March 1, 2021
"It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving." – Mother Teresa
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. This month, we have the honor of sharing the Extra(ordinary)journey of Lisa E. Laskaridis, Head of Communications & Public Information Officer at the United Nations in New York. We’re in admiration hearing Lisa describe how kindness, courage, and determination helped her reflect on the idea that not all relationships can be labelled. Lisa takes us through her journey, commencing from hometown Sweden; to her aspiring career that led her on the path to join the collective action in realizing peace, development, and human rights for all.
“I was born in Stockholm; I grew up there. My father is from Greece, and he came to Sweden to study at Stockholm University, where he met my mother.” Lisa begins sharing. “On my mother’s side, both of her parents are from Norway and they came to Sweden after the Second World War. I have a brother, Alexander, who is three years younger than me; he is my best friend. I have family in Sweden, in Greece, in Norway, and here in the United States as well. Growing up with different languages, different cultures and different traditions encouraged my desire to explore. My favourite thing in the world is to discover new places and perspectives - anything that draws my eyes to something new. I have always been very curious and a risk-taker, I’m always looking for something new to discover.”
Lisa is eager to detail her exploratory adventures. “I went backpacking after high school with a friend, and I spent six months in Southeast Asia, and a large part of that in India. Once I was immersed in that culture and in that country, I felt like I saw the world for the first time for what it was. I also saw how broken it was, and how people were suffering. I wanted to help and I felt very passionate about that.” Lisa becomes thoughtful as she dives deeper into the moment that defined her career path. “I think this time in India influenced me to understand two things: one that I was very fortunate to grow up in Sweden; I never had to worry about food, education, or safety. I also realized that there has to be a way for everyone to have the same opportunities in life, and I wanted to become a part of that.” Once Lisa returned to Sweden, she made the decision to become a humanitarian to help better the world. “I already had my mind set on wanting to work with the United Nations, but I was only twenty years old, and had no idea how to get there. I just knew that this would be my end goal, so I took it one step at a time.”
Lisa’s first step was to move to Australia. “I realized that I needed to pursue further education and a degree. I understood that I would also need to work in English; which, of course, was not my first language. This is how I ended up in Australia – I sought something that was different from where I was. So, I moved to Melbourne just before I turned twenty-one. I studied a Baccalaureate and a Masters in International Relations. My studies were a combination of international law, diplomacy, and peace and security studies. My degree also included an international project and a field study.” She continues. “I spent a semester in this very tiny community on the border of Thailand and Laos, where the World Bank had built a dam and the fish were struggling to get through – our goal was to try and help them build a community development project. That was one experience that really shaped me! We were sleeping on the ground and eating rats and ants due to the lack of food. The locals had never had any contact with the outside world. I was also teaching at the school there. I would share stories about Sweden, and the cold winters where the lakes turn into ice. They would look at me in awe and ask ‘what is ice?’!”
This opportunity offered Lisa different perspectives from people who were so untouched by the outside world, tourism and capitalism…and yet, they were so happy.
“What we may choose as best in our decisions is not necessarily the best for everybody. The experience made me think about development and aid from a different perspective. I did my degree alongside working four jobs. I thought I was being very strategic! I had two paid jobs – I was working in real estate on the weekends and also in a cafe just to pay my rent. In addition, I was working pro bono with the United Nations Association so that I could get my foot in the door with the United Nations system, even if it was just at the community level. I had been trying to work with them for a while, but it was a very small office of only three people. So I just kept calling them every Friday morning, asking: ‘Hi! It’s me again. Is there an opportunity now?’” Lisa smiles at the memory. “I think they got tired of my weekly calls, and I received a volunteer opportunity with them. At the same time, I started working with an amazing NGO called the ‘Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’, where I worked with the detention program. Every week, we would visit the detention centre and asylum seekers and refugees waiting to find out if they could stay in the country. The people I met there inspired me; they were from all over the world and I had the chance to listen to their stories and the journeys that brought them to Australia.” Lisa details the hardships these families faced along this journey. “Some had lost family members on their path, and their conditions were really awful. After staying at the detention centre, their hair had turned completely grey just from the stress of being locked in and not being able to speak to their families…this, and the fear of knowing that at any point of the day, they could be told that they would have to return to their country where they may be tortured and face death. It was very grim, but it was also very rewarding to know that we could make a small difference in someone’s life. This reinforced my purpose and what I wanted to do.”
