Eva-Maria Hempe on taking risks and gaining a unique set of skills to work on healthcare issues.
I followed my interests and discovered the different building blocks of what really excites me. And in the process, I built a pretty unique skillset in science, policy, business and communications that now allows me to have the impact I always wanted to have.Eva-Maria Hempe
Eva-Maria Hempe has not been afraid to take risks or change direction in order to pursue her passion to drive change. As a school student she convinced her parents to let her go on an exchange programme to the US and switched focus from journalism to physics; as an undergraduate she changed university to do a more research-oriented course; and at Cambridge she transferred from physics to applying engineering to healthcare management.
With each turn she added a new facet to her interdisciplinary change management skills by throwing herself enthusiastically into every challenge and making it work for her. Journalism allowed Eva-Maria to develop the skills to explain to others how the world works, her studies in physics and engineering as well as her management work deepened her understanding of how the world works. Driving all her intellectual pursuits is her passion to promote change and, ultimately, to improve how the world works.
She is back in Cambridge this week to talk to Gates Cambridge Scholars about her career progression and her work for the consultancy firm Bain & Company which she returns to after a year of being seconded to the World Economic Forum.
Eva-Maria  was born in a rural town in lower Bavaria and says she was unusual in her immediate family for her interest in travel and exploration. She was also very academically gifted. After her family moved to Munich, she skipped two grades in middle school. She also developed an early talent for writing and from the age of 12 wrote a regular local community column in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. It’s something she continues now, writing a regular blog and contributing to the World Economic Forum blog.
When she was 15 and at high school Eva-Maria applied to go on an exchange to the US and was sent to live with a family in the greater Detroit area of Michigan. She found the transition challenging – she was used to being very independent and her US host family initially felt overprotective, but she threw herself into school life, writing for the school newspaper and taking part in a range of sports as well as being on the school robotics team. “It helped me develop personally, made me more sensitive to cultural differences and gave me confidence to deal with tough situations,” she says.
When she returned to Germany she had to complete two more years of high school. She had thought about pursuing a career in journalism. But when she asked journalists for advice, they encouraged her to become an expert in a topic she was passionate about instead. Although she had missed a lot of physics by skipping grades, her physics teacher convinced her to continue with it and she found that she liked the challenge of understanding how the world works. And so she enrolled for physics at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet in Munich.
After a year and a half she transferred to the University of Regensburg because of her long commute in Munich, a city notorious for its lack of affordable housing. By chance, she had come across the information that Regensburg together with the University of Erlangen-Nuremburg had recently launched a so-called elite programme in physics, with a ratio of up to two professors to five students and an emphasis on early involvement in research. During the two-year programme, she conducted four smaller research projects in addition to her master’s thesis and also got to spend a semester in Erlangen. In 2007, she graduated with a master’s degree in physics just three and a half years after starting university. During the course, she had been intending to spend the summer of 2006 doing research in Japan, but the funding was cut at the last minute. However, she was offered the chance to do research at the University of Cambridge instead.
She convinced her professor in Regensburg to build her master’s thesis project around the nanomagnetics work she was planning to do in Cambridge and packed her bags once again, this time for England. “I loved Cambridge,” she says. “It had never occurred to me before that I could study at Cambridge, but once I was here I really wanted to stay on for my PhD. So I started talking to researchers in the physics and material sciences departments and put in two applications for a PhD.” She got accepted for both and received offers of awards for both to help pay her fees from both her department and her college. At the same time she was told she had got an interview for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship and she was offered that too. She decided to go with physics and to switch from nanomagnetics to quantum optics.
Before she started her PhD in autumn 2007 she dipped her feet into the business world by doing an internship with the Boston Consulting Group. Back in Cambridge, Eva-Maria really enjoyed Cambridge life – she rowed, did pentathlon and football and was the social secretary and later MCR President at St John’s College, but by the end of her first year she realised that she was not totally satisfied with her academic work as it felt very removed from the real world. She met a student at a garden party who had studied electrical engineering and was working on how the procurement process at hospitals affected patient safety. “I found that fascinating, taking a scientific way of thinking and applying it to real world problems,” says Eva-Maria. “I did some soul-searching and decided to start over.”
