Interview with Rafael Burde

Why did you decide to be a PPE major?

I was coming from South Africa, that’s where high school and growing up was for me. I largely picked Penn because of the PPE major. I had heard about a similar degree at Oxford and the trajectory those graduates had into politics and government and law and policy and I though that’s the direction I’d like to go. That was quite literally how I looked at colleges and that’s what interested me. It’s interdisciplinary; it teaches you how to think about systems and policy and how to be influential and potentially useful in making high-level decisions in both government and in the private sector. My mind initially was geared towards public. I remember it being a bit of an outsider major. All the other majors fit into a box and then there was PPE. PPE people kind of chose their own adventure and had a bunch of flexibility and I was perfectly fine with that.

How did PPE play a role in the decision making process for jobs?

I think a lot of PPE majors are wired as curious generalists, like systems thinkers. And I think the tension there is coming out of your undergraduate degree into a job market that’s pretty competitive you have to differentiate, you have to specialize, you have to prove that you’re not that risky and that you’re going to deliver on a very specific job. I tried to go for jobs that matched my interests, but that recognized generalist skill sets and valued that. I didn’t want to fit into a specific box and I don’t think I would’ve gotten that type of job. I was actually learning that the hard way. For example, I didn’t look and act like a banker, didn’t really want to be a banker.

 Tell me more about the ideal type of job you just described. If not banking, what types of jobs were you looking at?

I looked at alternative research jobs, like cross industry jobs. That was actually my first job out of school. It was with a research division that was initially part of Bear Stearns and then got bought up by JP Morgan and I was basically a consultant supporting individual investors trying to get smart on what’s going on around the world. I had to get up to speed really quickly and figure out what their questions are really about and find experts around the world to help them solve the problems. And right after that I went into management consulting. I worked at a small firm called Diamond and then that ended up getting bought by the FEC. I’m sure you’re well aware what management consulting is and generally what that role is like-very much project based, you’re very much a resource and you’re expected to get up to speed very quickly. Your first few years are pretty much just soak it all up at really, really steep learning curves, and then add value, like be as smart or smarter than your clients as soon as you can. So that was a nice challenge. Obviously, there’s no perfect mix. I didn’t end up doing it in the public sector, I think that would’ve been closest to my interests, but you know you can’t always get exactly what you want. I ended up working on healthcare for a few years. I graduated just before Obamacare got passed and so that was incredibly regulated and politically challenged and a lot of the healthcare companies and insurance companies had no clue what that meant. I spent a large part of my early career basically being an advisor to them on what the exchanges were going to look like and what pricing would be and what the policy impacts really meant. Tell me about your decision to go back to grad school. So, for me the story goes, I was doing the consulting thing, I was in healthcare at a large company and the way that that trajectory usually works is eventually you do have to specialize, back to this generalist specialist theme. And it takes and long time for you to ever get freedom again to-do what you want in a large consulting firm. So for me, the career transition opportunity, since I didn’t exactly know what I wanted next, was grad school. And I picked back up that interest in policy and politics and governance and how the hell the world works. And I thought if I went to grad school I could use those two years to answer some more questions and make that transition into government.

Did you find that you were able to use those two years to answer those questions?

I mean that’s a whole other conversation. For me, I think the track was pretty well laid. I explored some hypotheses and went down the road I intended to go down. The curveball was that the job I ended up pursuing, which I loved, fell through. It was a very unique job in national government South Africa, working for a minister doing national planning, which was exactly what I wanted to do. Except politics are politics and he ended up resigning. In South Africa there are not a lot of leaders that I’d like to support so that kind of changed my career path right there and then, and you adapt. But from your perspective, or from anyone’s perspective from early on looking forward, what guided my decisions was basically that I wanted to know how the world works, I wanted to be useful as a global resource, I wanted to be useful in a policy making sense. I needed to demonstrate that I had those skills to join the teams, which support those people, before I could do that myself.

What job are you currently at now?

I’m in San Francisco, totally private sector, small company. It’s a start up in the agriculture technology space. A lot of things changed once I decided to be in San Francisco. Much less international policy work going on, it’s not the center of government for the state or the country. And I looked at, but didn’t decide to do local politics, and so then it just became how I could use my skills and interests to live in the city and feel fulfilled. I had business skills and I wanted to have a largely impactful position at a company, which meant I had to go pretty small. I wanted to work on something interesting, ideally global, and in a capacity that I could actually make a difference. So I am pretty much head of business operations, kind of making sure that the business runs successfully and supporting the CEO and all the cross-functional efforts, finance, strategy ,and operations. The company is largely a technology company, which is not where I can add the most value. We basically collect and provide imagery and the data additions support platform for farmers to understand what’s going on in their fields across America. And so that sounds very American, but really agriculture is extremely global. The technology landscape is such that the where a lot of these technologies are getting proven, but then you can take these internationally quite quickly. And really the policy question that we are addressing is food security. There is only so much arable land and you have to get more productivity out of it to feed current demand.

Is there something you pursued at Penn that you found to be surprisingly useful later in life?

I think I ended up having quite a positive honors thesis experience. So that was interesting mainly because of the flexibility the whole major gave me. I got to do it on whatever I was interested in and find an advisor that made sense and was willing to do it with me. That kind of freedom to go be academic-y, but also learn and get some advice along the way was great.

What did you write your honors thesis on?

I ended up doing a profile on Zimbabwe. It was 2008 and they were kind of collapsing, I don’t think they had quite reached bottom yet. And I ended up having a family excuse to go visit the country, so I turned that into a research opportunity and came back and spent senior year analyzing the political, philosophical, economic collapse of the country and why it happened and what we should learn from it.

What do you wish you knew while you were a Penn student?

I wish I had taken career development more seriously, spent more time understanding how the real world and the actual job market works. And I wish I had freaked out less. I think everyone at Penn does a decent enough job at that. Freaking out less and knowing you aren’t going to get everything you want in your first job is important, expectation setting I guess. We are very social creatures and I had a bunch of friends at Wharton and I think people just unnecessarily compared themselves to other people and wanted everything that everyone had and didn’t appreciate what they were doing or didn’t tend to make decisions independently enough for what they actually wanted. Or didn’t spend enough time actually thinking about what they wanted. Instead they saw what other people were doing and wanted that .For people who are scared of the “E”I was always okay with math and the analytics part, the kind of quant part, which I know some people aren’t. But when I got to grad school I saw very similar tension with people who were softer with those skill sets, but still had to get through all the quantitative requirements of grad school. Just to let you know, when you play it out in the job market you realize that those really are important skills. Even if you’re not the data person at the company, the general mindset, skill set, and experience that those more quantitative courses give you end up being one of the primary positive points of feedback. I’m glad I had to do it.