This interview is with Wilson Mok, a consultant with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working on global HIV issues, and was conducted and summarized by Andrew Chen. (Download the full audio recording of this interview here.)
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure. I’m 32 years old. I did my undergrad in chemical engineering at UC Berkeley. I then did a PhD in chemical engineering at MIT, where my focus was on biomedical research and specifically cancer research. I then transitioned into a job at McKinsey & Company in their New York office. I worked there for three and a half years and left as an engagement manager for my role, which is as an independent consultant to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where I support the HIV team.
Q. How did your career path take you to your current role, and what were the major thought processes you went through at critical career decision moments along the way?
A. The first decision I had to make was whether to go to grad school. At the time, it was a no-brainer decision for me because I thought I would be a researcher at a biotech company. I had done undergraduate research, and I really just wanted to own my own project, and the PhD would have opened up more attractive opportunities than my bachelor’s degree in terms of technical roles at biotech companies.
The first really difficult decision I had to make was what to do after grad school. I realized very early on when I actually got to MIT and started doing my thesis that doing scientific research long-term wasn’t an ideal fit for me based on my personality. The work was more independent than team-based. With scientific research, the work also takes a long time, and I found it frustrating that some of the ideas and hypotheses that I came up with would take months to implement.
So I really began trying to solve for something that was opposite of that. I happened upon management consulting around this time. A lot of the management consulting firms were starting to recruit heavily outside of MBA programs and looking for folks with JDs, MDs, and PhDs in science and engineering. And it really spoke to me because of the ability to work on a lot of different projects, the ability to gain a lot of skills that I didn’t think that a technical job in science or engineering could teach me.
So I started looking into and interviewing with a lot of consulting firms, both small ones focused on healthcare and broad strategy consulting firms.
Around that time, I also started to get an inkling that I wanted to do some work, eventually, in the social sector. But it was pretty clear that it wasn’t something I could transition to right out of having a very specific technical background, based on the work I was doing in grad school.
So I stayed with management consulting, interviewed, and luckily found a job with McKinsey and worked there.
My second transition was really about choosing the right time to leave consulting and find another opportunity. I had always envisioned that it would be a few years of experience and skill-building, and it wasn’t something that I would do long-term.
And so at a certain point, it made sense for me to transition out of McKinsey. I wasn’t particularly inspired by the work I was doing, which was serving pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare companies like vaccine manufacturers. I liked the work, but it wasn’t fulfilling and I was starting to really get interested in other types of non-profit work.
So around three years into doing consulting, I decided to officially transition out and started dedicating time to looking for roles beyond consulting.
Q. How did you tactically make the transition from consulting to the social sector? What were the specific steps you took to help you be successful?
A. I really leveraged the network I had established from being at McKinsey. Tactically, I relied on the alumni network, and probably more importantly, people that I had come across in the organization, and even those whom I had no specific connection with, but were serving serving social sector clients. I found them to be really receptive to my story and my goal of wanting to transition into the social sector.
Even within a firm like McKinsey, a lot of people want to serve non-profit and social sector clients. And, in turn, I found the folks who had made that transition were really open to “paying it forward,” and were really open to helping someone like me find my own opportunity and manage my own transition, even if it wasn’t within McKinsey.
And so that’s how I really got connected to global health organizations outside of the firm. I was put in touch with a lot of individuals through the social sector office within McKinsey. That’s tactically how I got connected with people.
In terms of the interview process and how I was able to land a position, I think I brought an intriguing, if not unique, story of having specific experience in healthcare, from the business side, that a lot of organizations within global public health saw as valuable. So a lot of organizations were willing to talk with me.
Not all organizations were in a position where they were prepared to hire someone with my background: I had somewhat of a technical background from undergrad and from my PhD, but nothing that directly translated into specific global health fields. But certainly my pharma consulting and healthcare consulting background was intriguing, and a lot of organizations saw the value I could bring.
So even though not all the organizations I spoke with had positions where someone with my background would fit in well, but enough did that I was able to find some opportunities, and the Gates Foundation was one of them.
Q. Tell us about your current role with the Gates Foundation. What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
A. Very tactically, I do a lot of the same things I used to do as a management consultant working for a big firm and serving pharmaceutical companies and healthcare companies on two- or three-month engagements.
So that means developing and refining strategy for the Foundation; engaging with lots of stakeholders; doing a lot of Excel-based analyses where necessary; making PowerPoint presentations, sharing materials, and trying to get buy-in on initiatives.
