IOP Fellow Samantha Vinograd is a national security expert who served on former president Barack Obama’s National Security Council. Her career has included time in the private sector, first at Goldman Sachs and then at Stripe, a technology company. Her work focuses on building successful public-private sector partnerships, which led her to co-found her own advisor group, Global Opportunity Advisors. Currently, Vinograd works as a CNN national security analyst and is a senior advisor at the Biden Institute. The Gate sat down with Vinograd to speak about her career and her advice for those aspiring to work in the field of national security.
The Gate: You have an amazing career in national security from working at the US Department of Treasury under Bush to working in the private sector with Global Opportunity Advisors. How did you first get started in this field?
Samantha Vinograd: I really got started as a freshman in college. I was a freshman when 9/11 happened, and my father had always told me if I didn’t understand something to try to learn about it. I honestly just didn’t understand what I was hearing in the news about Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia, and terrorism, so I decided I wanted to study the Middle East. At the time, I wanted to be a spy, so I just started studying as much as I could about the Middle East and the intelligence community. That was really how I got started.
I then decided to go to graduate school in Washington, D.C. because I wanted to work for the federal government. I was really lucky because I got recruited for a great job at the Treasury Department. I worked at the State Department during graduate school, and my work helped pay for graduate school. Because of that job, I was exposed to a lot of different people and got recruited to go to Baghdad. One thing led to another, and I ended up at the White House and loved every minute of it.
Gate: What was the most interesting aspect of what you studied?
Vinograd: I’ll give you two. I loved studying Islamic History and languages. A lot of business done in the policy space is done in English, but having familiarity with the languages in several countries that I worked in during the beginning of my career made me feel a lot more comfortable as I was able to establish a level of familiarity with myself and my counterparts. I would definitely encourage people to study languages. I would also encourage people to study history. I found it fascinating to study Islamic History, trying to understand various caliphates and rulers and discover how Islam really evolved as a religion. I studied Islamic History quite a bit when I was at UPenn, and then when I was abroad at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Gate: Transitioning to your career, how did you feel the atmosphere on national security issues changed during the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration?
Vinograd: I got to the White House in August of 2009. I think that under Obama there was a really heavy focus on trying to shore up US alliances. In the wake of the Iraq war, we had a lot of work to do to establish trust and credibility for foreign relationships with the United States.
President Obama was also very focused on rebalancing where the US government used its resources. There was the Asia Rebalance, which encompassed a lot of showing up in the Asia Pacific. I traveled with President Obama to the region many times.
Another focus was trying to think about counterterrorism strategically. We tried to do this based on lessons learned from the Bush administration’s attempts. The Iranian nuclear program was a major challenge for the Obama administration. I was involved in the Maximum Pressure campaign at the outset of the first term, and I was involved in that channel of negotiations. President Obama quite successfully tried to contain and mitigate the threat from the Iranian Nuclear Program.
Last note on this, President Obama and President Bush had different foreign policies and strategies, but the transition between Bush and Obama was smooth, much in the way the transition between Obama and Trump was smooth despite the fact that candidate Trump insulted President Obama. So despite having different foreign policies, there were smooth transitions.
Gate: Did the change in power impact your ability to work and effectively analyze the nation’s security? I know you said that the transition was smooth, but with such a different policy, did anything change?
Vinograd: When the transition happened in 2008 and early 2009, it didn’t really impact me. I was at the Treasury Department, and I was what they call an International Economist Career Official which means my job wasn’t impacted by the change in administration. I felt the change more when I got to the White House. When I was working under Bush, we were doing everything [in Iraq]: I was tracking bags of cash, the Iraqi budget execution, and electricity rates. Obama had a different strategy on Iraq. I didn’t feel the transition per se, but it was evident to me that Obama was taking a different approach foreign policy-wise. Also during the transition, it is important to remember the financial crisis. It hit President Obama early on, and at the treasury, I certainly felt that.
Gate: That’s super interesting to think about how the financial crisis came into play there.
Vinograd: Can you imagine? It is similar to how President-Elect Biden is going to have to deal with the pandemic. Essentially, he has already been dealing with it as a candidate, but that is going to be the primary challenge he is going to face when he comes into office.
