A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Julia M. Wilton

Mar 19, 2024

In a new interview series, Carnegie Council editor Alex Woodson speaks with members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort.

ALEX WOODSON: Was there a moment for you that made you interested in ethics in your professional life? 

JULIA WILTON: There was never really one specific "Aha" moment for me. In general, I would say that ethics is something that I have prioritized throughout my entire life, and I've been taught to prioritize throughout my entire life. Being a second generation Canadian whose family was directly impacted by actions of Nazi Germany and World War II, I grew up with a keen understanding of right and wrong in sort of a black and white sense. I was always fascinated to learn about the reasons behind why certain people choose to engage in non-ethical behavior. But today, I think we're living in a world that feels parallel in some ways to the world that my family escaped from. And I think that it has really shown me that life is a little bit more complicated than the very simple idea of just right and wrong that I was taught growing up. The world we live in is comprised of a lot more shades of gray.

In terms of my professional life, something that was really important to me was to be able to combine my understanding of right and wrong and hone that, along with understanding that the corporate world is a very different world than the world of charity or non-governmental organizations. It was important for me to try to find a way to weave those ideas together and to create a cohesive narrative that made sense for me in terms of the impact that I will leave behind, both at my corporation and then also on the lives of the people who my company touches on a daily basis.

ALEX WOODSON: How did you find about Carnegie Ethics Fellows? Why did you think it would be a good fit for you?

JULIA WILTON: Since I was a young adult in Canada pursuing a degree in peace, conflict and, justice studies at the University of Toronto, I've always keenly followed Carnegie Council’s work. I first heard about the organization from a reference in a class syllabus in my first-year philosophy and ethics course. My professor had put together a syllabus and there's, of course, required readings—there was a lot of Kant, Plato, readings like that. But then there was also a list of supplemental reading or more current pieces, and that’s where “Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs” popped out. As a poly-sci student, anything that had “international affairs” in the name—it was like a “ding, ding, ding” moment for me and that started an amazing long chain of events. I've cited the organization’s work in papers and conferences and all the various activities that I've been a part of while I was in school. And I was always interested in becoming involved in some way, though never quite knowing exactly where I would fit in.

So it was serendipitous that a friend of mine who was a graduate of my Master's program in global affairs at NYU was a member of the Carnegie New Leaders program and recommended I look into the professional fellowships the Council was offering. I was basically refreshing the Carnegie website for months on end until the Fellowship program was announced.

For me, joining the Fellowship was about finding a way to weave ethical values and leadership into everyday operations of the corporate world. It’s a great opportunity for me to connect with and learn from people who come from different backgrounds than I do. I think that's the most valuable thing that we can do as young adults, as the next generation of leaders. I also felt that this would be a wonderful way for me to hone my own understanding of ethics, to bring my own experience into the conversation, and then also to come up with ways to move forward in the very, very tricky world that we live in right now. That's definitely been proven to be true so far. I think I've learned more in the last year than I have in the last decade.

"I felt that the Fellowship would be a wonderful way for me to hone my own understanding of ethics, to bring my own experience into the conversation, and then also to come up with ways to move forward in the very, very tricky world that we live in right now."

ALEX WOODSON: How would you describe your role at K2 Integrity? How does ethics fit in with what you do there?

JULIA WILTON: K2 Integrity is a financial crimes, risk, and regulatory advisory firm. My role is extremely multifaceted, and ethics is a part of everything that I do. Whether I'm conducting a bespoke investigation into identifying the purveyors of counterfeit goods in an industry or performing financial and risk-based due diligence on Middle Eastern banks, everything that I do is with an eye to ethics.

My job right now is specifically focused on financial crimes and risk management. I am working on what we call the Financial Intelligence Unit for a major central bank in the Middle East. My job is to ensure that the banks that are feeding their transactions through the central bank are legitimate and that their transactions are respectable, that there is proper compliance being met with every transaction that happens, and that there is proper due diligence being conducted on the parties who are making those transactions.

It's a lot of work. There's a lot of ethical questions we have to ask ourselves on a daily basis, because even though something might seem fishy, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is. We have to use our gut in a lot of ways to decide whether something is worth looking into or escalating. We see thousands of transactions a day. So it's a lot of weight on our chests on a daily basis of recognizing the extremely important role that you're playing in Middle Eastern commerce and economic rebuilding. The economies and the central banks that we're dealing with are all recovering from decades of war and economic ruin. It’s our job to ensure that these economies can rebuild themselves and can start over with the right tools and the right compliance requirements in place to really propel themselves forward and allow them to operate on their own terms without our assistance.

ALEX WOODSON: There are many different career paths you could have taken in the banking and finance sector. Why did you decide to focus on corporate diligence, investigations, and disputes?

JULIA WILTON: My focus on corporate diligence, investigations, and disputes was a way to really dive into what I felt like was an ethical field within what a lot of people would consider to be a not very ethical field. At the end of the day, I'm a consultant. I work for massive corporations and massive banks. The only way I've ever really been able to justify that is by understanding that the work that I do does have an effect on people's lives, on the lives of millions of people in the Middle East who want access to a functioning and compliant banking system.

Hopefully that will help rebuild the economies of these places that we've not done a very good job of rebuilding since we've left. It’s important to me to show, I think as well, that these types of positions, these types of companies do not need to be seen as sources of evil per se. Again, it's not black and white. Of course, there are areas of the financial industry where ethics is not a huge focus. It's not something that they necessarily have to take into consideration because their bottom line is just to make money. And that is perfectly fine. But for me, I wanted to be a part of the corporate world, but I needed it to fall in line with my own personal values and morals. This is a way that I was able to combine the two together, and it's a way that I can have an effect on the world around me while still pushing my career forward as well.

ALEX WOODSON: How has your family history influenced your values and the way that you have approached your professional life?

JULIA WILTON: It has forced me to think about the fact that a lot of these injustices that we saw all those years ago, the things that affected my family, the things that affected millions upon millions of people in our world, are things that are still happening. So many of us are still turning a blind eye to those issues. We've seen what’s happening in Sudan, Yemen, Myanmar. We're seeing it happen again with Israel and Hamas and the absolute horrors that are being inflicted upon innocent Palestinians. I don't feel sound in the fact that we live in the world where we haven't learned this lesson. I do not ever want to become somebody who is complacent to what is happening around me. That is the most important thing that I've taken away from my family and my family history.

I am expecting my first child in July, and people ask me all the time: "How do you choose to have a child knowing the world that you're bringing it into, knowing all these things that are happening?" And my answer is simple; I believe that bringing a child into this world is a radical act of hope. It is a way to say: “I know that this world needs help. I think our world has always needed help, and I believe that we can do better. My son is part of a new generation, and I will teach him these values.” I'll teach him how important it is to be a part of this world and to not look away and to consider ethical, moral values in everything that you do. We have so many wonderful resources and humans and people and youth who want to change things, and I believe that they will. I want to be a part of that, and I want my son to be a part of that.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the Fellow and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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