UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Chris Szymczak
UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Olga Nasaazi Kayima

Hana Sahatqija, Adolescent Development Officer / Programme Manager of Innovations Lab, Kosovo

Tell us a bit about your background
I come from Gjakova, a town in Kosovo where people living there are known to have thicker accents. Despite being very good at sciences, I decided to study public policy. And while being exposed to multiple professors and policy theories, I felt I wanted to learn and be able to make a difference internationally. So I started working for UNDP and then later took a Master’s degree in International Development Policy from Georgetown University. I also got an Advanced Project Management degree from Stanford University.

While studying, I started getting increasingly drawn towards social development. This lead me to work on early childhood development projects with the World Bank. Faced with a lot of interesting turns and events, I made the then-seemingly tough choice of coming back to Kosovo to put in practice all the social development knowledge I had gained. This is how my journey with UNICEF started.

What do you do?
I am a Programme Manager of the Innovations Lab – in practice, that means I manage UNICEF Kosovo’s Adolescence and Youth Programme. This entails designing and managing the implementation of initiatives that lie at the nexus of innovation, data-driven technology, and human-centered design. The goal of this programme is to be able to impart the youth of Kosovo with professional transferrable skills, decision-making power, critical media literacy skills, and provide more future opportunities to improve their lives.

What’s your working day like?
My work varies significantly on a daily basis – which is also part of the reason why I love my job. One day I can be monitoring a youth-led project on healthy lifestyles and end up cycling with young people for 10 km (which happened yesterday). The next day, I could be writing a project proposal for a new initiative or presenting our work in front of the Parliament (both of which are happening this week). But on regular basis, the day can be typically peppered with a quick stand-up meeting with my team (which counts 14 awesomely enthusiastic staff implementing various initiatives of the Lab), a Skype call with other country offices implementing projects develop through the Kosovo Innovations Lab, and touching base with our Senior Management.

How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
I try to make sure that children (like yourself) grow up in a place where their needs and desires are satisfied. I help young people understand that to make the changes they want, to solve the problems that bother them, and to make their dreams reality – they need to take action. I am just there to make it easier for them to take their first steps.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be an Astronaut. My mom, being passionate about astronomy herself, would use every summer night to lie down on the grass of our garden with me and teach me how to find the different constellations and quiz me about which ones of them were stars versus nebulae versus planets. Astronomy fascinated me ever since, and in fact, for a while, I planned on studying it.

How/when did you join UNICEF?
I joined UNICEF in the summer of 2015. I started as a consultant hired to design a joint programme on youth empowerment for the various UN agencies in Kosovo. As my work in the design of the programme progressed, I was asked to coordinate the Youth Empowerment Pillar of the Innovations Lab. After a while, I got hired as an Adolescent Development Officer/ Programme Manager of UNICEF Innovations Lab.

What are the most satisfying parts of your job?
The most satisfying part of my job is seeing first-hand how the initiatives of the Innovations Lab creates positive changes towards the youth we work with. I remember one of my first experiences in UNICEF – I was tasked to hold a workshop on advocacy with a group of girls from a very remote village in the east of Kosovo. The first time I met them, they wouldn’t even look at me in the eyes let alone speak to me. Whereas after 3 months of working with them, teaching them advocacy skills, helping them lobby with their local decision-makers, and putting together a social theatrical show, they became more confident, vocal, energetic, and full of hope – holding a speech in front of many people, including ministers. It is a wonderful feeling.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
This is the flip side of the coin. While working with marginalized youth is satisfying, it can also be very challenging. A significant portion of our beneficiaries come from very vulnerable backgrounds – young people with special needs; adolescents with a non-traditional sexual orientation; beneficiaries from minority groups or financially difficult backgrounds – all of which are very sensitive in many aspects. Thus, when working together, our team needs to be cautious around those sensitivities so that we can create a safe and comfortable environment for them to reach their full potential.

What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?
Every day at the Innovations Lab has a great experience encased in it, but if I had to pick one, it would be the Activate Talks event we organized last January. It was an event bringing together inspirational speakers to share innovations that can deliver progress on the major issues confronting the most vulnerable and marginalized children, adolescents, and youth. The majority of the speakers were beneficiaries of the Innovations Lab’s initiatives who had done great things for their communities and most of the audience were young people taking an interest in what we’re doing. Although it was below -20 degrees Celcius, there were 300+ people in the audience, and the speakers – once beneficiaries of the Innovations Lab – had such inspiring and emotional speeches that I had goose bumps more than 30 times throughout the event. It was one of those moments you realize how much the work you do matters – it gave a new meaning to my job.

What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?
I would say coming back to Kosovo after Georgetown and my work with the World Bank in DC. I didn’t have a job waiting for me in Kosovo, nor did I have a clue as to where I would start looking.

But in retrospect, I would say, working on things that interest me (both professionally and academically), I wouldn’t see things unfolding any other way.

What are your passions?

  1. Traveling to remote corners of the world where globalization and the direction towards cultural unification haven’t made it yet. I feel there is very little time between now and when all the technology and a global common culture engulfs us all. So I constantly have the urge to travel to places that have a wildly different culture from what I am used to before they disappear.
  2. Concerts – the emotional charge of a crowd singing and dancing to the same beat can be very powerful and captivating.

What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?
Take your time to really understand deeply what it is that makes you happy – what it is that you actually want to do in your life and what are your big professional goals. Once you have a clear picture, seize moments that can help you achieve those goal(s). You will be surprised on how many opportunities are presented to you along the way.

Who do you look towards for inspiration? 

  1. The young people I get to work with every day – the energy, creativity, and hope they have for the future are definitely my fountain of youth.
  1. My mother, who despite being born in a very patriarchal society and financially struggling family, managed to become an engineer, who later became a mother of four, who then went through the war, became a member of parliament, and today is an Ambassador. If the quote “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” had a picture next to it – it would have my mom’s face – and she would probably change the word lemonade to lemon tart.

My colleagues don’t know that?

That I have raced a sports car in the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix, – Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Chris Szymczak
UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Olga Nasaazi Kayima