It’s a word that comes up often when you speak with the newly named Dean of HEC Paris, a world-class business school and one of Europe’s finest institutions of higher education. Eloïc Peyrache, who assumed the top leadership role on Jan. 18th after serving as the interim dean, knows the school well.
He has been a professor of economics at HEC Paris for nearly 18 years and has also held a variety of administrative roles, from associate dean of the Master in Management (Grande Ecole program) to head of all degree programs before stepping up to succeed Peter Todd who left the job to focus more fully on his recovery after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.
‘I STRONGLY BELIEVE IN THE IMPACT OF OUR FACULTY’
In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, Peyrache made clear his one overriding goal and addressed the difficulty of forecasting what will happen to business education as a result of the pandemic and technological change. “More than the vision, we are in a setting where it is hard to see what will happen in five years time,” Peyrache tells Poets&Quants. “So it has really been about the mission and purpose of the school. The reason why I wanted to dive in was really about the school’s impact. I strongly believe in the impact of our faculty and believe the school has to diffuse more widely the faculty’s knowledge, making sure it does not stay within a group of peers. We need to communicate much more the super richness of our faculty, the impact of our students and faculty.”
While the new dean is 45 years old, he looks much younger, bearing a resemblance to a younger version of the actor Richard Gere. Peyrache acknowledges that at times, he has been mistaken for a student. He relates an incident on campus at which he was told, “I’m sorry this is closed to students….”
Unlike his Canadian predecessor, Peyrache is French, yet has a global background. Born in India, he lived there for several years until moving to Japan. Those early far-flung adventures were the result of his father’s early career in diplomacy, a stint cut short by his mother. “My dad was a diplomat,” explains Peyrache, “when we were in India but my mother said, ‘No way. Am I going to follow you every three years when you have to switch jobs?’ So he quit diplomacy and they entered a different professional life and that is how she got the opportunity to work in a company and business. He was in intelligence and technology. He started in Japan and worked on technology transfer in France to advise companies on the new technologies. He set up a consulting company. My dad became an entrepreneur and my mother was a powerful woman in business in France and has been promoting women leadership all her active life. She is still doing it.”
‘I REALLY LOVE ACADEMIC LIFE AND WANTED TO GET INVOLVED MUCH MORE’
His father’s entrepreneurial pursuits posed a challenge to the family’s three brothers and a sister. When his father approached retirement from his company that employed nearly 70 people, he had hoped one of his children might take it over. “There was a big question in the family: you work in the company and take it over or you continue in academics,” says Peyrache. “I decided to continue in academics. None of the kids decided to enroll in the company so he sold it. I did some summer internships and had some shares of the company and was part of the board.”
In fact, both he and one of his brothers, who is in neuroscience at McGill University in Canada, chose the academic life. Peyrache, who came to France at the age of 15, studied in Paris at the Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay and earned master’s degrees in mathematical economics and econometrics, as well as advanced quantitative economics from the University of Toulouse and then his PhD from the Toulouse School of Economics. A world class institution for game theory and contract theory, Peyrache dove deep into modeling, applying those models to certification industries, such as auditing, to examine collusion. He started his career at HEC in 2003 as an assistant professor in economics but early on became involved in several administrative roles. Peyrache held several leading positions in the HEC group since he got his tenure in 2009.
The doors to a series of leadership opportunities opened early. “I became associate dean 12 years ago a little bit by accident somehow. I really love academic life and wanted to get involved much more and have more impact,” he recalls. “The associate dean of HEC left and I was 31 then and he said, ‘Do you want to jump in?’ And I started. I have been in leadership positions in many years so it is not like I went from the faculty to the dean’s position. I know the school well. I have been acting dean of executive education for two years. So maybe it was a natural step. So I said let’s go. Let’s do it. But I didn’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘I want to be the dean of a large business school.’ To me, it is about mission and purpose.”
‘TRANSMITTING KNOWLEDGE IS AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT TO ME’
Before being named the permanent dean of HEC Paris, he had been acting dean when Todd announced his resignation. Since October, he had worked with the executive search firm of Korn Ferry as one of five finalists who interviewed for the job in January. “I thought there would be a second round but there was no second round because there was consensus,” he says. Peyrache was the clear choice of HEC’s recruitment committee.
