Mary Waters

MA Latin American Studies Alumna, 2008

January 5, 2020

Mary Waters graduated from the University of Florida in 2008 with an MA in Latin American Studies and a specialization in the Latin American Business Environment program. She is the Deputy Commissioner for International Trade for the state of Georgia’s Department of Economic Development.

Can you tell us about your current position?

I am the Deputy Commissioner for International Trade for the state of Georgia’s Department of Economic Development. We are a state agency and report directly to the governor’s office. Collectively, our mission is job creation and creating economic opportunities across the state of Georgia. Eight different divisions make up economic development, so my role is creating opportunities through export development. I lead a team of ten people in Georgia, including myself, and a team of approximately 20 people that work as contractors in foreign markets around the world. Our sole responsibility is working with existing businesses in Georgia that are looking to open up their international sales market. To build the export ecosystem in our state, we do this with local, state, and federal partners across Georgia.

What motivated you to pursue a MALAS degree?

From the time I was in middle school, I started taking Spanish classes. I had some really great teachers in middle school and high school that kept me interested in the Latin American region. I was born and raised in Oregon, so there was more of a focus on Mexico and to a slightly lesser extent, Spanish-speaking Southern America and it was just something that I wanted to build capacity in. I stuck with it through undergraduate school and studied abroad my whole junior year. When it came to graduate school, Latin America is such a robust region and not monolithic, and contains a lot of opportunities and challenges to work through. The reason I was interested in the University of Florida was because they had a really strong Brazilian studies program, which was something I wasn’t able to get in the west coast. The graduate degree was a natural extension of my K-12 studies and what I did in undergrad, and just where my personal interests lay. There were also a lot of professional opportunities related to Latin America.

What aspect of your career have you enjoyed the most?

Definitely working with and interacting with companies. We are a state agency, so we are taxpayer-funded and that allows any company that pays taxes to the state of Georgia to access our services. It opens up the possibilities of working with both small and large companies. My first week on the job in 2008 as a trade manager, I went to a technology show in Atlanta where I was trying to make contact with Georgia companies. I wanted to see if they were open to international opportunities and learn, in that narrow focus, which companies were exploring global sale opportunities. I shadowed one of my colleagues who had a client meeting with a company that had developed an enzyme to clean out grease traps in commercial restaurants. This company had five employees, all this IP, and patents for these enzymes. It turns out they had this really efficient cleaning technology for commercial kitchens, and they were interested in licensing technologies around the world.

That’s when it really came home to me, when you are in graduate school, you don’t have an idea what companies are actually working on and what has international potential. So for me, the best part of my job is getting to learn about all the cool and sometimes random stuff that is going on in the state of Georgia and interacting with those companies, and being able to provide some services that truly help them grow. On a day-to-day basis, it is gratifying to help them gain those corporate skills and assist them in growing. I also appreciate that there is a constant churn of companies coming in, so there are always new companies.

How did your MALAS degree impact your career prospects?

I thought coming out of my degree that I was specifically going to focus on Latin America. I remember defending my thesis in December 2007 and starting my job search in 2008, which in Florida the economic situation was already complicated with the recession. I thought I wanted to focus exclusively on Latin American business opportunities, but I knew I didn’t want to live in Miami. I looked at research jobs, market intelligence jobs related to Latin America, and teaching assistant positions at other Latin American Studies programs across mostly the east coast. At that time, Atlanta, Georgia was making a play at being the northern hub of Latin American business. There was something called The Summit of the Americas, and Atlanta was going to be the headquarters of the U.S. States that I never thought of working or living in were leveraging their connections and working to become hubs for Latin American businesses. As I started to get more heavily involved in the interview process, my background wasn’t as important. The knowledge content wasn’t as important and employers were looking for specific skill sets: critical thinking, research, independent work, things that you learn in a graduate program.

In terms of content, almost all the interviews I had said they could train and teach in the specifics needed for the role. When I interviewed with the Department of Economic Development, they didn’t want me to be a region specialist. They wanted me to be global because we work with companies to see where they would like to go globally. When I started, they asked me to be broadly focused but once I got into the job and everyone recognized that I did have this significant skill set in that region, then the opportunities started to come to me concerning Latin America. The focus of the MALAS degree wasn’t as important as the skills learned as a graduate student to get in the door but once in the job, you become this magnet that everyone recognizes because you do have this niche knowledge that could help in different pursuits.

What advice would you give students as they pursue their MALAS degree?

For me, my heart was with business, but also the sociological underpinnings and that human and cultural connection that drives business culture and business opportunities. I really tried to reach out in my coursework. I took a great class about the drug trade in Colombia, the history of Latin American politics, environmental studies, broadening my coursework to get a more comprehensive view of what is actually going on in Latin America. From a business perspective, all of those seemingly outlying issues do come into play. Maybe not all day every day but they contribute to a business environment and culture that makes a difference if you are trying to successfully do business in a region. Take advantage of all the content. I took a global legal class where when we began, we started by not speaking the same language at all but over the course of the semester we began to communicate more. You could go deep in your own personal and professional interests or you can use graduate school to round out your education. For me, it was great to go abroad so I wasn’t always in class with like-minded people. I enjoyed the diversity.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience in the MALAS program?

I alluded to it earlier, but I believe there was more I could’ve done to leverage my degree early on in the job search. Economic development is relationship-based as well as building out and maintaining a strong network, and I really didn’t lean heavily on the Florida Alumni network in my initial job search. If I could do it over again, I would do that differently. I tried to do it on my own, and now that I am a professional I am more connected to the University of Florida infrastructure. In terms of leveraging the degree when you get into the interview process, spend time thinking about how diverse a skill set you have. Spend some time thinking about what your graduate degree outside of the classroom is doing for you. How does it widen your viewpoint, seek out new opportunities, and get out of your comfort zone. As an employer, that worldly experience, that diversity, those other interests and pursuits, that independent working, research knowledge, knowledge in teamwork, knowledge with dealing with difficult people, all those skills that you amass in your MALAS degree are what employers are looking for. They are looking for soft interpersonal skills just as much as technical qualifications.