Alumni Voice: Interview with Jean Pierre-Louis (PPIA ’97)
Posted on May 19th, 2013
Name: Jean Pierre-Louis
JSI Attended: University of Washington, 1997
Current Title: Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to France
Current Employer: U.S. State Department
You attended the University of Washington’s JSI program in 1997. How did that experience shape your future educational and professional path?
PPIA was one of the key moments in life for me. I had not thought about graduate school before really and I didn’t know whether or not I had the aptitude to do it. It was not one of my goals. I went to the University of Washington to see what would happen, in a sense. I met a cohort of people who were enthusiastic, many of them had clear goals to go to graduate school and do other things and those goals became part of my own reality. That probably was, for me, pivotal. In addition to giving me at least the belief that graduate school was a necessity and something that I could tackle, the program also came with a financial incentive to continue. That combination really set me off sailing in a direction that I otherwise would not have gone.
You attended the Master of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University. How did you end up choosing that program?
I think in part because I had met the Director of Admissions and the Dean at my PPIA summer institute. They had traveled to meet with us. With those two having come to the institute, it put Georgetown on my radar. After the summer institute I went to Taiwan to do my senior year abroad and the administrators of the PPIA program at the time kept in touch. In Taiwan I met a lot of people who were in graduate school already and they had a clear path to go on to do a PhD or something. I was one of a handful of undergrads and when I talked to them about the places they had looked at for getting an advanced degree, Georgetown kept coming up as one of the APSIA schools that was an option for PPIA alumni. After, when I was exploring my options, I really focused on schools in Washington, DC. Georgetown was a good fit because I had become interested in the Foreign Service. Initially, I was waitlisted. I did not want to remain waitlisted so I wrote a note to the two women I’d met at the PPIA summer institute and I think that, in part, that helped get me off the waitlist. So a number of factors kicked in to get me to attend Georgetown. It was definitely the best fit for me.
What were the top 3 most valuable takeaways from your graduate school experience?
The top take-away was the network. When you go to Georgetown you join a network of people who are like-minded, successful, and feel that they owe other alums an ear if not taking action directly on their behalf. That was key. While I was there I had access to the World Bank, the Pentagon, etc. I wanted to focus on North Korea and I met with some of the top people working on North Korea. There was no institution that I wanted to reach out to and connect with that they could not get to through a professor or alum. That’s the number one thing that you get out of it.
Second, I learned how to write for leaders, busy people who are not going to read 15 pages routinely. I learned to put the meat of your argument up front and summarize what they really need to know. In a sense, keeping it short, sweet, and powerful. I think this applied not only to my writing but also in oral presentation. I learned how to give people information in way they will remember.
Third, Georgetown gave me an opportunity to learn about leadership. Georgetown had a weekend seminar that looked at leadership. This remains one of the other key moments in my life besides PPIA. It was a one-day seminar where we had a presenter who talked about leadership. Why be a leader? What does it mean to be a leader? What are the realities? In other words, do you know that leaders work long hours, sometimes it means giving other people credit or taking blame when there is blame to take. He asked very pointed questions and gave us really powerful nuggets. I have never forgotten those lessons. In my career I still frequently ask myself why am I here? What am I supposed to learn? I also learned that you lead at every level and lead differently in different settings. We talked about different type of leaders and I remember that I preferred the helicopter model. Over ten years later, I still remember my preference.
What advice would you give to alumni who are thinking about graduate school?
Be sure that graduate school is what you need. Don’t hurry into it. Don’t go just because you think you need to punch that ticket. There are so many options that can help prepare you for the three or four careers you are about to experience. The days are gone when you are going to stick with one company for 30 years. Even if you are in the same organization, you don’t necessarily have the same responsibilities. In the Foreign Service, my work changes every couple of years. Don’t pigeon hole yourself into being an expert before you have a chance to understand what the needs are in the fields you are looking at long-term. I think it’s important to ask yourself – Will the skills you plan to acquire in grad school allow you to pivot so people will believe that your degree is an asset? Also, you don’t need to go to a brand name school necessarily; you can pick up the same book knowledge from any campus. You should focus on finding a school that prepares you for what you hope to do in the next 5, 10, 15 years and will help you pivot through your next couple of jobs.
You are currently based in Paris, France as the Special Assistant to the US Ambassador. For those of our alumni who are considering a path in the State Department, how would you describe your work?
The first thing I’d say is don’t let the hype fool you. This is a job. It’s glamorous sure, it’s exciting yes, but you do have a desk and a computer and you are expected to work. The work that you are expected to do most of the time looks like any of the work that anyone else with a desk and a computer is doing. You’re feeding information to Washington, to your colleagues, and to others. The work isn’t anything you can’t do if you have the aptitude. The job itself calls for someone with the skill set we’ve described before. Being willing to be a leader at any level regardless of what your job calls for. Being willing to take a leadership role when called for and take a back seat when needed.
If working in an embassy is something you think you are interested in, work on your writing skills. 40% of your time is spent pushing information to others over email. The goal of what you write is to quickly present the ideas that you need to get across in order to have them get acted on quickly. It’s also important to be analytical. I’m a political officer by cone and part of our job is to see that things are going in a particular direction and why. In those cases, you can’t let yourself get lost in the details and miss the big picture.
