This 23-minute podcast was released Nov. 20, 2019.
“My advice to anyone is just grab every opportunity you can,” says Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of The Economist. She talks with Jennifer Beatty, an assistant vice president at the St. Louis Fed, about serving as the first female editor-in-chief of the international news and business publication.
She also discusses the responsibility she feels to encourage women to aim higher so they can position themselves for leadership roles.
Jennifer Beatty: Hello. I’m Jennifer Beatty. And you’re listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the St. Louis Fed. Today, I’m speaking with Zanny Minton Beddoes, who is editor-in-chief of The Economist and also ranked on the Forbes’ Most Powerful Women’s List. Thank you for joining me today, Zanny.
Zanny Minton Beddoes: You’re very welcome. It’s great to be here.
Beatty: So, with our podcast series, we want to shine a light on women who are making their mark in the field of economics. You’re certainly doing so at The Economist. You’re the first female editor-in-chief in the newspaper’s 176-year history, which is just amazing. So, tell us, what’s it like to be at the helm?
Minton Beddoes: It’s a wonderful job. I certainly think it’s the best job in the world. But obviously, I would say that. It’s an extraordinarily talented bunch of colleagues that I work with who are amazingly dedicated. It’s a small group of colleagues who all really believe in what The Economist stands for who are extraordinarily talented. And so, it’s just, frankly, a huge privilege to be able to be the, the team manager and to try and help shape what this amazing group of people do.
Beatty: So, how are you shaping or influencing the direction of the publication? And how much of that influence do you think is different being that you might think or perceive things differently as a female as opposed to the men who came before you?
Minton Beddoes: I think the world has changed. And for good or ill, in the last few years, the world that was really prevalent for most of my adult lifetime, which is the world of globalization, the world of increasing democratization, the world where, essentially, there seemed to be an orthodoxy or conventional wisdom which was not far from that which The Economist stood for. That world is now under pressure. And what The Economist stands for, free markets, open societies, is under pressure in a way that it hasn’t been in my adult lifetime.
I went to graduate school in 1989 which was the year that the Berlin Wall came down. My first job was as an intern with a group of students that went with Jeffrey Sachs, who was then a professor at Harvard University, to work for the first post-communist Polish government. So, it was the very beginning of a shift from communism to a market economy. My entire career started at the time when the Berlin Wall fell down, and we had the beginnings of lots of countries joining the market economy.
And so, for the last 30 years that orthodoxy has been ascendant. I mean, you know the, Washington Consensus is often the phrase that’s ascribed to it, and that consensus took a very big beating with the financial crisis, and I think with some good reason. More recently, whether you see it here in the U.S. with the election of Donald Trump or you see it in the U.K. with Brexit, the desire to leave the European Union. You’ve had a, sort of, howl of protest, and you’ve had a very big questioning of a lot of that consensus. And so, it’s a really interesting time to be at The Economist, because The Economist is now almost, almost a voice of opposition as it is the voice of the status quo. It’s not so much opposition. But it’s, it’s having to make the case for the, the liberalism, the English-style liberalism that we stand for. So, the belief in free markets and open societies.
And actually, I think that’s really good for us. It’s really invigorating. It’s challenging. It’s having to go back and really make that case. But also, to try and help play a part in a very, really, sort of, existentially important debate which is what does—what do free markets look like in the 21st century? What do open societies look like? What’s the right kind of regulation for a 21st century economy? How can we build support for globalization? What is that nature of the new social contract between the state and the market? And these are really huge existential questions for economics. And so it’s an amazing privilege to be playing part of that right now.
But it’s actually less, that I think differently to my predecessors. I just think the world is quite different.
Beatty: And your role at The Economist is to bring these tough subjects and these interesting developments to light for discussion, for debate, for...
Minton Beddoes: Yeah. I think our role has several dimensions. I mean, at one level I think we need to be a clear headed, analytical take on the week’s news. I mean, that’s part of the bread and butter. I also think we have to provide our readers with a window into the future. I think people read us to get a sense of where the world is heading. And the phrase I’ve always used internally is that we have to provide mind-stretching journalism.
People come to The Economist to, to be challenged, to read rigorous analysis, fact-based rigorous analysis, but to read things that will challenge their preconceptions and will give them a window into where the world is heading. And so, it’s not just enough to be a well written take on the week’s news. You have to go beyond that. And I think that means both in the breadth of our geographic coverage. It means having what I like to call intellectual scoops, thinking, spotting trends, trying to see around the corner what’s coming up. And those are the reasons that I think people subscribe to us.
We’re in a world now where they’re awash with information, awash with free information, and awash with very good analysis. We’re also in a world that’s increasingly polarized—a media landscape that’s increasingly polarized. Particularly in the United States, we’re, sort of, an interesting hybrid. Because we’ve always been very socially liberal but, sort of, pro free market which has made us hard to pigeon-hole in a, kind of, traditional Democrat-Republican landscape.
