On my first day at the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, I was checking email in a lounge at the main conference center when I spotted Benchmark Capital’s Matt Cohler and Owen Van Natta of MySpace. I told them I wanted to say hello but that my overarching goal for the conference was to NOT spend too much time with Internet people. “How’s that working out for you?” Van Natta asked. “Not so well,” I replied.
Indeed, my hotel, an undistinguished but totally adequate three-star lodge a 20-minute walk from the center of the action, is something of the Internet and academic ghetto. In the lobby I’ve regularly bumped into Max Levchin of Slide, TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Ning’s Gina Bianchini, among others. Thursday morning I shared a shuttle bus from the hotel with Elizabeth Useem, wife of Wharton scholar Michael and mom of my former Fortune colleague Jerry.
As the week progressed I met plenty of people without connections to Silicon Valley or Fortune Magazine. On a shuttle bus to the conference I was seated next to a man in flowing orange robes who teased me for commenting on how cold it was. He wore neither boots nor gloves and explained to me that in his home in Nepal there is no heat. His name was Matthieu Ricard, and among other things he is a translator for the Dalai Lama. This was a true Davos experience.
The World Economic Forum is a collection of what one person I heard describe as the world’s 2,500 most self-important people. However important, most of these people wear boots around Davos because it’s always snowing or slushy, and it’s necessary to walk between meetings anywhere from five to twenty minutes. An exception is the extraordinary collection of billionaires and heads of state. I watched Bill Clinton leave a hotel in a snowstorm, wearing an impeccably tailored suit and dress shoes, and slip into his waiting car. One morning I waited five minutes to cross the street because the king of Jordan’s car was about to pass. Trying to enter a party late one evening I waited with a group of 50 or so shivering (but undoubtedly self-important) people as the motorcades first of Columbian President Alvaro Uribe and then Mexican President Felipe Calderon pulled up.
At Davos there is a broad mix of business, policy and philanthropy. At a lunch one day Melinda Gates championed the Korean company Megastudy, which is helping 2.8 million students in Korea qualify for university by providing inexpensive instructional videos online. (Bill Gurley wrote about Megastudy last year.) Gates likes Megastudy for two reasons. Teachers compete to have their videos included in Megastudy’s library because there’s good money in it for them. (This engenders healthy competition that benefits students.) Also, the videos are helping poor kids get into elite universities that previously only rich kids attended because they have the resources to prepare for Korea’s rigorous university entrance exams. The Gates Foundation, which Gates heads with her husband, focuses its health initiatives on the developing world, but its education efforts focus on the U.S. Of 50 million students in the United States only a third finish college, said Gates. “That’s a crisis for our democracy.”
Everyone wants to know about the parties at Davos, so here it goes.
Time magazine hosted a classy affair at an art gallery. There I spoke to one of the more extraordinary people I met in Davos, Tshediso Matona, director-general of South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry. A former student leader who was imprisoned as a teenager at the tail end of apartheid, Matona told me a story that echoed a theme of the film Invictus, in which newly elected president Nelson Mandela angers blacks but begins uniting South Africa by supporting the hated (and nearly all white) national rugby team. Shortly after his release from prison, the prestigious University of Cape Town, where Matona was a student, awarded Mandela an honorary degree. Black students protested, viewing UCT as a racist institution. Mandela explained to Matona that UCT represented the best of South Africa and that he, Mandela, wanted to associate himself with all of South Africa, not just black South Africa. It was inspirational to hear from a real person a story that mirrors the celluloid version I saw recently back home.
CCTV, the Chinese state-run television network, asked guests at its late-night party to sign a giant banner with a magic marker. I wrote my name and jokingly asked an American I was with if I ought to put my social security number down as well. He replied, “No, they’ve probably already got that.”
At “Korea Night,” the government of South Korea was promoting its role as host of the G20 summit later in the year. The prime minister of Zimbabwe gave a speech. One can only assume the Koreans are investing heavily there.
One of the problems with Davos is that there’s too much to do and it’s too difficult to manage the logistics. I wanted to attend a Nomura party featuring Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. Even as the Labor-led U.K. government is bashing banks and Johnson’s own Tory party is trying hard to disassociate itself from the financial sector, Johnson has been defending London as a world center of finance. Alas, I arrived at the reception just as Johnson, with his distinctive mop of white hair, was leaving.
The rockingist parties of the week so far were given by the German media company DLD, consulting giants McKinsey, and Google GOOG . I spotted Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman at the DLD party, a relatively hip affair. The McKinsey party featured a tremendous soul band, presumably from the U.S., which was kind of weird given that we were in Switzerland. At the Google bash, economist Nouriel Roubini was on the dance floor with his white dress shirt untucked and flowing. Ad man Martin Sorrell boogied with his wife. At one party I passed Goldman co-president Gary Cohn. He could be separated at birth from Ari Fleischer, the Bush Administration press secretary.
Parties and private dinners are serious business at Davos, and at some there are even serious discussions. My next post will include notes from some of these events.