Bonn At just 30, Philippa Sigl-Glöckner already has an impressive vita: studies in Oxford, consulting firm in London, World Bank in Washington, founder of a think tank and in the “Forbes” list “30 under 30” as one of two German women in the Finance category. She currently works as a personal advisor for State Secretary Wolfgang Schmidt and heads his office in the Federal Ministry of Finance.
The economist, who went to England at the age of 16, graduated from school there and then studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and computer science at Imperial College in London, is passionate about promoting “more human capitalism”. The Munich resident, who on top of that advised Liberia’s finance minister for a year, is one of the most influential women of her generation in Germany.
Sigl-Glöckner has just been accepted as a member of the thought leader community, an initiative of the Handelsblatt and the strategy consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). “In her role as personal advisor to Wolfgang Schmidt, Philippa Sigl-Glöckner has shown thought leadership in the course of the question of how the state can help financially in a pandemic situation,” the jury is convinced.
In the interview she talks about how she wants to change the system, why she is now running for a position in politics and why business informatics is much more useful to her than economics.
Dear Ms. Sigl-Glöckner, you are only 30 years old, work as a personal advisor for State Secretary Wolfgang Schmidt and manage his office in the Federal Ministry of Finance – how did that come about?
I started as an economist in the policy department in the summer of 2018 and participated in the Sino-German financial dialogue the following winter. During the negotiations in Beijing I got to know Wolfgang Schmidt, who happened to be looking for a new personal advisor shortly afterwards and contacted me.
Your résumé is a dream for every headhunter: studied in Oxford, consultancy in London, World Bank in Washington, founder of a think tank, represented in the “Forbes” list “30 under 30” – what’s next?
Thank you for the flowers. I want to be actively involved in politics and would like to join the Bundestag. I would like to help shape a social and ecological financial policy and regain confidence in politics. That’s why I’m currently applying for the SPD Bundestag candidacy at home in the north of Munich. To venture into the democratic competition now was something very special, maybe a bit like taking the final step of starting a business as an entrepreneur: Then you stand on the pitch and have to show what you can do.
Let’s go back a bit. You went to England at the age of 16 and studied philosophy, politics and economics in Oxford after graduating from school (2008-2011). Then what made you decide to do your master’s in computer science?
I wanted to be involved in financial policy early on, because most of all of our wishes for a better world fail not because of good intentions, but because of money. However, I am desperate about the macroeconomic models at university. When I was undergraduate, I still thought I just don’t get it. But then the models also turned out to be not very helpful in the job. In economics, we sometimes think too little about which model is actually suitable to help with a certain question. So I was looking for a discipline that deals a lot with how to depict and process reality. Computer science makes this practically permanent, a computer has neither senses nor a predetermined logic of thought. Almost every program is also a model. And I cannot deny that programming is a very enjoyable occupation.
After your studies and a stint at the management consultancy Solon Management, you worked for the World Bank in Washington for two years and on top of that advised the Finance Minister of Liberia for a year – if you look back today: what is the most important thing you are doing during this time Learned Africa?
My time at the World Bank was incredibly exciting, but also dismaying: In 2014 I was part of the United Nations crisis team to coordinate the international Ebola campaign. And I had to learn that some of them were mostly about jets, high-paying jobs, and media attention, while dead bodies piled up in the slums of Monrovia and Freetown. I didn’t want to be part of that system and got the unique opportunity to work directly with the government in Liberia.
Did you feel better with the move?
There I mainly dealt with the debt and investment policy and supported the country’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. That showed me how important democratic legitimation is: the vast majority of financial policy decisions cannot be justified (solely) technocratically. Almost always there is also a question of distribution. What justification did the International Monetary Fund have to tell the government behind closed doors how big its budget for social affairs could be or which state-owned companies were to be privatized? Back then I often asked myself what was really in the interests of the population. But how should I know that as an unelected foreigner with a limited understanding of local conditions? And with what justification did I give my advice? I didn’t have to bear the consequences of the government decisions either. It wasn’t my children who grew up in the country.
How did you come to decide to return to Germany?
While we were negotiating with the International Monetary Fund in Liberia, the second Greek crisis was just unfolding in Europe. It is one thing when the social system of a poverty-stricken African civil war country is negotiated at the green table. It feels awful, but I was expecting it. Now the same thing happened in Europe. Human dignity became optional, due to a financial ideology that is difficult to understand from the outside. If you then realize that this ideology emanates from your own home country, it is time to pack your bags and see what is going on.
In 2018 you and three friends founded the “Department Future” think tank – in two sentences, what is the aim of this think tank?
The aim is to define a value-based economic order. The values that are central to us are dignity, prosperity and democracy.
When or how would I, as a citizen, recognize a more humane capitalism?
The fact that the cleaning specialist who cleans your office at night can make a living from her job and is able to change jobs if she wants.
You are currently running against top dog Florian Post in your hometown of Munich and want to win the direct mandate for the SPD in Munich-North – a duel between comrades. What was the trigger for this and what would you like to change first if it works?
I’m not running against someone, I’m running for something. Until a few years ago, the constituency of Munich-North was one that the SPD won directly. I want to help make it work again. So it’s about convincing the citizens of our political project. We want a society in which everyone is respected. Painting rosy pictures of the future is not enough. We tackle the economic fundamentals, do good work at decent wages for everyone, and think carefully about how we want to shape markets and our financial policy. This will enable us to provide affordable housing, an efficient education system and climate protection.
A specific project that I would like to tackle if the choice works out: The four-year training course for educators must be free so that we can finally offer enough daycare places in the north of Munich.
If I asked your friends, what alternative career options would you be suitable for?
Mmm, good question. It’s been a while since we talked about it, but it was on the table: pursue your career in international organizations, found a fintech start-up or embark on an academic career.
Is there something in your life that you have avoided out of fear and now regret it?
No. I try not to avoid things out of fear.
Over the next three years: What do you want to learn that you can’t do today?
How much time do you have? It’s a long list. The top three: give a concise speech in the Bundestag. Let unobjective criticism bounce off me. Go to bed on time.
Who is your personal role model and why?
I have a hard time doing that because it demands the idealization of people. But there are people who I find interesting, who have achieved impressive things in a certain area. For me, this includes the American congressman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the long-time mayor of Munich and fighter for fair land rights, Hans-Jochen Vogel, and Ellen MacArthur, who for a time held the world record for the fastest non-stop one-handed circumnavigation of the world.
Do you describe a work situation in which you are completely in flow and fulfilled? What gives you energy in working life?
Luckily a lot! An exciting discussion, also with people who have completely different views than me. Or to tinker with an Excel model, preferably with music in your ears.
What frustrates you and is your personal productivity killer?
Bureaucracy whose meaningfulness escapes me.
The greatest benefit that you have so far drawn from one of your networks?
My economic education relevant to reality and countless colleagues.
With so much political and economic commitment: When and how do you switch off? What do you do for your health?
When I get there: in the mountains and while sailing. Realistically, rather while walking and reading papers. I try to eat healthily, don’t drink alcohol and don’t smoke. And strive to be a happy person. Most of the time it works.
Ms. Sigl-Glöckner, thank you very much for the interview.
More: Thought leaders of 2020. These are the makers of the next generation.