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Aidan O'Connell chats with alum Hannah Vargason

I had the pleasure of talking to William and Mary MPP alumna Hannah Vargason as part of the Policy Career Chats Program. When I first visited Ms. Vargason’s LinkedIn page, a snippet from her bio immediately struck a chord: “working at the nexus of economic development and environmental stewardship.” She is currently Associate Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Natural Capital Investment Fund, a community development financial institution (CDFI) whose core aim is to provide lending for people and communities who struggle to get standard loans. Her work revolves around the following question: what can be done to catalyze development and infrastructure growth in underfunded communities? Across the Appalachian and Southeast region, and in sectors ranging from food systems to clean energy, her work uses mission-driven lending to build stronger communities for the long-term. Specifically, Ms. Vargason supports policy improvements by organizing people and stakeholders, raising capital to invest in communities, conducting market analysis, and engaging in advocacy.

I was particularly interested by the nonlinear career path Ms. Vargason took to get where she is today, from undergrad to W&M and eventually to the Natural Capital Investment Fund. As an undergraduate at Mary Baldwin University, her first love was anthropology, but after attending an economics seminar on labor, she realized that the two were closely connected and decided to pursue a double major. When she graduated in 2009 and her first job prospects were threatened by the global financial crisis, she decided to look into graduate school and landed at W&M. While studying for her MPP, she was drawn to the nonprofit sector and environmental policy in particular. I loved hearing about the interdisciplinary nature of her curriculum, and how she took advantage of the opportunity to take classes in law, public policy, economics, political science, business, sustainable agriculture, and more. She even got the opportunity to work as an environmental consultant for the US Air Force during her MPP, learning hands-on about clean energy initiatives near military bases.

Ms. Vargason left me with several helpful pieces of advice for starting a policy career. She encouraged volunteering as a way to learn more about work you’re interested in and getting your foot in the door at places you see yourself working at. She also stressed the importance of building relationships and networking within a sector you’re passionate about. Finally, the bit of advice that resonated most with me was to be mission-driven. By staying in touch with her passions for environmental sustainability and community development, Ms. Vargason has been able to build a career that is dynamic and engaging, and I hope to follow a similar trajectory.