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An International Career Bookended by Service to the Peace Corps

 

Stuart Jablon (’89) leveraged his UCLA Anderson MBA skills to become a country director

SEPTEMBER 13, 2022

 
  • UCLA Anderson alumnus Stuart Jablon’s international career is bookended by his service to the Peace Corps

  • His post-college experience in a Jamaican fishing village was followed by 30 years in the produce industry and leadership roles in Costa Rica and Peru

  • Jablon says his Anderson education taught him to write, think cogently and lay out an argument

Humility. Patience. Resilience. These are the “arts” that Stuart Jablon (’89) learned while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. Such valuable life lessons found a sticking place in his heart, leading him on a career-long path he structured with returning to the Peace Corps in mind. Thirty-seven years later, his journey, which included earning an MBA at UCLA Anderson, has come full circle.

Late-night television in the 1970s first spurred Jablon’s interest in the Peace Corps. “There were only three stations on at night, and they all ran this public service announcement from the Peace Corps with the slogan, ‘The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.’”

The Peace Corps was inspired by a 1960 speech that then-Senator John F. Kennedy delivered to students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Kennedy posed the question: Would students “be willing to serve their country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world?” Upon being elected President of the United States, Kennedy established the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, installing R. Sargent Shriver at its helm. A young Jablon became intent on joining the ever-growing numbers of Peace Corps volunteers.

“My greatest joy is visiting volunteers in the field. You absorb the passion, energy and joy they feel. That’s what recharges a country director’s batteries.”

While attending Union College in Schenectady, New York, Jablon’s fascination continued to grow when the resident advisor in his dorm joined the Corps. After graduating in 1982, Jablon applied to the Peace Corps while hedging his career bet by also looking for a banking job in New York. As this was during the Reagan era recession, he landed instead in the trucking industry, monitoring the performance of union truck loaders. It wasn’t going well. “I was responsible for approaching workers and saying, ‘Mr. Jones, you’re supposed to be loading trucks at 10 boxes an hour, but you’re only averaging eight,’” he recalls of daily interactions. Typical response: “I didn't sign up for no contest, kid.”

When the Peace Corps called with a position in Jamaica, Jablon jumped at it. His enthusiasm was running high. “Here I am, a 22-year-old white college kid going into a community of Afro-Caribbean, Jamaican fishermen, who were all in their fifties,” he recalls. “I had visions of going into this community and teaching them how to run a fishing cooperative. After two days, I realized, holy cow, these guys know more about fishing and life than I’m ever going to learn.” As a Peace Corps volunteer, Jablon had to get the fishermen to take him into their community, listen to him, and work together to accomplish specific goals. As it turned out, the little Jamaican fishing village taught the new graduate a lot.

There are three goals of the Peace Corps, Jablon says. The first: helping countries that request help by building capacity at a local level and creating leaders who will carry on the work. “Instead of teaching English, we work with English teachers in the schools to create English clubs as a resource,” he gives as an example. The second goal is for American volunteers to learn about the culture of the country where they’re living. The third goal is for volunteers to show the countries and communities where they’re working that America is a diverse country with many different skills and experiences.

“The skills you learn, the ability to integrate and communicate cross-culturally — those skills have definitely helped me in my career.”

Right away, Jablon immersed himself in goal two, learning about his community. “I lived with a 90-year-old guy,” he says. “I was given housing in exchange for fetching his cigarettes from the store and $5 in rent.” With no refrigerator on the premises, he says, “I lived on rice, fish and warm beer for two years.”

The goal of working together with the fishermen presented multiple challenges. The first lesson for Jablon, “You gotta roll with the punches. I might call a meeting, and none of the fishermen would show up.”

Jablon was tasked with working with the local fishermen’s cooperative. As fish-pot fishermen, the co-op members had been running a successful business that involved buying fishing supplies wholesale, then selling them at a price better than retail. At the end of each year, profits would either be reinvested in the business or paid out as dividends to the co-op shareholders. “When I arrived, they had a lot of money in the bank, but the Jamaican dollar was devaluing against the U.S. dollar, and supplies bought abroad were getting more expensive.”

The co-op was leaning toward dissolving. Discussions with Jablon had them considering a different solution. The thought: invest the quickly devaluing funds in the bank into inventory. With a grant through the Peace Corps, they could expand their operation by building a warehouse and procuring bigger trucks that could carry more materials. “We were driving down our trucking cost per unit.” The tactic worked. “To this day, the cooperative is still successful.”

In Jamaica, Jablon says, “I had a fantastic country director — the person who manages the Peace Corps operations in a specific country.” This was Arlen Erdahl, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who’d stepped into the job as a political appointee (a practice no longer in existence). Erdahl taught Jablon the importance of understanding people and treating everyone with respect equally. Most important, “People want to feel they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, that they’re making a difference,” Jablon says. “I knew right away that I wanted to work in that role at some point in my career.”

