I just returned from a week in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum. It was truly one of the most inspiring weeks of my life, and also one of the snowiest! I not only generated more leads for investors, funders and partners for Water For People than any other event I have ever been to, I (surprisingly) connected with more people on a personal basis than I ever have before at a conference. The ideas, collaborations, and projects that have come out of the multitude of deep and diverse conversations are numerous. My main takeaway is that at Water For People, we have a platform and impact model that is proven to help solve the global water and sanitation crisis. Others that are looking to invest in this cause, or just in social good, or want to enhance their own programs to include water, believe that we would be a great partner to make their work more meaningful. You can see my highlights here in a short video on my YouTube channel. The possibilities for the future are bright! Let me go a bit deeper into some of the reasons why this week had such a profound impact on me.
Personal well-being — before the World Economic Forum program started, I was fortunate to be able to spend two days with my fellow awardees (also known as Schwabbies) from the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, which is part of the World Economic Forum. I won the award on behalf of Water For People in 2017. Thirty of us were selected to be together in Davos. We had the opportunity to focus on our mission and plan out successful strategies for our time in Davos and beyond. Our time on the Magic Mountain allowed us to do inner work to be more resilient and embrace our jobs even more holistically than before.
It is so rare that any of us take any time to reflect on how we are doing mentally and physically. The jobs we all have carry a heavy weight — the constant expectation of making the world a better place. Fear of failure is high, and loneliness and burnout is common. Creating a place where we could be vulnerable with each other about our challenges and help each other deal with them is so powerful. To learn from each other and build bonds and communication channels to enhance our ability to do our work and be better family members, was immensely helpful and restorative. And it was a great honor and pleasure to also spend time with Klaus and Hilde Schwab. I am so grateful to the Schwab Foundation that I am part of this incredible community and learning program.
2. Big ideas — the theme of the annual meeting this year was Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World. We are in a transition from a unipolar world (with the US leading) to a multipolar world. Over the past 10 years were have had a financial crisis followed by an economic crisis followed by a social crisis. Davos seeks to engage multiple stakeholders — not just the elite, wealthy and powerful from business with heads of state but also from science, education, environment, social good, and arts & culture. There is an interdependence that is fast moving seeking simple solutions to complex situation. Values of intellectual and moral integrity, impartiality, and independence were clear. A summary of the biggest stories from the week is here.
The program covered a huge range of topics in 400+ sessions — so many I wished I could have cloned myself to attend parallel tracks. I tried to pick topics to open my mind and learn — 4th industrial revolution (blockchain, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, etc.), global governance, inclusive growth, fragile cities, sustainable economic systems, shaking up beliefs about gender, standing up for diversity, investing for impact, the changing global workforce, global health, jobs of the future, etc. I wish there had been more on climate change, especially with all the extreme weather disasters over the past year. It felt like that was a gap in the program. The big sessions were interesting, yet the smaller sessions were more intimate and meaningful to me. Questions were more personal and insightful. In all sessions it was (almost always) possible to meet the speakers before or after — whether they were 70+ heads of state, heads of companies, Noble Laureates, and many other leaders in their fields that are changing the world fabric. They were there because they had something to contribute. And many of the side events were interesting too. I especially liked the Female Quotient Equality Loungebecause their focus is on advancing diversity in the workplace through collaboration, activating solutions for change, and creating measurements for accountability. The spirit of Davos is to respect humanity, dignity and diversity; be a trustee of future generations; and serve others more than ourselves. I was deeply moved, and I believe in living the spirit of Davos.
3. Connecting the dots — I didn’t expect that the human connections would be so strong. Being with 3,000 high-level strangers for a week typically does not lead to meaningful relationships. I was surprisingly wrong. I met incredible people on the train, walking down the street, on the funicular, while eating a meal, next to me in sessions, at receptions, etc. Striking-up conversations with strangers is not one of my fortes, but I was moved to do so. And they reciprocated, no matter what their position in life was. I was struck by the humble and authentic interactions we had, and the friends I made. There are egos in the midst, of course, but the majority of the people I met left their egos outside Davos. I have a lot of follow-up to do. And this is in addition to the follow-up from the 1-on-1 meetings (“bilats” in Davos lingo, short for bilaterals) I set-up ahead of time. I had cast a wide net to strangers asking for meetings — mostly corporate CEOs and other potential funders. To my pleasant surprise I was able to fill my agenda. And wow — not a single bad bilat! Everyone, genuinely, was interested in Water For People and believed that we had some way to connect to have an even greater impact, together.
I also highly value the rich connections I made with several other Social Entrepreneurs, Global Shapers, and Young Global Leaders. We made plans to collaborate on various topics including marketing cookstoves + sludge briquettes (Envirofit); creating joint programs with women & girls entrepreneurship and empowerment (Mann Deshi); developing sustainable and integrated communities (Adani) including water and sanitation; modifying franchising models so that could be used for sanitation entrepreneurs (Silulo Ulutho); implementing a tool to accelerating reduction of poverty in our communities (Poverty Stoplight); learning from global health models (Last Mile Health + Living Goods) on how they are doing systems change; looking at potential carbon offsets from using less charcoal when using sludge briquettes (South Pole); working with other water non-profits (Sani4Schools); taking advantage of the internet of things (Uptake); and addressing solid waste (TriCiclos) + sanitation (SOIL). There is so much more we can do together!
Lastly, when thinking of my own personal development and journey, I met so many incredible strong men and women leaders that inspired me. The fact that this year’s annual meeting was organized by seven powerful women (including my fellow Schwabbie Chetna Sinha) is a sign that women’s leadership is gaining ground and importance globally -finally! I have new peers, friends, role models, and mentors at a time when I really need them. I am so thankful. Where my future had been a blank sheet of paper before Davos, I now see the path beginning to appear, as if the invisible ink has been revealed. I have inspiration and energy to follow it, with the spirit of Davos by my side.