Once Lisa completed her degree, she ventured to New York. “I was at the United Nations Association and there was an opportunity to help organise a UN conference in New York – I was honored to be asked to go; I couldn’t believe it, I almost fell off my chair! So, this is how I ended up in New York. I started off with nothing, knew nobody, and had never been to New York before. But, I love an adventure. It turned out to be an unpaid internship, a pro bono position for ten months.” Lisa continues sharing this memory, and her excitement is contagious. “The very first time I got to see the United Nations Headquarters, I was amazed! For me, this felt like a magical place; there was something about it that made me fall in love. The different languages and all of the different cultures; every conference room you enter is themed with movement toward the best for humanity. Being in that building inspired me; and I knew that I wanted to work there. At that time, I was young and didn’t have the experience. I started working for an NGO aimed to support women’s rights in East Africa. I also freelanced as a journalist for a while. It was tough - it’s always hard starting out in a new city, and New York can be very challenging. For years, I worked for almost nothing; but being very stubborn - there was no alternative and I didn’t want to just quit. So, I just kept working.”
Lisa discusses lessons and opportunities to recover from failure, which she feels had strengthened her character and contributed to her success. “There are some things that just go wrong…but, it teaches you a lesson. I guess I have always had this rule to never say no to something just because I am afraid. I always say yes, even if I am not ready and even if I doubt my skills, but I know I want to try. After I completed a contract with the Swedish Consulate in New York where I managed their Press and Communication, Sweden launched their campaign for the United Nations Security Council and they were looking for someone to come in and help with this campaign. This is how I ended up at the Swedish United Nations Mission, and I worked on the campaign for the Security Council for two years. Once we were elected, my ambassador appointed me as the Head of Press and Communication for the Security Council term. I was beyond excited! But, I was also having nightmares at night about news headlines or some sort of diplomatic crisis that I had created because I had ventured into unknown territory!”
“This imposter syndrome stayed with me for some time. Every morning, when you walk to the Security Council chamber, there is a press stakeout of many journalists, from all the major news outlets. Daunting to say the least, and it was my job to make sure the Ambassador, or Minister of Foreign Affairs, knew what to say, how to get our message across, and to have the answers to whatever question may turn up. I remember speaking with my ambassador and saying ‘there is nothing else I want more than to do this, but you need to know, I really don’t have the experience as a press secretary in this kind of high-pressured and politically sensitive environment. I will give my all and I will do everything to learn, quickly, but I just need you to know this.’ His response motivated me to shake the insecurity. I recall him saying: ‘Lisa, I know you and I know how you work and who you are. I have faith in you. You will do a great job.’ When you have someone who believes in you and sees you and your character, it’s one of the most empowering feelings in the world.”
Lisa gained the confidence to persevere in a role that led her vision for so many years. “I feel so fortunate to have worked with my ambassador because he really believed in me. It also speaks to how you can learn pretty much any skill, but you can’t really change who you are - your work ethic and what you care about. I loved the work because you get to respond to, and deal with, everything that is happening in the moment across the globe. We got to pass resolutions to send humanitarian aid to Syria; with Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy, we fiercely advocated for women’s rights and gender equality, which included women in all processes related to mediating a peace process to being a peacekeeper on the field – all to stress the importance of having women involved at all levels. This is what the United Nations does. This is what leads to more sustainable peace - you can’t just include half of the population. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of Sweden’s term on the Security Council. This was a very rare opportunity. Sweden only get to sit on the UNSC about once every 20 years or so, so it was very important to us to take on this responsibility with everything we had, to make this term really count and to make a real difference on the ground.”
Lisa takes us through her experience with the United Nations turning 75. “The United Nations was turning 75 last year, at a time of great challenge. Even before COVID-19, there were multiple challenges across the world. We were tackling so many issues – the climate crisis, inequality, displacement, conflict and violence, cybersecurity – the list goes on. We know that all of these challenges required global cooperation. No country can handle these challenges on their own. We wanted to involve the world’s population in a conversation about how we should prioritize moving forward. So the Secretary-General launched an initiative called the ‘World’s Largest Conversation On Our Future’. It was the UN’s largest exercise ever to crowdsource public opinion and a huge effort to give voice to the global public in helping shape the United Nation’s priorities moving forward. It’s about bringing people closer to the United Nations and the United Nations closer to the people. What does the world need? What does the world prioritise? We all come from different circumstances and we all have different opportunities, but at the end of the day, we are all much more united than we are divided. People need and want the same things.”
