Éliane Ubalijoro has an incredible story. As a Rwandan college student, she was studying in Canada at the outbreak of the Rwandan civil war. She returned to Rwanda during the conflict to pursue agricultural research, but ultimately decided that the country was too unsafe to make progress in her career.
She was also stymied as a biotechnology researcher looking for drugs to counter human and agricultural pathogens. This was disappointing at first, but in the process Ubalijoro realized that she could make an equally strong impact by focusing on elevating the voices of African women, primarily fellow scientists and rural smallholders. “Even though we didn’t find our blockbuster drug,” she says, “we were able to train lots of African researchers.”
Ubalijoro is now a professor of practice at McGill University, the head of an international development consultancy, a member of Rwanda’s National Science and Technology Council, and an advisor to the International Digital Monetary Council. Clearly she wears a lot of hats. There aren’t many scientists who have published on both lettuce mosaic virus and the challenges of girlhood in Rwanda, but Ubalijoro is one.
Of course, these experiences can’t be replicated. Nor would anyone want to witness genocide—or, for that matter, admit to drug discovery failure. But there are lessons here for other innovators looking for a life outside the box:
Learn when to say no.
“Whatever I commit to, I make time for.” Ubalijoro says that she’s able to juggle so many different roles by ensuring that she carves out the space to honor her commitments, and saying no to everything else. This didn’t come naturally. She had to train herself to gracefully decline opportunities, and wherever possible to use these as chances to recommend other people. Clearly, one way to avoid over-committing yourself is by lifting other people up in your place.
Work across fields.
Ubalijoro believes, “Innovation always happens at the interface of different disciplines. So anybody who wants to be an innovator has to be on the edge of knowledge.” She’s seen this in her work with the National Science and Technology Council in Rwanda, which builds on her experiences of university research, of international collaboration, and of development of innovation ecosystems. Not everyone will be able to find a position that leverages the varied branches of an organic-yet-chaotic career, but it’s hugely rewarding if they can.
Focus on networks.
After working in industry, Ubalijoro says, “one of the things I realized that all my science didn’t matter if I couldn’t communicate what I was doing to policymakers.” What was key was working not with people who had a similar scientific background, but with people who had a similar vision and values. This is an innovation strategy focused on networks of people. In her current role with the International Digital Monetary Council, seeking to ensure that the poor are included in digital currency developments, Ubalijoro has realized that “working with people from very different disciplines who set up regulatory frameworks is really essential.”
Hone your mission.
Ubalijoro has used her foundation in scientific research and her varied roles in service of a larger calling: “to build virtuous ecosystems to allow innovation to be of benefit to society in Africa and to allow it to be an engine for prosperity and sustainable development.” This explains her interest in digital currencies and mobile financial services, for instance; costs and delays are especially onerous for entrepreneurs from the global South transacting across borders. This sense of mission also drives her attention to blockchain, as a tool for transparency, reduced corruption, and improved governance. She’s gotten pushback from people who think she should just hurry up and pick a career already, but Ubalijoro views a career path in terms of an ultimate goal, rather than a specific set of skills.
“Life will throw you curveballs,” Ubalijoro acknowledges. And she knows this better than most. But this is also the current state of employment. Headmasters at her 14-year-old daughter’s school keep repeating that it’s not clear what the jobs of the future will be, so it’s critical to develop resilience and adaptability. “I think this is really very critical in the 21st century,” Ubalijoro says. While in the 20th century it was possible to have a strong, linear career, a future driven by automation and uncertainty requires people who embrace nonlinearity.