A few weeks ago I flew from Mexico City to São Paulo to represent Laboratoria in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Latin America. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) joined the World Economic Forum (WEF) this year to identify and select, as part of the Uplink Initiative, 50 Startups they believe are having a significant impact in the region. Laboratoria was selected, along with these 49 other brilliant entrepreneurial initiatives from Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Mexico:
As part of the initiative, we were also invited to assist and in some cases, participate, in the general Meeting of the WEF in São Paulo. Leading up to the event, I felt proud to represent Laboratoria, and also anxious to learn whether the event would confirm some of my expectations. Often, these global, high-level events, though extremely relevant in shaping the political and economic narrative of our time, often fall short of providing diverse perspectives on contentious topics, of including the very people whose interests are at stake, or of coming up with actionable items that can actually make a difference, or tilt the scale.
And indeed, no, we didn’t leave the event with any groundbreaking answers on how to solve the world’s largest problems, and I wish there had been greater representation of some of the groups that were discussed at length, such as indigenous populations, low-income youth, and people of color, to name just a few of the groups absent at the forum. The discussion would’ve benefitted greatly from it and I strongly believe that for real impact to result from these events, it requires it. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised with a few things that caught my attention.
Active participation of women
The epicenter of the event’s discussion focused on broad social and economic challenges facing the region such as the future of work, infrastructure, corruption, competitiveness, gender equity, the fourth industrial revolution, and more. To discuss these topics, panels featured distinguished journalists, academics, politicians and business men and women. “Wait, what?! Women?” “Yes!” This was one of very few conferences I’ve attended where there was an absence of all-male-panels. Better yet, the presence and active participation of intelligent, well-spoken, and experienced women from various industries and sectors was palpable. As a result of the diversity of the panels (at least in terms of gender), discussions held richer perspectives and a wider array of viewpoints, evidencing the importance of diversity of thought in informing creative and innovative solutions.
Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, had a unique take on how the private sector fills some of the public sector’s gaps, as long as the challenges currently affecting global political sentiment are addressed. Some of those challenges include the problem of fake news, the lack of clarity on ownership and user rights of data, among others.
The spirited participation of Luiza Helena Trajano, President of Brazil’s Magazine Luiza, brought fresh insight into the role of big corporations in the fight for gender equality. She insisted on the responsibility that top executives at companies have in hiring more women, and specifically women from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.
In a panel about the future of education, which I had the pleasure of moderating, Monica Flores, Head of Manpower’s LATAM unit, advocated passionately for an overhaul of Latin America’s education systems, concerned for the fate of our region’s youth.
Female voices bring diverse perspective and are a crucial element to any discussion where the interests of both men and women are at stake. An increasing participation of women gives hope that women’s interests and needs might be soon at the forefront of the global development agenda.
The Startup Perspective
Globally, startups are increasingly behind many of the innovative solutions driving social and economic change, and their experiences must therefore be a part of the discussions shaping the global agenda. In this event, for the first time in Latin America, the WEF/IFC “Uplink Startup Initiative” brought 50 young voices shaping much of the region’s social, economic and environmental development.
In the Startups Issue Briefing at the forum, led by Olivier Schwab, Managing Director at WEF, and with the participation of Gregóire Orelio, CFO at Loggi (one of Brazil’s fast-growing digital startups), Héctor Gomez, Brazil Country Manager for the IFC, and myself, we discussed the many challenges but also opportunities of being an entrepreneur in Latin America. Able to take more risks, to fail easy and fast, and with a focus on agile methodologies and user-centered design, startups are addressing more efficiently and at a lower cost, many of the public sector’s challenges in transportation, housing, healthcare, education, and pretty much any sector you can think of.
Understanding the challenges and risks of being an entrepreneur, told by the entrepeneurs themselves can help policy makers generate the incentives and foster the right environment for these startups to strive. Our experiences as entrepreneurs (the good, the bad and the ugly) need to be a part of global discussions about change.
Moreover, several of the startups present were social impact companies or not-for-profit organizations working hard to solve many of the challenges the public sector is struggling to address. Further proving that you can be mission-driven and still be at the forefront of innovation, generating enormous impact.
It was exciting to be a part of this group, and seeing how Latin American startups are becoming globally competitive, driving innovation themselves, thinking globally but acting locally, with solutions for Latin America, by Latin Americans.
Global institutions and conferences like the World Economic Forum spur powerful and necessary discussions about the future of our society. You can say whatever you want about them, but the fact is, they bring together leaders and experts from around the globe that end up influencing, and in many ways, guiding the policy and business decisions of the future. A diversity of opinion and representation enriches that narrative, and strengthens the impact we can have as a society when we come together and find creative and innovative solutions for our own challenges. What I saw, on a small scale, gives me hope that maybe these important global spaces of conversation can actually start capturing the voices and thoughts of groups often excluded from these discussions. Often the groups who are fighting the very fight and working towards the solutions we’re so desperately in need of.