New York City’s Commissioner for International Affairs and former Director of Girls and Women Integration at the Clinton Global Initiative, Penny Abeywardena has been advocating for the rights of women and girls and starting global conversations her entire career.  Having worked with governments, multinational corporations, philanthropists, and NGO’s to increase investments in gender-focused development initiatives, Penny was poised to create new programs that amplify New York City’s leadership on issues relevant to the global community.  Since her appointment in 2014, Penny and her team have led New York City’s effort to build a global platform connecting New Yorkers and City agencies with the United Nations, consular corps, and the international community.

In 2016, Penny was named by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader, is a Term Member for the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on the Board of Directors for the United National Development Corporation.  Learn about Penny’s vision for New York City and its global community, how she used an entrepreneurial mindset to create positive change through government, and how you can be a global change agent making an impact on your community.


The vision for this office is to build a collaborative relationship with the UN and other international delegations in New York City.


Global Goals

How does being Commissioner for International Affairs require leadership?

When the mayor first reached out to me, like many New Yorkers, I hadn’t heard of the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs.  New York City is host to the largest diplomatic corps in the world and Mayor de Blasio and I have spent the last three years building a global platform from which to strategically engage this diplomatic community.  We have the United Nations headquarters, UN affiliates like UNICEF, 193 permanent missions, over 70 trade commissions and 114 consulates, which are important bridges to our immigrant communities.

The leadership opportunity with this job is extraordinary.  Over the last few years, we’ve built a number of programs such as Global Vision | Urban Action, which highlights the synergies between the UN’s Global Goals and the mayor’s development goals for New York City through his OneNYC program.  We’re then able to share best practices that benefit the global community.  In this way, leadership has required an entrepreneurial mindset as we’ve built our programs and opportunities for engagement.

What is your vision of synergy between New York and its global community?

It’s important for New York City to engage with its global community and share our American values on issues such as climate action, immigration, immigrant rights, universal Pre-K, early childhood education, affordable housing, and parental leave.  The vision for this office is to build a collaborative relationship with the UN and other international delegations in New York City.

In 2015, the Mayor launched OneNYC: The Plan for a Strong and Just City, and in the same year, the UN created their Sustainable Development Goals.  Whether it’s access to healthcare or eradicating poverty, we can share best practices and programs to achieve these goals.  We also launched the NYC Junior Ambassadors program, which empowers NYC 7th grade students and educators to become actively engaged with the UN, using the Sustainable Development Goals as an important lens through which they understand the work of the UN and related global issues.

The students then identify specific actions they can take in their own communities to act on global issues such as volunteering at a local food pantry in order to help end world hunger, or campaigning to reduce the use of plastic in their school cafeterias in order to combat climate change.  In this way, we’re building the next generation of global citizens.  

How have you used an entrepreneurial mindset to build a global platform?

When I first learned about this job, I didn’t think I would be an entrepreneur-commissioner.  Previous administrations ran this office focused primarily on the operational relationship New York City has with the diplomatic corps.  Instead, the Mayor asked me to create a global platform from which New York City could share what initiatives are working and engage the global community within New York City.

For the first few months, I spent time getting to know my constituents, the other commissioners, those working at City Hall and the UN, different ambassadors, and consuls general.  I listened to what they needed.  Like every entrepreneur, it’s about identifying gaps and bringing opportunity to the community you’re trying to impact.  I took steps to restructure the office in a way that would make sense within this administration, so that we can focus on strategic partnerships, as well as translating New York City policies into a global conversation.

When I hire, I encourage every person to be an entrepreneur by taking a similar approach of discovering gaps and finding ways to strategically address them.  The Mayor has embraced that vision of entrepreneurship within the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs; and we have successful programs and a strong reputation because we’ve operated within that mindset over the last few years.


Activation can happen in many ways - you can give money, intern, volunteer, sit on a board, or fundraise. 


How do you create a successful collaboration with cultural diversity?

Cultural diversity is part of the reason why I joined this administration.  Within this community, we have 193 member states at the UN and 114 consulates.  These communities represent cultures and languages from the entire world.

Having issue-based conversations is very important to collaboration.  For example, we worked with the Korean Consulate to host an event about the importance of reading, singing, and talking to your baby with the Korean community and the First Lady’s Office at the Queens Library.  It was a great collaboration between New York City, the Queens Library, and the Korean Consulate.  Most importantly, it brought City services to directly to NYC’s Korean community.

Similarly, we have established a strong partnership between the UN and the Department of Education for our NYC Junior Ambassadors program.  While you can’t tackle everything, if you focus on one issue or moment in time, then there’s an opportunity to have people engage about things they might not otherwise have the chance.  It can be a challenge, but that’s where having an entrepreneur’s mindset (I like to think of it as a ‘hustle!’) is important.

How can millennial women get involved and support their communities?

Now is the time to activate.  Activation can happen in many ways - you can maximize your social impact by donating to causes or organizations you believe in, intern or volunteer your time, use your voice by becoming a board member, or fundraise.  Picking up the phone, pitching an organization’s work, and fundraising are mission critical for community organizations.  There are hundreds of incredible government and city programs, as well as community organizations working in specific neighborhoods, with children, youth, and domestic violence survivors.  My focus my entire career has been on women’s rights and empowerment.  

