What $10 can get you in Davos?

Tags: Op-ed
What $10 can get you in Davos?
THE ACCESS: Social entrepreneurs at Davos with actress Michelle Yeoh (centre). Entry into Davos, the conference, is costly. Andrew Sorkin of The New York Times put a price tag on it for “membership and entrance fee” at $71,000
Exactly 42 years ago, Prof. Klaus Schwab, a young professor at the University of Geneva organised a conference of 400 business leaders in a bone-chilling, snow-covered and stunningly beautiful town in the Swiss Alps, called Davos. Today Davos has become synonymous with the conference itself, now seemingly maxed out at 2,500 people. Entry into Davos, the conference, is costly. Andrew So­rkin of The New York Times put a price tag on it for “membership and entrance fee” at $71,000, not including travel and stay. The total for top business executives, according to his 2011 estimate, hovers in the $150,000 range, which is not to say that a willingness to shell that out gets you in.

My Davos 2013 experience was a bit different, thanks to the Schwab Foundation (SF) for Social Entrepreneurship (SE) that makes it possible to bring a number of SEs and their voices to the conversation, every year. There were 30 of us who participated this year. The hole burned in my pocket between home, Davos, and back — $10! It took a Nobel laureate to give us a background as to why we were in Davos, for that cheap.

The curtains were about to come down on Davos 2013. We were huddled in a circle with Hilde Schwab, chairperson of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship (SF), debriefing each other about our ‘Davos moments’. In the middle of it all, Prof. Muhammad Yunus decided to join us, a new Davos moment being crafted as we rehashed. He sat quietly and listened patiently, a remarkable contrast to the 30-second sound bites we had been trying desperately to steal from powerful people at Davos.

In bringing the meeting to a close, Yunus shared how, during the founding days of the Schwab Foundation, there was an idea to award a social entrepreneur (SE) every year with a big pot of money, say a million dollars. That quickly gave way to a better idea in his view, access to an unimaginably powerful network.

As if on cue to prove his theory right, SF’s Vivian Gee passed me a note, “Gordon Brown wants to meet you at 4.50pm. Are you available?” Davos was supposed to be over, I thought. I mulled her question, not searching for an answer, but thinking momentarily if it might be a cruel joke. Clearly not. With a weighty pretence, I nodded my availability. Yes, I will reschedule my free time to meet Gordon Brown. In a nutshell, this was vintage Davos unfolding in the least expected way.

Gordon Brown’s chief of staff was waiting to escort me to a meeting with the man himself. It was a proud moment for an SE being summoned by the former British prime minister and the current UN Special Envoy for Global Education. Someone was not playing his part. I was supposed to try to meet him all my life and not succeed. “You have some strong advocates of your work,” said Brown, as I shook hands and followed him to an empty meeting room, up somewhere in the Congress maze. Davos has layers, of course.

“If I told you, Sir, that what we do can give reading practice to a billion people every day, would you believe me?” I asked. Instantly, Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora, began gyrating on top of a train to the peppy beats of Chaiyya Chaiyya, on my iPad. The Hindi lyrics chu­gged along at the bottom of the screen, every word highlighted in perfect timing with the song. He saw the power of same language subtitling (SLS) instantly, how Karaoke could marry Bollywood for mass literacy. Brown let out a volley of questions, giving me just about enough time to respond but not elaborate. In 20 minutes, Brown had scoped out the landscape covered by our 16-year effort.

Next up on my iPad was Shakira’s Waka Waka with SLS. I pointed out that the song has over half a billion views on YouTube. These were half a billion songs that could have been read. I shared that I had written to Shakira but not heard back. “I know Shakira,” said Brown, “she just had a baby.”

Brown had to go. “Can I get a photo with you... for my mom?” I asked. He let out a laugh. The prime ministerial guard dropped momentarily in the face of motherhood. I got my photo, but I’m not sure my mom will get who it is with.

On the way out of the maze, Brown mentioned that he was hosting a Global Education and Technology Forum at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco soon. Within five days of Davos, because of Davos, I found myself at Twitter, with a chance to interact in person with Laurene Jobs, the late Steve Jobs’ wife, Salman Khan who founded the Khan Academy, Carlos Slim, officially the world’s richest man and, of course, Gordon Brown. $10 can sometimes be worth something in Davos!

(The writer is a social entrepreneur and is on the faculty of IIM-Ahmedabad)


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