Q&A with Leocadia I. Zak ’79
This past March, Leocadia I. Zak ’79 met with Mount Holyoke students in Washington, DC, for the “MHC Lynk: On the Road” networking program. The Alumnae Association chatted with her about her career, Mount Holyoke, and advice she would give to students thinking about pursuing careers in public service. Zak is director of the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), which is dedicated to encouraging economic growth in emerging markets and the export of US goods and services to those markets.
— Camille Malonzo ’16
On the liberal arts:
A liberal arts education—especially at Mount Holyoke—prepares you for anything, but most importantly it teaches you how to read, write, and think critically. As a lawyer, the critical thinking and problem solving skills that I developed while at Mount Holyoke are invaluable. I double majored in history and Spanish in college. History taught me how to think analytically and Spanish helped me identify the law school I wanted to go to. I chose Northeastern University School of Law because it has a focus on public service and practical education.
On diversity and making connections:
The diversity of Mount Holyoke is fundamental to everything I’ve done in my career. In college, I focused most of my history studies in medieval history, especially pre-Inquisition Spain. I was interested in how people of different cultures and religions lived and worked together and how those relationships affected the law. I supplemented my academic experience by studying abroad and through my internships. Now I travel throughout the world and work with people from many countries to develop trade solutions that foster sustainable economic development. Working in the international arena is very similar to being at Mount Holyoke. It’s all about developing relationships, being willing to learn and to listen to what other people have to say and collaborating with them.
On having fun and being creative:On unexpected turns:
When I finished law school, I didn’t think I would work for a large law firm in the private sector. I thought I would go straight into public service. But it turned out that the experience was invaluable to me. At Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo PC, I learned professional and legal skills from industry experts. I was also able to do all of this and still focus on what I loved: public service. While at Mintz Levin I practiced in the areas of municipal and international finance, working on projects that built hospitals and universities, roads, and other public infrastructure. My unexpected career turn was the place where I learned to be a good lawyer and make a difference in public service.
What I love about my job is that it is fun, and I work with terrific people every day. I am a big believer in finding something you enjoy in any environment you are in. I also love to problem solve, to be creative in my solutions while looking forward to what’s coming next—what’s the next big idea? At USTDA, we are at the front line of what’s innovative in sustainable economic development. Recently, the agency helped lay hundreds of miles of fiber optics in Africa to bring Internet and other telecommunications capabilities to countries on the coast. In another project also based in Africa, we are looking at the feasibility of installing solar panels on top of telecommunication towers in order to provide cellphone service and an additional source of energy to the region. It is exciting to maximize creativity to implement innovative solutions for economic development and make a significant global difference.
On studying abroad and internships:
To students thinking about going into international public service, I would highly recommend studying abroad, learning a new language, and participating in internships in places such as Washington, DC, with organizations like government agencies, NGOs, and international banks. The summer between my sophomore and junior year, I studied abroad in Valencia, Spain. The following summer, I was fortunate to be chosen for an internship at the US Department of State that I found through the College’s Career Development Center. While at State, I worked as a researcher on topics such as terrorism. Thirty-five years later, I feel like I have come full circle, as I often walk through the same corridors at the State Department that I walked through during my MHC internship.
April 29, 2014