Beata Javorcik: from experiencing economic transition to advancing it
by Valerie Chuang and Greg Larson
April 24, 2023
Growing up in Kraków in the 1970s and 80s, Beata Javorcik remembers the vivid symbols of communism: sparsely stocked grocery shelves, long queues to obtain rationed goods, and the challenges of everyday life in Soviet-era Poland. But she also remembers a lesson her dziadek (Polish for grandfather) taught her: that education can open paths to a different future.
Several decades later, that lesson has come full circle for Javorcik, who received her PhD in economics from Yale in 1999. She is now the Chief Economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) – an institution established after the fall of the Soviet Union to help countries transition from communism to free-market capitalism.
But the EBRD is only the latest job for Javorcik, a world-renowned scholar of international trade. In 2014, she became Oxford University’s first female Statutory Professor of Economics. Through it all, she has stayed true to her dziadek’s lesson – by using research and analysis to help countries chart better futures.
From Kraków to Rochester
At an early age, Javorcik noticed contradictions in Poland’s communist system. For example, despite the government’s emphasis on equality, certain groups enjoyed privileges – like her high school in Kraków, where the mayor’s daughter attended. The school received many benefits as a result of this connection, including one that changed the course of Javorcik’s life: an exchange program with a high school in Rochester, New York.
Javorcik arrived in the US shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In sharp contrast to Kraków’s central planning and conservative style, Rochester was dynamic and bustling. Yet both cities grappled with economic dislocation: as Kraków began its long transition from communism to capitalism, Rochester was struggling to find its footing after decades of industrial decline.
Fascinated by these issues, Javorcik knew what she wanted to study after high school, when she arrived at the University of Rochester on a scholarship for international students.
“I wanted to study economics in order to make sense of all of the changes that were happening,” she said.
Eager to connect her studies with practical experience, Javorcik even took a summer internship at the World Bank’s country office in Warsaw. But after graduating from college, she knew her career prospects would be limited in Poland. So she opted to stay in the United States and pursue a PhD in economics at Yale – an institution known and admired in Kraków. Despite being one of only three women in her PhD cohort, Javorcik quickly found her footing in New Haven.
“We ate, breathed, and dreamed about economics,” she said. She remembers spending entire days chipping away at math problems on Hillhouse Avenue, then chewing them over all evening with her housemates – and often over breakfast muffins at Willoughby’s the next morning, too.
Given her background, Javorcik’s doctoral studies focused on understanding the drivers of economic transition. Studying international trade and development economics with Yale luminaries like T.N. Srinivasan, Phil Levy, Jenny Lanjouw, and Andrew Bernard, her dissertation was based on transition data from Eastern Europe. She even spent a summer in London interning with the EBRD’s Chief Economist – a position she’d hold two decades later.