An Experiment to Recruit Rockstars at the United Nations

Bridget Connelly, Gina Lucarelli of the Accelerator Lab Global Team

The Accelerator Lab network is part of UNDP’s drive to make innovation a core way of working. To do this, we built on a solid basis in UNDP — a $5 billion public sector organization with 17,000 people, spanning over 170 countries.

The Lab network, launched in 60 locations in 2019, builds on UNDP’s innovation journey which includes the Innovation Facility, where we have seen a return on investment since UNDP started down this road in 2014.

In order to stand up 60 labs all at once, we needed to find — and invest in — people with the right skill sets. We needed to attract a diverse group of experts and enthusiasts from around the globe, many with biographies completely new to our organization.

Here are a few moments where we opted to go beyond a business-as-usual recruitment style and what we’re learning about this approach:

Choose unconventional job titles

If you caught our job ads last year when we first published them, you may have been surprised to see that the positions we were advertising sounded vastly different than traditional UNDP posts.

These posts didn’t say “policy analyst” or “development expert.”

Kal Joffres, Tandemic

Instead, we advertised for: Head of Exploration. Head of Experimentation. Head of Solutions Mapping.

These titles were deliberate deviations from the posts for which UNDP usually recruits. We felt that using out-of-the-box titles would bring creative types out of their hiding spots. These titles were quirky, sure, but they also gave clues about the type of team you’d be working with if you were selected.

Go beyond a social media campaign

Naturally, we knew we needed a social media campaign to attract unusual candidates. We immediately tapped into our global network of UNDP offices, circulating advertisements on popular social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn.

But we knew simply posting links on social media wouldn’t be enough. In the age of overly saturated digital feeds, you have to be more proactive than simply publishing your ad.

We set up a website specifically dedicated to the recruitment effort and description of each post. We also held open and interactive “Ask Me Anything” sessions. We archived these sessions on YouTube, which reached over 4,500 potential candidates. Some countries, like Sierra Leone and Colombia among others, even held public pitch sessions devoted to national challenges. This new format drummed up excitement and attracted entirely new categories of talent to UNDP.

We think this approach paid off. The website set up for the UNDP Accelerator Lab recruitment received almost 1 million visits during the two highest months of activity during the recruitment. When we finally met in person, many new Lab teams had seen the Ask Me Anything video sessions and confirmed that our outreach and responsiveness piqued their interest in joining the Accelerator Lab network. It’s a lesson that reaching out and defaulting to transparency makes an impact when it comes to human resources.

Did the experiment work?

You could say that.

Looking back Accelerator Labs received more than 8,000 applications for 180 positions during the Labs’ six-month recruitment process.

This is 8.5 times the usual number for traditional UNDP posts.

The type of people who ultimately joined the network are curious, spunky and ready to operate without edicts or instructions. They include entrepreneurs, engineers, data scientists, grassroots innovators, and many others:

Here are some quick facts about the skill sets in our network:

  • 68 percent of the network has experience with prototyping
  • 65 percent of the network brings experience from the private and nonprofit sectors, academia, and government
  • 63 percent of the network has experience on ethnographic research
  • 55 percent of the network has experience with citizen generated data
  • 29 percent can perform tasks related to artificial intelligence and machine learning

In an interesting twist in the journey, 24 percent of the UNDP Accelerator Lab network are repatriates returning to their countries — an early indication to us that the labs are attracting national talent back to developing countries (which makes us proud).

Returning Talent to Home Countries

Swetha Kollur, UNDP Accelerator Lab India, Head of Experimentation

Swetha Kolluri

Take Swetha Kolluri for example. Now Head of Experimentation, Swetha was drawn back to India after coming across the Accelerator Labs on LinkedIn. The Labs’ tagline: “Doing Development Differently,” and the call for applicants with unconventional, multi-disciplinary backgrounds gave her a pathway to contribute skills she had learned abroad back home.

“I see the Accelerator Labs as a free-wheeling unit that allows me to operate at full potential as an interdisciplinary professional. Most employers get confused when I tell them I can do community development, solve complex equations, build financial models, draft legislation, and run an enterprise. It was a great relief when I got to know that interdisciplinary and unconventional profiles are most desirable at the Accelerator Labs.”

Oleksiy Moskalenko, UNDP Accelerator Lab Ukraine, Head of Solutions Mapping

Oleksiy Moskalenko

Oleksiy Moskalenko returned to his native country of Ukraine as Head of Solutions Mapping after more than a decade abroad in Shanghai, Geneva and London. Up until now, as a social anthropologist, Ukraine had offered limited engaging opportunities for him to return home and apply his anthropological skillset.

“I heard about the Accelerator Labs when a few of my friends forwarded me the job description. They were excited to share it with me as they previously never heard of vacancies for a social anthropologist in Ukraine.”

Countel Kanne

Born and raised in France to Malian parents, Countel was imbued with a strong passion for the Mali community and a lifelong desire to work in development. The UNDP Accelerator Lab’s new approach of thinking and innovative environment piqued her interest.

Countel Kanne, UNDP Accelerator Lab Mali, Head of Solutions Mapping

“I knew that the job was for me when two friends of mine shared the job with me — because they recognized me in it. And I have to admit, I recognized myself in it.”

Where are they now?

The Labs are now up and running in 60 Lab countries where Swetha, Oleksiy and Countel are part of UNDP’s efforts to accelerate sustainable development. They are pushing forward on their ideas, however impractical, idealistic, or unattainable they may seem.

With Swetha leading on experimentation, the UNDP India Accelerator Lab is now tackling air pollution in the country using a combination of high resolution brick satellite data, spatial computing and machine learning to locate brick kilns in the Northern and Eastern states. These kilns are a major source of air pollution in the country and part of the reason why hundreds of thousands of people in the country face an elevated risk for cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Settled back in Ukraine, Oleksiy is also working on addressing air pollution with UNDP by exploring the practice of crop residue burning. After time in the field, the team found that the issue of burning agricultural waste can largely be attributed to improper or lack of waste management infrastructure. The Lab is now partnering with local and international stakeholders to design and organize experiments to tackle the practice of burning and organic waste management.

As Head of Solutions Mapping, Countel is part of UNDP Mali addressing solid waste management issues, a particularly critical issue as improper waste management contributes highly to disease in the country. The Lab is now exploring a solution involving the shredding of plastic waste in the informal sector. Once shredded, the plastic can be more easily exported or used to produce products including cups, plates, shoes, and more.

The teams in Mali, Ukraine and India are among 60 labs within UNDP where we are testing out the value of a network of labs. We see the synapses of the network firing everyday where our teams surface ideas that are on the horizon but not yet mainstream development. Being part of a globally integrated network, each lab team draws inspiration from solutions identified by the network. Stay tuned for stories of what comes from this real-time collective learning among these rockstars.

With special thanks to Accelerator Lab members Countel Canne, Swetha Kolluri, and Oleksiy Moskalenko for sharing their stories! And to Maria Segovia Aguirre for all the hard work and long hours spent heading up recruitment on behalf of the Labs!

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Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries. http://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/

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