Gate: How would you characterize the current state of US foreign policy?
Vinograd: It is in desperate need of repair. Having served under a Republican and a Democrat, I don’t say that with any happiness. Our foreign policy has seemingly been driven by one man’s personal needs/interests, and one man’s perceived personal enemies, rather than any real strategy. We have had a gross disparity between what the Commander in Chief is saying and doing and what his departments are saying and doing. Our foreign policy under Trump has been largely defined by hypocrisy. Secretary of State Pompeo, on the one hand, is calling for free and fair elections and freedom of the press overseas, but President Trump, and oftentimes Secretary of State Pompeo, are degrading the same democratic freedoms here at home. So, I am very eager to see a coherent foreign policy unfold after January 20.
Gate: While you were working in the public sector, did you have any experiences which led you to become interested in working in the private sector? More specifically, how did you transition your work from the NSC to Goldman?
Vinograd: When I worked in the public sector, I certainly saw how important the private sector was/is as a partner. I think that any public official will acknowledge that the private sector plays a key role in major policy issues, and the private sector has major expertise that the US government does not. I didn’t work with Goldman while I was in government, but I began to get an understanding that the private sector plays a role in issues that I worked on in the public sector. My transition was smooth. I loved my experience at Goldman. It really showed me how and why the private sector cares about policy issues. The first project I did for Goldman was really a public/private partnership on North American energy issues. It was really a living case study for me on how the public and private sectors can be partners on various issues.
Gate: How did your experiences in both the public and private sectors lead you to co-found a political risk firm, Global Opportunity Advisors?
Vinograd: I founded Global Opportunity Advisors based upon my desire to take a portfolio approach. I worked full time at Goldman and I worked full time in the tech space at a fantastic company called Stripe, based in San Francisco, which I really loved. When I moved back to New York, I founded this company for my consulting business because I made a transition to doing many things part-time rather than one thing full-time. That was the genesis of Global Opportunity Advisors, and it is all a work in progress. What is unique about Global Opportunity Advisors is that I founded it with my best friend Morgan Ortagus who is a lifelong Republican. We had a history of writing and speaking together and trying to approach issues from that bipartisan lens. Right after we founded Global Opportunity Advisers, Morgan was asked to join the Trump Administration. Morgan went and served as a spokesperson for Secretary of State Pompeo, so the bipartisan nature of our consulting was put on hold, but we will see what the future brings.
Gate: Did you have any mentors that were formative to your studies and career? What lessons did you learn from them? And looking forward, as a woman in national security, what advice would give to young women interested in entering this field?
Vinograd: I had incredible mentors, both male and female. I am still in touch with them: former acting director of the CIA and former fellow at the IOP Michael Morell, former national security advisor Tom Donnellan, former under secretary of state Wendy Sherman, and former deputy secretary of energy Elizabeth Sherwood Randall. I had incredible mentors who have encouraged me to continue growing professionally and to make time for a personal life too. I am still in touch with them, and I value their expertise. I was really young when I was at the White House, and I had a lot to learn. They were really helpful in that regard.
As a woman in national security, I would say two things. One is don’t limit yourself. No jobs are just for men or are off limits for a woman. Do what interests you and that is it, full stop. The second is just be yourself. At the beginning of my career, I did feel like I had something to prove as a woman, so I never took sick days, didn’t really take vacation, and just tried to be on it all the time. Women are human: we get sick; we get tired. A lot of women my age have children. President Biden has made clear that that is expected and that is okay, so honestly just be yourself. That is something I had to come to terms with—I spent a lot of my career in a war zone, and that is a really tough place for a woman. It is okay to be scared, tired, any of those things. Just be yourself, do what interests you, and find good mentors.
Gate: Is there anything else that you would like to add that you feel is relevant?
Vinograd: I would just say that if people are considering a career in public service, I get a lot of questions about how to end up at the White House. Honestly, the best advice I can give is do what interests you and do it really well. That’s what I did. Don’t try to plan too far ahead; just do something really well. There is nothing like public service—it is so rewarding. If you have the opportunity and ability to serve your country, whether it is in the military or in the government or any of those capacities, take it. There is nothing like it.