MBA diary: Risky talk

Esha Chhabra

WE ARE termed the “Leaders of Tomorrow”, which sounds a bit silly, given that many of us are still struggling to pay rent. The 42nd St Gallen Symposium, held at the Swiss business school each year, brings together corporate executives, leading academics and heads of state. But it also draws a crowd of under 30s, a hodgepodge of students, entrepreneurs, writers, scientists and activists, all aspiring to leave a positive footprint.

It’s the “mini-Davos”, I kept hearing, because of its stature in the German-speaking world of economics and political science. No shortage of smart suits, high-powered heels and corporate jargon here. The event, which ran last week, is something of a treasured tradition for this town, something that locals celebrate, and get frustrated by, thanks to the flurry of visitors that swamp their historic and obscenely charming town once a year.

This year’s big theme was “Facing Risk”, a rather vague and abstract topic. But that was the intention: translate as you see fit. There were many types of risk to spread around the sessions: corporate, environmental, political, nuclear, social and developmental. But the emphasis was clearly on finance and economics, given the climate that we met in.

One speaker, Rajiv Bajaj, the boss of Bajaj Auto, an Indian bikemaker, equated corporate risk with illness. “Competition is a disease,” he said, “begging the question, where does competition stop and greed start?” Another, Stuart Hart, a professor from Cornell University, reported on the fortunes at the base of the pyramid, emphasising new opportunities in “clean tech”. He pointed out that even after $1 trillion had been invested, we have yet to see any mass-market clean-tech products that are scalable and sustainable.

Delegates had their own takes. A German-speaking neuroscientist on my left thought that the “dictatorship of choice”, the result of globalisation, is breeding a new kind of anxiety, breaking down communities and internal security. A social entrepreneur from Washington, DC, on my right, who started a non-profit organisation in high school and later turned it into a for-profit social enterprise, was worried about global youth unemployment. “Millions of disenchanted youth who can’t find work could upend our ability to function and solve problems,” he said, “especially as access to information provides everyone more insight into what is possible.”

Then there was the Indian, sitting across from me, who got a science degree, but followed it with a “more stable” consulting gig. He is now an entrepreneur spearheading health-care technologies. He was frustrated with emerging countries that are clogged down in pride, corruption and poor governance. “There is an opportunity for emerging countries to ‘leapfrog’ and get smart fast by learning from others’ mistakes,” he said. The risk for him is repeating those mistakes.

These themes all came together in a provocative clause, debated on the opening day, “The West Will Prevail”. After listening to the challenges faced by George Papandreou (pictured), who resigned as president of Greece last year, and Peer Steinbruck, a former German finance minister, it became clear to me that the West is struggling to hold its reign. In conversations over croissants and coffee, attendees, young and old, wondered whether the question was even relevant in today’s fragmented world. We couldn’t decide who would prevail, just that it wouldn’t be Europeans or Americans.

The conversation turned to the markets. An early session included a breakdown of the “bull” metaphor: why do we do we correlate the markets with an irrational animal that can’t be controlled. Three days later, the answer was still elusive. The economic rollercoaster is clearly difficult to forecast. So how do we wrestle with this new mess?

This raised an inevitable question: what is the purpose of gatherings such as the St Gallen Symposium. We convene in historic settings, bringing together a talented crop of young minds, but does it yield any tangible results? Can it give birth to new projects, initiatives, enterprises, partnerships? Can these conferences have a more practical arm—less intellectual, more driven by action? Some delegates were not sure. “Sometimes, you just walk away feeling saddened by some of these discussions,” said one. “There’s so much wrong. How do we help make it right?”


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