Wham in the Middle of London
How Minouche Shafik ’83 became one of Britain’s most influential people.
After 35 years, her UMass economics professor still remembers Minouche Shafik. “She was an intensely interested and very perky student. She definitely sat in the front row,” recalls Carmen Diana Deere, now a distinguished professor emerita at the University of Florida. “She was always asking questions.”
That inquisitive nature stayed with Shafik through her study of economics at UMass Amherst, to her graduate degree at the London School of Economics (LSE), and PhD at the University of Oxford. “It took me a long time to get educated,” she laughs.
Once educated, Shafik rose in big jobs in high places—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Bank of England—becoming one of Britain’s most influential people and a dame of the Order of the British Empire, to boot. Now, as director of the London School of Economics, Shafik retains her undergraduate intensity. She moved into the top spot at the LSE in September—her dream job, she says, because the university is all about the ideas and issues of the day. “The LSE was founded by a group of Fabians, which was a political society that had a very explicit object of creating an intellectual center that had an impact on the real world, so they put it wham in the middle of London,” she explains. “It has always been the opposite of an ivory tower. It’s a vibrant, active place, and that really suits me.”
The LSE is ranked among the top three universities in the United Kingdom, just below Cambridge and Oxford. It is one of the world’s foremost universities for social sciences and particularly notable for its global focus, which suits Shafik, who is Egypt-born and holds American and British citizenship. Sixty-nine percent of its nearly 12,000 students come from outside Europe. Its graduates and teachers include 18 Nobel Prize winners and 37 world leaders.
With her first academic year behind her, Shafik so far finds leading the LSE “fantastically rewarding.” She shares one of her top priorities—nothing less than reaffirming the value of universities to the public—with University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy. He believes that academic freedom is key to truth and democracy. Shafik, too, wants it known that universities are a genuine force for good in the world. “One of the things that worries me is the discrediting of experts in public debate,” she says. “I have been very keen to push back against that.”
On her first day as the LSE’s director, she pushed back with an article in Times Higher Education. She wrote: “At a time when many of the values that we hold dear are under threat, we need to do a better job of explaining our contribution to society and how essential rigour, clear communication, training in critical thinking, and genuine academic debate are to the good that we do.”
The LSE is known for giving a global podium to acclaimed speakers. As a UMass student in the early ’80s, Shafik attended more than her share of such events. “I was a bit of a nerd,” she recalls. “I really did enjoy going to hear a lot of outside speakers, seminars, and lectures.”
She enrolled in classes at Smith, Hampshire, and Amherst Colleges offered through the Five College Consortium and, as a member of the honors program, had a course in which she read books recommended by professors in a variety of disciplines. “It was a great opportunity to understand what ideas influenced people’s lives,” she says. “I read books I wouldn’t have found on my own.” Those included Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.
Shafik came to UMass after a year at the American University in Cairo. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, she had spent her childhood in the southern United States, and the Massachusetts cold came as a shock. “I had never seen snow before I came to Amherst,” she says. “I can still remember the first time I saw a down jacket and those duck boots. I thought they were for Halloween; I didn’t imagine that people actually wore things like that! I did get used to it, but not until my third year did I get proper shoes.”
She lived near Amherst Center with a group of friends who hosted an open Sunday brunch. “It was warm and friendly, with lots of people coming in and out,” she recalls. “It was a beautiful old house, not in great shape. There were six of us: three from New York, two from Massachusetts, and me. We’re all still friends.”
Her UMass studies taught Shafik that social upheavals, such as the nationalization that brought her parents from Egypt to the United States, have political and economic solutions. After graduation, she returned to Egypt and worked in rural development. From there, she went to the London School of Economics for her graduate degree in economics and then to Oxford for her PhD.
After Oxford, she went to work as a researcher at the World Bank, where the mission is to reduce poverty in the world. She advanced steadily during her 15 years there; at age 36, she was the youngest vice president at the World Bank, facing such questions as: How do you transition from Communism in Eastern Europe to reduce poverty? “It was a bit daunting,” she admits. “In the end, you do your job, do your homework, get good advice.”
She next worked for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, which oversees global aid for the U.K. in over 60 countries. She managed a massive budget and a staff of thousands, again with the goal of reducing world poverty.
From there, in 2011, she became deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, where her work was dominated by the eurozone debt crisis and the aftermath of the Arab Spring. “At that point, I got very good training in managing crises, which is the bread and butter of central banking,” she recalls.
As a woman in the mainly male field of economics, Shafik is often asked about the glass ceiling. “I never liked that metaphor,” she says. “It implies that you have to bang your head against it and break through it, and then when one woman breaks through, everybody else can follow. I don’t think that’s actually the way it works; it’s more complicated.”
