Davos 2013: Next Generation Business

Alan Mak, One Young World Ambassador & Global Advisory Board member, reflects on his week in Davos.
Follow Alan on Twitter: @AlanMakUK

The World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which brings together the world's top 2,500 leaders from business, media, academia, government and civil society, drew to a close last Saturday. And I was lucky enough to be one of four One Young World Ambassadors there, travelling as part of the delegation from Clifford Chance, the global business law firm and a proud One Young World Delegate Partner.
What inspired me to get involved with One Young World was that David Jones and Kate Robertson founded it to give young leaders from over 190 countries a platform to shine and to champion sustainable business in the new, digitally-focused global marketplace. And in Davos last week, it was hugely fulfilling to see my One Young World Ambassador colleagues, including Daniel Buritica (pictured below, with me, David and Kate in Davos), help shape the global agenda and champion the mantra of "doing good not just doing well" alongside the world's established leaders, including a wide range of One Young World counsellors. Barclays' CEO Antony Jenkins, Unilever CEO Paul Polman, KPMG's Global Head of Corporate Citizenship Lord Hastings, Muhammad Yunus, Kofi Annan, Arianna Huffington and many others who have supported One Young World summits were all present in the Swiss snow. 

Milton Friedman famously said "the business of business is business," but last week in Davos, amidst quiet but growing confidence that the global economy was finally turning a corner – the Financial Times' Martin Wolf called it the "sigh of relief Davos" – it was clear that sustainable business, not just successful business, was high on the global agenda and in the minds of the leaders – young and old(er) – assembled from around the world.

A lesser known fact about Davos is that it’s a great leveller: you never know which CEO, Nobel Prize winner or celebrity you’ll bump into, but you can be sure that they’ll be happy to chat, if only for a few minutes as they race from panel discussion to drinks reception. With that in mind, I was keen to use my third Davos to speak to as many influentials as I could about sustainable business and do my best to promote the idea that for my generation, this was the only way to do business. My efforts began early: by drinking a Pepsi with PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi at the young global leader (YGL) "nightcap" on Tuesday night where we talked about her company’s sustainable business efforts. It gave me a chance to tell her about me carrying the London2012 Olympic Torch and to thank PepsiCo for supporting the work of Magic Breakfast, London-based the school breakfast charity I’m President of, which feeds 6,500 hungry children and fights child poverty across Britain.

Wednesday and Thursday were action packed, and kicked-off with a workshop to launch the Forum's new "Future Role of Civil Society" report with inspiring words from Lord Hastings and Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of Save the Children, and contributions from Davos A-listers ranging from former Australian PM Kevin Rudd to FTSE100 CEO Ian Cheshire from B&Q-owner Kingfisher. The conversation continued at a panel session I organised with Clifford Chance – entitled “East v. West: Re-Shaping the World” – which Kate Robertson, Lord Hastings, Carole Stone and a full-house of 140 other Davos delegates attended. I tasked the panel with discussing the impact of some of the political, social and economic forces changing the world right now – from the Eurozone crisis to the eastward shift in capital – and the new era of responsible capitalism. Stephen King, Group Chief Economist at HSBC, Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist and Martin Wolf all spoke before Dr. Xiang Bing, Dean at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, one of Asia's top business schools, claimed with huge chutzpah and to huge laughter that "China is now the most capitalist country in the world–more than the US, Britain and France!"

Davos runs over 4 frantic days, with delegates attending a mesmerising number of client meetings, panel sessions, lectures, workshops, drinks receptions, parties (aka "nightcaps") and dinners at high speed with little time to properly eat, sleep or think. The only two phenomena moving more quickly in Davos were (a) One Young World sponsorship director David Alexander's passion for swapping business cards with corporate CEOs who might be interested in supporting OYW; and (b) David Jones' media schedule, powered by Seven Hills' Nick Giles. David was interviewed by the BBC, CNBC, Sky News, France24 and many other media outlets, reflecting the world's intense interest in One Young World. They know that OYW is the best global platform for young leaders who want to make an impact in their countries and communities in the age of responsible business and social action.
On Friday I joined fellow Cambridge university alumnus (and supermodel) Lily Cole, Muhammad Yunus, and Wikipedia founder (& One Young World Counsellor) Jimmy Wales in a small coffee shop on Promenade (Davos' main street) for the launch of Impossible.com, Cole's new online social business designed to promote the peer-to-peer "gift economy" where individuals exchange time and skills as the basis for a more sustainable economy. There was also time to hear a speech by London Mayor Boris Johnson, before letting my hair down at the Yahoo! Party with glamorous CEO Marissa Meyer, and chat to Marks & Spencer Plan A guru Richard Gillies about sustainable business at the McKinsey party, now unchallenged as the best bash with the best band at Davos following the Google party’s retirement (which is a shame, as last year Google had a springy dancefloor that generated energy from partygoers’ dancing. Ingenious.). As Davos drew to a close on Saturday, I took part in "Struggle for Survival", a moving and humbling "poverty simulation" run by Hong Kong-based NGO Crossroads Foundation. All week Davos delegates, typically suited and booted as I was, were invited to experience a day in the life of a Indian slum family through a 2-hour experiential workshop that involved making paper bags from newspapers and paste with our bare hands, "selling" them to unscrupulous buyers played by actors in the "market" (a converted and still-very-cold underground snow mobile garage) and having to choose between using what little money we made to either buy food and water or medicine for a sick relative.

Everywhere I went in Davos this year, sustainable business was never too far away. Often caricatured as symbolising capitalism in its purest form, things have been changing there for a while now but this year was definitely different. Who's driving all this? For sure, technology, the growing demands of conscious consumers, globalisation, and intense media scrutiny have played their part. But I think the real standard-bearers for responsible business have been people like the One Young World ambassador and delegates. Nurtured by David, Kate and the One Young World counsellors, ambassadors like Daniel Buriticá are now powerful voices for change in the media, on the ground, online – and at summits like Davos 2013. 

I left Davos optimistic and excited about the year ahead: as the economy recovers, everything I experienced there this year suggests that the individuals and companies best placed to do well in the new global marketplace, where media scrutiny and consumers expectations are sky high, will be those that, rightly and proudly, have a clear social purpose beyond simply profit*. 

For my generation, the message from Davos this year is clear: the business of business is not just business. It is now to do good not just do well. And I know it is a message we will all deliver again in Johannesburg in October.

*PS. I was proud to be able to deliver this message again in Paris, a few days after Davos, at the Global Leadership Meeting (GLM) of Havas Worldwide. Having worked with Kate and David since 2011, I was delighted and honoured to have been appointed to the Board of the Havas Worldwide UK Group as a non-executive director, and I was proud to represent all One Young World ambassadors at the GLM, telling over 200 Havas group CEOs and leaders from around the world about the power of OYW to transform lives and companies across the globe.