Our student fellow Irene Mutwiri sat down with DC powerhouse Kendra Gaither, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Senior Director for Policy in the Americas. In addition to assisting members with economic policy issues across the Western Hemisphere, she manages the Chamber’s Coalition for the Rule of Law in Global Markets initiative. She joined the Chamber from Carnegie Mellon University, where was a global initiatives adviser in the College of Engineering and executive director of the Center for International Policy and Innovation.
An alumna of the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, Kendra began her career in international affairs at the U.S. Department of State where she spent more than 10 years as a career diplomat and civil servant specializing in international economic and trade issues in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. She served overseas in the U.S. embassies in Peru and Mexico, and in Washington DC in the State Department’s Bureaus of Legislative and African Affairs.
Kendra holds a B.S. in Economics from North Carolina A&T State University, as well as an M.A. in International Affairs and an MBA in International Business Finance from The George Washington University. She is a member of the Washington International Trade Association and a dedicated career mentor and volunteer with The Jackie Robinson Foundation.
Fun-fact: Kendra has been a globalista since birth, having spent part of her childhood overseas during her father’s U.S. Air Force career.
FPI: How would you explain your job to a third grader? Which policies have you been most involved in?
I work in the international division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and my job is focused on opening doors for U.S. companies who want to buy and sell products overseas. Specifically, I work to help companies take advantage of opportunities and solve problems that may arise doing business in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is very important for American companies because 95 out of every 100 consumers in the world live outside of the United States.
FPI: How is foreign policy linked to this role?
I started my career in more traditional foreign policy role as a diplomat – an economic officer – at the State Department. The ability to perform policy analysis, both economic policy as well as broader foreign policy developments that may affect economic policy, is fundamental to my work. On a daily basis, we are engaging with governments, and in my case with Latin America and the Caribbean, about means to improve a two-way trade between our countries.
This is also critical to countries in our region because they are interested in creating an environment that is welcoming to investment that will help their economies grow. So my work involves engaging with foreign governments about trade relations between the U.S. and countries in our region, and hearing from members (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce currently has more than 3 million members around the U.S. of all shapes and sizes), responding to those member interests, and helping to address market challenges that those members are facing.
FPI: What do you have on your desk right now? What are you currently working on?
Large piles of paper! The portfolio I am most actively working on right now is on our Coalition for the Rule of Law in Global Markets. Whereas the rest of my work is predominantly focused on the Western Hemisphere, the work of the Coalition gives us an opportunity to look globally and allows me also to extend some of my expertise in other regions in our efforts to highlight why the rule of law is important to the private sector. The issue of rule of law is rightly recognized as important for governments to have strong institutions that are transparent, accountable, and effective judicial systems. More recently, there has been a spotlight on why this is also important to the private sector and how this impacts companies’ decisions to invest overseas, or to source and sell abroad.
This is all fundamental to how businesses operate. Companies consider business opportunities, market access, and rule of law, all of which really speak to the ability to engage the market and to have a successful business over the long-term. The strength of institutions is very much a part of that equation. It’s important to help support that dialogue. It’s not just important to our members [but] it’s also important to countries that have the desire to grow their economies and to produce jobs for their citizens.
FPI: Could you talk a little bit about your work regarding African affairs during your time at the State Department?
I worked in [the State Department’s] Bureau of African affairs in a variety of different roles, beginning as an economist on the South Africa desk. I supported the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum that was held in Senegal – it’s a legislatively designated annual meeting of U.S. and African ministers who are a part of the AGOA trade preference program. I also served as a special assistant to the assistant secretary for African Affairs.
FPI: And the assistant secretary for African Affairs at the time was Ambassador Jendayi Frazer, if memory serves.
That’s correct. I had the great pleasure to work with Ambassador Frazer. I joined the South Africa desk just as she began her service in South Africa as U.S. ambassador. When she returned to accept the nomination to serve as assistant secretary for Africa, she invited me to serve as her special assistant. It was a great opportunity to work and travel with her closely at the State Department and all across the continent on the key issues of our time, be they economic or more political developments. We were reunited in 2009 [when] she joined the Carnegie Mellon University as a faculty member to run the Center for International Policy and Innovation where I was a founding executive director.
I would point to the importance of mentors in the opportunities you have to grow because Dr. Frazer played a key part in the opportunities I had at Carnegie Mellon. We had a chance to work together on a number of conferences that looked at preventing electoral violence in Africa. Out of some of those conferences—one held in Ghana and one held in Liberia— we published an edited volume.
FPI: You actually spearheaded the publishing of that edited volume, “Preventing Electoral Violence in Africa” in 2011. As an economist, how do you see electoral violence most affecting a nation from an economic standpoint?
I’d start first with the reputational risk that emerges from it. When companies are looking to invest in a country, they’re looking specifically at that market. So political violence, or electoral violence in this case, is part of an equation that investors keep in mind when they’re considering where to make a significant investment of funds— either purchase another company or to source materials from a particular country— things that can [interrupt] that production cycle are taken into account.
There has been great research done that is not just in the edited volume that we helped put together, but by experts in the field like Dorina Bekoe. [Electoral violence] is predictable. It’s not as media reports would have you believe that suddenly violence erupts in a country around elections. There are signs that it could occur and ways that countries can address them with stronger institutions. The fact that a country has experienced electoral violence means that it is most likely to continue to experience that cyclical form of violence. It rarely occurs out of the blue.
When companies are looking at that over the long-term, it’s going to have an impact on [the countries’] ability to attract investment and the ability of those countries to provide opportunities for its citizens.
FPI: Going back to your Foreign Service days at the State Department, which assignment did you learn the most from and how does your diplomacy experience inform your current work at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?
I would say that I’ve learned the most from my assignment in Lima, Peru. It was my first posting in the Foreign Service and I was serving as a vice consul. It is often said that the true work of diplomacy is something you exhibit when working in the consular section—to be the face of the U.S. government to every citizen of that country who comes to you to request a visa either for short-term travel or to emigrate to the United States, or for American citizens who find themselves in distress and have had a challenge in that country. Often, you are in a position to disappoint people since you are not legally allowed to issue a visa or you are meeting with people when they are in a very distressful time.
True diplomacy is being able to handle that disappointment people are experiencing with grace and treat everyone with respect. I think that those are life lessons and not unique to the practice of diplomacy but I think that keeping those [lessons] in mind in everything that we do would help make the world a better place.
Another lesson that I gained from my time as a diplomat is the importance of seeking common ground. During trade negotiations in Mexico, where I served as a trade officer, [I was] often looking for ways in which the interests that I represented on behalf of the U.S. government also aligned with the interest of that host government or the counterpart across the table. Focusing on that orientation rather than an adversarial approach is an important way to frame it—even if you can’t agree or come to a successful resolution— and it pays dividends in how you are able to work and create openings over time for other forms of progress.
FPI: Do you have any tips for future and fellow interruptors?
I firmly believe in supporting others in their personal and professional journeys as many friends, colleagues and mentors have done the same for me over the years. As an African-American female I am acutely aware that I stand on the shoulders and the victories of those who labored to make my career trajectory possible. I enjoy helping others find their own paths and relish in the opportunity to celebrate in others’ success. The more we avail ourselves of opportunities to actively support others along the way, there will be no more need for interrupters because we’ll be the norm!