When New York University’s Stern School of Business reached out to then-39-year-old Peter Henry to discuss their open deanship, he had zero experience leading a business school. In fact, the idea had never crossed his mind.
“When I was approached, I had never thought about being dean of anything,” Henry, 47, says now.
It was 2009, and Stern was not only seeking to replace Thomas Cooley and find its ninth dean, but was looking a way to reinvent and distinguish itself as an elite B-school in the wake of the greatest economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression.
“When I first started at Stern, every conversation I had with the media was about the concern Stern was going to go away because the financial services sector was going to go away,” Henry recalls. “I said, ‘No, the world needs more finance — not less.’ The world needs this business school to think about how it can create 21st-century finance to underwrite clean, sustainable cities in the emerging world and help us overcome some of these big investment infrastructure troubles we have.”
Hiring an economist with a policy research background but almost no business school experience was certainly a risk. Henry was a young, inexperienced, and a nontraditional hire — and his path to the deanship was a nontraditional one, too. But when he officially steps down as dean at the end of this year, he will leave a school that is unquestionably better positioned to move beyond its finance-only stereotype.
HENRY’S HUMBLE BEGINNINGS VISITING JAMAICA’S PEDRO PLAINS
Born in 1969 in Jamaica, Henry’s family immigrated to Brooklyn, New York when he was nine. Both of Henry’s parents have humble beginnings. His late father grew up in Pedro Plains, a tiny community on the southwest portion of the island. To this day, the town consists of a sports bar, post office, and church. Henry’s educational roots stem from the tiny town. His paternal grandparents were both teachers in the community and to this day, Henry is still referred to as Teacher Henry’s grandson, even though his grandfather passed when Henry was just 12.
“Even when I go back to Jamaica now, people refer to me as Teacher Henry’s grandson,” says Henry, calling his grandfather a hero. “It doesn’t matter what I’ve done, I’ll always be Teacher Henry’s grandson in that part of the country. And that’s as it should be.”
It was also the first time Henry saw education as a means to social mobility and a better life — a revelation that would turn into a guiding light throughout his career and time at Stern.
“The farmers and their children in that part of the country remember Teacher Henry because he taught them reading, writing, and arithmetic, so they could take care of their families and not get cheated. You know, just basic things,” he recalls.
THE SON OF TWO IMMIGRANT PH.D.s
Henry’s parents met in college. Both had received scholarships to attend high school and university. They moved to the United States for the first time to pursue Ph.Ds. Henry’s mother earned her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and his father earned one from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Henry’s parents planned on raising their young family of six in Jamaica, but around 1974 — soon after the election of Michael Manley as prime minister — a wave of politically-driven violence and killings swept across the country. The family waited hours outside of the U.S. embassy before fleeing for a more stable and safe life.
After a few weeks crammed in his aunt’s two-bedroom house in Brooklyn, Henry’s family resettled in a two-bedroom home in Wilmette, Illinois — a Chicago suburb north of Evanston. With Ph.Ds. in hand, Henry’s father took a position in research and development at Kraft Foods. His mother wrapped presents at a local department store before taking a position in the botany department at Chicago State University.
“I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of people,” Henry says, noting the work of his grandparents and parents. “I was kind of born on third base, just to be honest.”
THE EDUCATIONAL PATH FROM NORTH CAROLINA TO OXFORD TO CAMBRIDGE
The stark economic contrast between Pedro Plains and Wilmette was another seed in Henry’s eventual path to his interest and passion for economics, specifically in developing nations. An all around athlete, Henry was co-captain on his high school basketball team and was recruited to play football at Stanford. But an athletic scholarship never came through at Stanford. And then an academic one did at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Henry would earn a degree in economics. Soon after, Henry earned another bachelor’s degree — this one in math — as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Henry then enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he would earn his Ph.D. in economics.
After earning the Ph.D. in 1997, Henry set off on a relentless research path. He was a fellow at the Hoover Institution and earned research support from the National Science Foundation’s Early CAREER Development Program from 2001 to 2006. In 2008, he took over as then-senator Barack Obama’s external economics advisory group chief. Henry spent a brief stint in the White House before taking a position on faculty at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the associate director of the Center for Global Business and the Economy at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. “I jokingly tell the story that I had to get into Stanford through the backdoor — as an economics professor,” Henry told CNN Money last summer.
And then Stern came calling.