Beatty: Take us back to the beginning a little bit. What made you interested in economics in the first place?
Minton Beddoes: Well, I studied as an undergraduate, I studied PPE: politics, philosophy, and economics, which is a subject that is often at Oxford where I studied it. And the joke goes that if you don’t know what else you want to do, you do PPE. Because it’s a broad, broad subject that you can do. You can do many different things from. And then from there, I went to the U.S. I won a scholarship which was lucky, because I had no idea what else I would have done.
I think proper economist would not call me a proper economist. Because I went to the Kennedy School, and I did an MPA: a master’s in public administration. And although I did a lot of economics classes, I don’t have a PhD, so I’m, I’m not a bona fide economist. But I did do a lot of classes: microeconomic classes, development economics, all kinds of economics. And it was there that in the summer of my first year, I heard that Professor Sachs was taking this group of interns to Poland. And this was one of those extraordinary lucky moments where I just, kind of, he had office hours one day, and I went and knocked on the door and introduced myself and said rather improbably, that I speak German and I speak Russian and Polish is kind of in the middle. And that I had done some agricultural economics, and there’s a very big agricultural sector in Poland.
Somehow, I talked my way into convincing him to let me join his intern program, and I went to Poland for the summer. And then had such an extraordinary time that I then actually took a semester off and spent longer with Professor Sachs who was an extraordinary mentor. And that time in Poland was literally just as this new government had undertaken what was subsequently called shock therapy. So, it had freed all the prices, and it cut all the quotas. It was textbook liberalize the economy. And you literally saw the results. You saw people driving off to Berlin, which is not very far from Warsaw, coming back with their trunk of their cars loaded with bananas, with ladies’ underwear, with all kinds of stuff that you couldn’t get in the rather drab state shops in Warsaw.
I had this really powerful, visible sense of what liberalizing and markets does, and what the powers of free markets is. It was transformative. It was a way that brought the stuff I’d learned in classes to life and made it very real. I could see people’s lives changing very dramatically. And I could also see the consequences of a socialist system, which was the old state shops would have shelves upon shelves of tinned pilchards and nothing else. You read in textbooks about lack of consumer choice. Well, you could see what lack of consumer choice was. So that period in Poland was really formative. And then, I went back and I finished my degree.
And I then went to Ukraine for a few months where I worked on a survey of Ukrainian collectivized agriculture. And I was working with a colleague, Simon Johnson. He was then a professor at MIT, and we co-wrote a paper. It’s the only academic paper I’ve ever co-written. We surveyed these collective farms. And we wrote a paper on how they were being decollectivized. And so, my job was to go around with a Ukrainian driver and translator to—I think we did almost 100 surveys of these collective farms. And in many cases, I was the first westerner they’d seen in decades.
And so, we’d go, and we put this survey together asking the director of the collective farm various questions. I would turn up, and the first thing I would be offered was this huge groaning table of food which included this salo, it was called. It was basically pork fat, and vast amounts of vodka. And it was 9:30 in the morning, and you didn’t want to offend people. And so, I remember, sort of, day in, day out going around doing these surveys. It was a million miles away from what most graduate students were doing. But it was a very tangible sense of we were trying to understand how these collective farms worked, what their finances were, how they were changing. And I loved it.
And, and so from there, I ended up going to the IMF. And I’m definitely now a journalist. I’m not a formally trained economist. But what was always interested me has been economic policy, and how policy decisions translate into real world outcomes.
Beatty: Interesting. You mentioned having various mentors. So, what was it about those mentorships that helped nudge you, helped encourage you to continue in this field of economics and applied economics that at the time where there probably weren’t a whole lot of females?
Minton Beddoes: Well, I think it was—no, definitely, very, sort of, pivotal people and pivotal moments. And, you know, Jeff Sachs was definitely a major mentor. And he was really a pretty extraordinary person to work for. He appeared never to sleep, and he was very demanding. But really, sort of, brilliant in the way that he, kind of, forced us to pull policies together, write memos overnight. It was very heavy stuff when you’re in your early 20s, and thinking this is my first job, and I’m writing a memo to the Minister of Finance on how he should liberalize the agricultural prices. It was pretty extraordinary stuff. So that made a huge difference.
I was originally going to go to Wall Street, and I, sort of, was going to do the usual: go work for an investment bank. And I was talking to this friend of mine and I was lucky enough to have been offered a job at the IMF. And he said if you don’t go to the IMF now, you’ll never go. And that’s the kind of extraordinary experience to have, to work as an economist. So, why don’t you do that first? And it was very good advice. And so, I, at the very last minute, said I wasn’t going to go to the Wall Street employer, and I was going to go to the IMF instead. And I learned a huge amount there.
