By Stephanie Stewart (Colorado1988)
Fate brought Michelle to AIESEC. She was studying abroad for a semester in France and, by chance, met an AIESEC intern on a boat in Interlocken who explained the organization, AIESEC, that organizes an international exchange program. Michelle realized there was a chapter at Arizona State, promptly joined the local committee and was elected as the Vice President of Internal Management for AIESEC Arizona State. At AIESEC Arizona State, Michelle established the popular Arizona Study Tour to the Grand Canyon, a program that ran for many years.
Upon receiving her degree in finance from ASU, Michelle was appointed to Vice President of Finance in 1987 for AIESEC US. AIESEC International Congress 1988 was held in the US which necessitated Michelle, as VP of Finance, to serve on the Board for Trustees for the Congress. With a bit of help from the airline her father worked for, Michelle was also able to represent the US at the AIESEC African Congress in Sierra Leone, which was a very unique experience.
Michelle followed up her role at AIESEC US working for a year with AIESEC International in Brussels. While there, Michelle was able to host the first international meeting for country-level AIESEC VP Finance managers in Germany. As Michelle jokes, “exchange had the Congress and their meetings, marketing had their meetings, Directors had regional meetings. Finance geeks, we are the behind-the-scenes group that everyone needs but no one wants.” Having the opportunity to network and share challenges and solutions was new during a time when there was no on-line banking. Telex communication was the most reliable way to send messages, and AIESEC members had to carry a ton of cash to conferences to pay dues.
A six-month AIESEC internship in Johannesburg and Cape Town, researching currency options for the First National Bank in South Africa, was a fascinating time for Michelle. South Africa was struggling through the last years of apartheid. Michelle was lucky to live in both a “grey area” in Jo’burg where non-white and white South Africans worked and lived together. Moving to her next destination, she was lucky to have a spot overlooking the beautiful beaches of Cape Town. She was at the parade ground in Cape Town when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. “Just being there and watching it happen was by far the highlight of my South African experience.” She was immersed in “the joy and excitement of people, many of whom, myself included, hadn’t been alive when Mandela was first imprisoned. When you are in a sea of humanity where everyone is happy and there because of a positive thing, it's a very moving experience to live through.”
Upon returning to the US, Michelle was accepted to the Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management, now a part of Arizona State, and received a scholarship for her work with AIESEC. She then joined Coopers & Lybrand in NY/NJ doing valuation work in their Financial Advisory Services group and qualified for her CPA. Having learned French from both her bi-lingual French-Canadian family and her studies abroad, Michelle was recruited into Seagram’s multi-lingual international auditing division to primarily cover the liquor, wine, and champagne operations in French-speaking Europe. Michelle describes her job as having the wonderful benefit of “traveling the world drinking lots of fine wine and liquor, staying in beautiful chateaus and flying on a private jet and helicopter.” Traveling 75% of the time was interesting but it also took its toll.
Michelle then transferred internally to work for the television group at Universal Studios in California, which was owned by Seagram at the time. The company was later broken up and sold and Michelle moved on to work for the international divisions of E!, Sony, and then moved to the Washington, D.C. area to work for Discovery Communications. After close to 10 years in TV, Michelle made the desired leap out of TV into hospitality working for Marriott Inc. She was brought in to streamline and rescope their foreign financial legal entity structure and compliance and to relocate their international accounting into the operating countries and regions. It took close to nine years but ultimately, she worked herself out of a job. Michelle explained, “being able to work within the global context, whether working in consulting, TV, liquor, or at the UN, has always been very important to me. I tried domestic work once and was so bored. US finance work had volume but not nearly the interesting complexity of the international space and fortunately, every industry needs international finance and accounting specialists.”
Currently, Michelle is consulting as a project manager in Geneva for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). IOM is the United Nations agency for migration which works to help ensure the orderly and humane management of migration, to promote international cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced people. She is part of a larger UN reform effort to help make information on IOM’s humanitarian and development work publicly available and to increase transparency so stakeholders can understand the progress of the organization’s more than 2,000 active projects. She explains that “it is nice to work for an organization where you believe in their mission, and it is not just about making money, but rather it is literally about saving lives.”
Michelle realized that she had almost come full circle when her first short project at IOM was in the Philippines. “It was like going on a traineeship all over again. I had two suitcases and was heading to a new country to do a job I really didn’t know much about. The only difference was that doing this today, when you have on-line banking, email, Facebook and better pay is so much easier.” Luckily for Michelle, a close friend from her AIESEC International days, opened her home to her and her cat, Diesel, when the job happily, but unexpectedly, took her to Switzerland in 2018.
Michelle reflects on her AIESEC experience, explaining that “some of my closest friends are AIESECers.” In Switzerland, she lived with an AI friend whose circle of friends included even more AIESECers, some of whom she knew and others who were “pseudo-shared” friends. In Los Angeles, her closest friends came from the MC and IC teams from back in the day. She has been to all but one of the weddings of her 1988 AIESEC International team and the one she missed was because of 9/11 and travel restrictions. Every few years Michelle meets for a week’s vacation with a group of more than 40 AIESEC friends from all over the world, most recently in Sardinia, Italy with the next reunion scheduled for Columbia in 2020. For the past few years, Michelle has been on the AIESEC Life Board and has really enjoyed reconnecting with even more old AIESEC friends, as well as meeting new ones who were involved after her years in AIESEC. For Michelle, the AIESEC Life continues to reward and renew.