The Hyphen Spotlight Series
Exploring the career and life journey of... Philippe Rudaz
Philippe Rudaz is an explorer as much as he is an economist. The former United Nations expert has helped both individuals and nations thanks in part to his willingness to get up close and personal with the marketplaces and cultures around the world. This ability to appreciate both micro- and macro-economic perspectives has helped him build a strong reputation in the fields of trade and public policy.
Those experiences have shaped in other ways outside his career, too. Philippe is also an accomplished painter and photographer, with his expeditions shaping some of his captivating and thought-provoking pieces of art. The Swiss native has had a remarkable life that has seen him survey trade stalls in Gabon, roam the bazaars of Central Asia and examine the post-Soviet economic landscape in Russia.
After acquiring years of experience in finance and academia as well as at the UN, he partnered with us and a global consulting firm on a key engagement in 2023 – one that was an eye-opener for him. In our inaugural Hyphen Spotlight interview, Philippe reveals some of the stories from his time with the world’s largest intergovernmental organisation, channelling creativity, and why he believes we need more academic-business collaborations.
HYPHENThe field of sustainable development is growing in prominence and recognition but what first attracted you to this sector? Was there a particular moment when you thought this might be the right line of work for you?
PHILIPPEI cannot really give a precise time; I think it was probably in Russia but I will explain a bit more first. While I was studying at the University of Lausanne, I went to Gabon to do my master’s thesis on informal trade and markets in Libreville. When you study political science, you read, research and analyse political systems and it is a bit abstract, but I wanted to develop more concrete insights about how trade really works – what people were actually selling and buying, how they organised themselves for economic activities, etc. I have always been attracted by the notions of scarcity and waste, and I have a profound interest in how individuals, communities and nations organise to manage finite resources. This is the essence of economic science.
A few years later in around 2007, I had learned Russian and was in St Petersburg, helping a consulting firm that wanted to establish an office there, and it was an adventure, but I realised I was in no way contributing to Russia’s economic development. I was selling sophisticated financial instruments in a country where the notion of a commercial bank was less than 20 years old so there was a gap between what I did and what was beneficial for the country. In other words, I thought this was counterproductive and a waste.
When the global financial crisis hit, I decided to write a PhD and stayed in Russia for two years independently to finish that. I was then working in the Balkans for a brokerage firm and after five years of circulating around Russia, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, I had the opportunity to lead two research projects financed by the Gebert Rüf Foundation in Georgia and Armenia about the growth of startups and small enterprises in these former Soviet republics, which I did for two or three years. That project led up to a bigger one financed by the Volkswagen Foundation in Central Asia.
That led me to work in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s entrepreneurship section, which is responsible for advising governments on how to grow their startups and mid-sized enterprises, and how to build entrepreneurship strategies.
HYPHEN Given that every country obviously has its own unique set of issues that it is looking to address, how did you prepare for each of these projects? Were there any types that particularly interested you?
PHILIPPE I don’t feel uncomfortable stepping into the unknown because I’m curious and eager to learn. I always try to build bridges between what I know and the unknown and link the previous experiences I have picked up. I approach it like a puzzle: it has its own unique set of issues, and the pieces might be different, but it is still a puzzle and the connections between the pieces are the same. I also read a lot – other people before you have spent a lifetime studying similar issues, so it is crucial to know their work.
I'd say I’m more interested in countries where the market is starting to organise itself so developing markets rather than developing economics. For example, when the USSR collapsed, it basically destroyed all the old institutions, so they had to start building a new market. When you have to start from scratch, or when you have to start with institutions that are in contradiction with liberal market economies, then I'm in my element.
Philippe I try to understand the agenda and pressures of the different stakeholders. Businesses have to provide services to clients and have shareholders. The clients of the UN are member states, linked by agreements and national interests. Academic institutions have to produce knowledge and sometimes advise public policy.
In these situations, each side has its own vocabulary and political colours so, even if everyone talks English, you still have to understand the different contextual languages. I think that understanding these different perspectives comes easier to me because I have experience working in some of these sectors.
HYPHEN You mentioned your work in different sectors there – finance, academia, the UN – so given all the experiences you have had, what would you consider to be your greatest accomplishments from across all of them?
Philippe When I worked at the UN, I was fortunate to be able to contribute to a policy guide on entrepreneurship and migration. We did that with the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and argued that migrants should not just have the right to work but also have the right to be their own boss and establish enterprises that could perhaps even employ other people.
That policy guide was distributed in a lot of countries, with some enacting laws and changing regulations because of it – Switzerland even organised a startup contest for migrants. It got a lot of traction and if you ask me about the most impactful thing I did at the UN, I think it was the work on that because I also had the idea of communicating it differently.