Lisa is a natural philanthropist, and her genuine desire to support people in need is admirable and humbling. “People really just want to have access to basic human rights, they want to be safe, and they want opportunities for their children. People everywhere are concerned about the consequences of the climate crises. People are already being affected by climate change on a huge scale - having their homes destroyed due to rising sea levels, for example. My role with the United Nations UN75 was a rewarding experience, and connecting with people all over the world was the best part. I was truly inspired by the engagement we saw around the world. Almost everybody in every country - every age group, gender and social group - thinks that global cooperation is the only way forward. It is encouraging at this time where nationalism is on the rise in so many places. The majority still thinks that we need to solve our problems together and there is no other way.”
Over 1.5 million people in every country in the world took active part in the United Nations UN75 initiative. The exercise was the United Nation’s most ambitious effort to date to gather input from the global public, and the first and largest survey on priorities for recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. This exercise was not without its challenges. The UN75 initiative increased its efforts to reach people online wherever possible, working closely with the UN offices and other partners at the regional and country levels. In the end, over 100 countries participated in UN75 dialogues; 50,000 people in 50 countries took part in representative polling by Edelman Intelligence and the Pew Research Center; hundreds of thousands of young people played UN75 games on Kahoot!; and hundreds of researchers were engaged in a research mapping process. It was estimated that through the collaborators’ extended networks and members, over 60,000 organizations and over 900 million people saw UN75 news, events and updates.
“Currently, I have just been catching my breath following the UN75 initiative before deciding what my next move will be. I would really like to do some field work, so I am looking into Africa or the Middle East. I am very invested in restoration in Yemen and Syria, and countries that we worked a lot with when I was with the Security Council. Having spent five years at the United Nations Headquarters - which I have absolutely loved - I long to be closer to the people and the issues I worked with. I am really passionate about storytelling and giving a voice to people that are unable to advocate for themselves. I believe in communications as a means for making a positive difference. I am passionate about telling stories that matter and shaping the public narrative through traditional and social media.”
Lisa’s measure of success is driven through purpose in identifying everyone else’s success, and the positive impact she is having on others…it is not defined by the impact she is having on herself. This level of philanthropy and how beautifully outward Lisa is inspires us. “Success is being able to do something that feels meaningful to have a sense of purpose. And also, perhaps, what you had to do to get to where you are. Working really hard to get somewhere and knowing what you had to sacrifice isn’t always easy. It’s also measured, for me, in the amount of lives you impact. It doesn’t have to be a huge humanitarian deed like getting humanitarian aid for people in Syria. It’s as simple as having the opportunity to empower and help someone else grow. Being able to inspire someone else or teach someone something, or guide them, mentor them or support them. It’s a journey! I feel very fortunate to have had people trust me and be given the opportunity to be a part of shaping a message, a voice, or a perspective…this is really something amazing.”
Lisa shares self-awareness through her growth journey. “When you do things that are hard, you grow. Sometimes, it is painful to grow, you have to get out of your comfort zone, and you have to take risks. You’re challenging yourself all the time, but it’s also so rewarding when you accomplish something new or daunting. That’s what growth is. Being fearless and not being so hard on myself - realizing that nothing happens overnight. We have to take steps in the right direction and go from there. I also really believe in compassion and kindness, and being mindful of the energy you put out either in your work or when interacting with other people. How you interact with people matters. Kindness matters. Of course, there are always shortcuts; you can behave in a way that makes you get somewhere faster, but I always believe in being genuine and doing things the right way.”
Lisa emphasizes the notion that positive change derives from being courageous; whether it’s fighting for something you believe in, or speaking up and daring to do things differently to break the norm. She believes courage is the driving force to better ourselves to become agents for positive change.
We are also reminded that not all relationships can be labelled…and, these relationships are often the deepest. The power of connection guided Lisa to people who gave her the courage to love unconditionally. She gained an appreciation for lifestyles and struggles very different than her own; recognizing along the way that moving on was also a part of the journey, as her impact was needed by so many others waiting…
“The relationships you build throughout your life are important, especially keeping in mind to be kind because you never know what other people are going through or what their circumstances are…I have met so many people who have suffered through extreme difficulties; I really feel like it’s a responsibility to stay open-minded and to act with kindness. It can have a great impact on our lives and others. I believe every little action in a common day makes or breaks character, and that we’re built of everything we do…when we’re brave enough to venture out of our comfort zones, this is when the amazing stuff happens.”
Lisa E. Laskaridis
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar Sharma, Founder & CEO