Kristi Pelzel: I was at UN in New York last March when COVID-19 hit and the world changed

March of 2020, I was in New York City at the United Nations. I had taken the train from Washington, D.C., with no mask and no gloves. During my meeting that day, there was a discussion about a summit’s cancelation based on this “virus thing.” Within a day or two, the conference was canceled, and everything started to follow suit.

Sheri Singh and Kristi Pelzel at 2019 United Nations Association of the United States Leadership Summit, United Nations Headquarters New York, NY, USA. 
Sheri Singh and Kristi Pelzel at 2019 United Nations Association of the United States Leadership Summit, United Nations Headquarters New York, NY, USA.

After two years of earning a Master’s, graduation ceremonies from Georgetown University were canceled. I’d just won first place in the Georgetown University Policy Challenge, with a small team, and our efforts to change a law in D.C. for homeless mothers derailed. A career post I was in the process of accepting was suddenly de-funded. Still, I kept building my portfolio, making videos, writing, presenting at virtual workshops, and consulting, eventually catching the eye of Simon Ateba, founder of Today News Africa.

Simon had ambitious ideas to grow the business amid a pandemic, and we had two things in common, grit and resiliency.

Small business survival during this pandemic has relied on having enough sustainable business streams to mitigate the impacts of disruption to one or more of those models. For example, where contracts to travel for video and news production were not options, we built virtual training programs. We didn’t wait; instead, we built, presented, iterated, built more, and presented through these lean processes. We discovered what organizations really needed in the current climate and where we had a unique offering compared to our competition.

A view of the flags outside the General Assembly building during the second day of the general debate of the General Assembly's seventy-fifth session. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas 23 September 2020 New York, United States of America 
A view of the flags outside the General Assembly building during the second day of the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-fifth session. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas 23 September 2020 New York, United States of America

These experiences taught me not to look backward because I am not going that way. If I spend time thinking about what other people are doing or what I should’ve done, I lose precious time thinking about today and the future. For example, I was featured in a magazine in Mumbai, India, during the pandemic, and my picture has five words above my head, “Your only limit is you.” I have to live by this because if I stop to compare myself to other people for too long, I lose.

I also realized that it’s OK to get mentally exhausted. If I get tired, I rest; I don’t quit. And I can look at how I managed to balance my mindset and how I kept going, and I can apply the lessons to business. 

There is competition in the space of web and digital media publications, and we are, in cyberspace, fighting it out in keywords and algorithms. We can’t win, but we don’t quit knowing we cannot beat CNN and BBC. There is competition for being selected for entry to press events because it’s a lottery in the current climate. You see, everywhere we turn, competition is there trying to get in front of us.

Instead of focusing on one stream of business and trying to win against another organization, we’re able to pivot to another opportunity because we’ve built this business for resiliency. And like my personal journey, instead of focusing on what I didn’t, or can’t, get, I stay focused on other opportunities that I’ve laid the foundations for. The qualities I’m developing for myself and the business models Today News Africa is following are flexible and resilient, driven by the new idea that the world can, and will, change again.

Kristi Pelzel at Georgetown University with Mascot 2019 
Kristi Pelzel at Georgetown University with Mascot 2019

Think about it. Throughout history, life-altering events challenged our global relationships and how we operate in society, 9-11 being one profound example. It was radical at the time for people to see gates and screening stations at airports worldwide, restricted from bringing water, and instructed to remove their shoes. We adapted, reshaping our perception of normal, and resumed life from a new lens.

The pandemic is another life-altering event that’s forcing people to find ways to live differently based on circumstances life is presenting. We could be wearing masks for another three years or maybe forever, but we’ll adapt, and life will resume from a new lens again. Alongside these physical alternations to our world, like masks and distancing, I believe many people, like myself, have become more adaptable to change and are better aligned to absorb a failure and still move on and be successful.

Next week, I’ll be in New York City at the United Nations headquarters again, almost exactly one year later. I’m picking up my United Nations press badge to add to my United States Department of State Foreign Press Office Credential, my White House Correspondents Association Membership, and my National Press Club Membership. Today News Africa and I are growing, moving forward, and adapting for the future. Expect great things!

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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