Q&A with Executive Director | Michelle Harpenau

As Executive Director, Michelle Harpenau is committed to making this region the most prominent location for international understanding and cultural awareness for students, families, and professionals to succeed. For International Women’s Day we are celebrating her and all her accomplishments through our nonprofit organization.

1) Why did you go into this field?

During my childhood summers, my family would travel back to our family home in Innsbruck, Austria. I remember kicking the soccer ball around and going to the public pool just enjoying being outside with other kids. I would look around and see the Olympic ski jump as I was playing. We drove as a family each summer around Austria, Italy, France. My grandfather, being from Austria now an American citizen, would speak multiple languages. I have relatives from Germany, Austria, and Britain. Looking to those experiences, it truly made me think when I was older that there is so much diversity in who each person is/can be, but really all those “differences” only bring us closer together and allowed me to truly listen to all perspectives.

When I was heading to college to study International Political Economy as my major (knowing full well that I chosen to go to Fordham University for this specifically), I remember thinking that all I want to do is eat up all the knowledge about international economics, politics, comparative cultures, language, and arts. I wanted to be a part of an organization or business that allowed me to always have that global touch.

At this point, I would have been learning the French language for 12 years and had traveled back and forth a few times, but until I lived and worked there on my own through a study abroad, I never really was able to experience life as a Parisian. When I had the opportunity following school to actually live out my dream to work in an international organization, which was the World Affairs Council, I felt I had truly found another home. Everyday I get to learn something new about the world. Everyday I am able to talk with people from different cultures. Everyday I am thankful that this world is diverse and I can give back through helping my community think more globally.

It is that constant curiosity for other dimensions of the world from politics and government to arts and science. There is so much untouched that you can get to know by connecting with us here at the World Affairs Council.

2) What do you enjoy most about working in this field?

I most enjoy the opportunity to connect the world to Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky whether it is through collaborations in our schools, business, or government. The world is more interconnected than ever allowing opportunities for bold, innovative thoughts. I am constantly seeking knowledge about world affairs, diplomacy, global education, and more. As a young leader within the community, it is important to be flexible as well as have a thumb on what is going on in the community in all sectors in order to advance our region as a whole through international experiences.

3) What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

The willingness to listen and understand various angles of someone’s perspective when approaching any situation. There is not a one size fits all scenario.

4) What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?

I have been challenged more through my youthful appearance than through my gender. When I first became Executive Director, I wasn’t sure how to lead an organization.  I relied on the people around me for guidance, like Board Members, Rich Lauf and Catharina Toltzis.

I would encourage leaders coming up through the ranks to always say yes to new opportunities whether that is through presenting at schools or events; new projects that are assigned; and think outside the box.

5)  What advice would you give someone looking to start working in your sector?

I would advise that you should volunteer your time at non profits that interest you. I got my start by volunteering as an unpaid intern and within a month, I was promoted to a full time staff position. I have spoken with many other young leaders in non profits and it is more typical to hire from within than one may think! 

6) Who is a woman that inspires you the most and why?

The woman who has inspired me the most was my grandmother. She was the peak of elegance at all times and dedicated herself to her family and community. My grandmother traveled the world and took me with her on wonderful trips to learn about the world. Her boldness and respect for others is something I carry with me always.

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