As a Foreign Service Officer in this job you have to learn how to quickly make friends and get people to believe that you have something valuable to share and that you are a person of integrity. Share the credit. I tell people that I don’t have a meaty portfolio, my job is to empower the Ambassador to do his job well. He needs to be able to show up and be prepared. In the past, I’ve been the one that had to show up and be prepared. Be flexible. Show people that you care about their well-being and communicate clearly and succinctly.
Before joining the Foreign Service you held a number of very different positions. How did you navigate your career path?
It was mostly about opportunities presenting themselves but it wasn’t haphazard. You can prepare yourself to take advantage of opportunities. PPIA was one of those steps. I didn’t know it at the time but I was preparing myself for what was ahead. I studied abroad, I had summer jobs, and all of that helped prepare me. For example, I went on vacation to Haiti and while I was there, found an opportunity to be a translator for a U.S. Special Forces in Haiti. I was a flight attendant when I got out of college because I wanted to travel. In that job I learned about service and dealing with difficult people with a smile. It has been extremely useful throughout my career. I started a small business and closed a small business and that failure helped me focus on what else I wanted to do in life. It actually reminded me that I had the opportunity through PPIA to go to graduate school. Without that failure I might not have gone on to get an advanced degree. I haven’t had a bad job. Every job was a learning opportunity that taught me something I was able to use later.
Why did you choose to enter the Foreign Service?
I first learned about the Foreign Service when I was in China as a sophomore in college. While I was there, a gentleman in the program mentioned that his Chinese girlfriend was going back to the US with him that summer. People told him that it was very hard to get a VISA and he said his dad was an Foreign Service Officer and would help her. That was the first time I heard about it. Later, when I went to Taiwan in my senior year, I started visiting a bunch of diplomats who had really nice homes. They had homes with pools and I was sharing a two-bedroom place with three other people. I wanted to know what they did and I decided that it was a career I’d like to try at some point. I knew that I had what it took to live abroad and could deal with the daily impact of living far away from family. I also liked language. I didn’t want to take the Foreign Service exam right away though. I went on to do other things first. Once I went to Georgetown, the Foreign Service was in my face all the time. In my second year there I took and passed the exam. It was always in the back of my mind and I kept moving towards it slowly. The opportunities were there and I jumped on them but there were steps that prepared me to show up and succeed in getting in.
To date, what professional achievement are you most proud of?
I’m quite proud of the fact that all of the places I’ve worked I can pick up the phone, call those colleagues, and have them take that call. I think that’s important. I’m quite proud of the professional relationships I’ve built. I make an intentional effort to do that. There is not one staffer in an office who deserves all the credit. It takes hard work on the part of every person who works in an office, from the people who empty the trash up to the top person, to achieve success. I respect what my colleagues do and have accomplished.
The other thing I’m proud of doing is encouraging people to leave a position when they are more skilled than the job they are doing calls for. Even people on my own team who I benefit from working with, I encourage them to move on and up and take on bigger challenges that fit their skill sets.
In terms of a legacy, I spent two years after the earthquake in Haiti working for the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. That was some difficult work. The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund had about $50 million in funds and we did some things in Haiti that were good and different than what other organizations were doing. We empowered small business in the local communities and when we worked with NGOs, we tried to ensure that their goal was to transfer knowledge to local Haitians and empower the community. Ultimately, this created sustainable jobs.
What other advice would you like to share?
I’d like to share that it’s important to ask for help. Do it in a way that makes sense, be respectful and reasonable when talking to busy people, but ask for help. It’s also really important to follow up to say thank you. In all the years that I have been making myself available to help people interested in getting involved in the Foreign Service, only 1 or 2 have followed up.
What are your goals for the future?
When I went to China, I started reading the Economist. The back of the Economist had all kinds of job advertisements for things that sounded so interesting. My goal is to one day find a job in the ads in the Economist that interests me, apply, and get it. I’m not preparing in any special way for this, I don’t have a specific job in mind, but I know that it’s an achievable goal for me. I’d hope that’s the way life would work for all of us. That we have a goal and work towards it, however slowly, and eventually, achieve it.
Jean Pierre-Louis is Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to France, where he helps optimize operations so that the Ambassador and his Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) receive the best possible support from the Embassy’s 1,000 staff and 40-plus USG departments and agencies. Jean took up his current assignment in August 2012.
From June 2010 until February 2012, on loan from the Department, Jean managed $50 million in grants, loans, and investments that fostered economic development in Haiti as the Senior Program Manager of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.
From August 2008 until May 2010, Jean served as Special Assistant to the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS), from which he deployed to Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake.
Jean’s previous overseas assignments include working as Deputy Branch Chief of the American Institute in Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Branch Office, where he was responsible for economic & political reporting as well as consular functions from August 2006 until July 2008. In his first tour at the Department, Jean served as General Services Officer at U.S. Consulate General Shanghai.
Jean holds a M.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a B.A. from the University of Florida. As an undergraduate, Jean attended two yearlong exchange programs – spending his senior year at National Taiwan University in Taipei and his sophomore year at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’An, China. He is fluent in French, Haitian Creole, and Mandarin Chinese. Jean was born in Mole St. Nicolas, Haiti; he grew up in Miami, Florida. Jean is married to Janée Pierre-Louis, a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of Commerce. They are the proud parents of three dynamic children – Julien, Sarah, and Joelle.