Justin Hadad, a recent graduate (2021) and one of the first students to receive a Bachelor of Science in Economics at UNC, was recently named Carolina’s 53rd Rhodes Scholar.
Although he grew up in Columbus, OH, his parents hail from Trinidad, and their ancestors were refugees from the Middle East. Justin credits his heritage as inspiration to “explore the ability for economic theory to facilitate social good––particularly in the development of technology––as well as the ethical and practical constraints around this facilitation.” He describes his journey into economics as “organic,” stating that he, “view[s] the field as a set of tools through which social good can be accomplished.” Hadad is goal-oriented and driven to make an impact on the world. When asked about his research interests, Hadad says “My economic research interests span two-sided matching markets (presently in refugee relocation) and auctions. My thesis explored the potential for auction methodology to cure scheduling inefficiencies in retail shops and restaurants.”
Justin recently left Unity, “a real-time 3D simulation engine used in gaming, media, transportation, and construction,” where he worked as a Product Manager. He is currently in the process of gaining permit approval to begin microeconomic theory research at the University of Zürich in Switzerland where he will work as a Academic Visitor under Dr. Marek Pycia, “studying principles and outcomes of two-sided markets.”
Justin’s recreational interests include classical texts and mental health. He co-founded both The Propertius Project (https://propertius.org/), which aims to “make Propertius’ Elegies more accessible to students,” and UNCUT (https://www.uncutchapelhill.com/), “a nonprofit that gives student athletes the chance to discuss their lives outside of the playing field.” According to Hadad, “The former is just getting started; the latter has 300,000 views at the Chapel Hill branch alone, with franchises at 8 other schools (and more to come!).”
Philanthropic endeavors aside, Justin enjoys playing basketball, biking, and writing. During his time at UNC, he was a practice squad player for the women’s basketball team. He recently finished a bike trip along the East Coast, during which he “wrote a set of blogs, reviewed restaurants, and took photos, most of the preceding you can find here (https://justinhadad.com/biking.html).” Justin also loves to travel and explore new places; he answered some questions about his current role and future plans as an economist while in Portugal, “sipping a garoto––and playing chess, too.”
What are your goals as an economist?
Economics provides the framework through which preferences and constraints (e.g. present market structures) lead to optimal outcomes. My current goal is to apply this framework to the refugee crisis; my long-term goal is to apply microeconomic theory to markets that generate suboptimal outcomes for different social groups. I also wish to bridge the gap between dense game theoretical findings and practice, and encourage more people interested in both the natural and social sciences into the field.
What inspired you to study economics?
I first think about the other domains of my academic interests, physics and the classics. Physics provides the analytical skills necessary to address complex problems, while the classics recall the social foundations that undermine these problems. Economics presents the set of tools through which tenets of these fields merge (how analytical skills can address social problems), and provides a landscape for the innovation that facilitates market-wide improvement.
To me, microeconomics is as much a social science as it is a branch of engineering: it’s highly analytical, maintains a practical eye, and involves plenty theory. I dove pretty deeply into engineering in high school––I was a mechanical engineer at 15 and won some national competitions––but UNC didn’t have an engineering track. This turned out for the better, I believe.
How has your experience in the Economics Department at UNC helped prepare you for your current role(s)? What aspects of your major have been the most useful?
The microeconomics courses I took were wonderful. MSA did a great job in 410, which I took in spring 2018; the following semester, Peter Norman’s 411 introduced me to game theory, which I particularly enjoyed. I happened into Kyle Woodward’s 510 in my sophomore year which turned out to be the best course of my undergraduate career.
The economics faculty at UNC are keen on engaging deeply with student interests. Kyle Woodward took interest in my theoretical ideas and guided me throughout their development; Peter Norman fielded questions on my game theory ideas that led to me continuing in the domain in the first place.
In my sophomore year, after the encouragement of Dr. Woodward, I applied for and received an “Economics Adventures” grant from the department. This funded me to explore my research interests in two-sided matching and dynamic pricing at Uber’s Silicon Valley headquarters. As foolish as it sounds, seeing economics in action motivated me to dive more deeply into the field; it helped me see that theory not only can, but does translate to practice.
Is there a faculty member, course, or experience from the department that has influence you as an economist? If so, how/who?
Kyle Woodward taught me in ECON 510, guided me in an independent study course, advised my thesis, and connected me to various economists in the field. He inspires me to continue striving for the confluence of technology and economic theory, and also to be a nice person.
Tell me more about your startup that took principles from ECON 510.
In my sophomore year, I worked on Wage Technologies, a now defunct service that optimally paired shift workers to shifts. The concept follows: many employees get fired or quit from jobs because they don’t like their schedules; perhaps there is a way to schedule employees such that these matchings improve, while increasing their compensation when they work less-in-demand shifts; perhaps giving employees autonomy over their work schedules can accomplish more efficient, less expensive, everyone-is-happier outcomes. The idea leveraged two-sided markets, auctions, dynamic pricing, some fancy algorithms, and *in theory* some machine learning, but we didn’t make it so far. I transitioned the company into a theoretical research project, which I explored in my senior honors thesis, “Improving Scheduling Outcomes with a Dutch Auction.”
As COVID-19 persisted, I found that teams across companies struggled to safely and productively work in-person together. I built SplitTime (https://www.getsplittime.com/), a web app that determines collaborative groups and in-office attendance based on a handful of factors: employee preferences, business capacity, safety, and other manager-specified constraints. The app empowered teams to intentionally collaborate in both the U.S. and Canada, and was built alongside a former executive at Microsoft. The app is fully functional and can still be used by teams of 50+ for free.
Is there anything you wish you had been exposed to in your undergraduate studies that would have better prepared you for the work you are doing now?
I would have benefitted from a course that intentionally merged higher level mathematical topics (e.g. advanced calculus, combinatorics) with advanced microeconomic theory. This is a nontrivial ask, of course…but it’s all I got. Things were more or less pretty ideal.
How has your current work shaped your plans for the future? How do your plans now differ from your plans before graduation and throughout your time as a student?
I am more certain than ever that there is a role for academics to address real-world problems.
Is there anything else that you think might be useful or interesting for current, former, or prospective economics majors?
I don’t think I’m in much of a place to give advice, though a few things jump out: economics is a framework as much as it is a discipline; the ability to explain complex things is incredibly valuable; creativity is not distinct from economics. Mathematics and policy-related courses don’t hurt.
Read more about Justin Hadad in this interview with University Communications.