How Stepping Out of Her Comfort Zone Empowered this Female Leader

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It’s easy to think we have control over our future, but most of us end up doing jobs or serving roles we never even knew existed. Sometimes, we even end up managing more than one role at a time. Michelle Muschett is a great example of how success can result from life’s twists and turns. She’s a public policy advocate, a sustainability champion, a mother, and has served at some of the highest levels in her country of Panama — all before the age of 40. 

CircleAround reached out to Muschett to learn more about how she’s been able to maneuver through the unexpected parts of her life, and why those moments can be so empowering for women. 

CA: You have served so many extraordinary roles. How did you begin working in public policy?

MM: I was finishing a master's degree in Public Administration at Cornell University when an extraordinary woman, Isabel Saint Malo — whom I deeply respect and admire — was elected as vice president of Panama.  She invited me to serve as the technical coordinator of the Social Cabinet. It was impossible for me to say no to an independent woman who stepped out of her comfort zone to serve her country. It seemed like a nice opportunity to contribute and to foster sustainable development in my country while keeping a low profile and distance from politics.

CA: But you ended up going in a different direction?

MM: The same week I started my role, I was offered the role of Deputy Minister of Social Development, because the former left. I felt terrified! But, at the same time, I trusted my values and vocation to serve, and I knew it was the right thing to do. This wasn’t about me, it was about what I could do for others. 

After a couple of years serving as deputy, the minister — with whom I had a great relationship and from whom I had the opportunity to learn — resigned because he was getting involved in the next political campaign. I was then appointed as Minister of Social Development for the rest of the mandate. 

CA: You gave birth to your daughter during this time. Did being a mother influence the way you approached your leadership role? 

MM: Motherhood strengthened my vocations and commitment to improving other peoples’ lives. I was pretty conscious that being a high-level public servant implied a great responsibility and a huge opportunity to demonstrate that leadership and motherhood are not exclusive from each other.  

However, this wouldn’t be possible without having an empowered team committed to our mission. The stories of this adventure are endless, including interrupting a visit to the comarcas indígenas (Panama’s indigenous groups), and getting out of a cabinet meeting to pump breast milk. 

All these ended up being translated into cabinet policy decisions to improve the lives of other public servants who didn’t have the same fortune as I did. It helped create breastfeeding rooms and early-childhood care centers within the diverse ministries. 

CA: What was your proudest moment serving as the Minister of Social Development?

MM: I led the adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a country-wide level. Among my duties were to chair the Interinstitutional Commission for the adoption of these SDGs, requiring me to coordinate cross-sectoral efforts and dialogues to adapt the 2030 agenda to the national context for Panama. A special emphasis was given to poverty reduction, gender equality, and social protection of children and adolescents.

CA: What are you currently focused on?

MM: After ending my role as Minister of Social Development, extraordinary people with whom I had the privilege to collaborate on advanced initiatives at the national level (e.g. transforming the paradigm of poverty with the adoption of the Multidimensional Poverty Index, engaging with the private sector to advance the 2030 Agenda) invited me to continue joining efforts to reach more of a global impact.

Currently, I'm a senior policy advisor for the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), a professor of Human and Social Development, a member of the Think Tank of the ADEN School of Government, and a member of the Fourth Sector Council. Part of my work involves figuring out how to transform the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to address structural failures of the current economic system and reduce poverty in all its dimensions through global leadership, public policy, and the adoption of new business logic.

CA: What advice do you have for women looking to feel more empowered in their workplace?

MM: Find ways to connect with your inner self and follow your calling. Women are powerful and the world needs us to participate, raise our voices, and exercise leadership. Our ability to influence and transform our world goes far beyond any specific role; it is within you. See in every role a means through which your vocation can be manifested.

Tags: Social Justice, Empowerment

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Written By

Katka Lapelosová

Katka is a writer from New York City, currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. See Full Bio

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