The appointment caps an academic career that he has been drawn to out of a passion for both research and teaching others. “I really love the two so understanding the world and trying to go deeply into things had a lot of interest to me,” he says. “I love the teaching part. Transmitting knowledge was an important element to me. It is something I miss a lot. I strongly believe we are very lucky to work in this sector because we have the excitement of competition but the fun role of having an impact on younger and older generations. If I had to do it again, I would choose the same sector. Looking at who students become and what they do next is part of the sense of my own life. I love the job.”
Peyrache speaks with animated enthusiasm when he recalls his experience of being in charge of HEC’s master’s in management program for nearly eight years. “Those students came to school and had no clear idea of what they wanted to do next,” he remembers. “They tend to come early and they have a very tough entrance exam to pass and they basically focus on this. Once they come to HEC, they have no idea why they are here. There is a world of opportunity after that. Some of them want to become priests. Some become actors. Some want to work in NGOs, finance and politics. I found it absolutely fascinating to have those students and help them find themselves. You have to experiment and meet a lot of people. I strongly believe in role models so we invite successful entrepreneurs to campus, including entrepreneurs who failed. We invite a large diversity of role models on campus to help them understand what they want to do.”
‘WHAT IS YOUR DREAM? HOW DO YOU FIND YOUR OWN WAY?’
He vividly recalls bringing the students into an amphitheater and asking the introspective questions that put young people on a path. “What is your dream? How do you find your own way? I do invite young graduates who did amazing stuff to transmit part of the exprience. I loved it and at some point I switched to executive education, and I quickly realized there was amazing stuff to do and the impact was strong. So I had a different amount of fun. With this experience, I decided that becoming the dean was important.”
The HEC Paris Peyrache has inherited is in a strong position. The state of the school, he believes, is great. “Peter Todd did a great job. We continue to internationalize the school. Most of the challenges ahead are big issues like climate change, AI and data. They are really multi-disciplinary things to handle. Clearly it will change the landscape of higher education. We believe that as a standalone business school, it’s not the best way to have the right impact so we will have more alliances. We will continue to solidify a strong alliance with Ecole Polytechnique, the best engineering school in France. I believe the fundamentals are good. We are high in the rankings, and we had some comments that maybe it is time for HEC to have more impact.”
HEC has already moved forward in many of these key arenas. “We are doing more and more on climate,” says Peyrache. “We launched a promising center on AI and data. Entrepreneurship is everywhere. The number of students setting up companies while they are still students on campus has grown a lot. And I want to make sure the school has an impact. Are we part of the solution or are we part of the problem? Lately the debate is polarized a lot. There are many topics we need to talk about including well being, mental health, all those issues. And we need to walk the talk as members of the the leadership team.”
DIVERSITY IS AT THE HEART OF EXCELLENCE YET NATIONALISM IS GROWING
He feels strongly that diversity is at the heart of excellence. “We have 105 nationalities on campus this year. We train people who will have important jobs in different countries so they will be influential people. It is part of our job and our duty to be some kind of place that promotes a global view at a time when nationalism is growing. Tensions are higher. The fact that we have so much potential for cultural shocks is both challenging and exciting. It is important that we manage diversity well and have people believe it is more of a richness than a challenge.”
“For HEC to be a renown school globally, we have to have students from all over the world. We have a mission to bring all those bright students together and make sure they become friends and are advocates of diversity in the future. Social diversity is also important. Social promotion in society is still working but we need to be part of the solution on this. We have young students and MBAs and they all work in silos. To what extent can we connect them?”
His more immediate challenges? Gathering more scholarship support for students is one of them. “We’ve had some fundraising campaigns dedicated to persons in need. We did one for Lebanon after the explosion and had a lot of grads from Lebanon who provided some funds for students from the country. We are trying to help students and we invested a lot on infrastructure and technology. The biggest concern is for executive education. Last year, it was hard to achieve the kind of result we expected. We are a nonprofit so as soon as your revenues go down, you have to cut costs and adapt. It is a concern and still is. We want to be very pragmatic. When you look at degree programs, the number of candidates really exploded this year. In the MBA, we could have the highest cohort in September.”
In the long-run, however, the new dean is focused on increasing the school’s impact in the world. And that means boosting the impact of his faculty’s research and helping HEC’s graduates achieve their full promise.