Economic leadership: Young stars of Davos

The World Economic Forum hosts tomorrow’s leaders.

What do a cellphone distribution king from Bolivia, the first female president of the Chamber of Commerce in Swaziland and an American community organizer have in common? They are all part of a World Economic Forum-affiliated program called Young Global Leaders, and they were chosen to represent their generation at the Forum’s annual gabfest in Davos, Switzerland, from Jan. 23–27. “The premise is to give entrepreneurial young people access to international networks that transcend silos of knowledge,” explains program co-ordinator David Aikman. The program has been running since 2005, and boasts alumni including Microsoft designer J Allard and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The goal, says Aikman, is for members to form task forces mandated to rethink everything from microfinance to workplace nutrition. While at Davos, for example, the finance group met with bank CEOs to brainstorm ways to address challenges facing the global financial system.

What kind of expertise do these people have to offer? Take Marcelo Claure. A Bolivian entrepreneur, Claure founded his company, Brightstar Corp., 11 years ago, after he spotted an opportunity to buy cellphones from manufacturers and supply them directly to diverse markets in local currency. Today, he presides over a cellphone distribution empire that spans the Americas, Asia, Europe, the South Pacific and Africa. Revenue in 2006 was US$5 billion. Yet like most of the rest of this crew, Claure is under 40. “I got this letter from [World Economic Forum founder] Klaus Schwab in the mail,” says Claure, a tall man with an easy smile. “I threw it in the trash. But then I spoke with Nicholas Negroponte [Claure’s partner in One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit organization that distributes $100 laptops to schools throughout the developing world]. Nicholas was like, ‘You’ve been named a Young Global Leader? That’s a big deal.’ So I went back to my trash.”

Claure has since attended three international conferences put together by the World Economic Forum. “It’s great,” he says. “The more people who get together, who believe they can get things done, and don’t pay attention to the 99.9% of people who say they can’t — we start to see more smart solutions to tough problems.”

Now consider member Treasure Maphanga’s response to the economic challenge of HIV/AIDS. She was the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Swaziland from 2004 to 2006, where she faced keeping an economy going in a country where one in four of the productive population is HIV-positive. Thesolution? “Mobile clinics,” she says, “to administer anti-retroviral treatments at factories during tea and lunch breaks.” Maphanga uses her role as a global leader to share strategies with those tackling similar problems in other countries.

In North America, we tend to worry more about losing jobs en masse, not people. Yet U.S. member Van Jones thinks he’s found one solution to the problem of outsourcing — while building up a new energy economy. “We need to train a new kind of worker: the green-collar worker,” says Jones. “They will set up the solar panels and wind farms and recycling initiatives that the low-carbon economy requires. And they’ll be doing it right here.” Jones is working on a program in Oakland, Calif., to help offer vocational training for the green economy. Ahead of his time? Perhaps. But with the likes of Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi backing him, his star is rising.

This group of global tyros will have had plenty to talk about at Davos as they ponder the challenges facing the international economy. On Jan. 9, the Forum issued its annual report on risk management, which suggested that levels of global political and economic uncertainty are the highest they have been for a decade. With the United States teetering on the edge of recession, and no end to the credit crisis in sight, the international mood is sombre. Yet with leadership like this in the equation, there’s also reason to hope.