Living and Working on the Edge: A Career Conversation with Jonathan Berman

April 17, 2012 • Blogs, The World at Yale • Views: 1166

By Amal Ga’al:

Monday evening, the Jackson Institute hosted Jonathan Berman, a partner at Dalberg Global Development Advisers, for a career conversation. The discussion covered many things, some specific to Dalberg (a unique player in the strategic consulting space), but most, and the most memorable, relating to value of traveling to unexpected places.

Jonathan Berman is the head of Dalberg’s global corporate practice and advises corporations on how best to break into frontier markets. I found his career path to be his most fascinating aspect; the series of steps that granted him the necessary exposure to pursue his current work. This path, he said, was by no means linear; after graduating, he began translating packaging of Taiwanese goods being exported to the U.S., then worked in traditional consulting before heading to Berkeley for his MA in political economy at Berkeley. As a student trying to choose my major, figure out my summer, and solve the puzzle that my summer has become—even occasionally trying to imagine life after Yale—I found this admission unbelievably reassuring.

If this kite can soar against the laws of physics, surely Africa can soar in keeping with the laws of demography! I think that was Berman's thesis, at least. (Courtesy of the Economist).

Talking with Berman was also refreshing because, unlike many similar events we’ve all attended, his talk was a dynamic exchange of questions and ideas rather than a lecture. Interested in the growing internationalization of Yale he posed questions to us about our experience with course offerings in international affairs and area studies. It made me realize that Yale is certainly in a different place in terms of engaging with global issues then it was when Berman was pursuing his BA in East Asian Studies. At that time, Chinese language study was almost unheard of. There weren’t many students traveling to China—let alone those, like Berman, who had never been on a plane before coming here.

In recent years, East Asia’s star has risen, both as a focus of the University’s attention and among its student body. So much so that Berman doesn’t think East Asian Studies would have had quite the same appeal if he were to be an undergrad at Yale now. A good number of my friends and acquaintances have received the Richard U. Light Fellowship and have or are spending a summer or even year abroad in China, Korea or Japan. The growing power of China is universally recognized and students here increasingly find value in learning Mandarin Chinese, in particular, and traveling to China.

In contrast, Yale has been reluctant to commit the same amount of attention and resources to African Studies. As the author of an upcoming book entitled The Bright Continent: Successful Africa and the CEOs Creating It and someone whose career has been built on identifying “worlds that weren’t fully connecting”, it is not surprising that Berman likely would have chosen to focus his research on sub-Saharan Africa in this context. As someone interested in this region, I am beginning to see the opportunities that exist in bridging the gap, both geographically and conceptually, between institutions of higher learning, civil society, companies, markets and, above all, people.

Berman seems to be attracted to risk. From his role as negotiator between the Nigerian government and rebels in the volatile Niger Delta region to his witnessing of protest and democratic transition in Taiwan, I can’t help but look at his life as one long, thrilling adventure; living, thinking and working on the frontier. I’ve spent much of the past few months feeling frustrated that not enough resources, human or otherwise, are going where there is the most need. Even when there’s a willingness and ability to pay for essential goods and services, entire markets are vastly under-served. Now, thanks to Berman, I’ve finally realized that I can work there, in that yet-to-be-determined space, where I can add value, establish linkages and contribute to the public good.

Amal Ga’al is ’14 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at

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