The World Economic Forum isn’t a university, but many at the Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland proudly claim “alumni” status: throughout the conference last week I heard “this is my fifteenth Davos” and even “This is my twenty-second Davos.” Longevity in attendance seems to be a marker of esteem, and the bewildered faces of first-timers puzzling over their Platz maps does suggest it helps to have learned the ropes over multiple meetings.
I fall somewhere between the newcomers and the veterans: last week’s meeting in the Swiss Alps marked my fifth trip to Davos for the WEF meeting. While many aspects are almost exactly the same as in prior conferences – one attends the same panels or receptions in the same rooms at The Belvédère or the Seehof hotels year after year – five facets of this year’s conference struck me as distinct from the past.
The Female Factor
I first came to Davos in 2010 with my then-boss Drew Faust. At the time, Drew was the extraordinary president of Harvard University, but also, as a woman, she was a rarity at Davos. That year women comprised less than 10 percent of WEF attendees. In 2019, 22 percent of registered attendees were women, and the number of women in the town was even higher when you add in members of the media and non-registered staff trudging through the snow in support of their organizations or bosses. Though still a relatively modest percentage, this more-than-doubling of women was palpable within and beyond the halls of the Congress Center. Even more pronounced were the number of conversations being held with women and about women: about their representation in media as experts and interview subjects; regarding their growing roles in philanthropic leadership; examining their impact on corporate performance when more women are in the C-suites or on corporate boards. In addition to pavilions and programs with names like “the Equity Lounge” and “the Female Quotient,” I witnessed veteran female conference-goers greeting each other as old friends, and taking newcomers under their wing. These changes were visible, meaningful, and great to see.
Davos attendees hail from over 100 countries, and it’s energizing to interact with people from all around the globe. But this year I drew the following, unimpeachable conclusion: Canadians. Are. Just. So. Cool. I attended two events where Canada’s Chief Trade Commissioner and Assistant Deputy Minister of Global Affairs, Ailish Campbell, spoke about ways the Canadian government is incentivizing gender equity – and another event where a Canadian health official talked about funding social impact bonds aimed at supporting maternal, child and adolescent health. Separately, a Canadian venture capitalist spoke about measuring companies not just by their adoption and investment in AI (artificial intelligence), but also in FI – female intelligence. And most Canadians I encountered spoke with trust and positivity about their government and its leadership – not the prevailing sentiment among most Brits or Americans in Davos, or many attendees from elsewhere. You go, Canada!
If the week’s biggest noun was “partnership,” then its biggest verb was “solve”.
Private Sector, Public Purpose
WEF is first and foremost a gathering of business leaders, so the business of business is always on the agenda – but this year I saw an outsized emphasis on the explicit role of businesses and business leaders in solving the great challenges we face and advancing the global good, and the increasing expectations of shareholders, customers and employees that businesses make a positive contribution to society beyond their products and services. Among the major conclusions of the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer (whose release each year is timed with the WEF meeting) was this eye-opening fact: while trust in many institutions is low and in some cases declining, employee trust in “my employer” is rising, as are employees’ expectations that their employers take strong stands on social issues. For example:
- 71 percent of employees surveyed agreed with the statement that, “It’s critically important for my CEO to respond to challenging times – industry issues, political events, national crises, and employee-driven issues.”
- 58 percent said they look to their employer to be a “trustworthy source of information about social issues and other important topics on which there is not general agreement.
Business’ role in promoting social good, in investing in causes that relate to their mission and brand, and engaging more robustly in public debates was a strong theme throughout the week.
Leaders in every sector are increasingly relying on partnerships to bring about the change they seek to make in the world, especially large-scale systems change. That’s true for us at The Rockefeller Foundation as well, and we celebrated our partners in Co-Impact and launched a new partnership with MasterCard during the week. But never before this year did I encounter as many people whose day-to-day work is defining, nurturing, and advancing partnerships – perhaps the most ubiquitous new business cards had “Director of Partnerships” or “Vice President for Partnerships” titles – a relatively new line of work, at least this explicitly stated. By the end of the week, it struck me that “partnership” was indisputably the biggest noun in my Davos 2019 word cloud.
If the week’s biggest noun was “partnership,” then its biggest verb was “solve” – though I concede that taping interviews for The Rockefeller Foundation’s upcoming #Solvable film project may have skewed my perspective. In previous years, conversations at Davos were marked by a generous amount of hand-wringing around certain dimensions of the state of the world. Those discussions weren’t absent last week; I found myself amid plenty, ranging from a failing Brexit to dysfunction around the U.S. government shutdown to the growing climate crisis to the Yellow Jacket protests in France. While such conversations could still be heard in every hallway in the Congress Center and every storefront on the promenade, I felt the mood was more optimistic than pessimistic: many conversations suggested that delegates were less concerned with where solutions lie, and more about how to deploy solutions we know work – based on experience and evidence – and can make a lasting difference.