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Careers Don’t Take Straight Lines - Be Patient with the Twists and Turns in Your Career

October 24, 2019

For Sean Kerrigan (‘05), the path to becoming the National Director for World Vision Rwanda has been one of twists, turns, humility, patience, and persistent optimism.  He grew up on the edge of the Amazon jungle in Shell, Ecuador where his father was the only surgeon in the Eastern half of the country and his mother was a nurse. He describes a “wonderful childhood”, running around the jungle with his 4 brothers and keeping monkeys and parrots as pets.   From Ecuador, his family moved to Kenya where he completed his secondary school education and then eventually came to the United States for his degree in Chemical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology (‘00).

Initially Kerrigan thought he would go into medicine and follow a similar path to his parents, but his desire to understand and address the causes of disease and poverty took him in a different direction - towards a career in global development.  He says attending Thunderbird for his MBA confirmed he was on the right path, “I had this unusual global nomad experience, but it wasn't until I arrived at Thunderbird that I felt like, oh, there are other people that are the same kind of strange.  And you get me!.”   “You had an incredibly diverse group of people that you had to take a little bit of time to understand and not jump to conclusions.”    

For Kerrigan, the diverse backgrounds of Thunderbird students and the focus on building leaders with a global mindset was great preparation for a career in global development. “We had to understand the world around us and not just how to be a cog in a machine.”  We had to learn how to lead and change things.”

Putting his education into action came naturally for Kerrigan, even while still at Thunderbird.  He was part of the student council that developed the Thunderbird Oath of Honor, an oath that all graduates sign pledging to conduct business as ethical global citizens. In addition, as a project for his Business Intelligence class he helped to developThunderbird for Good, a program that works to tear down barriers to entrepreneurship for students who lack access to quality training.  He says both of these projects were ahead of their time, demonstrating Thunderbird’s leadership in corporate social responsibility and ethical accountability. Both the Oath and Thunderbird for Good continue to this day,  “It's really fun to see some of these things that you work on live on long past when I graduated, 14 years ago now,” he remarks.

After graduating from Thunderbird, Kerrigan joined World Vision, a global humanitarian organization serving the most vulnerable children around the world.  It was through a Thunderbird alum, Mark Rhode (‘83), that Kerrigan came to work at the organization, even though there wasn’t a natural fit for a job at the time.  He wanted to run projects in Africa, but Rhode, VP of Marketing for World Vision, convinced him to work on the marketing team and spend time learning about donors and what motivates them to give.  

Jumping into marketing, something he says he “didn’t want to do and really knew nothing about”, eventually led him to where he wanted to be.  “I began to do things that I didn't see myself being interested in or skilled at and I realized that there were principles and skills that could be applied to these different areas. It enabled me to do things that I would never have been able to do had my career been a straight line.”  

Eventually he was given the opportunity to lead World Vision’s water team as they scaled up their Water Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) work.  Under Sean’s leadership, World Vision went from reaching 200,000 people per year with clean water to 4 million people - becoming the largest non-governmental provider of clean water in the developing world.  Kerrigan says that the opportunity for this role, “was purely because World Vision was looking for someone that could bridge the very generous donors with programming and engineering teams.”  He credits his prior marketing roles within the organization for positioning him for a job he would not even have been a candidate for otherwise.

In his current role as National Director, Kerrigan is responsible for serving vulnerable children in Rwanda.  He leads a team of 300 staff members, works with 30 partner organizations and is the board chair for World Vision’s microfinance arm VisionFund International - working towards the ambitious goal of improving the lives of 4 million children by 2020 through initiatives focused on economic empowerment, water and sanitation, health and nutrition, and education.  In addition, World Vision is partnering with the government of Rwanda to ensure every person in the country has access to clean water, a dream that Kerrigan is hopeful will be achieved for the country.

Through his work at World Vision, Kerrigan has worked with people from over 100 countries, bridging many cultural gaps.  "It is so rewarding to be able to use the skills and leadership skills developed through my Thunderbird education to serve the most vulnerable.  At World Vision I've been blessed to be able to be able to live out the Thunderbird Oath In a very direct way bringing together people from completely different contexts.  We benefit as humans to interact with people that are different from us.”

Over the years, nearly 30 Thunderbird alumni have joined World Vision, and many have supported World Vision’s efforts including Kristin Weikel (’99) who is an advocate for Strong Women Strong World*.  Kerrigan believes this is the result of a natural affinity. “At Thunderbird I learned that leadership is about asking how we can change the world around us.  At World Vision we aspire to audacious things like ending extreme poverty and bringing clean water to everyone everywhere we work.  Those are big dreams that I probably would not have been comfortable even thinking about without a strong educational foundation.”

Kerrigan believes there is no better time to be focusing on a global development career than right now and his advice is to get started and see where the path leads.  “Jump in and don't try and plot out your career too meticulously. It'll probably go in different directions so keep focused on a foundation of what you believe in.”

*Weikel will be hosting a table at World Vision's 15th annual Strong Women Strong World event in New York City on December 6th.  To learn more about the event and how you can participate with other Thunderbird alumni, please contact the alumni association at tbirdalumni@thunderbird.asu.edu.

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