Portrait of Natacha Valla

Natacha Valla: “Transformation and transition have become the bread and butter of professional life”

The Sciences Po School of Management and Innovation (SMI) embraces its mission of fostering “inclusive prosperity”. From finance to the creative industries, from large multinationals to budding start-ups, its diverse student cohorts form the economic actors of tomorrow.

Dean Natacha Valla explains the school’s strategies, profiles, future prospects and pedagogical innovations in a world in constant transformation.

What does one learn at the School of Management and Innovation?

Natacha Valla: The School of Management and Innovation is probably where the breadth of masters is probably the widest in Sciences Po. We have the so-called “traditional” Masters: in Finance, in Corporate Strategy, or in Human Resources, where students learn skills that are traditional to business schools, but also looking at them through the lens of social sciences, which is an approach rooted in the DNA of Sciences Po. 

But the School also has another side more related to creativity. We look at creative industries, communications, media, innovation, digital transformation and a set of marketing curricula. In these subjects too, we adopt a “Sciences Po touch”: we don’t do blunt marketing, we do marketing with a social dimension to it. We also have a Master called “New luxury and art de vivre”, which really approaches economic activity through the lenses of culture, art and social sciences.

In which ways are your curricula innovative?

Natacha Valla: The different sides of the school are blended to a certain degree, through our common curriculum courses, to which we have added from September 2021 onwards a strand devoted to data and digital. It is developed for all Masters and has 3 components: a quantitative approach - learning a bit of coding, visualization of data and the like. The second angle has to do with social sciences: the ethics of data, how to deal with fake news, what are the legal implications of digital and data development... And finally a training on professional tools, depending on your Master’s programme: specific courses of data and digital devoted to finance, or related to digital art, etc.

We also have developed many innovative pedagogical setups. Capstone Projects, for example: students of the Master in International Management and Sustainability register for concrete projects proposed by different companies at the beginning of the year, and they work on it in small groups throughout the year. At the end of the year a jury assesses the results of the work done. This year, for the first time, we have a partnership with the Institut de France, which will deliver a Capstone Project Prize in September. We also have a set of courses for the whole school called Grand Challenges. This year, for one of the project modules, we were asked to work on the Chateau de Chantilly, who were looking for input on the marketing, finance, strategy and design side. We organized agile groups, and we did the final restitution in Chantilly, on site. We will continue next year with another castle in the Paris region, and I hope this is the start of a series to really articulate what we teach with the richness of real life examples.

What makes the Sciences Po School of Management and Innovation unique?

Natacha Valla: What makes us unique is the extent to which our faculty comes from outside and blends with the Sciences Po faculty. 

We are probably unique in providing students with a background in social sciences in addition to the more technical skills that you get in a traditional school of management. This blending of faculty and of skills is driven by one of our main goals: to equip students with the ability to reflect and have a critical mind towards the decisions they will have to make in their professional lives, and a breadth of views in terms of developing strategies.

I like using a German expression: Mündigkeit. It means being mature, reasonable in one’s judgement, being equipped with the ability to formulate a judgement and to rationalize it instead of simply being driven by instincts and emotions. I think that is a quality we really try to foster in our students through this blended approach, and I don’t think you find a similar mix easily in other schools. They may be stronger in specific management skills or financial instruments, but this blending is really unique. And because we have such a diversity of subjects and of Masters, the creativity side of the school feeds into the more traditional side, and vice versa. It develops in our students a form of resilience, and a drive for creativity and innovation.

Who are the students of the School of Management and Innovation?

Natacha Valla: We have a very wide diversity of profiles. Our intake is fairly diverse, with students coming from the Undergraduate College but also through the French and the international admission procedures. For example, we have a fair amount of students in engineering, who already have strong technical skills but seek this complementarity that is specific to the Sciences po School of Management and Innovation.

The luxury of the SMI environment is that we can provide students with almost tailor-made skills depending on what they want to do and become. You might come to the school with the dream of being a consultant at one of the Big Four consulting companies. You would join the Master in Finance and Strategy, and be exposed to all the dimensions of the job.

