Angela Pickett with Kathy Marika in Ho Chi Minh City

Q&A: Angela Pickett, Masters student & former diplomat

February 17th, 2015

Teaching yourself Mandarin and Vietnamese aren’t prerequisites for many jobs, but for former diplomat Angela Pickett, learning both Asian languages has been an important aspect of her career to date.

Pickett, who spent the last 15 years working for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra, Beijing and at the Australian Embassy  in Hanoi, recently made the move to South Australia with her family.  Now residing in Tanunda, Pickett is a relative newcomer to the state.

She talks about her career in cultural diplomacy, balancing work and family life, and planning her new life in the beautiful Barossa Valley.

You’ve had such an interesting career to date. How did you get started?
In the last year of my Commerce/Law degree at Wollongong University in 1998 I decided I didn’t want to go into law. Looking at various options I decided I may as well sit the public service exam (which I don’t think exists these days) and scored well enough to be asked to apply for DFAT. While I had joked during my Rotary Exchange year in Denmark that I might like to be Australia’s first female Ambassador to that country – not realising our very first female career diplomat was to Denmark in 1987 – I hadn’t really focused on a diplomatic career.

I was selected as one of 30 graduates in the 1999 intake, and after a year of working in the China Economic and Trade Section and the Market Development Section, as well as completing a Graduate Diploma in Foreign Affairs and Trade through Monash University, I was posted to China. I spent the next two years learning Mandarin (the second of which was in Beijing) and then worked in Beijing for a further three years.

Back in Australia I worked mainly in Free Trade Agreement policy and negotiations and also had some time off to have my first child. Not long after he was born, I found out I was off to Hanoi, and spent a year learning Vietnamese before our second son was born. When the boys were 4.5 months and 2 years old, we headed off to Hanoi as a family.

Was working in cultural diplomacy something that you always wanted to do, or did you fall into it?
DFAT roles are varied and for most of my career I have worked on the trade side of things including bilateral trading relationships, helping companies to gain market access into various countries, and negotiating and implementing Free Trade Agreement,s including our agreements with Chile, the USA and the ongoing Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations.

During my first posting in Beijing, I assisted the head of the Media and Cultural section with arrangements for the media accompanying Ministers including the Prime Minister, and cultural events like the Australian Film Festival, which was opened by then-Senator Vanstone (who was probably my favourite Ministerial visitor and a huge fan of China).

In Hanoi, it was a chance comment that I would love to be running the Facebook page and upcoming 40th anniversary celebrations that led to a job swap with a colleague. So [for] most of my time on this posting, I split my time between trade issues, working with a group of other Embassies to remove restrictions for foreign businesses wanting to export to Vietnam) and cultural events. The latter definitely opened my eyes to new career possibilities. It was also great managing a Facebook page from its early days, growing the fan base to over 70,000 largely due to the great bilingual content provided by my team. I managed a country-wide program of cultural events to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which included organising events such as Bangarra Dance’s first tour to Vietnam, a three-city exhibition by Questacon and Elixir, featuring Katie Noonan.

What does an ordinary day as a diplomat entail?
The job of a diplomat overseas is varied, depending on the size of the Embassy or Consulate, the number of other government agencies there and the bilateral relationship. My first posting in Beijing was in a large embassy, so I had a much more specialised economic and trade reporting role, while colleagues in small one or two person Embassies will do everything, including meeting government officials, dealing with consular issues, managing the finances and local staff. A big part of most posts is organising visits for government ministers, the Prime Minister and Governor General. It’s hard but very rewarding work, and it’s always quite exciting to be meeting heads of state in other countries.

However, some days are office bound, writing reports or dealing with problems. And of course, two-thirds of your career will probably be spent in Canberra, which is actually a great city. The work there can be just as interesting. For example, while based in Canberra working on Free Trade Agreement policy and negotiations, I travelled to Chile, Geneva and the United States.

Angela Pickett

Angela Pickett in her new home in the Barossa. Top image: Kathy Marika presents Angela with an original Bangarra artwork.

