Profile with Julie Taylor

Julie Taylor (Zimbabwe & St Antony’s 2003) is currently Head of Communications for Google in Sub Saharan Africa. Her book Naming the Land: San Identity and Community Conservation in Namibia's West Caprivi was published by Basler Afrika Bibliographien in 2012. She holds a DPhil and MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford, and a BA in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Rhodes Project: What book are you currently reading?

Julie Taylor: There are actually a couple in my pile. I’ve started Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, about women in the workplace, which everyone is talking about at the moment.  I’m also about halfway through Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  I think it was a bestseller in the early 1990s, so I’m getting onto it a bit late!  I’m finding her combination of psychology, anthropology and folktales, all in relation to gender, really interesting and quite compelling.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Julie Taylor: I used to play the cello in a classical string quartet at weddings and at restaurants when I was 15.  One of my fellow musicians from that time has gone on to become a pop star, so now I can say that I used to play with someone from Freshlyground!

Then at university I worked at some of the college balls in Cambridge.  I was even a bouncer at the Trinity Ball. That was interesting because people didn’t really know what to do with a female bouncer.  The men who tried to gatecrash got a little confused, because they felt like they couldn’t just push me over!  At another college ball it was my job to put fake tattoos on the guests, which was entertaining for a different set of reasons.

Rhodes Project: What piece of technology could you not live without?

Julie Taylor:  That’s quite a question for an anthropologist who now works for a tech company. Although I was a late Android adopter, I’m now pretty much sold on my Android phone. I use it for absolutely everything from email to maps to yoga apps.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?

Julie Taylor:  Being able to meet and engage with a really wide range of people from many different sectors. My work is primarily with the media, but I’ve been fortunate enough to also work with paleoanthropologists, diplomats, archivists and all sorts of others from interesting fields. I think that is a real privilege, to be exposed to such a wide variety of people.

Rhodes Project: What would you say is the most challenging part?

Julie Taylor:  Probably moving at speed in a world where technology has really ramped up the pace at which everything happens. Moving at speed and juggling many different balls at any one time is always a challenge -- and especially when you work for a high profile company that has an impact on millions of people’s lives every day. It’s exciting, but also involves a lot of responsibility.

Rhodes Project: What is a good piece of advice that you’ve received recently?

Julie Taylor: Something I’ve learned is that we can’t please everyone all the time. This is a challenge for people who like to get things done and accomplish things.  We want to make ourselves useful and helpful to others.  But at the same time, I think it’s important to focus our attention and potentially have a bigger impact by being selective in what we choose to take on.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?

Julie Taylor: Hard to narrow down to one! Possibly Martha Quest, who is the protagonist in several of Doris Lessing’s novels about white identity in southern Africa during the colonial period. Martha Quest is a fascinating character to the extent that she embodies so many of the opportunities and challenges faced by women.  Many of the dynamics around those opportunities and challenges are as powerful and significant today as they were when Lessing was writing, in the 1950s and 60s.  I’ve been struck by the complexity of Martha’s character and by the progressiveness of Lessing’s interpretations. It must have been radical reading at the time -- Martha must have been an uncomfortable character for many people back then, and she’s still an uncomfortable character even now.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite real-life heroine?

Julie Taylor:  I don’t think I have one!  What I do have is a strong network of close female friends and mentors around the world -- and I see them as my real-life heroines. They continually inspire me as they lead lives of their own choosing -- something which really distinguishes my generation of women from those who came before, at least in terms of the middle classes.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Julie Taylor: I love the outdoors—any place where there’s space and nature is invigorating.  I like being active.  I do boxing and ashtanga yoga, and I’m also learning a lot at the moment about meditation and mindfulness.

Rhodes Project: What is one of your proudest accomplishments?

Julie Taylor: That’s difficult. Probably the work that I did as a doctoral student. Not so much in terms of the product, or the book which came out of it, but the experience which created it. During my fieldwork, I lived and worked in a very rural part of northern Namibia, with people who are incredibly poor and incredibly underprivileged. It was an extraordinary life experience to really see what life looks like from the perspective of the poor – what life looks like when every day you don’t have enough food, you don’t have water, and your community is plagued with social and economic problems.  I’m fortunate to have had that opportunity, and I’m proud to have chosen to pursue that experience, because it’s had a big impact on how I see and understand the world.

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