Katalin Kaplár is someone who knows what it feels like to be an outsider seeking to belong. She left her home country of Hungary 15 years ago to pursue degrees at universities in England and France, and after graduating with a Masters in Organizational Psychology, she’s built a successful career in the humanitarian sector that’s taken her even further afield to places like Luxembourg, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United States, and Switzerland. Kata explained, “I had a keen awareness of prejudice and bias mostly from a personal perspective – living abroad for 15 years taught me a lot. I’ve been singled out because of my accent and not taken seriously when I spoke my mind, and observed that many of my friends from different minority groups were experiencing this kind of prejudice to an even greater degree. Turning that frustration into action has been the driving force of my career ever since.”
Hoping to realize that vision, she started her career in the humanitarian sector, building over a decade of experience in Human Resources roles for intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations. Kata explained, “I began my career in operational HR, which was a great place to start because it allowed me to learn about all of the different parts of a business and how they relate to each other. I learned what it really means for HR to be strategic, and how to design interventions that generated both short-term and long-term value. After overcoming that initial learning curve, though, I began to feel too “comfortable” and decided that I wanted to be more directly involved in changemaking through a policy role.”
While on paper a policy role felt like the best next step, the reality of the switch wasn’t exactly what Kata was hoping for. She shared, “As much as I thought I would enjoy the policy work, I found that I lost the connection with the people and the field HR units who were translating the work into real-world impact. At the same time, I felt that the new role didn’t fully align with the values I had established so far around the way I like to treat others and be treated. It wasn’t long after I made the switch that I found myself profoundly unhappy in my job, on my way to a burnout, and struggling to find meaning and joy in what I was doing.”
This is the story of how Kata’s quest to bring meaning and joy back into her work led her to the MovingWorlds Institute, and ultimately, to launching a portfolio career that supports others in doing the same. Continue reading to learn how!
“Why Not Me?” Taking a Leap of Faith
A turning point came in the form of a conversation with a friend who was experiencing a similar lack of purpose at work. Kata shared that, “I had recently learned about the MovingWorlds Institute, and suggested to my friend “This sounds like something you would like – Making the world a better place, while learning new skills and networking with like-minded people. Have a look.” He did, and decided to apply, which I offered to help him with. It didn’t occur to me until I was proofreading his application that this actually sounded like something I would like, too. That’s when I decided: why not me? So I built up the courage to submit my own application as well.”
Kata’s application was accepted for the Global Fellowship cohort set to launch in New York City in April of 2020, and while she was excited about the personal and professional changes this experience would bring, she had no idea how much the world around her was about to change, too. She remembers, “At that time, only the bushfires in Australia were burning. Soon after, it seemed that the whole world went up in flames, and that made otherwise drastic career decisions seem tame in comparison. So, I made the decision to quit my job and enter the Fellowship with an open mind and heart.”
Reflecting on her Fellowship launch weekend, Kata shared, “Our collective MWI experience was inseparable from what was happening in the world in 2020. We were the first cohort to launch completely virtually after the pandemic made an in-person gathering in New York impossible, which was an adjustment in and of itself. Most of us have never seen each other in person, and I still don’t know who is tall and who has the greatest shoes. We started our work together at a time when everybody was still trying to figure out how to balance home school, working from home, and the isolation and immense uncertainty that came with that transition. Calling in to the launch weekend from my living room in Geneva, I wasn’t sure if I would fit in. The social impact sector was entirely new to me, and I felt like I didn’t speak the language. I was the only one participating from outside the Americas, and had a very different career trajectory than my peers: in my field, it was natural to live somewhere for a few years and then get posted on a different continent. I felt again like an outsider.”