And the International Monetary Fund—and this is the early 1990s, is a, sort of, very, well-oiled machine. It’s a big bureaucracy, and it’s changed a lot, I think, in the last decades. And when you went on missions, as it was called, to the countries that you worked on, it was a very hierarchical structure.
So, I would sit in hours of meetings in the Central Bank or the Finance Ministry. And the only person who spoke was the head of mission, and everybody else would sit there quietly. But I learned a huge amount, and I learnt the, sort of, basics of how balance of payments are put together in practice, how the national accounts have to add up, very basic building blocks of what economic policy is like. And it was an extraordinary way to learn, and I, I learned a ton in the first two years there. And I spent my first year working on West Africa on Mali and Senegal. And then, the second year working on the former Soviet Union. Particularly, Kyrgyzstan was the country that I mainly worked on. And Kyrgyzstan, at that point, you know, it had just become a country. It didn’t really have all of the reams of statistics you have at the Federal Reserve. No, none of that existed.
So we went and started building the initial balance of payments for Kyrgyzstan. And I remember that I was supposed to be looking at the service sector, and I went to the station and was counting how many people were on the train going to Moscow and trying to make some initial estimates of what we thought remittances might be. This was really basic stuff. It was very much the beginning. I sometimes wonder whether those estimates are now part of the historical record. No doubt. But it was, again, a sense we’re surrounded by really smart people.
The IMF is full of very good economists, very rigorous, very committed, very hardworking, and I learned a ton. I learned a huge amount about how—not just the, sort of, technical nuts and bolts of what you do, but also how people interacted with their government interlocutors, how you conduct a negotiation. The IMF comes in when a country needs to borrow. They’re often quite difficult negotiations. Watching how that worked, watching the kind of relationships. And so even though I was the most junior person and never said anything, it was an extraordinary opportunity to listen and to learn. But I realized after a couple of years of that, and I did what’s called the EP Program, which was the economist program, which is a standard, entry level for the IMF. It’s a two-year program, and it was wonderful. But at the end of that, I realized that a formal civil servant kind of organization was not one that necessarily I—I was too impatient. I wanted to get on and do my own thing. And I also realized that what I really liked doing was trying to work out what was going wrong in an economy and why.
And I loved going to the Central Bank or going to my little bit of it and talking to my interlocutor. When I did the monetary accounts there would be somebody on the other side who would be the counter party and I loved that. Talking to them and working with them—working with them and trying to work out what was going on. And so, it dawned on me. And I also realized that I actually much preferred the writing element than I did the spreadsheet and the modeling element. And so, it dawned on me that actually economic journalism might be a way to do the bit of my job than at the IMF that I loved the most. And so I moved to The Economist.
Beatty: Tell me about your time at The Economist. You first were a journalist. Then, you were an economics editor. And I’m interested to hear about your experiences and how different it was from the IMF.
Minton Beddoes: Oh, completely different.
Minton Beddoes: One is an enormous, very well-oiled, bureaucracy. I think it’s become much more modern now. But at that point, it was really quite formal, and in many ways, it needed to be. The Economist journalists are a collection of individuals. It feels much more like a Junior Common Room at a university. So, it felt very different. But actually, the nature of what I did was not a million miles different.
So, when I was at the IMF, I would go with a team of people to a country. We would collectively work with teams in the Finance Ministry or in the Central Bank and our output would be a long, formally written country report or the loan document.
When I went with The Economist, which I did, my first job was the emerging market correspondence. And this was 1994 and emerging markets was the hot, new area. Bill Emmott, who was the editor who hired me, created this new job called emerging market correspondent. So, I would go, actually, to, essentially, similar countries. I remember one of my first trips was to Chile which I hadn’t known at all. But I would go for a week. And rather than having a whole team of people, it would just be me. But because The Economist allows you such amazing access, I’d be able to see the Minister of Finance. I’d be able to see senior officials, rather than having a whole team of people look at the government accounts, I’d read the latest IMF staff reports. So, I’d read what my former colleagues would put together. And then, I’d write an article about the Chilean economy and what was happening to it.
And so, my first few years were spent doing, actually, something not all together dissimilar. But rather than the output being a negotiation for a loan and a formal set of reports, it was a piece of journalism about what a country was doing. And I did one on the Czech Republic. I did one on Chile. I went to lots of emerging markets. I did a big special report on Latin American finance. But many of the skills were not dissimilar. It was trying to understand what was going on in an economy, talking to people, looking at the numbers, trying to understand what was happening. And so, it was a completely different atmosphere, much more informal, much flatter structure. The output was to try and have the best kind of analysis of what was going on.
Beatty: I’m interested just to hear a little bit more about The Economist as an employer, and how you’ve been able to flourish as an employee but also as a female employee and for an organization that’s so storied. It’s quite extraordinary that there’s now a female at the helm.
