Profile with Sarah Kleinman

Sarah Kleinman (Indiana & St. Antony’s 2009) is currently a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. Her dissertation research is on the organizational sociology and management of international NGOs. Sarah holds an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford as well as an MA in Sociology and a BA in History from Stanford University. She recently started working full time at McKinsey and Co.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home and what is your favorite thing to do there?

Sarah Kleinman: I grew up in Indianapolis, but I call New York City home now. That’s where I live with my husband in a neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a really fun part of New York City that has a lot of restaurants and a lot of young people.  My favorite thing to do is go on walks in Central Park and get frozen yogurt. My favorite fro-yo place is a store called 16 Handles because I like all the options!

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Sarah Kleinman: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I read it in about three hours. I had been hearing so much about it from my friends and the online news media. One of my friend’s moms bought it for me and I just couldn’t stop reading it – not necessarily because I loved every word she said, but I was just eager to finally hear the whole argument in one place.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about the most surprising experience you’ve had at Oxford?

Sarah Kleinman: I was certainly surprised by how many formal balls I had to attend in my first year. I went with two ball gowns in my bag and I needed to buy a third while I was there. I wore all of them at least once in my first year.

 On a more serious note, I was surprised by how down to earth the other Rhodes scholars were. I was sort of expecting to be surrounded by kind up uptight, type A academics, and I met easily, hands down, the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. That was a very happy, pleasant surprise.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite part about writing your dissertation?

Sarah Kleinman: I realize this makes me sound like a huge nerd, but I actually love my topic. My research is about organizational performance in international non-governmental organizations, which is a subject I care very deeply about. I’ve been connected to it in a variety of ways over the years. It’s been really awesome to take a deep dive into something that matters to me and that I want to continue mattering in my career. A little more specifically, my favorite part had been the interviews. I did over 200 interviews with NGO practitioners and partners in and around ten case study organizations. It was the coolest experience to get to know these people and have conversations with them about the organizations. Then, in the rare cases I got to go back and talked to them about what they can do as an organization to improve their efficiency, which was really exciting.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little bit more about that project?

Sarah Kleinman: I started doing this project for my Master’s thesis at Oxford, so I did about 70 interviews during my second year. I did the remaining 150 – plus a bunch of off-record conversations – during my third year. If you actually added up the hours, it was probably about 400 hours of actual interview time. Then of course there is all the time invested in coordinating, arranging, scheduling travelling etc. It was a time-intensive endeavor, but because I enjoy it, it was actually really fun. I took this one trip from Oxford to New York City, Boston, D.C. and Atlanta. The whole trip itself took two and a half weeks. I tried to schedule 15 interviews a day. I would just arrive at a headquarters office like the Carter Center in Atlanta and I’d spend the whole day there doing one interview every hour on the hour.  It was kind of an epic trip and was pretty exhausting, but it was actually really fun. It was a bit of a logistical challenge, but given the culture of these NGOs, once I got there and started doing these interviews in the morning, people would kind of lead me around the office and introduce me to new people who I would follow up with later that afternoon. Sometimes I’d arrive in the morning with one or two interviews scheduled and leave having sat through fifteen. It was pretty intense but that was definitely my favorite part of the project.

Rhodes Project: There is currently an argument in International Relations that NGOs are gaining significant power on the international stage through the use of social and news media. What are your thoughts on this?

Sarah Kleinman: My research is focused on an inside out analysis of culture and strategy, so I’m not an expert on that topic. That being said, I have spent a lot of time getting to know the third sector. NGO’s are absolutely becoming more powerful within the international system. For whatever reason in the last decade or so, it seems like states are reaching even more intractable disagreements with one another. As a result of that, inter-governmental organizations – the UN, the World Bank, the IMF – are getting stuck in the mud. They can’t move because their principles don’t allow them to agree on much. Without action and agreement within their principles, these IGOs can’t move forward and therefore global change is not realized. In the context of increasing disillusionment with IGOs, INGOs are taking a more focal position within the global system. Private citizens are looking more to the International Rescue Committee or Partners in Health than they are to the World Health Organization to actually show up in Haiti and do something when there’s a devastating hurricane or earthquake. I am actually of the camp that INGOs are becoming more powerful.