Turning Differences into Superpowers
But that didn’t last long. The support and openness of her fellow cohort members gave Kata permission to be completely herself, and when she came across something in the content that she didn’t understand, her peers and the MovingWorlds Institute team were there to help. From the beginning, she found her cohort to be “Inspiring, funny, and very accepting – with experiences that I had never been exposed to and was very curious to learn more about. When I realized that all these people are so very different and that’s why this group was giving me so much inspiration, it hit me that I’m just another different person. It helped me reframe the way I thought about my experience so far – just because no one had the exact same experience as I had doesn’t mean that mine was any less valuable. As part of this community I realized that many of my own skills and knowledge I had been taking for granted or assumed were universal were actually unique assets, and that they might be seen as a complex, specialized expertise.”
Hypothesis-driven design is a big part of how we approach career development in the MovingWorlds Institute, which involves developing an initial theory, testing it, getting feedback, and continuing to iterate. Kata remembers that initially these new frameworks seemed like a foreign language, but shared that “my accountability group was amazingly supportive, not just in cheering for each other, but also in making sense of what we were learning and trying to implement in our own lives. Many of my confused questions were answered in those calls – that’s where it clicked and I understood that “validating a hypothesis” really is just trying out something you think could work. My accountability group, and the Fellowship in general, gave me the courage to do exactly that.”
Based on the introspection and facilitated exercises around her unique strengths and purpose drivers, Kata developed a hypothesis that she could leverage her HR advisory skills to help an entire organization become more inclusive and equitable from the inside out. She shared, “For my experteering project, I matched with a social enterprise in Myanmar called Doh Eain as a Strategic HR Advisor. This was the perfect opportunity to stretch beyond my comfort zone and test the hypothesis I had for myself. It was exciting but also intimidating – coming from big international organizations, I’d only ever worked in operational roles with multiple layers of management driving the big decisions. Now it was up to me. I remember asking myself, do I have what it takes?”
Kata shared her thoughts and feelings with the Founding Director of Doh Eain, Emilie, in a series of pre-project scoping calls. “I thought: “I think I know what to do. But I’ve never done it all by myself before!” Previously, I would have let the impostor syndrome take over and shy away from the challenge. This time, I didn’t. I was honest about the areas I did and didn’t have direct experience with, and equally about my confidence in my subject matter knowledge. Emilie was supportive and encouraging the whole way, and was rather excited to have somebody on board who could do the things they needed done but didn’t have capacity to do otherwise,” Kata shared.
Driving Inclusion From the Inside Out
With the pandemic still in full force, Kata’s project was also conducted virtually. “That presented a challenge of its own: talking to people, individually or in groups, whom I’d never met before, about topics they weren’t used to discussing, over virtual meetings, patchy internet connections, often without videos and with a set of different accents. But we made it work, and persevering through that gave a boost to my communication skills and cross-cultural awareness,” she reflected.
The project helped Kata gain confidence in her other skills, too. She shared, “Most of my hypotheses were validated: I thought I could run a skill gaps assessment, a learning needs analysis, and present the findings in a capacity building plan – and I did. I suspected I could review an HR handbook, make suggestions for amendments and point out critical gaps – and I did. What was particularly rewarding about this project was that my recommendations were actioned much, much faster than what I’d been used to at large organizations. I handed in the reviewed handbook before the end of my assignment, and shortly thereafter the new edition was issued – Doh Eain now has an HR handbook that is largely gender-neutral in language, and contains an inclusive parental leave policy that is applicable to family compositions beyond the heteronormative. This might sound like a small thing, but it will make a big difference for those who are impacted by it, and it is one of the many results of my experteering that I’m very proud of, not least because the need for inclusion at work became a professional point of focus for me during the Fellowship.”
The new concepts she was learning in the Fellowship and the hands-on experience of her project with Doh Eain also helped Kata connect dots between her past and the present that she hadn’t before. She reflected, “My Master studies in Organizational Psychology focused on workplace stress and wellbeing, and it was only during the Fellowship that I started realizing how much those issues are linked to inclusion, equity, and belonging. Clearly I wasn’t the only one in 2020 to have some revelations about these issues. For me, MWI was a catalyst – I knew that I cared, I knew that I was furious every time I was denied the freedom of choice, and I knew I wanted the same freedom for everybody. The Fellowship helped me confirm that inclusion is a strong value driver of mine, and from there I needed to figure out how to link those values with my profession.”