Minton Beddoes: The Economist is generally a meritocratic place. Obviously saying this now, when I have some influence about the nature of the place, it sounds self-serving. But it was long before I was in charge. It’s a flat structure, and it’s a very meritocratic structure. And it’s one where what matters is the quality of your ideas and the quality of your argument. And we have, every Monday, the main editorial meeting where anybody in the whole organization can gather. So, there’s 100 plus people usually in a room. And we not only do the practical what’s going in what section business, but we also debate the editorials. Anybody can pitch an editorial. So, they make their pitch for why they think we should argue something. And then, anybody else can pitch in and ask questions and offer counterarguments. At its best, it’s a really vibrant debate between a group of very smart people, many of whom really know what they’re talking about.
And in that discussion, it doesn’t matter if you’ve just arrived, and you’re the youngest person there, or whether you’ve been there for 25 years. And that sense of the power of debate winning out, and the importance of the contribution, rather than whoever is making the contribution, I think is a really core part of The Economist. Although, we have fewer women then we should have, it feels like a very meritocratic place. It doesn’t feel like it’s a place that’s where the power of your contribution matters more than who you are.
Now that said, now, I’m in a position to try and shape the culture. I think the challenge is as we get bigger, and we have more colleagues, partly because we’re doing more things. We have a vibrant podcast team, for example. We have a social media team. We have a lot more people then we used to. So as you grow, maintaining that sense of the openness, the informality, the common room culture, if you will, is a challenge. And also doing it in a way that ensures that everybody’s voice is heard, and that’s something that I’m very aware of that there are people who have really important contributions to make but who, are less comfortable speaking up in front of a very large group of people. And so, we’re trying to find ways to make that easier.
Beatty: There’s fewer women than you’d like working at The Economist. Tell me a little bit about either plans you might have, or things that you’re doing in your life to mentor women to bring women further along so they can be in positions of leadership.
Minton Beddoes: So, I’ve become much more aware in this position of the importance of role models and the responsibility that people like me or people in my position have to make a difference. I think it’s partly because The Economist was genuinely such a meritocratic place that I hadn’t really spent too much time thinking about it before. I used to walk into, and still walk into conferences, and you know the world of economics and finance, you know, lots of white men in suits. And I’d always be struck by how few women there were. But it hadn’t been a huge part of my focus. And now, it is much more of it, and I’m very conscience of the important of role models.
I’m very conscious of the basic challenges that people have balancing their work life, their family life, and the fact that we still have lots of structures that make it hard in this country. The lack of paid parental leave is a really big issue, I think. The fact that it’s just simply the case, if you have two people in a relationship working full time, and they have a young family, it’s just a very hard thing to juggle. And so, trying to find ways to ensure that we can not only make it possible, but also then encourage women to aim higher, to push higher, is, I think, a responsibility that we all have, and that I take very seriously. And it’s not easy. And so, I think change is coming, and change will come. And I do think that I have a, sort of, responsibility to do what I can. I sense now a greater responsibility to doing that.
Beatty: OK. What advice would you give to our listeners about encouraging them to pursue a degree in economics or working in economic journalism?
Minton Beddoes: Journalism is an industry that’s being massively disrupted. And so, particularly in the United States, it’s an industry where huge numbers of newspapers have really faced enormous financial trouble. It’s one that you have to be really determined and dedicated to go into. But with that said, I think economic journalism and business journalism and all journalism is important, but it’s particularly important. So, I would definitely encourage people to do that.
It’s one where having the skills to understand the economy and the world of business really matters. You don’t have to have had prior journalistic experience to work at The Economist. You have to be able to write. That really matters. But having the actual skills in the area that you’re planning to write about is really important. And so, economics has had a bit of a bad rep ever since the financial crisis. Right? There’s been some much-needed soul searching within the profession. And much-needed soul searching about the profession’s own women problem, which I think is much needed. And actually, my colleague Soumaya Keynes, who is one of our economic writers, has been doing some terrific work writing about women in the economics profession. There’s more to be done there, but it’s an enormously important discipline. And it’s one that benefits from a more diverse group of people studying it, teaching it, and did so with the economic journalism.
Beatty: Would a young Zanny have ever thought she would be in this position at The Economist, and working in the field and having the influence that you do?
Minton Beddoes: No. A young Zanny didn’t ever have a, kind of, life goal. And I still don’t really, but I’ve, I’ve always been one for maximizing option value. I’ve only ever regretted the things I’ve not done. But my advice to anyone is just grab every opportunity you can. I think very rarely will you regret grabbing an opportunity. If it doesn’t work out, that’s fine. You can go and do something else. And that’s, sort of, what I did throughout my career.
Beatty: Well, thank you so much, Zanny for taking your time with us—
Minton Beddoes: Thank you.
Beatty: ...and telling us your story—
Minton Beddoes: It’s been fun.