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When talking to Peter Blair Henry, it is difficult to ignore a passing resemblance to the young Barack Obama. It is not the only connection: Prof Henry, now dean of the Stern School of Business at New York University, led the external economics advisory group for senator Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.
Tracking President Obama’s rise, Prof Henry became one of the youngest deans at any of the highly ranked business schools when he took up the job at NYU Stern in January 2010 at the age of 40. By that time Prof Henry already knew his way round several of the world’s top universities – Stanford, MIT and Oxford.
He may need all the skills of an academic and a political animal if he is to complete the transformation of Stern into a world-class business school out of what was, just two decades ago, a finance trade school. He has set the bar high. “How do we deliver globalisation in a way that is unique?” he asks.
By building on the school’s strength in finance rather than eschewing it, Prof Henry believes Stern can address some of the most important societal issues, from the growth opportunities in emerging markets to the interaction between government and business. “We have a traditional strength in finance and we are using that to help us diversify.”
One of his first moves has been to bring topics that seem divorced from business into the business school. He has appointed Paul Romer, an expert on the future of cities, and Michael Posner, the human rights campaigner.
Prof Henry argues forcibly that urbanisation will create one of the biggest societal, financial and business issues for the coming decades. “Some 2.9bn people are moving into cities in the next 30 years, almost all in the emerging world. How are we going to finance that? If we get it wrong it is a huge problem.”
Hand in hand with that is the human rights issue generated by globalisation and outsourcing to lower-cost economies. “As we think of the 21st century opportunities, how do we think about the conversation between society and business?” he asks. “How do we think more systematically about more sustainable practices that drive brand equity? You’ll be a more profitable business because people want to buy from companies that are doing the right thing.”
It is a subject that is understandably close to Prof Henry’s heart. He spent his early childhood in Jamaica, where his father, a research chemist, worked for chocolate company Cadbury – “a bit like Willie Wonka”. His mother was a biology professor, specialising in research into diseases that affected cocoa. “I joke that we were a vertically integrated family,” he says.
He first studied economics at the University of North Carolina, where he was a star footballer, and then studied as a Rhodes Scholar for a maths degree at the University of Oxford. A PhD at MIT followed and a professorship at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
His diverse background is one he hopes to instil in the MBA programme at Stern, which is now home to students with very different aspirations. “There are people who want to run [state] schools and there are people who want to be financiers and everyone in between.”
But even those that choose a career in hardcore finance should address issues of social responsibility, he believes. “If you want to do finance, think of the big opportunities. There is a way of doing well for the world and well for yourself. Business is a force for creating value over a wide spectrum.”
Out of hours:
Peter Blair Henry, the dean of the Stern School of Business, NYU, lists some of his favourite places, things and activities.
1. Animal: German Shepherd
2. City: New York
3. Sport: American football
4. Album: The Joshua Tree (U2)
5. Novel: Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
6. Transport: Magic carpet
7. Talent wish list: Singing voice