She favors her own metaphor—the sticky door. It takes a firm push to open it, but you’ll get through easier if someone on the other side is pulling for you. “Yes, women have to put themselves forward and take risks and apply for jobs that are challenging,” Shafik says, “but having good bosses is an important part of helping women get ahead in their careers. I’ve had bosses who gave me assignments that were a bit of a stretch and supported me through those challenges. Now that I’ve gotten through many sticky doors, I believe I have an obligation to be the person on the other side of the door helping pull it open for others. It’s a two-way thing.”
In 2014, Shafik got through the famous bronze doors of the Bank of England, located on London’s Threadneedle Street, becoming the bank’s first deputy governor for markets and banking and, according to the Guardian, the most powerful woman in the City of London. She was responsible for a balance sheet of £475 billion pounds (that’s about $630 billion). She was also asked to tackle misconduct in financial markets; the press called her “Sheriff of the Markets.” “I try not to pay attention to those monikers,” Shafik smiles. “My mother finds it very amusing.”
Last year Shafik left her high-ranking post at the Bank of England for the London School of Economics. Encouraging the open debate that is an LSE hallmark, in February she was a featured speaker at a university festival focused on the future of the welfare state. “Many of the problems we see in today’s very divided society are because the systems we have for people who are either hit by economic shock or face a personal shock that sets them back are not working anymore,” she says. “We need to rethink the welfare state to make it suitable for the 21st century.” Shafik’s global economic perspective and decades of leadership in rocky times have prepared her to take on that challenge and many more to come at the LSE and to be a highly respected voice in global affairs. She presented a plan to heal our fractured societies at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Shafik shoulders her heavy responsibilities with remarkable equanimity. She says that during years of stressful jobs in Washington, D.C., and London, she has always found being outdoors relaxing. One of her favorite spots in London is Hampstead Heath, with its green rolling hills, meadows, and ponds. Raising children also keeps her grounded. She has 15-year-old twins (a boy and a girl), as well as three stepchildren in their 20s. “You can come home from work with some huge crisis that you’ve had to deal with, but when your kid needs help with their homework or needs their sports kit for P.E. tomorrow, it helps put everything in perspective,” she says.
Back in her LSE office, Shafik marvels how campuses have changed since she came to UMass at age 18 and studied in London in her 20s. “Universities are much nicer!” she says. “It was certainly a lot more scruffy here in my day.”
Reflecting on how she has matured since her Amherst days, Shafik says, “I like to think I’ve retained the idealism of that age, but I’ve got a lot more experience and pragmatism about how things actually get done in the world. I know in order to achieve a big ideal, you have to do some very tough things along the way. Often in life, the objective is easy to define; it’s how you get there that’s difficult.”
Ask a Dame
Nemat Shafik (everyone calls her by her childhood nickname, Minouche) is the first UMass graduate to be named a dame of the Order of the British Empire. Granted the exceptional opportunity to talk to an alum with such a penetrating intellect and vast experience tackling global crises, UMass magazine asked Dame Minouche some big questions.
Is civilization making progress or racing toward self-destruction?
That is a big question! I have worked on developing countries and poverty issues, which helps to answer it. When you have that perspective, there is absolutely no doubt that we are so much better off than we were 20 or 30 years ago. People are living longer across the world. Incomes have risen; rates of extreme poverty and hunger have declined. The number of conflicts in the world has declined. If you look at that broad historical perspective, we are much better off than previous generations.
I do think the last couple of years have felt more gloomy because of the legacy of the financial crisis of 2008 and the political consequences of that crisis. And social media has changed the nature of public discourse. We have less common space as societies, and, ironically, that makes us feel more isolated, more alone, more divided from others. Hopefully, this will be a time in which we will think of new ways to reconnect our societies and the ties that bind us. We all need to do our bit to try to overcome this very unusual period in history.
In these turbulent times, can you give our readers reason to be optimistic about the future of the world?
In every place I have worked, I have met committed and capable colleagues who want to do good in the world. In the end, what makes me very optimistic is to think about all those very passionate people.
You’ve been in demanding jobs dealing with nerve-racking situations, including humanitarian crises, the eurozone crisis, the Arab Spring, the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Brexit vote. How do you sleep at night?
I don’t panic; I’m a planner. For me, preparation is one of the best ways of dealing with stress. I just put the energy into planning and thinking through all the options and what we would do in different scenarios. When you feel well prepared, you feel confident and capable of coping with almost anything.
On a lighter note, what are the privileges of being a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire?
The queen is getting on a bit, so Prince Charles pinned a medal on me at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. You get this title, which I don’t use very much, to be honest. You can use it on your card or to make dinner reservations. In theory, you’re part of an order—in the olden days, it would have been an order of knights. If you get into trouble, the other knights will come and protect you. I must say I haven’t taken them up on that.
Photo of Minouche Shafik, Nigel Stead