Getting off the Metro at Nordhavn station in Copenhagen I was met by a blast of bone-chilling October air. I walked down the steps onto Østbanegade, prayed my scarf would hold up against the elements, and battled the wind all the way to the UN City complex on the waterfront.
I was meeting Daniela da Silva, infrastructure and project management advisor for the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), located within UN City. She’s worked for the United Nations for almost 17 years—a career that has taken her to East Timor, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Nepal.
After Nepal she joined UNOPS in New York, then became head of office for the organization’s operations in Brazil, before moving to Copenhagen and UNOPS headquarters in February 2017.
In between all that, she graduated with an MBA from Copenhagen Business School in 2011.
You might think that someone on Daniela’s career path had a trajectory in place that would evoke feelings of content. But, with a degree and pre-UN background in civil engineering, a few years into her post in New York she says she was after something that would complement her technical skills more. An MBA was the answer.
“In the UN, having civil engineering is great if you want to remain as a technical expert. But I didn’t,” she explains.
“I wanted to go more into managerial and leadership roles, so I wanted to equip myself better. A CV where you have a combination of engineering and business education makes you a more ideal candidate, rather than just an MBA or just civil engineering.”
This is specifically the case, Daniela says, in the organization she works for, which has a key mandate in infrastructure development.
She adds that she knew she wasn’t after a career change when she began the MBA. It was always her plan to remain in the UN, with a CV that would enable her to pursue more challenging, leadership roles.
“Doing the MBA meant I was able broaden my horizons,” she says. “In the long term, I knew that I needed to have a Master’s in order to progress in the UN.”
Copenhagen Business School prevailed, Daniela explains, because she was after an MBA program that covered all bases but didn’t take her out of the workforce for two years.
“The thing I really liked about CBS was the leadership program, and that to me, is still the biggest takeaway from the MBA,” she adds.
After she graduated from the MBA, Daniela returned to New York. She then moved to Brazil to open and lead the organization’s operations in Brasilia.
Her private life then took precedent after she had a child and made the decision with her partner—who’s Danish—to return to Copenhagen. The decision fell in line with her career too, as UNOPS headquarters offered the chance to bring her field experience back into the office.
“I’d never worked in a headquarters,” she says, “and it’s important when you work for the UN that you have field experience, but also the chance to apply what you’ve learned in the context of HQ.”
She brought with her a skillset enhanced by the Copenhagen MBA, but also life experience developed over a long career working around the world.
The MBA classroom at Copenhagen Business School mimicked Daniela’s world experience too. She says she was part of a diverse, dynamic cohort who were willing to collaborate and share knowledge together.
“I think all of us were curious about each other and knew the importance of curiosity—to discover what you don’t know,” she adds.
In her current role, Daniela works in a multi-skilled, multicultural team, with colleagues working in English, Spanish, and French.
She currently leads a small team of infrastructure and project management advisors who support field officers with their day-to-day operational challenges—this could cover projects like building a school in Afghanistan, or a bridge in Haiti, she adds.
This kind of responsibility is a case in point, Daniela explains, of how the MBA can help you run an organization efficiently—by combining her engineering and business experience, she is revelling in a leadership role.
Daniela says she is often contacted by either Copenhagen Business School students, or alumni, about how to launch a career at the UN. Education is of course important, she explains, but your CV must be a cocktail of practical experience—the number one criterion.
“As a business student looking into career with the UN, you don’t have to worry too much about doing more than a Masters,” Daniela concludes.
“An education is key, but it is very important that you get out there and get exposure—two or three job experiences in different fields and/or countries. Then, of course, once you get the right job, it’s important that you continue to invest in self training, whether on the job or through certification.”