Speaking to the World
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Government Leader, International Affairs Expert & Human Rights Advocate
At the age of four, Penny Abeywardena emigrated from Sri Lanka to the United States with her family to flee a civil war. She spent her youth as an undocumented immigrant, based in Los Angeles and, as she describes, living the reality of a 1980’s version of a “Dreamer.” The struggles of living in the shadows were compounded by domestic violence at home. Read More >
But despite the tough times, Penny not only survived, but she also thrived. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California and completed her Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. From 2014 to 2021, she served as New York City Commissioner for International Affairs—the first immigrant and woman of color to be appointed to the job. In the position, she worked with the largest diplomatic corps in the world. Under Penny’s leadership, New York City implemented a series of award-winning programs with the international community, ranging from youth empowerment to the power of local government leadership. These focused on global issues like climate change, sustainable development and rebuilding after the COVID-19 pandemic.
When New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, Penny worked with the United Nations and foreign governments to procure necessary medical equipment. Penny’s leadership and relationships led to an historic donation from the United Nations, as well as contributions from dozens of countries.
Prior to the Mayor of New York City’s appointment, Penny was the Director of Girls and Women Integration at the Clinton Global Initiative.
Penny is a life-long advocate of women’s rights and is a vocal champion for sustainability and social justice. Her contribution to social justice has been recognized and celebrated by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and the French American Foundation, among others.
“It sounds kind of trite, but lived experiences really do matter, right?” she said in an interview with The New York Times. “You get into so many theoretical conversations with people who are trying to empathize, as they should, which is great. But there’s something very visceral about fighting for women and girls when you’ve gone through those experiences yourself.”
Penny is on the Board of Directors of the Center for Reproductive Rights and the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships, which provides oversight of the UN Foundation. She also serves on the Aspen Institute’s Digital Equity Advisory Council, APCO Worldwide’s International Advisory Council, 92Y Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact Advisory Committee, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow and The International Advisory Council for International Peace Institute.
Penny was recently appointed to the rank of Knight in France’s National Order of Merit by President Macron for her global leadership on diplomacy, human rights and sustainability. In December 2020 she was awarded the Golden Helsinki Medal by Mayor Vapaavuori for the creation of a global network of local governments achieving sustainable development efforts. Penny was also recognized by the French American Foundation as a Young Leader (2017) and named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader (2016). Read Less ^
Cities Lead the Way
Columbia SIPA Alumni Keynote Address
Global Vision for NYC
Although advancements have been made through the years, the number of women in prominent leadership roles remains low. In fact, according to The Center for American Progress, “despite making up a majority of the U.S. population, women lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions.” The numbers are even worse for women of color. One exception to the dismal numbers is Penny Abeywardena, former New York City Commissioner for International Affairs. In this talk, Penny shares her personal story and how it strengthened her leadership skills, including how to navigate in places of power when you are an anomaly. She also will tell you how you can take values related to women’s and human rights and bring them to work no matter where you are employed, as well as the changes you can make as an individual.
When it came to the COVID crisis in the U.S., no city was hit harder than New York. It was the epicenter of the pandemic at a time when no one knew a lot about this horrendous disease. For Penny Abeywardena, who was New York City Commissioner for International Affairs at the time, she knew great leadership was critical to get the city back on its feet. So Penny took a deep breath and led. She worked with the United Nations and foreign governments to procure necessary medical equipment. And her leadership and relationships led to an historic donation from the United Nations, as well as contributions from dozens of countries. In this talk, Penny shares stories of handling the COVID crisis during those perilous times and the lessons she learned, especially when inflexible bureaucracies—like New York City, the United Nations and foreign missions—have to become flexible to survive an unprecedented crisis.
COVID has changed the landscape of the traditional office—making now the most exciting time to change its dynamic and reshape it to become more inclusive. But in order to make these changes, says Penny Abeywardena, former New York City Commissioner for International Affairs, leaders and workers must be there—at least on a hybrid schedule. Going into the office at least two to three days a week is extremely important—especially for women and people of color, she says. In this talk, Penny discusses why it’s so valuable for people to return to the workplace and how both leaders and employees will benefit. She’ll also cover how employers can entice their staff to return and why everyone needs to be there to make a difference that will help everyone.
