School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Alison Colwell: From Queen’s to Stakeholder Relations and Human Rights Research at Stanford

March, 2017
By Deni Ogunrinde

Alumna Alison Colwell

Alison Colwell

Alison Colwell is the Director of Investment Responsibility Stakeholder Relations and a Human Rights Research Fellow at Stanford University. She is a Queen’s University graduate whose professional success has been characterized by a passion for learning, a focus on human rights and sustainability, and a drive to create her own opportunities. Her professional journey is one that offers valuable career insight.

Alison began her academic career at Queen’s University with an interest in business and a passion for international development. Obtaining bachelor’s degrees in both Commerce and Global Development Studies, she focused her undergraduate education on human rights and business. She says she would not have been as well rounded, or have developed as strong critical thinking skills, had she not pursued an interdisciplinary education with a focus on applied learning, such as conducting a needs assessment for a non-profit organization in Kingston instead of writing a course paper.

After studying abroad in Denmark, where she completed sustainability-focused business courses, Alison cofounded ‘Students for Corporate Social Responsibility,’ which was instrumental in the creation of the Centre for Responsible Leadership, now called the ‘Centre for Social Impact’ at the Queen’s Smith School of Business. Its mandate is to “educate students and foster outreach, research and advocacy on issues of social impact.” Alison further expanded her international learning opportunities through a second exchange term in Chile where she was able to work in social development and learn Spanish. Alison said that her exchanges were “personally and professionally enriching,” and promoted exchange as an excellent opportunity to get first-hand experience in global business and development work.

Alison applied her classroom learning and international experiences to a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and Administration with a focus on international development at Carleton University. She took advantage of the co-operative opportunities, allowing her to gain work experience while she was building her credentials. In fact, she created her own exchange and co-op experiences. While at Queen’s, she helped create a Global Development Studies internship with the World Bank, and through connections she made at the World Bank and staying in touch with the first Queen’s student intern, she received a job offer from the World Bank shortly after completing her MA.

Alison worked seven years for BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) as a human rights, social impact, and stakeholder engagement specialist for projects with companies across industries including mining, apparel, food and beverage, and information and communication technology. She also worked with various stakeholder groups including communities, companies, universities and governments. During this time, Alison’s passion for sustainable development inspired her to return to Queen’s part-time to obtain yet another credential: a Professional Graduate Certificate in Community Relations for the Extractive Industries, ultimately completing this certificate so that she could better understand, and measure the impact of the projects she was working on.

Currently, Alison is the Director of Investment Responsibility Stakeholder Relations at Stanford University and a Human Rights Research Fellow with Stanford’s WSD HANDA Center for Human Rights and International Justice. In her role as director, Alison has three main responsibilities: she (1) liaises between the Office of the President and the Stanford Community on any issues that arise around investment of the university’s endowment, (2) conducts research on issues concerning stakeholder processes around investment responsibility, and (3) supports the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APRIL). In addition, Alison serves as a mentor to students outside of her work, a role that includes guest lecturing on business and human rights at Stanford and UC Berkeley. She particularly enjoys bringing her work experience to the students and listening to and learning from their ideas.

When I asked Alison what skills from her education allowed her to obtain this exciting career, she listed empathy, critical thinking, and problem solving as some of the most important skills. For those who might be interested in Alison’s line of work, she recommends getting hands on field-work experience working in communities in different countries, and working directly with ‘rights holders’ so that you can work close to the issues and the people.  She described her consulting work as being “enriching” for that very reason. Working on 5 to 6 projects at a time, on different issues, and on the ground in different countries, she was able to gain more experience than an average job, describing it as both “phenomenal” and “meaningful.”

Alison also emphasizes the importance of helping your peers find opportunities and staying in touch, as a brain trust of people working on similar issues, and as a network. “People have been generous to me,” she says, “so I’ve tried to turn that into a way of helping others create their dream opportunities.” Moreover, she underscores the importance of finding ways to get paid for doing what you love, and figuring out how to use your skills to make a difference. “In the end,” however, Alison says, “It’s all about the people.” She encourages students to think about the kinds of projects they want to work on, but also who they are working with and for.

Clearly, Alison has done a wonderful job of taking her own advice in manoeuvring through enriching employment opportunities to achieve professional success, and I have no doubt she will continue to do so throughout her career.

Alison Colwell