Shortly after Penny Abeywardena ’00 was appointed Commissioner for International Affairs by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last September, she attended a dinner with renowned women’s rights activist Dorothy Thomas.
“Dorothy had heard of me through my work at the Clinton Global Initiative and I said to her, ‘When I was 18 years old, I went to a lecture you gave at USC that put me on the path to where I am now,’ ” Abeywardena said. “It was a pretty special moment.”
Abeywardena was majoring in political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences when she attended the campus lecture by Thomas, who was then working for Human Rights Watch.
“That lecture shifted my entire focus,” Abeywardena said. “While I was an undergraduate, I started interning at Human Rights Watch near USC. It really opened my eyes to women’s human rights, and that became the main trajectory of my career.”
A former director of Girls and Women Integration at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), Abeywardena now serves as the primary liaison between New York City and its diplomatic community — the world’s largest. Her goal is to facilitate partnerships and collaboration between New York’s international community and the city’s many agencies and local communities.
Her job also includes managing relationships with high-level representatives of foreign governments, the United Nations and the U.S. State Department.
Staying true to her heart
After earning her bachelor’s degree in political science from USC Dornsife with a minor in business from the USC Marshall School of Business in 2000, Abeywardena worked for her brother’s finance company.
“Although my experience at USC had opened my eyes to the kind of ambitions I could have, part of growing up poor is thinking you have to make money — to create the safety net you never had. But my brother said, ‘Listen, I did the work here to make us financially viable. You should follow your heart.’ ”
So Abeywardena accepted an internship in the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. Then she moved to Paris for eight months, working as an intern for a number of women’s organizations before earning a Master of Arts in international affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Her big break came in early 2009 when she joined CGI. Abeywardena worked there almost six years, creating what became the initiative’s most successful program, one that encouraged its members to include girls and women in their philanthropic and core business practices to address global challenges.
By March 2014, her hard work paid off when CGI’s chief executive officer elevated her role to the highest level of organizational leadership. The move was clear recognition that CGI’s girls and women’s focus could not be limited to one department but had to be integrated throughout all of CGI’s work.
A few months later she received a call from the mayor’s office. “They told me they wanted me to consider joining the administration as the new Commissioner for International Affairs. Given that I had never worked for city government nor heard of this office before, I had some homework to do,” Abeywardena said.
A leadership role
Describing de Blasio as “an unabashedly activist mayor with a progressive agenda,” Abeywardena said she was proud of initiatives developed during his first year in office, such as creating universal pre-K, which put 70,000 4-year-olds in school who otherwise wouldn’t have attended, and IDNYC, a municipal ID card to ensure that all New Yorkers, irrespective of documentation status, have access to city services.
What’s uniquely appealing about this job is to be a part of the city’s great leadership.
“What’s uniquely appealing about this job is to be a part of the city’s great leadership that promotes an equity agenda impacting the lives of all New Yorkers. I enjoy experiencing how a city the size of a lot of countries functions and how it works to improve itself,” she said. “It’s fascinating to meet with ambassadors, consuls general and UN leadership about issues that have local and global consequence, and to identify ways to partner with New York City agencies and communities to bring what we know is working right here to the global stage.”
Abeywardena’s career advice for USC students? Build out your skill set, but always stay true to your passion.
“If I couldn’t have the best job at an organization, it was still an organization that I believed in.”