We organised a photo exhibition at the UN in Geneva with portraits of migrant entrepreneurs from all over the world. It was a great success and stayed for about two or three months. It was a beautiful and innovative exhibition that I fought for because it's not something the UN usually does. I also contacted a French artist and managed to get a huge wooden sculpture they had made with migrants installed in the garden in Geneva to link everything. It was beautifully set up and something that I'm proud of.
I am also proud of having spearheaded the organisation of a pioneering startup event focused on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) pitching, specifically aimed at entrepreneurs from developing countries and impact finance institutions. It not only provided a dynamic platform for innovative startups to showcase their solutions addressing critical global challenges but also facilitated meaningful connections with impact finance institutions. Witnessing the tangible growth and development of these startups as a direct result of this event has been a gratifying experience.
I led two research projects in Georgia and Armenia and was able to expand them with another one for the Volkswagen Foundation, which I'm still part of. We're going to publish a photo book about bazaar trade in Central Asia and the Caucasus. We interviewed 1,200 people in four bazaars in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Armenia over six years to understand trade along the Silk Road, which was cool.
That's apart from the work with Hyphen, which was amazing. I'm particularly proud of that because it was a radical change from the environment I was used to at the UN.
Philippe I’m highly adaptable and I needed the change, so I was also really happy and motivated for this new adventure, one that really counts as well.
Consultants have a way of thinking and working that allows them to be fast because efficiency is paramount. The UN has other constraints, which sometimes compete with efficiency. That was a test for me. I had to adapt to this way of thinking, the urgency of the client request and the short-term nature of the project.
Thinking about Hyphen, the kindness of people stands out. I got to know Michael and Avi when they had just started Hyphen a couple of years ago and I am impressed by what they have accomplished with Hyphen and how they developed it. Everyone is highly professional but still approachable at the same time; very reactive but very friendly. I had lots of interactions with Olgierd and Eliza who could not have been more supportive.
They're all very professional, friendly and have a great sense of humour, and it just feels good to work with these people. Honestly, it's a pleasure.
HYPHEN You called it a “new adventure” there – having mixed your academic background with this consultancy environment, do you think these sorts of cultural crossovers could be useful elsewhere?
Philippe Definitely, I think cross-sector exchanges are essential and we should be more open to influencing each other.
In the end, I discovered a new approach to research, communicate and present my results and the people I worked with also got exposed to other approaches as I have a different background. I think that’s good for consulting firms, too, even if sometimes it might create some tension within a working group at first.
Ultimately, I did consultancy work for governments at the UN and now I do consultancy work for governments with consultants – the client is the same but the approaches differ. We have to find the right individuals who are willing to adapt and navigate between these different cultures. I think it is one of the ways we'll resolve sustainability challenges as well.
hyphen It sounds like that sense of action is more present for you with this work, is that fair to say?
Philippe It's more direct, it's more impactful, it's faster. To get there, though, it requires us to use information effectively.
One day, we were looking for some data on investment in a particular field, so I contacted someone at the consulting firm who looked at the relevant area. I asked where she got the information and she said she took it from the Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Development report for the UN General Assembly and said she uses it every year. I told her that I wrote the last two of those; it was great to actually see it having an impact.
This way of working is more direct but it still partly rests on people who do long-term work that might, to some extent, be invisible. Not all information can be found easily and a lot has to be dug up and simplified by people with expertise on the subject. Just as we need to navigate between different working cultures, we also need to navigate between different temporalities. We need individuals with abilities to react to urgent short-term requests while thinking about long-term challenges.
HYPHEN You also produce art away from your work, though some of it is linked to it – what inspired you to paint? What else do you enjoy doing?
Philippe There are two sources of motivation when it comes to my paintings. One is engaged in the topic of sustainability. It is usually when I feel there is a potential to communicate on sustainability issues differently.
For example, I am currently producing a series of paintings about human waste and the revalorisation of human excreta in collaboration with VaLoo. The amount of water we use when we go to the bathroom is enormous, but technology exists for dry toilets that don’t use water, so I thought that a cool way to bring more attention to this topic was to do a series of paintings.
The other source of motivation is in the aesthetic of a moment, situation or landscapes. I've always liked photography so when things catch my eye, I take a picture and see how I can play with its elements, forms and colours. Most of the time, the final image is not the picture I took but I'm just trying to reconnect to that half-second of beauty.
The process is enjoyable and if that enjoyment can be passed on to people who see it, I'm happy – it means beauty could potentially be universal.
(This interview has been edited for clarity, brevity and client confidentiality.)