I think that using leveraging from different types of media is just a part of that larger picture. INGOs, because of their flexibility and the fact that they are not direct agents of states, means that they can be creative about how they mobilize support from the masses. You get organizations like Avaaz, which was founded in 2007, that already has over 25 million active members around the world because they are leveraging things like social media, online petitions and mass marketing campaigns to private citizens. They can instantly send a petition, for instance, that what’s going on in Syria is wrong and to their 25 million members. All of a sudden, private citizens around the world are up in arms and using their pen, so to speak. I think that’s a really special kind of power that inter-governmental organizations have not been able to leverage, and INGOs are filling that space. I think that over the next few decades, these private, non-governmental solutions to global problems are going to be increasingly powerful.

A common theme among scholars is that, for better or for worse, and regardless of why, this global third sector is coming to occupy an increasingly prominent and prolific role in the global system. The question is what that means for us. That’s where my dissertation comes in. I leave that as a fait accompli, considering over 30 thousands INGOs currently operating around the world.  They will have a seat at the “global problem solving table”. I ask what we do and do not know about these actors. How can we better understand them and have proper theory about them so that the most highly effective partnerships and arrangements can be built to solve global problems?

Rhodes Project: What was the most rewarding part about working with McKinsey & Co?

Sarah Kleinman: I was there for a summer associate position to see if it was what I was interested in potentially doing full time. I worked on one study for the whole summer and my client was a New York based non-profit organization. This group was very significant to me personally. Getting to work with their senior leadership team on a very high level strategy project about what kind of role they want to play in their own institutional ecosystem was really awesome. To see them really seeking help from McKinsey and to be part of this little team that actually provided a lot of guidance for them, was far more rewarding than I expected it to be. It felt really cool to give guidance to people who are trying to make things happen.

For me personally, it was really rewarding to learn how to think in a different way. I’ve basically been in academic circles since I started college. At McKinsey, they give you these tools and frameworks for thinking about problems that are very different from what you would apply in an academic context. For the first time in a while, I felt like it really stretched my brain in new ways. For me - being kind of a nerd and obsessed with learning - that was awesome. It was only ten weeks, but I felt like I came out of it with a different perspective on how to problem-solve and think through issues.

Rhodes Project: What do you see yourself doing in the next 10 years?

Sarah Kleinman: After a couple of years of working with McKinsey, there is a good chance they will put me on international or social-sector projects. What I’m trying to do is get exposure and experience within the three primary sectors. I have a decent amount of NGO experience from my dissertation. I don’t really have any private sector experience, so this will be a great chance for me to learn the ropes about how the private sector works and who the main institutional players are and how they are. I also want to get my hands dirty with the actual operational, management and strategy problems within an organizational context. After that, I can see myself going to the public sector and doing some work with the government. Ideally, what I see myself doing in the long run is working at the intersection, particularly in trying to figure out how to maximize partnerships across sectors. For example, if the challenge is fighting HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, there are public, private and non-profit institutions working on that issue, but they are not working together very effectively. There is a lot more opportunity to leverage the dollar the public sector wields, building highly effective relationships with non-profit organizations and bringing in private-sector institutions to help fuel that process and give guidance. 

Rhodes Project: What do you do just for you?

Sarah Kleinman: I am kind of a gym rat. I love going to the gym every day – maybe five times a week. I spin, run, do body weight training - I used to do CrossFit stuff – I just really love working hard. I think I’m a little addicted to the endorphins at this point. It’s definitely me time. I’m never at the gym reading. I’m at the gym, zoned out to music and sweating.

Rhodes Project: I read that you co-created an iPhone/iPad app for the gym. Can you tell me a little about that?

Sarah Kleinman: It’s called Global Cycle Coach. Another Rhodes Scholar and I built it together. I was in charge of the contents and he was in charge of the code. That’s the only form of institutional structure we had. It’s basically been a partnership with one of my friends from the Rhodes class where I make all the classes and gym-related designs and he creates the software. Surprisingly, even though we didn’t go into it for the money or because we thought it was going to be particularly popular, we’ve become a really successful app in the Apple iStore. It has been really fun to learn new things, create new classes and talk to users around the world.

Rhodes Project: What is something you are looking forward to right now?

Sarah Kleinman: I’m getting married in three months, so that’s definitely at the front of my mind. We are having a pretty big wedding in upstate New York. It is a blend of being a cool destination and still being accessible. We are in the thick of planning right now and it’s a really fun distraction. I don’t know why it stresses people out so much to plan a wedding. I love the time in the day when I can put my dissertation to the side and work on my registry for an hour. It’s like play time. More importantly than the wedding though, I am looking forward to being married to this wonderful man. 

Back to Scholar Profiles K-N

© 2015