Reflections on Davos
Davos. The word immediately conjures up the world’s most exclusive and important meeting of powerful leaders from every sector. I’d heard stories of running into Michael Dell in the hall, the Finance Minister of France by the coffee, and Bill Gates in the elevator. But is there more to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting than fancy parties with the rich and powerful?
Thankfully, yes – and mostly it’s good news, with occasional room for improvement.
Action follows talk.
Davos gets a lot of critique for being a talkfest. Maybe I’m sympathetic because we run a conference, too, but I saw firsthand how the talking actually gets things done. Unilever, for example, pulled CEOs of top companies together in one room to make concrete progress on their Sustainable Living Plan. And I went to a great interactive session led by Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and others on promoting greater corporate involvement on maternal and child health issues. It’s not just up to the organizers to create action; each participant has an opportunity to form alliances that lead to a real change.
Where are the women?
The Davos crowd is just 17% women – that was a shock for a leader like me from the nonprofit and sustainability field. The WEF does their part: two years ago they started requiring member companies to bring at least one female delegate out of their five allotted. Not only that, but many of the communities convened by the WEF – such as the Young Global Leaders, of which I’m a member – are closer to a 50-50 gender split. So how do we get from 20% representation to 17%? (For context, last year’s Net Impact Conference attendees were 44% female.) As it turns out, some companies either choose to bring just four men rather than add a woman leader to their posse – or they simply can’t find a female leader to take part. Wow.
Nonprofits and NGOs could be better represented.
Granted, I didn’t make it to every session, and I saw amazing NGO leaders like Wendy Kopp and Helene Gayle on the speaker list. But I went to a session on e-philanthropy that totally missed the mark. Moderator Chelsea Clinton did a nice job with what she had to work with, which wasn’t much; the panel decided to showcase the usual big names in technology (Eric Schmidt of Google and Sean Parker of Facebook fame), instead of folks who had deep experience with either philanthropy or nonprofits. Hard to imagine a panel on a different industry – say, retail – without leaders in retail on the stage!
Sustainability is core.
It was awesome to hear CEOs of major companies like Alcoa and NYSE espouse how critical sustainability is to their long-term business objectives. And this wasn’t in a session on corporate responsibility – this was in a session on core business strategies. This is exactly what organizations like Net Impact have been pushing for, so it’s reassuring to see that it’s gaining a foothold.
Sustainability is not yet core.
Of course, not everyone has drunk the Net Impact Kool-Aid. One CEO of a Fortune 20 company proudly stated that “we spend 3.75% of our pre-tax earnings on CSR.” Huh? CSR isn’t about a line item in the budget - it’s about a corporate mindset. Many businesses, it seems, have yet to truly make the connection between an integrated approach to corporate responsibility and the long-term health of the company.
Of course, I was struck by the differences between my own personal favorite annual event, the Net Impact Conference, and the WEF event. Davos is mostly for senior executives, heads of state, a few NGO leaders, and the occasional celebrity. While we certainly have our share of sector leaders with big names at the Net Impact Conference, our event is far more focused on mobilizing the masses to drive change wherever they work and whatever their level.
The good news is you need both levers to drive change: the head honchos, and the doers and dreamers that fill their companies. So this doer and dreamer is excited to get beyond the talk and get back to action – at least once I get over my jet lag.