Why did you decide to leave the public service after 15 years in what would no doubt be a very exciting career?
My reasons for leaving the public service were varied, but mostly I realised that after 15 years I wanted to do something different. We had always talked about a tree change and we figured this was a good time to do it.

I also realised that it was the work managing the media, communications and cultural events for the Embassy that really made me smile. I loved being around artists who were truly passionate about what they were doing and brought so much joy to other people.

Going back to work full time in Hanoi with a 4.5 month old and a two-year-old was also tough, even with a husband who was at home, and extra help. I realised that life was too short to be working long hours in a job that didn’t give me 100 per cent satisfaction. DFAT is also going through a big change, with the integration of the aid program into the department, and the downsizing of the public service more generally, so combined with coming back to Australia and turning 40, I thought it was a good time to embark on a change.

Tell us about your current area of study and your plans now that you’re home.
Once I realised how much I enjoyed the events side of my work in Hanoi, I applied to study a Masters in Arts and Entertainment Management through Deakin University (which I’ll finish mid-way through the year). The course has been a good mix of arts and events management-related subjects, together with broader business subjects like human resource management, financial analysis and business strategy.

I am able to put some of my experience and studies to practical use as a member of the Barossa Vintage Festival Parade sub-committee. It’s been a great way to meet people and learn more about the history of the area. It’s going to be a fantastic festival (15-19 April 2015) and I would encourage everyone to get to as many events as possible, especially the parade on Saturday, April 18; the longest parade in the Southern Hemisphere. I’m also looking forward to working on the Governing Council of Tanunda Kindy, which my youngest will attend this year, as well as getting involved with my eldest son’s school.

Unlike a lot of people that embark on a career change, I didn’t have a set idea of a job in mind, but more of a picture of how I wanted to work. Project-based, flexible hours and location independent, but most importantly, doing something I believed in and felt passionate about. The longer I am in the Barossa, the more I am keen to have my work based here. I have started to look at business and consulting options that would allow me to use my skills and experience in communication, marketing, trade policy and project management to work with small and medium enterprises in the area to create strong, sustainable businesses that contribute to the region.

South Australia can be quite a parochial state. Why did you and your family decide on a move to Tanunda?
We started to think seriously about our move just after Christmas in 2013. My husband has worked in the wine industry for about 12 years, and we have always talked about him working in a wine region. One of our considerations was cost of living, given I was taking some time off to study, and so South Australia stood out. We had visited the Barossa, but I think it was starting to connect with various businesses via social media and in particular watching the community response after the Eden Valley bushfires in January 2014 that made me think “I want to live there”. The more I connected with people and researched, the more I built up a picture of a fabulous community, bursting with great food and wine, a long and interesting history and a diverse population who are passionate about making sure the Barossa thrives, while still retaining the country town and community feel.

What’s it like living in a place that is so quiet after bustling cities like Beijing and Hanoi?
So far we are really happy. We’ve met some really lovely people through school, work and even social media. Being a small town, there are a lot of connections, and people have been so generous providing introductions. Our eldest settled into school in less than a week, proclaiming that we were never leaving Tanunda, and our youngest has made some friends at daycare and was really excited to start kindy this year.

My husband and I grew up in regional NSW (Lismore and Wollongong) so we’re used to smaller places, and it’s great being close to everything we need. It’s such a beautiful place and we’re not far from Adelaide if we need anything we don’t have here. Arriving in winter it has been amazing to watch the change in the seasons and, like many people here, we’ve been eagerly watching the grapes as Vintage starts.

Most importantly, after 3.5 years in Hanoi, we’re enjoying chaos free traffic, quiet country walks and fresh air.

As a person who is newer to South Australia, what do you think are some of the strengths and challenges we face as a state?
My impression so far is that South Australia is a very dynamic state with a big focus on entrepreneurship, technology and the growing services sector. There seems to be a real sense of state pride and support for local business. Adelaide’s vibrant arts scene, together with an incredible array of food and wine destinations, suggest tourism will continue to be an important source of jobs and revenue for the state. But, like many parts of Australia, changes in the manufacturing sector will continue to present challenges.

