Q&A with our new CEO, Tjada D’Oyen McKenna
In October 2020, Tjada D’Oyen McKenna took over the reins of Mercy Corps as chief executive officer. Tjada spent more than a decade working to end world hunger in roles with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. government, before serving as chief operating officer (COO) for Habitat for Humanity and most recently as COO for CARE. We sat down with Tjada a week into her new role with Mercy Corps to learn more about her. Here are some highlights from that conversation.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Usually it’s my two kids! My two little boys are 5 and 7, so I’m usually out of bed before I might choose to be – they are early risers and very good motivators.
One of the things that has always guided me is: where best can I serve? My father died at a young age, so I know that life is precious and I live it with the question: am I serving? That, and having the chance to leave things better than you found them – which I get to do through this work – is what gets me out of bed every day.
What do you see as the biggest challenges the international aid sector faces over the next 1-2 years?
I think that with all the challenges and uncertainty we’re collectively facing today, it’s more important than ever that we make the case for our work with the public and with donors. Our work has never been more necessary. COVID‑19 has increased the challenges for the communities where we work. The U.N. has estimated the pandemic could push an extra 132 million people to the brink of starvation, we know the impact on jobs and livelihoods globally has been terrible, and we know that existing inequalities have already been made even greater by the pandemic.
So, while people are naturally concerned about their own families and communities, it’s our job to make the case for meeting this need globally. That comes from both a moral imperative to support the most vulnerable and a recognition of our interdependence - our global response to this pandemic is only as strong as its weakest link.
So I see telling our story, in relevant ways, in ways that will motivate people to join us, as both a challenge and an imperative for our sector over the next year and beyond.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities for Mercy Corps and the international aid sector?
Because of the nature of our work, our dedicated and experienced team, and our deep humanitarian and peace roots, Mercy Corps shines when things are hardest. Before I came to Mercy Corps, I always thought of Mercy Corps as the organization that could figure out how to get to “yes,” when others couldn’t.
There are going to be even more amazing opportunities and ways to shine as we continue to do our best work. COVID‑19 has forced us to be more creative, nimble and resilient. It’s forcing us to learn how to work together in different ways, and to localize even more. We need to make sure that we’re watching and listening to what’s working and bring the best of that to keep improving the ways we work together and serve communities.
Can you tell us a story about a moment or a decision that put you on the path to where you are today?
The summer after I graduated from college, I spent two months in southern Africa, trying to make a positive difference volunteering. I’m honestly not sure what actual difference I made in those two months - but the experience changed my goals and perspective. When I then started my first job at McKinsey, in the Chicago office, I told one of the partners about my interest in Africa and economic development, but that I wasn’t sure where to start or what to do. His advice was to engage in agriculture - which of course makes perfect sense, given six out of ten people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on subsistence farming for their livelihoods. But for me, it was a real shift - I had never been on a farm. Agriculture was not a natural thing for a girl from Washington, D.C., and Connecticut. But he brought me into some projects he was leading related to agriculture and Africa, and that opportunity changed my life. I didn’t know it at the moment, but my path had been created for me.
What I came to learn was that alleviating people from the burden of not having access to food helps to unleash so many other opportunities for them. And through my years in this sector, what I’ve come to see is how that’s true for other areas too — having safe housing, being healthy, having access to financial services — when barriers to these things are taken away, it unleashes so much opportunity.
What I’ve come to love and appreciate is how intertwined and interconnected all of these issues are.
What gives you hope for the future?
The next generation, and the interconnectedness they have — with social media and their access to what’s going on in other parts of the world. We see a generation of people who aren’t going to be content with the way things have been, and who will have access to a lot more information than has been the case before. I’m excited to see what comes of that.
Another thing that gives me hope is technology. There will never be a silver bullet technology, but I am hopeful that there will be tools that are accessible to many, access to ways of working and technologies that give us the opportunity to accelerate development trends in ways we might not have imagined. Some of the most amazing entrepreneurs I’ve seen are from the countries where we work. I see our role as giving them the access to the tools they need to drive their own future.
I also think there's an increasing sense of social responsibility and connectedness that can pull people into our work and into caring about the work that we do. Everyday we are learning how to better connect with each other virtually.
What would you like Mercy Corps supporters to know about you?
We as a global team are phenomenal, and we are here to do big things in the world and to be of service. That’s our primary goal, and I will keep us focused on this goal and on serving the communities where we work, in the best way we can. I also want our supporters to know that we don’t take their support for granted, and we’re working hard every day to earn their support and partnership. Because of them we are making a positive difference, together.