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Sam Vinograd on Why the Work of the UN General Assembly Matters to the U.S. Business Community

September 26, 2016
On September 22nd, the Penn Wharton PPI welcomed Sam Vinograd (C’05) for an interactive session reflecting on this month’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Prior to joining the private sector, where she leads policy discussions with public and private stakeholders on clean energy and clean tech projects, Ms. Vinograd held various senior roles within the National Security Council at the White House during the Obama administration.

In an intimate discussion, Ms. Vinograd explained her background at the U.S. Department of the Treasury on President Obama’s National Security Council as the Director for Iraq, and her current role as a VP in the Environmental Markets Group for a major private sector firm. This past week, the 71st General Assembly of the United Nations took place in New York City. Vinograd began with some information in the UN and its genesis in 1945, from the second World War. In 1956, 51 countries came to the meeting, and this year 193 countries, with 2 overseeing members (Palestine, Holy See) attended.

In the General Assembly, everyone has equal representation. “A delegate from Benin has as much of a vote as the U.S.,” she added. This can be both a good and bad thing when trying to move policy through the organization. “Our next President has to think carefully about streamlining the UN process at a tactical and strategic level,” Vinograd added before acknowledging claims that the UN is becoming irrelevant. The incoming Secretary General of the United Nations should also have private sector experience, since it is easy to “lose sense of how the rest of the world functions and how quickly you need to adapt to [crisis]”. Several governing bodies are looking for individuals with financial background and experience, since it makes this development sector more relevant. Balancing a strategic agenda and responding to urgent events is critical overlap between both fields.

Sam Vinograd in a meeting

Every year during this massive meeting, Vinograd described the “one stop shopping” for those interested in finance in policy. The 193 world leaders attend with their key staff, including Ministers of Finance. “If you’re working in the White House and need insight on a financial situation: it’s phone calls in the past, but you can [arrange] a series of meetings in person.” These bilateral meetings are very efficient, and heavy on preparation. Typically, only four issues are picked to be discussed succinctly during a single meeting. Several key leaders have meetings, for example, the United States and China met to discuss a bilateral investment treaty, energy reform, China’s slowing growth, and the Trans Pacific Partnership. Banks vie for world leaders to come speak at their organizations, providing an “incredible forum” for dialogues with Prime Ministers and diplomats worldwide.

“What’s good for the environment is good for the economy,” affirmed Vinograd, and while some business is curbed, these sinking costs are traded in for sustainable growth. This idea framed a discussion of Greek debt relief, Russia’s impact on the business community, Brexit, U.S. relations with Africa and refugee asylum.  On the topic of climate change and clean energy, she acknowledged the Paris Agreement signed a few months ago, and a new private-public partnership between the Security Council nations. These pledges may be affected by the rebalance of geopolitical power – China’s commitment to clean energy remains likely given their problems with labor productivity in the face of pollution, while the summer oil supply glut may give more flexibility for political relationships in the Middle East.

Moving forward, on the national level, scale for increasing clean energy use is difficult. Startups are not as efficient, and relationships with traditional suppliers and consumers raise questions of who will shoulder the cost. Vinograd called for state governments, the EPA and other regulatory bodies to vet sustainability businesses before providing subsidized funding – a business should both have a good business model and be good for the environment. Her firm strives to staff their clean energy group the same way they would staff any other investment banking team, with enough money to support energy initiatives. “The environmental markets are the nexus of policy and business,” she finished.  

Ms. Vinograd ended the session with some advice. “You can’t think too far ahead – everyone tries to over-plan what [life] leads to next. You need to follow your interests,” she said, adding that everyday you should read a news article you aren’t interested in so you “expand your aperture and push yourself to learn new things”.

Sam Vinograd headshot

About the Speaker


Sam Vinograd is a seasoned public policy and strategic communications professional. She began her career in Baghdad working for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and subsequently served on President Obama’s National Security Council as the Director for Iraq, Director for International Economics, and Senior Advisor to the National Security Advisor.  She moved to the private sector in 2013, where her work has focused on building public-private sector partnerships across a broad range of policy and business issues.

Ms. Vinograd received her B.A. in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University.

She is a David E. Rockefeller Fellow at the Trilateral Commission, a Millennium Fellow at the Atlantic Council, an advisor to the Next Generation Board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and an advisor to UNICEF USA. She is a regular contributor to Marie Claire and has published in several outlets including PoliticoWar on the Rocks, Fox News, and the Cipher Brief.

PENN WHARTON PPI
RESOURCE SPOTLIGHT:

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