Davos 2015: Voices of the young, new leaders, social entrepreneurs

David Aikman, head of the New Champion Communities at the World Economic Forum, talks to Alec Hogg about the contribution expected in Davos 2015 from the fifty 20-somethings; the Young Global Leaders and the Social Entrepreneurs – and how these three initiatives by the WEF are helping to make the world a better place (and generate awesome networking opportunities for their members). – AH

ALEC HOGG: Well, on the line now from Switzerland is David Aikman is the Managing Director/head of the New Champion Communities at the World Economic Forum. Thanks for joining us, David. We have the annual meeting of the WEF coming up next week in Davos and just by way of background, it wasn’t that long ago that you introduced the Young Global Leaders program. How did it all begin? Where were the thoughts for this?

DAVID AIKMAN: Well, we looked around Davos’ annual meeting at a reflection of the world and we thought ‘actually, folks around the table don’t necessarily represent the new generation – the next generation of leaders’. We see young people around the world becoming more active in business and politics, and their voice seemed to be absent from the table so we thought ‘let’s bring in some of these young, dynamic pioneering leaders and see what they can bring to the table’.

ALEC HOGG: How do you select them?

DAVID AIKMAN: They’re selected as part of a global process worldwide where we look, around the world, at all parts of society. We’re not just looking for great business leaders. We’re looking for young politicians, social entrepreneurs who are working to include people into the bottom of the economic pyramid, and they’re nominated through our network of members around the world as well as through an open process around the Internet. We probably sift through about 5000 names per year to come up with the 200 or so Best Young Leaders in the world, that year.

ALEC HOGG: And do you have any requirements per country/per continent?

DAVID AIKMAN: Well, we try to be as broad and diverse as possible because the future of leadership looks quite different than the leaders today do. I think the world’s economy is changing, but also, how you get things done in the world is changing so it’s not just, as I said, the sort of established centres of power that we rely on. We see a lot of change happening through social movements and we see a lot of change happening through the media, so we deliberately go very wide and global. The other thing I’d say is that the future leadership is more feminine. We see a lot of young leaders who are women. Africa is a great example of this if you look at many of the parliaments, which have great gender balance. Over the last two years, our classes have been 50 percent women.

ALEC HOGG: What happens when they hit the maximum age?

DAVID AIKMAN: They come in – usually, around their mid-thirties – and they’re with us for five years. We have a five-year program that involves education and developing their skills through their leaders. These are people, who are already in positions of importance, but through our program, they’re really plugged into a global peer group and they learn an awful lot from each other. Most of their discussions are focused around how they as leaders, can have a more positive impact in the world so very often, they’re collaborating. They’re launching initiatives together because they find in this group (despite the geography and despite the backgrounds) that they actually, have a lot in common in terms of their leadership ethos and their values.

ALEC HOGG: You don’t always have a home run. There was Gadhafi’s son, who got into the program as well. What are some of the success stories?

DAVID AIKMAN: Well, we can look back at that one, and hindsight is 20/20. I think that at the time, he was nominated. Certainly, it looked like he was one of the reformers (that turned out not to be the case) and he was quickly exited from the community. Some of the success stories that we’re really happy about are people like David Karp who founded Tumblr, which is probably one of the most followed websites by young people sharing information and Emilio Lozoya, who is now head of Mexico’s Petroleum (Pemex). I that think in Africa there are people like Ashish Thakkar from the Mara Group who’s a young, Tanzanian billionaire and who’s really, started a great program on the continent for mentoring young people. He himself, is quite young but has started a whole online mentorship program for business leaders, to mentor the generation coming up behind him.

ALEC HOGG: Even the Chief of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Nicky Newton-King was part of the program, so it clearly works but you’ve expanded it to a younger generation still – the Global Shapers. Where did that thought come from?

DAVID AIKMAN: Indeed, we have and this is a really interesting development for the World Economic Forum because it’s almost counter-cultural to what we’ve done. It’s still building on the idea of engaging stakeholders and different voices into the conversation, but this one… Instead of running at a global level as we do, we went sort of hyper-level. We’re now in 401 cities around the world where young people under 30, have set up hubs or clubs of Global Shapers to make a positive impact in their cities. What we saw is that with a lot of the world’s big challenges, they fall down on the last mile. It’s good to talk about climate change, but at the end of the day, you also have to solve city pollution and other issues, locally. They’re engaged in projects in their cities to try to make their city a better place. What’s counter-cultural I guess, is that we don’t try to set the agenda from here in Geneva.