These revelations were only heightened by the urgent calls for racial justice that erupted in the wake of the death of George Floyd. She remembers, “We were in an Office Hours meeting that was entirely dedicated to discussing racism, equity, oppression, and what we can and are going to do to drive systemic change. That conversation produced an idea that four of my cohort members and I grew into a brainstorm, then a blurry picture of a project, then a plan, and finally a baby-startup: The Wingardium, an educational platform for DEI resources and safe place for conversations among people who want to learn and share experiences. Although the project is taking an extended summer break right now, it helped me connect the dots and frame all the things I knew how to do and all the things I wanted to do. A more and more clear professional direction was emerging, and I was feeling excited about the possibilities for the future.”
Kata knew that she wanted to continue building on the insights she was learning to help others realize their purpose and potential in the same way she was. She explained, “Another thing I gathered the courage to do thanks to the MovingWorlds Institute and the support of my cohort was to return to my coaching practice. I’d had some experience and training as a coach, and I always knew I liked it, but I’d always found an excuse to not do it. I think it was that imposter syndrome again. Then all the discussions about values and strengths and what I liked about my profession even when my job was making me sick helped me see clearly that I keep coming back to this desire to help others be their best selves. MovingWorlds allowed me a safe place to practice – to validate my hypothesis. I offered pro bono coaching to fellow alumni, and it was a deeply rewarding experience. That gave me the confirmation that yes, this is something I’m good at and enjoy, and yes, this is something I want to be part of my professional future. I took the next step of completing a Mental Health and Wellbeing Coach certification course, and I am very proud to announce that I am now also accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.”
Keeping the Growth Going
Now, Kata has set up her own business and is continuing to stretch beyond her comfort zone in the service of the greater good. She reflected, “While I spent way too much time trying to design my website, and way, way too much time finding a name for it, some things came easy. I realized that I was doing what I knew how to do – helping people navigate their professional lives. Most of the time that means supporting clients in looking and applying for a new job, but I have a few resignation letters under my belt too. Adding the coaching element to it meant that I really spent my billable time doing something that truly makes my heart sing: allowing people to discover what they want, and helping them figure out how to get there.”
Establishing her coaching practice and helping bring The Wingardium to life helped Kata see just how capable she was of navigating uncertainty and landing on the other side. For her most recent challenge, Kata shared that “I took up an assignment with Médecins sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, in a Learning & Development role. I’m currently in South Sudan, trying to figure out how to make staff development, something that requires a long-term vision and engagement, have its strategic place in an environment that is rooted in emergency response. Yet again, I’m facing a steep learning curve, but I’ve learnt through the years and my Fellowship experience that I actually sort of like those. They are often stepping stones, and they are almost always hugely rewarding.”
This isn’t the end of Kata’s professional story – it continues to grow and evolve as she does. As for what’s next, Kata shared, “I don’t yet know exactly. But I finally realize that it’s ok not to know, and that not knowing doesn’t prevent you from trying. I know that everywhere I work, I care about making the place more joyful, enabling, safe, and inspiring. I know I have skills and drive to do that, and I want leaders to understand that it’s everybody’s interest. I want the Wingardium to grow into everything we dream it to, and more; and I want to be there when it happens. I know I want to study and research and learn more about the subjects I’m passionate about, and I want to be able to share that knowledge. I know I want to make some difference in people’s lives, professional or otherwise. Where I am right now is one more step in the right direction.”
We’re grateful for Kata for sharing her story with us, and inspired by her continued dedication to personal and professional growth. Ready to take a purpose-driven leap of your own? Apply to the MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellowship to gain the confidence, connections, and hands-on experience you need to grow or launch your social impact career.