UN. In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently in your career that you would like to share with young professionals like me?

There was a period where I felt undermined by my supervisor. I kept quiet, but it was indeed exceedingly difficult. I should have spoken up, addressed the issue openly with him and with his supervisor, So, if there are unpleasant situations, my advice is to try to address them as soon as they emerge.

Thank you so much Simonetta for your time and before we say goodbye, do you have any advice for young people in the UN reading this?

My recommendation to young people is always the same: get out of your comfort zone, meet new colleagues, learn new topics. You must be able to author a paper, organize a meeting, plan an official mission, draft a project proposal, and make a presentation. The UN needs multitasking staff, and it needs you!

According to the New York Times, intergenerational dialogues have been dwindling over the last few decades due to age segregation in our societal structures. Post-pandemic, these dialogues have further reduced and the intergenerational gap has widened. While remote working has its advantages, there is a decline in opportunities for natural intergenerational interactions, such as those in the workplace. 

As for me, I will invest in a pair of good googles now because I intend to keep swimming! 

* Deane de Menezes works with the Trade, Gender and Development Programme at UNCTAD.
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