Aaron Williams Honored at Pi Alpha Alpha Induction Dinner

by Lindsey Poole, MPP '16, and Gretchen Wieland, MPA '16
April 24, 2015

Aaron Williams has an impressive resume: current Executive Vice President of the International Development Group at RTI International; former senior manager the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); executive vice president of the International Youth Foundation in Baltimore. But without a critical choice at the beginning of his career, the path may have looked much different.

That choice came not long after graduating from Chicago State University, when Williams decided to join the Peace Corps. Serving three years in the Dominican Republic fostered in him a passion to improve the human condition and embrace hard work. This hard work eventually culminated in President Obama nominating Williams to serve as the Peace Corps’ Director from 2009 to 2012.

Members of the Trachtenberg School community will hear more about Williams’ extensive career journey in the Peace Corps and beyond when he is the distinguished guest and speaker at the 38th Annual Pi Alpha Alpha Induction Ceremony of the George Washington University chapter on April 24. 

“We are honored to host Aaron Williams at this year’s induction ceremony,” said Kathy Newcomer, director of Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration and faculty advisor of the GW Pi Alpha Alpha chapter. “He has had a distinguished career as a senior executive in government, business and nonprofit organizations, spanning more than 45 years.”

At RTI International, Williams and his colleagues grow partnerships among government, businesses and foundations to improve the delivery of better community-level service in the fields of education and health. While at USAID, Williams provided policy and program leadership to major government organizational units, both in headquarters and field assignments. Williams also led project design teams in several countries, working in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Throughout his career, he has created and managed innovative public-private partnerships between global corporations, government entities, nongovernmental organizations and international foundations.

Williams said he planned to pass along advice learned from his life journey at the ceremony.

“One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my career is to always strive to understand the ‘big picture’ of your business or programs, but learn to master the details of every task at every level as you move up the ladder,” Williams said. 

He also recommended that recruiting others who were committed to public service would help accomplish organizational goals.

“You can never have enough smart people in the same room or on the same team,” Williams said. 

The Pi Alpha Alpha induction ceremony is an invitation-only event.

In His Own Words... Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams shared wonderful insights with the 2015 Pi Alpha Alpha inductees.  Here is a taste of his wisdom...

What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve carried with you from one sector to another?

AW:  Always strive to understand the “big picture” of your business or programs, BUT learn to master the details of every task at every level as you move up the ladder. Try to understand and gain an appreciation for your colleagues’ jobs, its valuable to walk in the other person’s shoes and essential to team building.  Always be strategic in assessing new business opportunities or initiatives, and in implementing one’s portfolio. It’s important to create and maintain a network of both internal and external allies to support your ideas and to provide a useful stream of input and critique of the activities and programs that you are undertaking. Build effective teams, across generational lines to tap both experience and enthusiasm that will engender innovative thinking and sound decision making. Be prepared to take risks when new opportunities or challenging initiatives are presented to you—volunteer for task forces, committees, new teams outside of your comfortable level—such experiences will be rewarding and valuable career builders. Learn to be a good follower, which in my view is key to becoming an effective and potentially great leader, AND seek out mentors who can advise you throughout your career.

What was it like to go from the South Side of Chicago, the only one of your family to leave other than for military service, and end up as USAID Mission Director when Nelson Mandela came to power in South Africa, and then to become the Peace Corps Director under our nation's first black president?

AW:  First of all, I was privileged to have parents who were determined that I would have a good education, because they believed that this would be the road to greater opportunities in life, and they were correct. My dear mother, Blanche Green was actually the only person, besides my childhood friend Harry Simmons, who believed that the Peace Corps was a good idea. At that time, conventional wisdom was that a working class kid should not “volunteer” for anything, except perhaps the military, but instead search for a good paying and secure job. And my decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer became the critical factor in the rest of my career, culminating in having the tremendous honor and privilege to serve as President Obama’s Director of my beloved Peace Corps. At every step in my journey I embraced hard work, took on new challenges and tried to be true, but humble, in recognizing and honoring the historic opportunities presented to me. I always strived to be a role model, and represent America in the best possible manner.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the world, what would it be? 

AW: I would focus on 2 related areas of human endeavor: (1) create a world that always celebrates diversity, and promotes this in both our greater society and its institutions, and in the workplace; and (2)  linked to this change, I would seek to provide the resources of this great country to guarantee that every eligible young person, who desires to pursue a college education would have the financial resources to achieve this goal. Or to quote President Obama: “We need to work to make college more accessible, affordable and attainable for all American families.”

What advice do you have to others committed to public service who want to do great things?

AW: Set firm, but realistic goals for your career and evaluate your progress periodically with mentors and peers. Identify an experienced and tested mentor whenever possible, and once you have attained a leadership role, build strong teams, you can never have enough smart people in the same room or on the same team. Always express your appreciation and gratitude for your staff's participation in key activities or projects, acknowledge the value of their inputs to the process, the magnitude of the challenge, and its importance to achieving your vision and goals.