To give a little context, I support what the Foundation calls “program officers,” who manage a pool of money in a certain area, and award grants to different grantees. And I support a couple program officers on the work they do within the HIV team.
The Foundation is not just in the business of giving out grants. They actively manage their grants and they put a lot of thought into what their “theory of change” is, what their strategy is within a particular field, and how they can solve problems and move the field forward. As a consequence of that, they are heavily engaging with their grantees and constantly refining their strategy. And so I support that process.
Beyond that, I think the role of the program officer at the Foundation is really to be involved in the larger discussion with other stakeholders, not just grantees, but other funders or organizations, like the W.H.O., in order to be a part of the dialogue on how to solve some of these big problems.
So there is a heavy amount of coordination with these other organizations, and stakeholder engagement, that I also play a role in, and help support the Foundation team in doing.
Q. What do you find most exciting about your current role, and what do you most wish you could change?
A. The thing I find most exciting is that I’m actually working on what I consider a really important and worthy problem. I consider poverty, or education, or global health to be among those critical problems that, going back many years, I really wanted to devote my life’s work to.
So it’s fulfilling to be able to start focusing my efforts on that, rather than just learning technical basics as I did in school, or simply building skills when I was a consultant at McKinsey. I’m glad to finally be putting those skills to use in an area that I find really meaningful and important.
In terms of what I would change, I’d like to eventually transition out of a consultant role. I love the client service aspect of it, but I think it comes with limits on how much responsibility and ownership you can have over the problem. At the end of the day, I’m still giving advice and recommendations to other people who then have decision-making power.
So from a personal growth perspective, I’d like to continue getting more experience, and getting more responsibility, and broadening that aspect of my career.
Q. Where do you see yourself ideally going in the future, and how do you think your current role will help you toward that goal?
A. Well, I’d love to stay in global health. I find the content of my current role really fascinating. I feel the problems I’m working on are really critical ones, really high-impact ones, and so I find my role really fulfilling.
Within the social sector, what I have found over the past year and a half is that there is a lot of weight and importance placed on having deep experience in a certain field. And so I’ve been trying to build up that experience myself, and I really see my current role as a consultant and advisor to the Foundation as a starting point for a longer-term career in global health.
From my time in management consulting, in the business world, I got used to very rapid changes in terms of responsibility and roles. I’m starting to understand that in other fields, particularly in the social sector, some of those transitions can happen more slowly. And I’m seeing the consultant role as just part of a longer process of building the experience needed to establish myself and my credibility to eventually move into roles with greater responsibility.
Again, I’m happy with the transition I made. I see it as an important and necessary part of a longer transition into this new field.
Q. As an advisor on global health issues, how often do you travel to the location of the Foundation’s grantees to see the ground-level work being done there, or to participate at conferences?
A. I have made a couple trips to Africa for conferences, and certainly to Europe where there are conferences with global stakeholders. So I feel I am connected with not only the broader set of global stakeholders, but there has also been opportunities to connect with what is actually happening on the ground.
My managers that I work with at the Foundation have been great with giving me that opportunity. One of the things I want to expand upon is exactly that: broadening my field of view beyond just the work I do in HIV. And I think that comes with logging in more time and more years in the field and gaining that experience. That’s something I’d certainly like to get more of, but I have certainly had some opportunity so far and am thankful for that.
Q. What advice do you have for people who might be interested in transitioning into something you’ve either done in the past, either engineering or consulting, or what you’re currently during in the social sector with an organization like the Gates Foundation?
A. Well, I’d say that at every career switch I’ve made, I have realized how important it is during the interview process to craft a story to convey to the hiring manager that makes your career transitions fit into a larger plan and a larger vision.
Personally, I’ve always been behind in crafting that story. It’s always been something I come up with after I’ve already decided to make a transition, and I try to piece together what I’ve done over the past few years into a larger story.
And that’s the same way with my most recent transition: I tried to piece together some of my technical background dating back to my PhD, and some of the specific consulting work I did, into a package that made sense for folks in the social sector. I kind of lucked out in that I was able to craft a story that resonated with people.
But if I were to do it again, I would have started thinking about that story every step of the way. I think that would have guided me to make different choices in some of my roles that would have, perhaps, opened up even more doors along the way.
So my advice would be to constantly have in the back of your mind what that overall narrative is, and to think about what you’re doing right now and how that fits into the larger narrative, because I think that can be really helpful.
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