You may also come to the SMI with the goal of being an entrepreneur and starting your own business. Maybe you would choose the Master in Innovation and Digital Transformation and you would have smaller classes, more devoted to project development, to the design thinking approaches that will make you fit to develop your own business. And one of the advantages of studying at Sciences Po is its ecosystem: for example, Sciences Po Entrepreneurs could provide after your graduation an environment where you could nurture and seed your initiative. 

We also have courses in the creative industries field, which are more suited to students who want to have a career with an artistic background, in the private sector. They will learn skills in management, in the marketing of culture … 

Our graduates are very agile in understanding what will be expected of them in their professional life. They have a solid culture in social sciences, which experience finds very useful. I think they are also open minded, which provides them with an ability to manage transitions and transformations, which is a skill that is always needed but even more so now, after the pandemic and the sequence of  crises that we have been going through since 2008 approximately. They have this resilience which makes them unique. It is something we repeatedly hear from companies that hire our students, quite unanimously.

I am proud of our students. It is very difficult to join Sciences Po in general, and the School is no exception to that. Our students are quite unique individuals, they have unique ambitions, unique profiles, and this shows at the end of their masters.

How do you place the common good within your educational project?

Natacha Valla: The environment of the School of Management and Innovation is built on four main sets of values: excellence, integrity and responsibility, reflexivity and openness, and equal opportunities and diversity. The idea of the “common good” is not a subject matter per se, but a cross-fitting dimension of our pedagogy and a central value to the school. 

We adopt a very realistic approach to the common good. It starts with a basic observation: we have lived for decades in a world that prioritized the shareholder value of a firm over everything else. The way we rephrase this old paradigm is to say : it is not only about shareholders, but about stakeholders. Not only those who own, but also those who make : the workers, the environment, policy makers, every entity and individual involved in the activities of the firm. It is also about governance.

This changes the mindset students will adopt in their work and the tools they will need. It is not enough to know financial accounting to run a firm, you need to have a notion of what the common good is. Today, it is particularly related to sustainability, issues with climate change and with inequalities. At the School, we have specific sections of the curriculum taking this into account, and we blend those touches with the more traditional tools we teach. We are introducing new classes around it: for example, we built one common course on the raison d’être of companies, which entails legal dimensions, decision-making and strategic thinking. 

Transformation and transition have become, to my view, the bread and butter of professional life. The generation of students we have was almost born into a sequence of crises affecting the world economy and society: the major overarching one is climate change and the transition that needs to come out of it, but there is also the process of digitalisation, and now in particular the questions raised by the pandemic.

I think now the professional environment will have to seek a new way to operate that has not reached a steady state yet. And it will be up to our students and graduates to make those decisions in a conscious way, to be “entrepreneurs of change”. I think this is quite unique, it is a mix of an opportunity and an imperative that, together, force us to adapt.

How has the pandemic impacted the School and the fields your students wish to join?

Natacha Valla: Sciences Po as a whole adapted to the shock in a very voluntary way, trying to preserve continuity. We were never perfect, and I think nobody was perfect, but over time a resilience has appeared. There has been a lot of distance learning, for which we had to develop the skills of the teaching community and make sure that no student was left aside.

We still are open in terms of how we develop from now on, and I would very much like to use the skills and equipment that we have developed in terms of hybridity, to explore the opportunities that have been opened by the modus operandi during the crisis. 

In the professional world, some sectors have suffered a lot: fields related to creative industries, communications to some extent, faced a big shock and have to find new ways to operate. But the crisis has also created new opportunities, in the audiovisual industry for example. 

We try to anticipate changes linked to the pandemic, but also to digital transformation and crucially the new opportunities linked to sustainability and the ecological transition.

The jewel we have for that is our teaching community. It brings together on the one hand the permanent Sciences Po professors who give us the theoretical visions and perspectives, and on the other the wealth of profiles of people who come and teach at the school. They are senior media people, senior bankers, designers, partners in large consultancy companies, they have their own firms in creative industries … They are the ones hiring young people, and they know better than anyone who they will need in the coming years. This diversity of profiles and backgrounds in our teaching community is really one of the treasures of the School of Management and Innovation.

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The Sciences Po Editorial Team

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