Freezing weather doesn’t faze global thinkers

2013-01-27 10:00

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World Economic Forum is still the best place to mingle with the planet’s biggest decision makers, writes Esmare Weideman

It’s -1°C outside and snowing lightly when more than 1?000 people file slowly from the World Economic Forum conference centre, where they’ve just listened to a panel including Microsoft boss Bill Gates, British Prime Minister David Cameron, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Jordan’s Queen Rania and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, among others, debating the biggest challenges facing the world today.

Black Audis and Mercs queue alongside a fleet of shuttles to transport conferencegoers to their next destination, a host of private dinner parties (I’m due at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in an hour), a further round of meetings or supper at any of the soon-to-be overflowing restaurants in town.

Welcome to Davos, the highest ski resort in the Alps, home to the World Economic Forum for the 43rd year.

It’s here Swiss academic Professor Klaus Schwab manages to gather 2?500 decision makers from around the world each year for what has become one of Europe’s most celebrated get-togethers.

For five days in January, politicians, business executives, thought leaders, media, civil society, academia, young global leaders, royals and celebrities gather in this town – total population 11?000 – to examine pressing global issues and devise possible solutions.

Davos’ mission: “Committed to improving the state of the world.” Price tag: R250?000 a person, accommodation excluded, and by invitation only.

I’m a Davos newbie. We get up at 6am each day to start a frenzy of breakfasts, conferences, cocktail parties, private meetings and exclusive dinners that carry on past midnight.

I was advised to take lots of business cards and it is soon clear why. At Davos, everyone wears a suit, a tie, a coat and a smile. It’s a networking orgy at which you’re bound to meet people you’d only ever dreamt of knowing. Everyone wants to chat, share opinions, get together, correspond or set up contacts for future reference.

The night before, I was at a dinner – topic Online Power – rubbing shoulders with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho and What Would Google Do author and journalist Jeff Jarvis.

Opposite me, at the same table, is that iconic woman Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post.

Arianna is at her best, using the opportunity to promote her all-time favourite topic: sleep.

About two years after starting Huffington Post, she made a deal with her daughter to spend some time not constantly checking her BlackBerry. As a result, she had to catch up with work after her daughter had gone to bed.

When she woke up to drink water, suffering from sleep fatigue, she fell, broke a cheek bone and needed five stitches. She realised she could not carry on as she was. So she became probably the world’s most famous promoter of at least seven hours’ sleep a night.

She’s even done a talk called “Sleeping your way to the top”, she says amid much laughter.

“Soft” issues like these sit comfortably next to topics such as America’s fiscal policy or Europe’s debt crisis.

Each morning at 8am there’s a 30-minute meditation session – should you not be at breakfast listening to some of the world’s best-known entrepreneurs or corporate leaders already.

I attend a session on “mindful leadership” by businesswoman-turned-coach Janice Marturano, who quit the corporate rat race after realising she could no longer juggle 14-hour work days with her roles as spouse, mother, community worker and daughter to elderly parents.

So she formed the much-respected Institute for Mindful Leadership. I must confess, the session’s two meditation-like exercises, where you have to close your eyes and “be in the moment”, don’t do it for me. (At dinner Janice tells me it does get easier with practice.)

There’s much emphasis on leadership issues – how to manage in an ever-changing and fast-paced environment, the challenges of a changing work force, forging a common goal among employees of multinational companies, pacing yourself in this 24/7 12-months-a-year life, and finding that elusive work-life balance.

But back to the “real” world. A firm believer that Africa is finally about to happen, I attend as many sessions as possible dealing with the continent, which now boasts the second-highest growth in the world.

Rwanda’s President Kagame takes centre stage among the African leaders at Davos. He’s on panel after panel, a nerdish-looking, well-spoken man who is said to be doing wonders – and receiving much praise for – rebuilding Rwanda since the days of genocide.

President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria is also here, using the opportunity to canvass for funding for, particularly, developing the country’s agricultural sector.

There’s a massive South African government delegation at the World Economic Forum, led by President Jacob Zuma. At a South African briefing session you feel like you’ve chanced upon a Cabinet meeting.

The entire Team SA – including business heavyweights such as Absa’s Maria Ramos and Transnet’s Brian Molefe – comprises more than 80 delegates, Brand SA confirms.

Also spotted are Patrice Motsepe and his wife, Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, Anant and Vanashree Singh, Tito Mboweni, Laurie Dippenaar and Zanele Mbeki, who tells me she’s served on the board of the Schwab Foundation, a Davos-linked “social entrepreneurs” group, for years.

Most of them sport scarves in their country’s colours, the only nation in Davos to do so.

And the country takes pride of place at the opening ceremony when Charlize Theron receives an award for her work on HIV/Aids in South Africa.

Professor Schwab sets out his dream for this year’s forum.

“What I wish for you is to leave Davos with a better understanding, more passion and compassion, and at least one good idea,” he says.

Consider that done, Professor Schwab. Now I’m off to listen to Bill and Melinda Gates. Correction: meet them.

» Weideman is CEO of Media24. Follow her on Twitter at @eweideman

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