After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012—one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history—Penny Abeywardena experienced how important it is to take climate change and climate action seriously. And she did just that for the entirety of her leadership as New York City Commissioner for International Affairs during the Bill de Blasio administration. She ensured that NYC’s groundbreaking efforts—including the Green New Deal, where the city committed to an ambitious plan to cut emissions by 40% by 2030—were at the center of a global platform her agency created to exchange best policies and practices with global partners. And she also led the creation of the global movement of the Voluntary Local Review, a way for local and regional governments to formally commit to sharing their Sustainable Development Goal progress on a global stage. Since then, over 300 subnational governments have signed onto the Declaration’s three commitments, representing nearly every region of the world. In this talk, Penny shares her personal story on fighting for sustainability, her leadership role and how cities and local governments can have a seat at the table, as well as how you can get your own voice heard in the halls of power.
As head of the Mayor's Office for International Affairs, Penny Abeywardena led New York City’s global platform for promoting its goals for a more just and accessible society, showcasing the diversity of New Yorkers and sharing policies and best practices with cities and states around the world. New York is also the host of the largest diplomatic corps in the world, which gave Penny even more leadership opportunities. In this talk, Penny shares how the soft power of diplomacy can be translated really effectively to businesses internally anywhere in the world. With her deep international experience –she was also co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow—Penny can frame any topic with an international emphasis.
"Penny Abeywardena has moderated and spoke at a number of World Economic Forum Summits including those listed below. She was a wonderful energetic moderator of discussions involving Heads of State and CEOs and has been able to guide and craft the discussion for an in person audience, which included the foremost leaders of government, business, civil society and academia and a global remote audience. She is also a magnetic speaker and can combine professionalism and humour, while providing a highly engaging presentation. She received excellent feedback from all participants and consequently has been a much sought after speaker at all summits she attended."
"Penny Abeywardena gave a remarkable presentation at the Helsinki Symposium in 2019 in Helsinki, Finland. Hosted by the Mayor of Helsinki the Helsinki Symposium is an annual high-level event that seeks to explore the most current developments in the urban world and discusses their implications to leadership and strategy. Penny Abeywardena’s presentation brought global insight and depth into the conversation, highlighted some of the most crucial developments in local and regional governance, and leadership and sustainability development. Her presentation received excellent feedback from the audience and the other speakers. We also appreciated her more private remarks to the mayors of the 21 largest cities in Finland. Her energy and inspirational presentation of the meaning of SDG’s in city leadership and strategy lead to multiple cities committing to SDG reporting on the spot."
"Penny was the ideal presenter at the recent event we hosted for The Women Initiative Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on providing women with opportunities to develop community, forge new relationships, and support their professional development. Penny spoke at our first in-person event on the heels of the pandemic and other unprecedented global challenges. Penny discussed her journey to becoming a community leader, including navigating challenges along the way. Through a candid approach, Penny shared anecdotes about her personal story of persevering through obstacles that influenced her dedication to women’s rights and supporting their growth. Penny’s warm presence and down-to-earth and compassionate style allowed the audience to easily connect with her. Sharing insights on the importance of mentorship, and authenticity, she hit on all the right notes while giving her audience immediately useful take-aways. True learning took place. Mingling with guests, Penny was accessible for discussion with the participants throughout the entirety of the event. The Foundation could not have asked for a more generous and thoughtful speaker to represent its mission and elevate the discussion at our event."
"Penny Abeywardena, a distinguished graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), gave an inspiring keynote address to our incoming class of admitted graduate students in the spring of 2021. Speaking virtually at a pivotal time during the COVID-19 pandemic, Penny reflected on the immense opportunities for impact these future leaders would have as graduates of SIPA and how SIPA had prepared her with skills, knowledge, and a network to succeed in her own career in public policy and international affairs. Penny is a role model to our students and did a fantastic job delivering a warm and hopeful message of welcome to the class of 2023."
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