A return to the university

Many students might not know a lot about the board of the VU. You might know who are on the board, and you might have heard speeches by them, but who are the people behind these positions? Exactly that is why we were curious and reached out to Mirjam van Praag. Not only is she currently the president of the VU board, she has fulfilled multiple interesting functions after obtaining her PhD in econometrics which we learned more about in this interview.

Just like readers of the SECTOR, you studied econometrics. Why did you choose to study econometrics? 

I love maths and I have always been fascinated by questions about human behaviour. Why do people do what they do? What value does it bring to them? So my first choice was Econometrics, whereas Mathematics and Psychology were also part of my top 3.

What was the study like at the time? 

I think the study was actually quite similar to what I now see my son studying (3rd year Bsc Econometrics at UvA). A big change though is the focus on identification of effects. In my study time, endogeneity et cetera was not yet considered such a big issue. And there was yet too little of Game theory, Behavioural Economics and Experimental methodologies. I guess this has improved. 

Can you tell us about your research?

My research is about entrepreneurship. What moves people to become entrepreneurs? What kind of teams are best for getting results? Can one learn how to be a (good) entrepreneur? In other words, is it nature or nurture? And are entrepreneurial education programs effective in developing entrepreneurial skills and attitudes? What can be the effect of entrepreneurial role models? To what extent does earlier entrepreneurial failure affect the success of later ventures, including the funding of the later venture? Et cetera. There is a long list of research programs I have done with PhD students and other young researchers about which I am very enthusiastic. Not only because I am an enthusiastic person and have many years of experience, but also because the topic of entrepreneurship and their human capital and behaviour always remains fascinating. 

Hello, Donner here, I would like to invite you for a crown membership of the SER. My first thought was: who of my friends is making this practical joke?

If I’m not mistaken, you started your career at Boston Consulting Group. What inspired you to “return” to the university as a professor and to leave the position as consultant? 

You actually are partially mistaken ;-). I started my career at Procter & Gamble, but didn’t like it and started a PhD project after one year P&G, while working part time at Intomart/GfK. After that I went to the Boston Consulting Group because I knew they used “up or out” systems and therefore hired only young and relatively inexperienced people. I did not want to miss out on that opportunity! And I really liked it a lot. I experienced a very steep learning curve and the group of colleagues was very inspirational, smart and great fun. However, I missed academia dearly in that period and dreamt of doing more research. The research questions kept coming and coming. Moreover, in the meantime I had become the first (!) mother in the Dutch BCG office. This was a challenge. All in all, after three years of consultancy I followed my heart back to the university. 

From 2010 until 2018, you have been a member of the SER (Social and Economic Council). What inspired you to join the council? What was your role in the SER? How do you look back at it? 

This was a very interesting experience. I was asked for the council by the (then) Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, Piet Hein Donner. I still remember sitting in my office on a Friday afternoon, already thinking about the weekend, when the phone rang and a woman said: “One moment please, I’ll connect you to Mister Donner”. A moment later I heard “Hello, Donner here, I would like to invite you for a crown membership of the SER”. My first thought was: “who of my friends is making this practical joke?”, but I wasn’t sure and kept my thoughts to myself. I was delighted by this invitation! I have always found it very important to bring research results to practice and this created an excellent opportunity for doing so. And what I learned in my SER period is that finding compromises and support for important issues is a superb basis for influential advice. I also learned how much I liked chairing meetings of people who may have strongly different opinions. 

Currently, you are the president of the VU board. After obtaining your doctorate at the UvA and teaching there for many years, what has led you to the presidency of the VU?

I have always alternated periods of more research oriented work with periods of academic or societal “service”. I truly love research and acting in the international (quite competitive) arena, but I also love to add value to society and/or academia more directly. And the business and entrepreneurship world are attractive to me as well, where things move faster and strategy and innovation are majorly important. All in all, this has resulted in following up more than four years of being a very active researcher at the Copenhagen Business School with this very interesting job of the presidency of the VU.

On second thought, I guess the question does not so much relate to the dichotomy research versus non-research but to UvA versus VU! I loved being a member of the UvA community, no doubt. However, after four years at Copenhagen Business School, I knew that universities are rather similar everywhere. And knowing the VU from my time as the founder/director of the Amsterdam Center for Entrepreneurship, I was delighted to start at this university which is very lovable. 

To pose a more general question: how does a university like the VU elect board members? 

The Board is elected by the Supervisory Board. My appointment was prepared by an application committee consisting of members of the Supervisory Board, representatives of the Works Council (OR) and University Student Council (USR), the HRM director, and the vice-chairman of the Executive Board. Prior to the appointment, support discussions were held with the deans and service directors of the VU and with the Joint Meeting of OR and USR (GV). They also previously advised on the profile of the new president.

...we had to design kind of a new university rather fast. We worked almost around the clock.

What does a day (or week) in your life look like at the moment? 

Let’s take a week. I actually work quite a lot, from Sundays (to prepare the week) to Fridays. Usually Friday evening until Sunday morning I take (and need) a break. During the week, I usually have meetings continuously, even though Marie-José (my superb assistant) is quite selective and so am I. On many evenings I am also occupied with meetings for work. If not, I need to respond to piles of emails and work on stuff that gets in during the week. Never a dull moment. And… in Corona times, things are different: work from home, have Zoom meetings all day and have fewer dinners, conferences, and network meetings in the evenings.

What are the tasks of a member of the VU board? 

The portfolio of responsibilities depends on which member you are. As a President I am responsible for the good functioning of our board, for strategy, external and alumni relations, impact and entrepreneurship, international relations and partnerships, corporate communication et cetera. Vinod, as the rector magnificus is responsible for teaching and research and Marcel, as the third member, is responsible for all processes and services.

How has the Corona crisis affected your position in the board?

In the beginning it was very hands-on, we had to design kind of a new university rather fast. We worked almost around the clock. Of course, most of the work is done by our fantastic employees led by the deans and directors of their units. We were responsible for setting up and the good functioning of the emergency organization and for communication such that employees and students feel supported by the board.  

The selfish “homo economicus” is dead, also in economic theory since behavioural economics has been proven to be very important.'

To conclude, do you have any advice for our readers? For example on studying, on the study of Econometrics in particular or on later career choices. 

My only advice: do what you love and enjoy it. I can fully understand that econometrics, though sometimes tough and dull because you don’t know yet what wonderful activities you can employ using it, is a fabulous choice. I loved it. However, life is certainly not only about studying. Keep being curious, i.e. open to new experiences and knowledge and develop yourself not only as a scholar but as an entire human being. And… develop your vision on your contribution to the world. You are privileged people, smart and well educated, and… “noblesse oblige”. Not only that, most people love to contribute. The selfish “homo economicus” is dead, also in economic theory since behavioural economics has been proven to be very important.

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