By autumn 2008 she was working at the Engineering Design Centre, collaborating with the NHS on applications for engineering design thinking in the design of healthcare services and grappling with the social science way of thinking. “My project came down to the question ‘why can we build airplanes but not design a health service that works´,” she says. Her decision to switch course was supported by the Gates Cambridge Trust who gave her an extension on her PhD funding. During the course of her PhD, she got the opportunity to close the loop on how she came to Cambridge by conducting a side research project at the University of Tokyo, which focused on mechanisms for academia-industry collaboration.
One paper which came out of her PhD was on the role of carers in health service delivery. The paper, the first study to quantify the value of carers’ contribution, was published in the journal Health Expectations and shows that carers who are involved in discussions on healthcare services can contribute unique and useful views on how services are delivered.
Eva-Maria submitted her thesis in September 2011 and having found her passion in the health field, she applied for a post as a junior programme officer with the World Health Organisation. She was shortlisted, but in the end the WHO wanted someone with a more traditional medical background. Keen to ensure her PhD project would have a real world impact, she decided to take a one year post doctorate position to implement her research findings. In parallel, she applied for other jobs in the health sector, but admits it was a hard sell due to her unconventional background.
Bain & Company
At this point, she decided that consultancy work would play to her strength of quickly becoming familiar with new topics and at the same time build her credibility in the business and healthcare world. When the UK government stopped issuing post-study work visas, her boyfriend at the time and fellow Gates alum was having problems with his visa extension. So when in 2012 she got an offer from Bain & Company in Munich, the couple moved to Germany. In the following years, Eva-Maria mainly worked on healthcare projects, including nursing homes, pharmaceuticals and medical technology. She travelled a lot, within Europe but also repeatedly spent time in the US. For example, she worked on one nine-month project with a pharmaceutical company headquartered in the US, which meant she was often commuting between the US and Europe every or every other week. Her science background was a clear asset in this assignment, which involved how to best communicate science findings to doctors and building a global organisation to do so. Besides her work at headquarters, she also facilitated workshops around the world, linking up with local staff.
Just over a year ago, having split up with her boyfriend, she decided that it would be a good opportunity to take advantage of the different opportunities a large consulting firm can offer. She spoke to the Bain & Company HR team who suggested she would be right for a post at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, working on how to prevent non-communicable diseases. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work for the WEF and go back to my health policy roots,” says Eva-Maria.
World Economic Forum
It also gave her the chance to work with the WHO . She moved to Geneva and has since been leading workshops around the world, including in Davos and China. A key theme of her work is the need to understand health as an issue that extends beyond healthcare. In China, Eva-Maria facilitated a discussion about the role of physical and built environments in promoting health with a range of high-level figures, including ministers of health, executives of for-profit and non-for-profits across a range of industries, as well as leading academics. The events in Davos focused on presenting the findings of the “How to Realise Returns on Health” report which Eva-Maria had authored and agreeing next steps in creating collaborative public-private solutions that help maximise the number of years a person is healthy and stop the rise of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
Eva-Maria says: “It is more efficient and efficient to help people live healthier lives as our populations get older and older. If we are going to live for longer we need to make sure we stay healthy for as long as possible.” With the WEF project manager on maternity leave, Eva-Maria had the opportunity to play the lead role in shape the direction of the project. “For the first two months I was sitting at my desk and felt like banging my head against a wall. It wasn’t a regular consulting project with clear deliverables. But I’m now so proud of what has been put together,” she says. She has had lots of good feedback on her approach of arguing for an alignment of health benefits with economic viability. Her role in WEF is now coming to a finish and she will be training junior Bain & Company consultants before beginning a new healthcare project in Zurich in April.
This week she is in Cambridge to speak to Gates Cambridge Scholars about her experience of working for Bain & Company and creating her own career path. She says: “I was not someone who had it all figured out how to change the world at age 20. But I do not think that is a bad thing. I followed my interests and discovered the different building blocks of what really excites me. And in the process, I built a pretty unique skillset in science, policy, business and communications that now allows me to have the impact I always wanted to have. I believe that to solve the great problems we are facing as societies we need to overcome barriers between government, NGOs, academia and business. It should not be the public versus the private sector – instead we have to work together to drive sustainable change at scale.” She is excited to be coming back to Cambridge. “Cambridge was a turning point for me,” she says. “The Trust supported me to transfer to engineering and health. Gates invests in people not projects and enabled me to find my passion. It was a life-changing experience.”