Lucy Bye-Fellow, Dr Gracelin Baskaran, shares her inspirational career journey and offers some great advice.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m an American economist, based in South Africa. In addition to being a Bye-Fellow in Economics at Lucy Cavendish College, I work with the World Bank, covering the Southern Africa region. Let me tell you a bit about my somewhat unconventional journey to Cambridge.
My dad emigrated from India to the US in 1987 with $20 and dreams of a better life. His parents, who had little education, laboured long hours in a rice paddy field to put food on the table, but often went without. His two older brothers worked menial jobs to put my dad through university and he became the first in his family to graduate and ultimately earned a doctorate in physics in India before emigrating. My parents dealt with quite a bit of racism in the US, but they persisted. I grew up in a blue-collar, middle-class auto manufacturing hub in suburban Detroit. I got my first job when I was 15 at a local restaurant, where I worked after school 3-4 days a week, in addition to balancing a full AP course load, playing sports and being a competitive public speaker.
We didn’t have a lot growing up – we couldn’t afford big school trips or summer camps, nice vacations, fancy electronics, or brand name clothes. But despite this, we always had a good stack of news magazines on the coffee table, talked about current events, and had a deep sense of lifelong learning instilled in us.
But university was a challenging time for me due to personal and family circumstances. Many people don’t know I spent a year at Houston Community College. I then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where I graduated at the top of my class from the honours program, and earned a Fulbright Fellowship from the US State Department. I worked such a cool mix of jobs throughout my university years – as a delivery driver, nanny, waitress, a public relations job that let me work with astronauts, and as a research assistant. It’s probably unsurprising that I arrived in Cambridge with no idea how to use the many pieces of cutlery in front of me at a formal hall. I knew how to use one fork, one spoon and one knife. Fortunately, with a bit of port or sherry, no one really paid attention, so I was able to learn quickly.
And I laugh when I say this – but the community college-to-Cambridge pipeline probably isn’t too common. Nonetheless, it taught me that intellect is only useful if it’s matched by grit.
But more than anything, I was fortunate to see how education and opportunity could break the intergenerational nature of poverty. Though my grandparents never completed a primary education, and we went to mediocre state schools, I went on to get a PhD at the University of Cambridge on a full scholarship and spend most of my days at the World Bank, my sister went to MIT and Columbia and is a Managing Director on Wall Street, and my brother landed a job as a software engineer at General Motors at 22.
What did you study?
I did a MPhil and then a PhD in development with a heavy concentration on economics. It was very policy-focused – I used national accounts data, firm level data, and survey data to understand what endogenous and exogenous factors have contributed to the economic and financial challenges facing South Africa’s commodity sector, which has historically been an engine of growth in South Africa. The country is very well endowed with metals required for the green energy transition, including platinum, palladium and rhodium, which are particularly useful for battery storage for renewable energy. However, it’s also the most unequal country in the world and as the sector mechanises, low-skill labour is being retrenched, making economic benefits largely accrue to capital. It’s a tricky dilemma – and the answer to addressing it lies in using the fiscal revenues generated by the mining sector to finance core economic development objectives.
What are you doing now?
I currently work as a consultant economist at the World Bank, where I focus on Southern Africa. My work focuses on reducing poverty and inequality, which is challenging given that I work in 7 of the 11 most unequal countries in the world. I work directly to support national governments in two key areas. First, reducing the impact of climate change on macroeconomic stability through the adoption of financial instruments such as contingency funds, sovereign insurance, catastrophe bonds and contingent lines of credit. These instruments enable governments to respond to climate shocks quickly while minimising debt. And second, strengthening private sector investment and international trade.
I also keep some other work running, including publishing with the Brookings Institution, writing a fortnightly column on climate change and commodities in Business Day, and writing book chapters. I’m sometimes found on television, commenting on economic policy and the impact of climate change on the economy.
What have been the best moments of your career so far?
Getting a Fulbright Fellowship early in my career was a launchpad to working internationally. I’ve been overseas for the last nine years and have had the opportunity to work on over 20 countries.
Our World Bank headquarters are in Washington DC, but I’ve been based in our field office in South Africa. It’s given me so many opportunities to work directly with government officials, including Prime Ministers, Offices of the President, Ministers, and Central Banks etc. But I’ve also had the chance to literally be in the ‘field’ visiting informal trading markets, farms, and some of the poorest rural areas. It’s given me the chance to truly understand problems and then work to devise high-level operations.
What would be your advice to students who want to pursue a similar career?
Find good mentors and hold onto them. People want you to succeed – and if they can’t help, most will point you to someone who can. I’m always happy to have a chat over a real – or virtual – coffee.
How did you become involved with Lucy Cavendish College?
I was fortunate to do my PhD at Lucy Cavendish. My college tutor, Eileen Nugent, is still a superhero in my book. The college was also very generous, and I received funding to present my PhD research on three continents. Years later, the relationships I forged at those conferences have added value to the work I’m currently doing.
As a bye-fellow, I’ve been fortunate to work on the widening participation agenda for the last few years, doing interviews for the economics faculty and teaching some ad hoc classes. It’s an agenda I feel very passionate about – long before I went into my postgraduate studies, I taught underserved students who became first generation college students. I still maintain relationships with many of them and have watched them enter incredible careers 12 years later. I’m a very strong believer that while talent is universal, opportunity is not. Addressing this is a driving factor in both my career at the World Bank and my role as a bye-fellow at Lucy Cavendish.
I’m very grateful to be both an alumni and bye-fellow at Lucy Cavendish.