Alya Adamany Woods MA ‘02 didn’t expect to become a Chicago “lifer” after earning her degree in international relations. Now, she can’t imagine any place she would rather be than Chicago. Currently, Woods is the Executive Director of ChicagoNEXT, an initiative of World Business Chicago, where she has continued to pursue her commitment to bringing “an outside the Beltway perspective” on global issues to policymakers and the private sector.
Alya Adamany Woods
Photo credit: Anjali Anand
Woods comes from a family of academics, so higher education had always been part of her plans. Despite knowing that she wanted to study the social sciences as an undergrad at Yale, she says she didn’t come to political science until a little later in college. “I took a couple of polisci courses and realized that I really liked what I thought of as applied history, learning about the way the world came to be the way it is today.”
Her interest in political science led her to apply for a masters degree through CIR. At UChicago, she found an environment that was familiar to her from Yale yet also challenging in new ways. “Being in CIR has great advantages, because you have access to these courses that are PhD level courses. You’re learning both from your peers and your professors.”
Because Woods’ father had immigrated from Lebanon, she had always been curious about Middle Eastern politics. Through her coursework in CIR, she had opportunities to explore that and other topics. “You pursue things out of personal interest, and then they become academic,” she says. “I had an opportunity to take Rashid Khalidi’s History of Modern Palestine while he was still at UChicago. I also took classes at the Harris School that I really enjoyed, like international political economy. It’s unique to CIR to be able to take courses across disciplines and have it all count towards your degree.”
She notes how real-world events spoke to and shaped the discussion in class. “When I was graduating, it was an interesting time to be in the international relations, foreign policy world. 9/11 happened when I was in my senior year as an undergraduate, and then in the year I was doing my masters, we went to war in Iraq. It was the most fascinating experience to be in John Mearsheimer’s class during that period of time. We would have done the assigned reading for that day, but in class, all we would talk about was the war.”
Unlike other CIR alums who were pursuing jobs in DC after graduation, Woods looked for opportunities in Chicago. “I had interned on the Hill in college, but I wasn’t ready to jump into that culture and community.” Instead, she approached the Chicago Council on Global Affairs for job openings. Although she was considered too qualified for an internship, Woods’ persistence paid off when she began working on the newly launched studies program.
Woods was part of the team that shaped the studies program, which now encompasses a number of publications across research topics, into a cornerstone of the Council’s work. “The Council for years was a relatively small organization that was focused on public programming. Prior to the studies program being formed, the Council was known only for one piece of primary research, which was the Public Opinion Survey. Our vision for the studies program was similar to the Council on Foreign Affairs in New York. We set up task forces that brought together high-level leadership around certain policy topics. Then we would workshop those topics with policymakers in DC over the course of six to twelve months.”
The task forces then created reports that distilled those conversations into policy recommendations. For Woods, a particularly memorable project focused on the needs of Muslim American immigrant communities, especially in opening dialogue between leadership of those communities and civic and political associations. The project gave her an opportunity to travel to Los Angeles and DC, among other cities, as well as participate in an exchange with Birmingham in the United Kingdom to compare American and British policy interventions in their respective Muslim immigrant communities.
When she left the Council after eight years, Woods moved to a position with the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition (ISTC), which allowed her to apply her previous experiences to a new challenge. “While I didn’t know much about innovation, or what was happening within the technology economy of the state, I did know how to take a high-level group of leadership stakeholders that had a somewhat singular focus and bring them together to discuss topics of interest and come up with meaningful insights or observations, and then develop a set of recommendations that could be turned into new projects.”
Her work with ISTC prepared Woods for her current role where she focuses on the political economy of technology and innovation in Chicago specifically. As part of her portfolio, she leads programs including the Chicago Venture Summit, ThinkChicago, and the Blackstone Inclusive Entrepreneurship Challenge, which supports entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities across the city.
When looking at her career so far, Woods acknowledges that it might seem unconventional for an international relations student to end up in a job focused on technology and innovation. “For me, there is a thread through my career in terms of the skills I have developed, the focus on Chicago, and working on pooling private and public resources towards tech or economic leadership.” For her, it’s exciting that students are “increasingly mission driven.” She says her own mission is the city of Chicago.
“I think your education takes you to a point, and then it’s really about your interests, and your skills, and your networks, that take you past your first opportunity into your second and third. There’s so much flexibility and so many opportunities – it’s unusual that people go to school for one thing and stay within that for years afterward.”