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Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, MBA 92
U.S. Ambassador to Hungary,Budapest
When Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Hungary in January 2010 at age 43, one of the youngest women to head a U.S. embassy, she had no time for culture shock.
“I knew that the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believed I was up to the challenge, so I focused on what I needed to know to lead these welltrained diplomats,” she said in an interview following her address to the 2012 Alumni Conference at Haas in April. “I think President Obama was determined to have political appointees who were not only able to do the job, but also would bring something new to the table.”
Indeed, Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’ entry into the diplomatic corps was a sharp bend in her career, which had centered for 18 years on building her father’s Northern California real estate company, AKT Development Corp.
The daughter of a Greek immigrant who worked his way from a field laborer to one of the state’s largest land developers and most generous Democratic donors, Tsakopoulos Kounalakis got an early introduction to politics. After heading from Haas to AKT, where she served as president, she helped raised more than $1 million for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign before backing Obama.
When she got a call from the new administration with her choice of four diplomatic placements, she chose Hungary because her husband, Markos Kounalakis, BS 78 (Letters & Sci.), a journalist and Washington Monthly publisher emeritus, had covered the end of the Cold War as a correspondent in Central Europe and wanted to go back.
Tsakopoulos Kounalakis said the beauty of the place and graciousness of the people quickly won her heart. Yet little did she know she would be serving at such a complicated time: Hungary has taken a sharp turn to the right, making waves with the European Union and raising fears about nascent democratic institutions. “I suspect [they would have preferred a career diplomat] and I wouldn’t have been sent if anyone had bargained for it,” she joked during her speech at Haas.
Overseeing a 400-person embassy has her drawing on her Haas education: working as a team toward a common goal, finding the right information to make decisions, and - perhaps most important - balancing interests and values.
“It is my job, every day, to advance the democratic values of the United States in every way I can,” she says. “If we lose sight of our values because of our interests, we are no longer the United States.”