The president of the World Bank used “one of the best ploys to get a job” Obama had ever seen

Kim had some strong intel on the president’s mother; it worked.
Kim had some strong intel on the president’s mother; it worked.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, offered a brief lesson in nailing a job interview earlier this week.

Speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Kim shared an anecdote about how he landed then-president Barack Obama’s nomination to his powerful position.

At the time of his interview, Kim was president of Dartmouth College, but he was better known for his career within global health organizations. An anthropologist and physician by training, he held a B.A. from Brown, and an M.D. and Ph.D from Harvard University. Still, he was an unconventional candidate for the World Bank’s top position.

According to Kim, Obama looked at him and said, “So, Jim, why would I nominate you to be president of the World Bank? Why wouldn’t I nominate a macroeconomist?”

“Well, president Obama,” Kim replied, as he recalls, “have you read your mother’s Ph.D dissertation?”

Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was an activist and anthropologist who spent years living in Indonesia, researching village craft industries, particularly metalworking, but also pottery and batik. Her PhD thesis, based on several years of field studies, was published in 1992, three years before her death. Kim says he was “one of, like, 10 people who ordered her 1,000-page dissertation” from her school’s archive, and he read every word of it.

Kim had been inspired to find the thesis after Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, which made the Chicagoan a political star overnight, four years before he’d run for president. Kim became, he says, “obsessed with this guy.” And when he read up on the state senator from Illinois, he discovered that Obama’s mother was an anthropologist.

One of the ideas she explored in her paper was the argument made by development economists that the Indonesian artisanal industry would be destroyed by globalization. “But in her 1,000-page dissertation, she showed that globalization led to the flowering, the rapid expansion, of the Indonesian artisanal industry,” said Kim. Her on-the-ground research had given her better information.

“I’m not going to be able to tell you what it looks like from 30,000 feet, like a macroeconomist,” Kim told Obama, “but I can tell you if the programs are working on the ground, because that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.”

“Ok, I get that,’” Obama responded, as Kim tells it. He got the job.

To be sure, in addition to his degrees and illustrious career, Kim had other intangible credentials that made up for his lack of experience in finance and banking. And the evidence suggests that more than 10 people had read Dunham’s thesis (Duke University Press published a condensed version of the paper in 2009, titled Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia).

Nonetheless, when the two met again at an informal gathering, said Kim, Obama remarked, “Jim, that was one of the best ploys to get a job I’ve ever seen.”