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Christine Lagarde

The first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, will be the speaker at this year’s Harvard Kennedy School commencement ceremony on May 23, the school announced today.

Lagarde, who replaced Dominique Strauss-Kahn as IMF managing director in June 2011, was recently ranked the ninth most powerful woman in the world and the thirty-ninth most powerful individual by Forbes Magazine

In December, she called for global unity to avoid a “1930’s style slump” in reference to Europe’s deepening debt crisis, reported The Guardian: “There is no economy in the world, whether low-income countries, emerging markets, middle-income countries, or super-advanced economies, that will be immune to the crisis that we see not only unfolding but escalating,” said Lagarde, speaking at the State Department in Washington. “It is not a crisis that will be resolved by one group of countries taking action. It is going to be hopefully resolved by all countries, all regions, all categories of countries actually taking some action.”

A noted antitrust and labor lawyer, Lagarde was made partner of the international law firm Baker & McKenzie after six years on staff and was later named head of the firm in Western Europe before making history when she was named its first female chair in 2004. In 2005 she was named the French government’s minister for foreign trade; after a subsequent stint as minister for agriculture and fisheries, she became the first woman to hold the post of finance and economy minister of a G8 country, rising to that position in June 2007. (From July to December 2008, she also chaired the ECOFIN Council, which brings together economics and finance ministers of the European Union.) In November 2009,  The Financial Times ranked her the best minister of finance of the Eurozone. Her term as managing director of IMF will last five years.

Born in 1956 in Paris to a family of scholars—her father was a professor of English and her mother a teacher—Lagarde spent her youth studying language and culture, according to a recent profile in The San Francisco Chronicle. Her father died when she was a teenager, casting the women in her life, notably her mother and a grandmother who had been a nurse during World War I, as her strongest role models.  Lagarde completed high school in Le Havre and attended Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, before studying law at University Paris X Nanterre and obtaining a master’s degree from the Political Science Institute in Aix en Provence.

 In a recent interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg ’91, M.B.A. ’95, Lagarde shared advice for young women who want to pursue financial careers:

Dare. That is number one. Number two is educate yourself, improve your skills.