Interviewer: Emma Nijssen
Recent IHEID graduate Chen You is working as a sustainability analyst at Swiss Re in Beijing, China. He shared with us the story of his path from a student of International Trade to where he is today, along with the diverse internship experiences he enjoyed along the way. We thank him for his time and very practical insights!
1) Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you studied at IHEID?
My name is Chen You and I’m from Wuhan, China. I did my bachelor degree in Beijing at the University of International Business and Economics. Before switching my career path to international affairs, I was a typical business school student. I used to do internships for various financial institutions such as EY and the Commerzbank. It all went quite coincidentally, that I went on an exchange program in the last year of my undergraduate at Bocconi University in Milan. And at that time, I felt that I’ve got to stay in Europe for my Master's Degree, so I applied for multiple programs there. Since I was also interested in international affairs, I regretted that I didn't choose that for my undergraduate. So I applied to some schools and got an offer from IHEID, and I felt that Geneva would be a good place to start another stage of my life.
I studied the Master in international Affairs program with both the Trade and International Finance and the Sustainability tracks. My first internship in Geneva was at a think tank called ICTSD, the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development. It sadly no longer exists, but I did get a lot of first-hand experience in policy work there. And then, because of that experience, I was selected as an intern for the OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate for its fishery team. In 2020, I worked at the World Economic Forum for half a year on nature and biodiversity issues. By the end of 2020, I finished up my master degree and came back to China. After working for an international think tank, I found another opportunity where I am right now at Swiss Re, a very famous company in the reinsurance industry. Here I’m working on sustainability risk issues in China, closely collaborating with colleagues based in Zurich and Singapore.
2) Could you describe to us your current job as a sustainability analyst and what you do on a daily basis?
As China has already pledged to reach a carbon peak by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060, there is a drive from the government as well as the private sector to facilitate the net-zero transformation. This is partially why my current position was created, and I serve as a bridge between the Chinese local community and the headquarters.
The first role that I play is to understand and analyze Swiss Re's ESG policy which covers various aspects ranging from thermal coal, oil and gas, biodiversity, food policy, social issues, as well as follow up with the local market dynamic relevant to sustainability. In addition, I support Swiss Re's contribution to the Green Investment Principles (GIP) for the Belt and Road Initiative. We are the only foreign reinsurer among all signatories and serve as the co-chair in the working group that is focused on the climate environment risk assessment. As for the incoming deliverable, I’m coauthoring a paper on the transition risks and opportunities in that working group. This year we plan to roll out some pilot projects relevant to numerous emerging topics such as net zero alignment.
3) What made you decide to move to China? Was your decision motivated by your job or did you have other reasons for this decision?
At the time when I wrapped up my work at the World Economic Forum in the middle of 2020, all the international institutions and NGOs based in Geneva were forced to downsize their operation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With ESG issues booming in China, I felt like I would have more opportunities here, so I chose to leave. Having said that, everyone's future is open-ended and I look forward to new adventures.
4) How would you say your time at IHEID helped prepare you for your current job? Did the IHEID network or career services help you find your current position?
IHEID itself has a very international group of students. And for me, personally, when I started to seek my very first opportunity in Geneva, I consulted with my mentor, who was then a second-year student . He told me about the think tank that I later worked for. I think this kind of personal connections created between students can unlock opportunities. Although that NGO no longer exists, without this experience I couldn't have gotten the OECD and WEF positions. And without those, I would not have this opportunity right now at Swiss Re. All these experiences are interlinked, and the starting point of the storyline of my career path is from IHEID.
5) What skills you acquired from IHEID are most helpful for your professional experience? Were there any specific classes or professors that have helped you prepare for your current job?
I think the variety of the courses offered at IHEID were definitely an asset for me. Especially the interdisciplinary master's degree, which offers a variety of courses. When you are still student, you never know what you're going to end up with. MIA and MDEV's curriculum really gave me a lot of chances to explore what could be my interest. I think you need to have some hands-on experience or take a course about a topic before you realize what you might have a passion for. I remember when I was at the Graduate Institute, I took a course relevant to carbon removal technologies and climate change, and this was the triggering point for me to pay attention to those sorts of issues. From my previous background I didn’t really have this exposure, because people's awareness for climate change in a Chinese business school is not that high. When people talk about climate change, they might think, “Oh, is this topic only for environmental engineers or scientists rather than ordinary people?” IHEID enabled me to explore this particular area and reshaped my career landscape
6) A lot of students at IHEID are looking for internships/jobs now that the summer is almost here. Do you have any advice for students looking to enter your field?
For ESG specialists on a broader level, you have to make use of the knowledge from the coursework and apply it into specific business context. Private sectors have a different way of thinking and of seeing international public affairs. While cultivating in the theoretical issues it's also very important to keep your mind open for the business world. Because nowadays, development and international affairs are fast evolving. And even for some international organizations, they have to borrow some critically important resources and know-how from the private sector. Even if you don't want to join the private sector, it is always good to learn how it works. Only by understanding it, can we leverage relevant resources within the system and manage to deliver public goods for the marginalized group or in an environmentally friendly way.