Jablon
Jablon (front row, left) joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in the 1980s

In Jamaica, Jablon also met his future wife, who was there working for a British company. When Jablon’s service with the Peace Corps ended, the couple returned to the U.S. to gain work experience. “We moved to New Orleans. It sounded so romantic and exotic.” The city met their expectations, but they’d arrived during the middle of the oil recession in 1986. “If you're not from New Orleans, it’s a very challenging place to knock on doors and find a job,” he says. “Except for Domino’s Pizza, who was hiring.” Jablon lists the position on his LinkedIn profile to this day.

Having served in the Peace Corps, he’d received priority status for U.S. government jobs. When one came up in Los Angeles in the vein of what he’d been doing in Jamaica, he applied and was accepted. After a year, he and his wife felt the call to return overseas. “I felt the best way to do that was through UCLA’s MBA program.

“The courses I still think the most about are Richard Rumelt’s course on strategy and William Ouchi’s course on organization,” he says. “The one that had the most lasting impact, which I credit for much success throughout my career, was Janis Foreman’s on writing and presentations for decision makers. It taught me to write, think cogently and lay out an argument in an email or presentation.”

One day while Jablon was still a student, a Dole Fresh Fruit International Ltd. recruiter, who just happened to be a former Peace Corps volunteer, arrived on campus. “My grandfather had been in the produce business, so I felt this connection,” Jablon says. He landed a job as a production analyst and began a career in the produce industry that would span 30 years. Throughout this career, he checked off the boxes to get the competencies, skills and experiences needed to be a Peace Corps country director.

Janis Foreman’s UCLA Anderson course on writing and presentations for decision makers taught Jablon “to write, think cogently and lay out an argument in a presentation.”

The job with Dole required a move to Honduras. After five years, the family, which now included two daughters, was transferred to Costa Rica, followed by 15 years back in the U.S. “During my time with Dole, I saw many great leaders, and some not-so-great leaders,” Jablon says.

This led to a goal of wanting to run his own company. The opportunity arrived when Jablon was offered a position with a 42-acre, high-tech tomato greenhouse operation in danger of being shut down. Located in a rural, economically challenged area of Maine, the company had over 200 employees. “Every day, I’d go in and feel the weight of the world on my shoulders,” Jablon says. “I knew if I couldn't get things turned around, people would lose their jobs.” For the next four years, he worked to get the company to a place where ownership could sell it.

Over the next few decades, as recently as 2019, Jablon made eight visits to the Jamaican community where he’d served. One reason: to share with his children the community that had become so beloved to him. “The cooperative is still there and still successful,” he says. “Unfortunately, most of the guys are all in their late eighties or early nineties and slowly starting to pass away, so my connection to that community is gradually disappearing.”

At 58, Jablon found himself at a crossroads. While working for Dole, he gained intercultural experience managing vast operations in different countries across borders, dealing with natural disasters and large budgets. To enhance his skill set in the nonprofit youth development world, Jablon served on boards of directors and through community service/community development projects. He’d finally ticked off the boxes on the checklist he’d started back in 1985. “I knew if I wanted to become a Peace Corps country director, the time to do it had arrived.”

Jablon applied to be a Peace Corps country director and was accepted in Costa Rica. He and his wife toured the Patagonia region of South America in a VW camper van for nine months until the slated appointment opened in June 2019. Half a year later, the pandemic struck. “For the last two years, there have been no in-country Peace Corps volunteers, with the 7,000 volunteers in service in 60 countries being evacuated back to the U.S. and given completion of service,” says Jablon, who stayed in Costa Rica until April 2022. Only recently have volunteers begun returning, with 20 countries receiving an influx.

Jablon is a Peace Corps country director in Peru

Jablon’s current assignment is in Peru. With over three years and two country residencies under his belt, Jablon says, “It’s the most unique role I’ve ever held, a combination of manager, leader, cheerleader, confessor, psychologist, disaster preparedness practitioner, risk analyst … the list goes on,” he says. “There’s such a varied amount of competency needed to succeed.”

What does a typical day look like for Jablon? “Dealing with natural disasters, meeting the minister of education to talk about how the Peace Corps can help support their national objectives, giving updates to the U.S. ambassador to Peru, addressing safety and security issues of the volunteers, finding host families in communities where volunteers will work.”

The love Jablon has for his job is apparent when listing these duties. “My greatest joy is visiting volunteers in the field,” he says. “You absorb the passion, energy and joy they feel. That’s what recharges a country director’s batteries.”

What does Jablon consider his primary focus? Creating leaders. “Not only in the volunteers that spend two years here but in our fantastic local staff,” he says. “Having been here for 10, 15, 20, even 30 years, they’re the consistency during the roller coaster of country directors’ coming in and out.” Not to be overlooked are the leaders from the communities where Peace Corps operates. “To be sustainable, we need local leaders to carry on the projects and initiatives started by volunteers.”

Jablon’s take is, “The skills you learn, the ability to integrate and communicate cross-culturally — those skills have definitely helped me in my career.” Which leads to this advice: “When talking to volunteers completing their service and preparing for their next career step, I tell them to look beyond the federal government and nonprofit worlds because the private sector needs people with their skills.”

Ultimately, he says, “There are risks, but what you get out of the Peace Corps is fantastic. It’s a life-changing experience.” One could say it’s the toughest job he’s ever loved.