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World traveler puts down her roots


She was born in Southeast Asia, went to boarding school in Europe, worked at a caviar processing factory in China and won a national championship while attending college in California.

Now Kerty Nilsson Levy is bringing all of her worldly experience to Des Moines, having recently been named interim president of the Downtown Community Alliance.

“I’m most excited about the fact that I would do this almost as a volunteer it’s so much fun,” she said. “I really do love the work here.”

She brings to the job a background as a consultant, several years as a business and project manager in the online learning industry and a life history that provided her with a plethora of experiences and knowledge of several languages and cultures.

The daughter of two American expatriates, Nilsson Levy was born in Tokyo and she and her family subsequently moved to Hong Kong, Sweden, Belgium and Northern California. She attended boarding school as an eighth-grader near Stockholm, Sweden, where she became fluent in Swedish, before attending high school in Northern California and college at the University of California, Davis.

While working toward a degree in international relations, Nilsson Levy and the rest of the UC-Davis women’s water polo team won the 1988 NCAA national championship.

A summer internship in China and classes in Mandarin Chinese allowed Nilsson Levy to become fluent in the language. Following graduation, she headed to Beijing for her first of six years in the region.

“I really went over to Beijing not knowing what I was going to do,” she said. But two years in China exposed her to a variety of careers, with each experience leading her closer to her final destination.

“My first job was as a quality-control supervisor at a caviar processing factory on the Amur River,” she said, laughing. “I had to have a spoonful from every fish that came in. To this day it’s kind of my favorite other job.”  She joined the Beijing bureaus of the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek, conducting research for reporters. She later worked as an office manager for a Swedish trading company.

A move to Hong Kong brought Nilsson Levy closer to feeling “like I knew what I wanted to do. I tried the things that I didn’t want to do.”

It was there that she began her career as a consultant, joining Technomic Consultants International, Ltd. She returned to the United States three years later to attend Harvard Business School, which she calls her “ré-entrée back into the U.S.”

While working toward M.B.A., Nilsson Levy became a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group, which included a summer stint in Stockholm. She stayed on with BCG after completing her degree requirements and receiving the 1997 Dean’s Award at Harvard.

After two years with BCG in Chicago, Nilsson Levy moved to San Francisco to try her hand in the online learning industry, with an aim of gaining management experience.

She was hired as director of business development and program management for Headlight.com, working with customers such as Compaq Computer Corp. and American Express Co. She later joined Digitalthink Inc. as its Asia-Pacific regional director, and later became its director of project management.

In 2002, Nilsson Levy, her husband, Frank, whom she married in 2000, and their daughter, Katherine, moved to Des Moines when Frank accepted a position with his father’s firm, Newbury Development Co.

One month pregnant with her second child, Mia, Nilsson Levy resigned from Digitalthink and took a hiatus from her career. She volunteered and joined the Des Moines Rowing Club, and several other local organizations. But she couldn’t be kept away.

“Pretty soon it became obvious that I really just wanted to get back to work,” she said. “I’m a worker person.”  Nilsson Levy joined the Downtown Community Alliance in early January under a six-month contract as an economic development consultant to spearhead development efforts for Riverpoint West.

“Our participation in this was really to market this opportunity to developers,” she said. “We’ve seen that piece of land as an area just begging for development. It’s such a good opportunity.”

She became a full-time Alliance staff member July 1 and took the helm last week as the organization’s interim president.

“Business development and program management is what we do and that’s all I’ve done most of my career,” she said. “That side of it is really fun and it just fits and it feels so good.”

Nilsson Levy is hopeful that Riverpoint West and other downtown Des Moines development projects, such as the Principal Riverwalk, will make downtown more than a community for the “8-to-5 population.”

And she sees a great deal of potential.

“Maybe because I’m new, but when I see the development, I see the done deal,” she said. “It is a beautiful city. We’ve got the nuts and bolts for a very vibrant population downtown.”

She and her husband were unsure when they moved to Des Moines whether it would be permanent. But they think they have it all figured out.

“We knew within a matter of months,” Nilsson Levy said. “Within six months, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is stupid. Take California off the plans. This is a great place to stay.’ So we decided then that we’re going to stay indefinitely.”

Though they have found a place to settle, though the couple are taking steps to ensure their daughters, Katherine, 2 1/2, and Mia, 14 months, develop the same awareness of other cultures and languages that they have known for so many years.

“I had their passports at four months each,” Nilsson Levy said. “When you could actually get them to look at a camera and not cry I had their pictures taken.”

World travels have not been forgotten, with high hopes for Katherine and Mia’s passports have already been put to use. They took their first trip overseas in June with their parents, stopping in Denmark and Sweden.

“We have a few Swedish books and I read to them in Swedish,” Nilsson Levy said, while reminding herself to pick up some books written in Chinese.

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