The Disruptor Series: Talyn Rahman-Figueroa
Our Disruptor Series highlights the work people are doing across the globe to challenge the status quo and make the world a more equitable place. Today we’re in conversation with Talyn Rahman-Figueroa, CEO and founder of Grassroot Diplomat.
A trained diplomat, entrepreneur and polyglot, Talyn Rahman-Figueroa has over ten years’ experience working with NGOs and government bodies consulting on public and private sector projects. She has studied in Japan, Morocco and Canada and spent two years completing diplomatic training with the European Union Commission and at the United Nations Headquarters.
During her training, she was exposed to diplomacy at an international level with organisations and government bodies, but was less than happy to find a lack of collaboration and infighting between them. Before this, Rahman-Figueroa had assumed diplomacy and diplomats represented their countries and the people within them. In reality, it doesn’t quite work like that. It appeared to be more about pushing governmental policies and less about the people they affected, “That was not the way I saw diplomacy. I wasn’t happy representing my country, especially as I didn’t agree with the policies they were advocating,” she says.
Her disappointment unfolded against a backdrop of 9/11, the end of the Iraq war and the beginning of the Arab Spring. The unhappiness vocalised by civilians made her question diplomacy further and ask, “Why is this happening? And what are diplomats doing?” And so the seeds of Grassroot Diplomat were planted.
Reflecting on how she created the organisation, Rahman-Figueroa says,“I didn’t start it myself, as such - I needed encouragement to do my own thing.” Her diplomatic training involved a plethora of networking events. She recalls an instance in which she was in a group with a senior civil servant and ambassador to the UK, back from a four-year diplomatic mission abroad. At the time she had no idea who he was and was the last person to introduce herself. Surrounded by young people at similar points in the training scheme asking career-driven questions, she took a different approach and asked “What’s your favourite colour?”
It paid off, and in subsequent meetings with ‘Mr. Orange’, she was able to voice her frustrations that she didn’t want to work for one government, but many at once. The UN didn’t seem like a viable option, considering her moral and ethical dilemmas and restriction to representing one country. So, she was advised to begin a consultancy - and Mr. Orange has acted as her mentor since then. In seeking a mentor, she stresses, it is crucial to have someone outside of friends and family. To allow constructive advice and guidance, she recommends approaching someone in your field who you know personally.
So Grassroot Diplomat was born. Its first iteration was a blog covering events Rahman-Figueroa attended with personal perspective. It acted as a way of uniquely establishing herself in the field, but also, she says, an “accountability blog that was evidence-based and for professional development” to look back on.
If it isn’t clear enough, Rahman-Figueroa has an attitude of doing and changing rather than passively complaining. She reiterated, “Just do it yourself. If you’re frustrated, just change it.” She does remind us that progress takes time, however. Grassroot Diplomat took five years to develop, from independently honing the brand’s look and feel to establishing it as a formal company and recruiting a board of directors and chairperson. Additionally, each time she has a new idea (of which there are many) it needs to be approved by the board following the presentation of a business plan to ensure it is viable and aligns with the company’s aims.
Grassroot Diplomat’s services are divided into two strands for existing diplomats/governments and aspiring diplomats/people who want to work in international relations. For the former, she says, it is important to assert Grassroot Diplomat as “an independent organisation, but we cannot work on anything political whatsoever.” Predominantly, the projects focus on soft power diplomacy which help engage civil society and break misconceptions of a country as a whole. This ranges from strategies for digital rebranding, and asking countries to approach their tasks with a business head, particularly as some embassies have websites that haven’t been updated since the 90s. For aspiring practitioners, the organisation offers diplomatic development training, leadership training, and personalised coaching. They are then offered a three-month project to help students get their foot in the diplomacy door. Additionally, there is a Grassroot Diplomat academy and digital online courses.
Rahman-Figueroa emphasises the practical over the theoretical and has been working to normalise the face of diplomacy in a more tangible way. She encourages people to see the connections between trade, economics, and politics in the diplomatic sphere. Using the example of buying a piece of fruit in the local supermarket from the Dominican Republic, she reminds us that this will often be the result of a diplomatic trade exchange done to help a country’s economy. She iterates that “politics is usually secondary to trade and economics. People don’t usually think of business when thinking of diplomacy, as people are not usually trained in this way.”
As well as Grassroot Diplomat, she always ensures that she has other projects going and sits on the board of two other organisations, does consultancy work, and has begun three other projects. In a brief sabbatical, she wrote "Women in Diplomacy" and is currently working on the "Diplomatic Planner: Career Planner for International Relations and Diplomacy" and the "Brexit Handbook: Management of Civil Society Crisis for Global Diplomats".
Read more about Talyn Rahman-Figueroa here. You can check Grassroot Diplomat website here and follow them on Twitter here.
Interview by Marissa Conway, article by Jennifer Brough.