“I love a story where the heroine doesn’t need somebody to empower her”: In conversation with Kristen Tetteh

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies —

Kristen Tetteh is the director of communications at the Washington Global Health Alliance (WGHA), where she works to raise the profile of our state’s impressive global health community. Besides being one of the smartest communicators we know, Kristen also has the distinction of being a former Miss Washington, a Japanese speaker, and a singer in a band. I recently sat down with Kristen to get her thoughts on what it’s like to communicate for a membership association in our sector – her challenges, triumphs, and the bumpy road that got her here.

Q: When you were a kid, what did you want to do when you grew up?

A: I thought I’d be in musical theatre while being be a marine biologist [laughs] because when you’re young, you have no concept of how things work. Later I turned my attention to ballet dancing, and then international relations.

Q: How did you wind up as the communications director at WGHA?

A: After college, I had a unique set of opportunities through the Miss Washington organization. I received a $35,000 scholarship, which was hugely helpful for me to pay off tuition. But just as important, I had an advocacy platform around global education, and had the chance to travel to many different U.S. states, as well as India and Japan. I lobbied Congress and spoke to more than 100 Rotary Clubs – as a 22-year-old! It was amazing.

Then I came back to Seattle and dove into job interviews. Two of those interviews stand out in my mind. The first was with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I’d set my goals and expectations way too high, and the interviewer gave me great feedback: Think in granularity. Focus on the job in front of you.

I didn’t get that job.

The second interview was for a program position with PATH. The interviewer suggested that I should consider communications. She told me, “What you want to do is be the face of PATH. You could do the work but you’d more naturally be the person talking about the work.”

I didn’t get that job either. But in both cases, I received invaluable feedback that has helped me succeed when I finally landed my position at WGHA.

Q: What does success look like in your job?

A: It’s a big win whenever Washington State is mentioned as a global health hub— which we definitely are! In 2015, WGHA released a landscape study revealing that our state has 168 business, nonprofits, and other organizations working on global health. These groups run projects in 150+ plus countries – tackling issues ranging from access to technology to infectious disease to maternal and child health. Washington State is absolutely a global health leader, and I love to hear people talking about this.

Q: You’re a great storyteller. What makes a good story?

A: I love a story where the heroine doesn’t need somebody to empower her; instead, she has a sense of agency. It’s great when the heroine is an extraordinary contributor to her community, and she connects with an organization that asks, “How can we support you?” That’s the best story and the one that’s often not told. My favorite stories are truthful, human-centered, and told from the perspective of the person who’s impacted.

I’m also very drawn to visual communications. The best story I’ve seen lately is an amazing video on NPR’s Goats and Soda blog about refugees fleeing violence in South Sudan and desperately seeking clean water. The heroine is a woman who migrates all the way to Uganda – taking her own children and picking up orphans as she goes along. It’s 12 minutes long and worth every minute of your time.

Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?

A: When a small organization that’s been quietly doing great work for a long time finally gets attention and recognition, and that impacts their bottom line in a big, positive way.

Q: What’s the most frustrating thing?

A: When people have a huge success and are haunted by it. I’ve seen many times that an organization has some kind of big win – an awesome event or a significant media hit or a game-changing philanthropic gift – and it almost immediately leads to the question: “How could I possibly top that?” The truth is that everyone has the capacity to create great things, and then more great things – there’s not a finite supply. You just need to open your mind and explore the outer edges of your imagination.

Q: Are you reading anything good?

A: I’m reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It’s an amazing book that has completely changed the way I think about the criminal justice system. I love when books challenge the way I think.