We really trust these young people to identify what is going on in their city and where they see the biggest need as opposed to some great collaboration.

ALEC HOGG: David, I met a fascinating young lady (she was in her early twenties) last year in Davos, from China who spoke English beautifully and was extremely well qualified. Clearly, she’s one of the Global Shapers. How many of them do attend Davos?

DAVID AIKMAN: There are 50 of them attending the annual meeting this year, from all around the world – from every continent – and globally now, we have 4500 or so, in these different cities.

ALEC HOGG: That’s quite job – to pick the 50. How do you do that?

DAVID AIKMAN: We have an online video application. You won’t be surprised to know this generation is very connected, very digital, and is probably communicating more by vines and videos than text messages. They send in applications and we try to pick 50 that can really contribute to the agenda in Davos. With this year’s meeting being focused on the New Global Context, we would really look for people who could speak to that context and who could really help give perspective to folks at the annual meeting, of what’s happening, what’s changed, and what they see on the frontiers from their generational perspective, as well as from their cities around the world. The other thing we’re doing to connect young people into Davos this year, is something called Shaping Davos.

In addition to the 50 shapers who will be there physically in Davos, we’re actually connecting through ten different sessions throughout the week, 40 different cities worldwide, who are going to be connected via two-way video link to the debates and discussions in Davos so that they can, again, bring a different perspective. Our assumption is that things have really changed. The centre of gravity has shifted from the centre to a more diffused outer edge and it’s really important for leaders, not just to think within their own background and within their own context, but to really go out, be open, to understand, and to scan what’s happening in the world to better understand it.

ALEC HOGG: Perhaps the first of these new communities that you’ve launched was the Schwab Social Entrepreneurs Foundation. Again, I’ve met some fascinating people with unusual insights, who are social entrepreneurs. This is driven by Hilda Schwab, the wife of Dr Klaus.

DAVID AIKMAN: Absolutely. This program started about 12 years ago actually, with Professor Mohammed Yunus, who’s sort of the father of micro-finance/financial inclusion around the world. He was in Davos, speaking with the Schwab’s and really, they were so impressed with this social business model, with this new way of bridging those who were not included in the economy and in society through this kind of business approach, that they were talking with him about what they could do. Should they create a prize, etcetera? He said ‘actually, the most valuable thing is to bring these entrepreneurs into contact with leaders and with CEO’s because far from needing a hand-out or needing support, they actually have a lot to teach’. If you look at major companies around the world, they’re learning from the social entrepreneurs on how to reach every part of the country, and to really create programs that have both social and economic value.

Their purpose, as well as helping our leaders understand the reality, is also to bring the voice of those constituents that they serve. I’m thinking of One Acre Fund or others who really, are bringing the voice of the farmers or the voice of people, who are excluded economically into the discussion in Davos to really enrich it and to bring new perspective.

ALEC HOGG: We have the voices of the mid-thirties (the next leaders), we have the voices of the young, and we also have the voices of social entrepreneurs. Are they being heard, though?

DAVID AIKMAN: I think they are. They’re probably some of the most sought-after participants for meetings and for discussions. If I look across the program this year, on everything from reimagining Africa’s future to the revolutionising or recycling…just about in every single one of these forward-looking topics, you have those voices well represented. What’s especially powerful is that the world is looking for solutions. There’s no shortage of challenges right now. The people feel they’ve tried the usual interventions and nothing’s working, so there’s also an openness from leaders to reach out to these different voices and say ‘well, what do you see and what’s working from your perspective’.

ALEC HOGG: David, you’re an insider. You’ve been working on the program, helping to put it together. You’ve no doubt studied it better than most of those who will be participating. What are the ‘not to miss’ sessions in Davos 2015?

DAVID AIKMAN: Well, obviously I’m biased because I think those Shaping Davos sessions connected worldwide, are going to be something new and different. I like the idea that we’re going to have shapers from Erbil in Iraq dialling in and interacting with participants around religious tensions and challenges and so on, so it feels very timely and cutting edge. I think as well, that the ‘not to miss’ sessions are really, the kick-off on Wednesday morning when you get the update on everything happening in the world, whether it’s where we think oil prices are going or what we see in terms of economic developments/resources, etcetera. I think that the annual meeting is always a forward-looking meeting. It’s not looking at what’s happened. It’s ‘what are the important things coming up on your agenda. What do you need to pay attention to’ and it’s really, a window into the next year so those sessions are key.

ALEC HOGG: David Aikman is the Managing Director of Head of New Champion Committees at the World Economic Forum.