I think that there is huge potential for increased exports from the agricultural sector, particularly wine and high-quality food, in light of recent free trade agreements with Japan and Korea, and possibly China in coming years.

Why did you decide to get involved with Spence Club?
In both Hanoi and in the Barossa, I have found social media a great way to establish connections. I was lucky enough to meet Jessica Rosenzweig from Skye Social who suggested that I apply. I was attracted to Spence Club because of the opportunity to network, make friends and give something back to the community. And given I’m probably at the upper end of the age range, I hope I can share some of my experiences especially around career change and balancing family life and professional life.

You’re a passionate believer in gender equality, but statistically speaking, even in Australia we have a long way to go when it comes to aspects like the gender pay gap. What do you see as some of the potential solutions?
It’s interesting that I have only seen this becoming a problem in recent years. Throughout school and my early career I didn’t really see it as an issue, but as I have gotten older – and I think particularly evidenced through the treatment of female politicians – it has made me really question where we are going wrong.

I do believe we need to look at the structure of work more broadly and really rethink the way families structure their lives and careers. There are also some great organisations out there providing support and mentoring to women like Women on Boards and Women’s Agenda.

But overall I think it starts with our children. It bothers me that even for very young children, toys are divided by gender and even young children like my boys will refer to girls and boys work, even though they have had both mum and dad at home at different times.

However, I think things are changing. I worked with people in my early working life that had to resign when they had children in the ’60s and ’70s, so in many ways we have come a long way.

I think we, as women can be our own worst enemies too. We really need to support each other and so I’m really excited to be involved in Spence Club to do just that.

In addition to your Masters study, you also write a blog called ‘From Vietnam to the Vines’. Tell us about what you’re covering on the blog and who it’s aimed at.
In sharing my experiences of a career and lifestyle change to create a more fulfilled life, I want to inspire and empower women, to change their life and career to the one they really want. I’m aiming to bring together a community of people who believe in a life and a career built on that sweet spot, where a person’s skills and talents meet their passions. Because the blog is also about making the most of life outside work, I also include posts on some of my hobbies like travel, cooking and fitness. In the coming weeks, I am going to start sharing some stories of other people who have made inspiring career changes.

As a mother, how do you go balancing your professional life and your family life?
Fortunately I have a supportive husband and while in Canberra (and when I only had one child) I worked part-time briefly before starting language training for Vietnam, which was more flexible. In Hanoi, Simon was able to manage part-time and volunteer work around my hours and we were also fortunate to have a housekeeper/babysitter.

In some ways it was the thought of constantly juggling and being torn between my professional and family life that led me to this career change where I can create a role where I have greater control over when and where I work. I think we need to rethink how we work – not just as women but all of society. We have access to incredible technology that allows us to work remotely, which has huge benefits for many sectors including mothers and people in rural and remote areas. Technology is part of working smarter, and I think we have to move away from the idea of being present in an office or having just one 9 to 5 job.

But at the end of the day, we are not Superwoman. I am fairly organised and when I am working I get up early to fit in a workout, have menu plans and several diaries, calendars and to do lists on the go.

If there was only one life lesson or pearl of wisdom you could share with your children, what would it be?
Love what YOU do – not what your teachers or parents think you’re good at. Be brave and be prepared to change direction as you grow and learn. Find your passion (or passions) and don’t be afraid to take risks. Give more than you expect to get back.

What advice would you offer someone seeking a career with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade?
Do your research. Talk to people. Head along to the information sessions they do. DFAT Canberra is now fairly active on social media and most Embassies now have Facebook pages, which give you a good idea of the sort of work that is done. While being a diplomat overseas does have some high points, there are also days where you’re in an office and you could be anywhere. And of course, feel free to get in touch with me (via the blog) if you have specific questions.