From Kansas City, MO to London, UK: How ITC KC Changed My Calling in Life
by Tamara Dancheva
My journey with the International Trade Center of Greater Kansas City began almost 16 years ago. In May 2007, I was recruited to run the organization’s day-to-day operations as part of an internship scheme run by Rockhurst University. As an international student from Bulgaria majoring in International Business, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to gain valuable experience in international trade while strengthening several other critical skills such as communication, program management and basic accounting.
It was my first office job, and to say I was initially overwhelmed and intimidated would be an understatement. However, I was fortunate enough to be guided by two incredible colleagues who remain close friends and mentors today: Norman Burkart and Keith Hustings, former ITC KC Vice President and Corporate Secretary, respectively. Both spent precious time and effort teaching me the ropes and, more importantly, instilling a sense of hard work, ethics, and dedication, all critical skills and lessons that defined my later career.
What started as an internship grew into an incredible opportunity to get to know the international business community of the Greater Kansas City area. I forged valuable contacts and learned – firsthand - why international trade is critical for global and regional economic development. I was particularly fascinated by the Trade Wins initiative: an international trade simulation for students to spark their interest and allow them to experience hands-on what it is to be an executive of a company which trades internationally.
In just a short 8-month internship, I witnessed the transformative power of international relations, sparking a passion that has guided my entire career. This journey led me to the London School of Economics, where I earned my master's degree in international relations.
Before delving into my studies in London, I embarked on a 6-month traineeship with the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) of the European Commission. In a candid moment, my supervisor revealed that my international background and education, particularly my recent internship with the ITC KC, positioned me as a standout candidate among my peers. These experiences deepened my understanding of European foreign policy.
Following my master's degree, I pursued a 6-month New York internship with the UN. My role within the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly allowed me to witness the intricate dynamics of intergovernmental negotiations, providing invaluable insights into the formation of multilateral agreements.
After my time at the UN, I returned to London and began a remarkable 7-year journey with Liberal International in London, UK, where I served as the Head of its Human Rights Program. As the global federation of liberal and progressive democratic parties, LI offered a unique platform for me to immerse myself in international politics and extend support to liberal movements worldwide, even in authoritarian countries.
For the past 4 years, I have served as the Senior International Relations Manager at GSMA, the global trade association for the mobile industry. In this capacity, I actively advocate for and champion GSMA's policy recommendations for digital gender inclusion. I also oversee global initiatives to reduce the gender gap in digital skills and leadership roles.
As part of my role, I proudly Co-Chair the Skills Coalition of EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age, a global public-private partnership co-founded by GSMA in 2016 with organizations including the International Telecommunication Union, International Trade Center, UN Women, and UN University.
I have also been a member of the European Union Delegation to the Women 20 Engagement Group of G20 for the past 3 years. I have served as Co-Chair of various working groups to deliver digital gender equality and equity for women and girls.
It is no secret that international trade is critical to this endeavor. I have seen first-hand the benefits of empowering women and girls with mobile money and mobile technology, particularly across the Global South. Whether on their journey to become entrepreneurs or simply seeking greater digital and financial literacy, digital platforms and tools such as Shopify or M-Pesa have proven invaluable for women seeking financial independence. One of the current programs I run, called “EQUALS Her Digital Skills”, aims to deliver gender-transformative digital skills and mentoring to underprivileged women and girls across the globe. As such, introducing tech through e-commerce forms a key part of the program's curriculum.
Research shows that educating girls to the same level as boys could contribute at least $112 billion to low and middle-income countries. On a global level, advancing gender equality could contribute $12 trillion to global growth. ITC KC members can consider this when next faced with a choice as to whether they should invest or work with a women-led business.
I very much hope to see more young people, particularly women, represented in international trade and innovation as - much like the tech sector - there is much to be desired regarding gender balance among women-led businesses and women-led innovations and start-ups. We cannot afford to leave half of the population behind, and more critically, if we truly want to foster women-led development, we need to put women at the heart of business and product development. As for my success story, I can confidently confirm that the decision Norman and Keith made all these years ago to hire me has been paid forward as I continue to empower women and girls most in need as part of my professional and personal mission in life.
My career has been a dynamic blend of academic excellence, hands-on experience, and a fervent commitment to shaping a more equitable world through international relations. I have also been lucky enough to visit over 60 countries, further enriching my global outlook and solidifying my belief in the critical role cross-cultural experiences play in every aspect of one’s life. As I reflect on my journey to date, my experience with the International Trade Center of Greater Kansas City catalyzed my passion and subsequent determination to pursue a career in international relations. I couldn’t be more thankful for my time there and its lasting impact.