If you’re looking for an organization to support, look at community foundations you trust and check out the local organizations they’re funding.  If you’re in New York City and you care about girls’ and women’s issues, check out The New York Women’s Foundation see who they’re giving money to.  If you care about international girls’ and women’s issues, check out Mama Cash or the Global Fund for Women and learn about their grantees.

Donating money (even if it’s five dollars) and your time matters.  It shows these organizations that you’re paying attention.  Figure out how much time you want to spend, how much of yourself you want to give, and then look at the range of options you have.  Now is the time to activate like never before.


Watch Penny's bSMART interview here!

Like every entrepreneur, it’s about identifying gaps and bringing opportunity to the community you’re trying to impact.


Ambitious Advocate

What are you most proud of accomplishing working with world leaders?

I’m most proud of how I’ve taken extraordinary platforms - first the Clinton Global Initiative and now the City of New York - and created value for the community most impacted.  At the Clinton Global Initiative, I was hired to create the women and girls program.  I worked with world leaders, corporations, philanthropists, and nonprofits to help them better integrate gender into how they address global challenges.

With the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, we’ve established partnerships with not only the United Nations but senior foreign leaders, representing countries around the world.  Most recently, my incredible team partnered with Randall’s Island to bring United Nations staff onsite for a day of service to celebrate Nelson Mandela Day.  It was an honor to speak along with the UN Secretary General at the launch event for Mandela Day about New York City’s leadership.  It's clear that the UN views my office as a valuable partner and they continually engage us in a myriad of collaborations.

So far, I’ve had an extraordinary career of working for world-renowned organizations with strong reputations like the Clinton Global Initiative and now New York City.  I've also had the opportunity to work with incredibly dedicated colleagues - whether it was integrating girls and women into the initiatives at CGI or now sharing American values as embodied by the New York City and the de Blasio administration - with the global community.

What has been your biggest obstacle advocating for women and girls?

I was hired at the Clinton Global Initiative to build a program focused on girls and women.  That originally meant that any time a CGI member wanted to focus on the advancement of girls and women, they were sent to me.  If someone cared about girls’ education, women’s economic empowerment, or women’s health - they all came to work with me.

Empowering girls and women became ‘Penny’s issue’ in-house, when it really needed to be everybody’s issue.  People needed to see the intrinsic value of focusing on girls’ and women’s issues throughout all of our focus areas (whether it was climate or health) and the entire organization.  I worked with my colleagues to create a new process of engagement and activation and a focus on girls and women became a valued strategy throughout all the different aspects of CGI and member engagement.  By the time I left CGI, if a member was interested in girls’ education issues they worked with the education team and women and climate change worked with the climate change team ensuring that that all members were aware of the opportunities around girls and women.  

That experience turned out to be very valuable for me now as a Commissioner as my team translates the work the City does into the global conversation, connecting City agency partners with our colleagues in the diplomatic corps.


Figure out policies at a government level and determine how we can change cultures, attitudes, and the way people think about girls and women.


What are the challenges for women and girls globally and in the U.S.?

After years of working on domestic and international women’s issues, I’ve learned that there isn’t a silver bullet answer that can easily solve issues like women’s economic empowerment or girl’s education.  Rather, we need to work on systemic change.  This is something the U.S., in particular New York City and the de Blasio administration, are working hard to address.

As an example, in January 2016 the Mayor signed an order for New York City employees to receive parental leave.  As a new mom, it allowed me to stay home for two months without being burdened by economic insecurity.  These types of systemic changes, including universal Pre-K, can empower women globally and domestically.  Figure out policies at a government level and determine how we can change cultures, attitudes, and the way people think about girls and women.

What does an empowered life look like for women around the world?

An empowered life for women and girls is when they have the freedom to make educated choices for themselves - whether it’s about their body, career, or movement.  We need both girls and women to know their rights, but we also need a community, family, and government to support that.  That’s when we’re going to see empowered girls and women around the world - when both of those things happen.  

How can we be smart global citizens and change agents like you?

It’s about being yourself.  One of the hang-ups I had when I was younger was that I had a linear path for my future.  I needed to know what the next thing was and it had to make a lot of sense, but that’s not the way life works.  

Looking back at my career and life choices, I’ve been true to the things I care about (which has largely been women’s rights) and that has helped shape the narrative of my career.  I’ve done fundraising, worked on public policy, and created programs.  I now realize I didn’t have to be so stressed out about making the perfect choice. There is no such thing as the perfect choice.  Oh, and I shouldn’t have felt bad about cursing.  It’s indicative of creativity!


 I’ve had an extraordinary career of bringing together incredible brands and building something around them that truly provides value.


Spotlight on Penny Abeywardena

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Occupation: New York City’s Commissioner for International Affairs

Twitter: @pabeywardena

Instagram: @pabeywardena

Women I Admire: Those who successfully embrace ambition + integrity to make a difference

Look of the Season: Chic & comfortable

Ultimate Accessory: Statement necklace

Go-to Outfit: Skinny pants, blouse/tank, tailored blazer

Must-have Shoes: Patterned heels

Cocktail of Choice: Margarita

Best Advice: Always go big - just be diplomatic as you get there.

Favorite App: Instagram (stories)

University: University of Southern California and Columbia University


Comments (1)

  1. Meagan Hooper

We're incredibly honored to share Penny's story and expertise with bSmart ladies!

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