Alumni Spotlight: Maimuna Gassama

21CL Alumna Maimuna Gassama is our first spotlight for November 2021. A graduate of Cross Keys High School (2015), of St. John’s University (2019) and of Johns Hopkins University (2021), she currently works as Senior Program Management Coordinator at The Kaizen Company, where she is in charge of managing projects in Jordan and Uganda that are funded by United States Agency for International Development- USAID . In this post, Maimuna shares about the lessons on leadership she learned from 21CL and how she has taken them onward throughout her undergraduate and graduate school, professionally, and in her day-to-day life. She enjoys mobilizing people towards bigger goals and ensures everyone’s ideas and strengths are cultivated to produce the best results!

Paint a brief picture of what you are doing now.

I’m a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where I received my Master’s Degree in international economics and conflict management. After graduation, I worked with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on emergency refugee work. Now, I work as a senior program management coordinator at the Kaizen Company – Tetra Tech. The Kaizen Company is an international development consulting firm and an incubator for innovative, scalable solutions that address emerging market challenges and opportunities. In this role, I assist in managing two USAID (United States Agency for International Development) projects in Jordan and Uganda.

How did participating in 21CL transform you and lead you to where you are now?

One of the most important lessons I learned from 21CL was the importance of paying it forward. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and encouragement from all the volunteers and 21CL staff at all 21CL events. They were all so generous with their time and were all genuinely committed to seeing us succeed and thrive. Those experiences have encouraged me to continue “paying it forward” in any way I can. I served as a mentor during undergrad, supporting incoming first-year students from minority backgrounds, and currently serve as a mentor with Diplomatic Perspective, an initiative to increase minority representation in international affairs. Apart from mentoring, I work in the international development space. The idea of paying it forward directly coincides with my work today. The projects I work on are in partnership with USAID. So, my work also provides opportunities to support efforts that lay down foundations that improve people’s lives and allow people everywhere to succeed.

Which programs did you participate in? How did the skills/tools/perspectives you acquired from 21CL prepare you for your next steps, going into college, taking on new leadership roles in your community, college, and after?

I participated in quite a few different 21CL programs. I attended Leadership Unplugged currently known as Warner Media Institute for Future Leaders (2013) and the EarthCare Summer Leadership Institute (2014). I was also a member of the Youth Advisory Council and Board, then went on to be a Turner Voices intern at CNN Newsource after graduating high school.

What is your memorable or ‘aha’ moment in 21CL? (a particular program, meeting a professional and diverse peers, speaking in public for the first time, etc.?)

I loved being social throughout all of the 21CL camps, but I was TERRIFIED of public speaking. I convinced myself that I was okay with being in the background. Sure, leaders don’t have to be the loudest in the room, but they need to be ready to step up if required. During the EarthCare Summer Leadership Institute, right before our final presentations, one of my group members suggested we perform a “rap” in place of a PowerPoint presentation. We huddled, brainstormed, and came up with an AMAZING rap, but like me, all my group members were terrified of public speaking, and therefore uncomfortable with performing the rap. I mustered up all the courage my 17-year-old self had and rose to the challenge. I volunteered to perform the rap alone on the condition that we’d include additional parts in our presentation so everyone could be involved.  The rap and the presentation were such a success that my team won the “EarthCare challenge!”

Did 21CL assist you in developing a leadership style that makes you an effective leader? if so how? And have you recently learned something else about leadership?

21CL taught me a lot about my leadership style. My experiences with the students from my 21CL cohorts collectively encouraged me to be more of a visionary leader. 21CL taught me the value of collaboration to produce excellent work AND the importance of supporting and respecting all group members when working on collaborative efforts. It’s why I’m a leader dedicated to always lifting as I climb and making sure to always pay it forward. I’ve taken the lessons 21CL taught me about leadership to undergrad, throughout graduate school, professionally, and in my day-to-day life. I enjoy mobilizing people towards a vision and a big picture goal, then ensuring everyone’s ideas and strengths are cultivated to produce the best results.