On the blue-skies fast track

December 26, 1997

The THES speaks with three academics under the age of 40 as part of an occasional series of profiles of young researchers making an early mark

Noreena Hertz

"I did everything early," Noreena Hertz says. She took O levels at 14 and went to University College London, where she read philosophy and economics,at 16. Since then she has managed to squeeze in a bit of work, including: working stints at Vogue and at a talent agency, taking an MBA, helping set up one of Russia's first commodities exchanges, advising the Russian government on privatisation, completing a PhD, publishing one book on Russia and researching another on economics in the Middle East.

Now just entering her thirties, Hertz has become a lecturer in international business at the Judge Institute, University of Cambridge.

It was not a straightforward route that brought her to Cambridge. Seeking something "glamorous" to do after university, Hertz worked on a mail-order venture for Vogue. She then entered the Wharton School in Philadelphia, still just in her early twenties.

In 1991, she joined a team from Wharton that went to Leningrad to help establish one of Russia's first commodities markets. Armed with O-level Russian, she was among the early wave of western advisers to the new Russia. The three months she was in Russia were momentous: there was the August coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, followed by Boris Yeltsin's succession and the beginnings of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Returning to the United States, Hertz went to Hollywood to work as a trainee agent at William Morris. The talent agency represents some of cinema's biggest names, but Hertz was not impressed. "The real-world drama of Russia was more appealing than the drama in Los Angeles," she says.

In 1992, Hertz went back to Russia to advise the government on its privatisation programme in Nizhny-Novgorod, previously Gorky. She spent months advising a factory, during which she lived alone in a sanatorium, eating buckwheat three times a day. "Sometimes I wondered what I was doing there, but my work was feeding back into Russian legislation so it was important," she says.

Hertz's time in Russia crystallised her ideas for a PhD. She tracked seven businesses to see how they coped with the economic changes. "One of the problems with doing case studies is that getting access is really difficult, " she says. "I was fortunate because no academic had that kind of access, but I was introduced to several firms because I had good contacts."

It took some time to build trust. "Russia is the only place I go to with a swimsuit in my briefcase in case I have to do a bit of sauna bonding," she says. "It was often at informal times that I got the greatest insights." In the two years she spent researching her PhD, she travelled to Russia 14 times.

"I found Russia was changing but that there was also great resistance to change," she says. Businesses chose to stick with pre-privatisation contacts rather than forge new ones and risk coming unstuck. Hertz found one company that still rang the Ministry of Defence when it ran out of parts.

Upon finishing the PhD, she was given a fellowship at the Judge Institute,where she honed her research for Russian Business Relationships in the Wake of Reform, which was published earlier this year. She also began researching a book on the Middle East, which focuses on six Arab/Israeli joint ventures to find out what motivated the collaborations. The common thread between the two projects? "Russia is transition, the Middle East is in transition. Russia is trying to work out its codes of behaviour for its next era and so is the Middle East."

Her next project -to look at the political role Britain's new Labour government can play in developing foreign aid -will bring her closer to home. It will involve using all her experience of international politics and business but, more important, will reflect her chief preoccupation. "What I'm interested in is change," she says.

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