Alex Amouyel Tackles the World’s Problems, One “Solver” at a Time
October 11, 2017 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Alex Amouyel is the executive director at Solve, an initiative at MIT that helps social entrepreneurs get the resources they need to accelerate their work. Her job involves connecting innovators with corporations, foundations, investors, governments, and academics—or, as she puts it, “building a marketplace for social impact innovation.” We recently caught up with her in New York, where she was leading Solve’s Pitch Event—a week-long affair in which social entrepreneurs compete to become “Solvers.” Here, she talks non-linear career paths, life on the road, and the upside of quitting her Ph.D.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I wanted to be a prosecutor, to put bad people in prison. It probably came from watching too much TV. But I did want to make a difference, and that’s the common thread between everything I’ve aspired to. In my early- to mid-teens, I switched to the idea of becoming a scientific researcher to rid the world of cancer, and I pursued that quite intensely until I was 21. And then I wanted to work in social impact and human rights, which led me to where I am now.
I STARTED A PH.D. IN BIOCHEMISTRY when I was 20—the U.K.’s education system is a bit different, so I was young—but I quit after three months. It was a bit of a mistake starting it in the first place, and I was crying myself to sleep every night. So I bought a ticket to go to China and teach English on the day I turned 21. It had a coming-of-age element to it; I felt like I was becoming an adult and accepting that I didn’t have a plan of what I was doing next. My parents and my professors had wanted me to pursue this Ph.D., and I was good at biochemistry so I felt obligated to to do it—and I had to break free from that, in a way.
I’VE ALWAYS HAD A PASSION for international relations. After I taught in China, I did an internship in biochemistry research at an investment bank. That still wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I started a masters in international affairs and managed to convince the Paris Institute of Political Studies that they should take me on despite my biochemistry background, just with my transferable skills. After that, I joined a management consulting firm, where I was using neither my biochemistry degree nor my international relations degree, except that I was consulting for a pharmaceutical company at some point, and then later Save the Children, where I eventually got a permanent job. It wasn’t a linear path, but it worked out and led me to where I am today. Now that I’m at Solve at MIT, my early years in biochemistry are actually quite helpful. It’s very exciting to be at the intersection of technological innovation and social impact, and it synthesizes my background in a way I never anticipated.
I KNEW I FOUND THE RIGHT PATH when I started working with Save the Children. At first, I was there for a project with the management consulting firm where I worked, and I was basically embedded for four months with this small team. I felt very at home with them, and we had a high-profile project to merge the country offices of Save the Children together. Originally, Save the Children was a federation of independent entities—for example, there were nine Save the Childrens operating in Ethiopia alone, and it was not the most efficient way of doing things. Then the project expanded and became a big restructuring of their complete operations, and I was at the center of that. I was the youngest member of the team, and privy to creating major change, and I felt good about that. When I studied international relations, I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m going to be a management consultant for NGOs.” But I was bringing value, and we were doing big stuff that mattered, and I loved that.
TRAVELING CONSTANTLY FOR WORK can take a lot out of you sometimes. At Save the Children, I was going to Pakistan, China, Cambodia, Lebanon, Haiti, and all sorts of places for significant periods of time. I was gone three weeks out of four, sometimes more so, and I was literally living out of a suitcase a lot of the time. And traveling economy as well, let’s be clear about that. It was enthralling and intense, and I did it for about a year and a half. I learned a lot and grew a lot, and it was adventurous. But it was not comfortable, and it was discombobulating in that I felt like I lived nowhere. You meet friends in Beijing one week and leave the next, and your friends back home in London forget you exist for a bit. I still travel for work, but it’s a bit more manageable now.
I CAN PACK IN FIVE MINUTES. The secret is that you never fully unpack. I have a carry-on suitcase, which fits into any carry-on compartment. You have to be careful it fits into both the European and U.S. sizes, which are different. Certain things just stay permanently in that suitcase, and then I just swap out the dirty clothes for clean ones. I’ve traveled with just that suitcase for months, easily. I have certain go-to dresses or trousers that I know are flexible and can be dressed up in various ways; they’re my safe bets. One of my favorite travel items is the Dietrich jacket, which is sort of kimono-like and goes with literally anything. I took it on a recent trip to New York for ten days, and I wore it constantly. I also have the knotted Broadway belt, which I wore with different dresses every day. If you look at the photos of me from the New York trip, every single day it’s the same jacket, same belt, different dress. No one seemed to notice.
I’M A PERSON WHO LOVES DISCOVERING new cultures, and I also have the privilege of working in a field where I know a lot of people in different places, which helps if you’re feeling homesick. Facebook is great for staying in touch with people in far-flung locations. If I end up in Singapore, maybe I know one or two people who I haven’t seen in five or even ten years. I’ll message them and say, “Hey! Let’s hang out.” I also try to take the time to enjoy being in a new place, and appreciate that it’s disorienting in the sense that it’s new, and that there are things to find and discover. That being said, traveling is a bit easier now that you can find things you miss about home when you’re in foreign countries. It used to be that I’d travel for three weeks through small cities in China, and then I’d get to a big city and find a KFC. Generally I don’t eat that stuff, but in that particular moment I’d be like, “Yay!” And sometimes I love going to Starbucks and getting a drink with like, 15 modifications or what have you. Yes, you may be in Singapore with access to all these different cuisines, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to get your familiar green tea latte.
Photos by Andrew Segreti