Winter Camp: Davos

Once each year, the sleepy Alps town of Davos, Switzerland becomes a mecca for thousands of people. Whether you’re a CEO, economist, media leader, artist, academic, politician or royal, somehow you fit into the mysterious ecosystem of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting. I had the great pleasure, and potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, of going as one of 50 Global Shapers from across the world.  Much like the rest of the constituency attending, we spanned the globe, covering 39 countries and 50 different cities.  Unlike the other participants, (there are no ‘attendees’ because everyone is engaged and involved) we were 50/50 male/female (17% female overall) and between ages 23 and 33.

While I could certainly go through the regular rhetoric about the marvels of Davos, I’ll try in earnest to give a glimpse of my experience as a first-timer (many say it takes at least three visits to ‘get how Davos works’) and as a Shaper.

From the moment of arrival at the Zurich airport, I felt that deja vu feeling of going to summer camp. This time, however, it was winter in the Swiss Alps, so it felt more like Winter Camp. After an all-night flight, and having lost six hours with the time change, I waited at the train station for two fellow Shapers arriving from the U.S.  We hugged: although we’d never met, we knew instinctively that the week ahead would make us a family. 

While waiting for the train (3 legs and about 3 hours of travel), the magic of Davos began to unfold when we started to meet other attendees, sharing stories of Davos-past, and tips for our impending time there. 

Finally arriving in Davos 16 hours of travel later, a fellow female Shaper and I found our way to our assigned accommodations: a dorm for 12-20 year olds.   This is when the camp feeling became all the more real. We found rooms for two measuring about 7’x15′, with small beds not far off of the floor.  The next surprise was the communal bathroom, decked out with four see-through showers. (This was an important point when we realized later that the 12-yr-old male residents were to be sharing these with us, primarily females in our late 20s). Feeling exhausted, we tried to sleep a bit, knowing we had a hectic six days ahead. As jet lag and altitude would have it, not only would I not sleep then (after one hour of sleep on the overnight flight), but I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night either. This wasn’t the best start, but certainly was a tie that binds many a Davos-goer. 

Throughout the day, girls and guys began to come to our dorm, and we made quick friends with people from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Philippines, the UK, Austria, Norway, China, Africa, and more. We bonded over our shared concerns about the accommodations, and soon came to realize that this disappointment is common in Davos. Even heads of state and executives find themselves in less-than-desirable accommodations.  

That night we met as Shapers at the famous Piano Bar, where many end up late at night, and which is said to be ‘where the real business happens’. I struggled to see how that would be possible when it was filled wall-to-wall with people each night we went. 

Monday: Full Day One. As Global Shapers, we met with our gifted and excited World Economic Forum (WEF) staff members. They had organized two days of sessions for us to get to know one another, and work together to create better systems and best practices for the 210 Hubs and counting, worldwide. I won’t go into painstaking detail about the work we did; nevertheless, we bonded over shared successes and failures as Hubs, and saw many commonalities between us no matter how far apart we lived geographically. We discussed what makes a Hub effective and talked about the importance of building trust first with our teams, as well as experiencing small wins with project completion to build momentum.  Another theme emerged that no one wants to recreate the wheel. We have a plethora of resources available to us, between our own Hubs, the entire Shapers community, and the WEF’s fellow communities: Young Global Leaders and Schwab Social Entrepreneurs.  We talked about creating a repository for the information we need on a Hub level as well as across Hubs.  Another important point was the necessity of skills and assets mapping of our members. This is helpful when we as Hubs or individuals may need to lean on the expertise of others to best execute what we’re doing. 

More so, we had the honor of being addressed by professor Klaus Schwab, the founder of WEF, who explained to us that Davos is not an official conference because no decisions are made at the end. Rather, it’s a laboratory of ideas that covers a multitude of the topics on the global agenda. His hopes were that at its end, we’d walk away more optimistic about the current global position, and with a better awareness of our roles as global citizens.  More so, there was conversation that historically, while the elders taught the youth, in our current world, the youth are often teaching their elders since we’re digital natives who grew up online.  

After a 10-hour day together, we took the finicular train up to the top of the mountain to the most famous restaurant in town, and shared a Swiss favorite: cheese fondue. We enjoyed time together and with WEF staff.

Day Two for me began quite oppositely than planned, with a call to the ambulance for severe stomach pains.  With no real diagnosis, it seems that the lack of sleep and altitude change, coupled mainly with a finite appetite and lack of eating much, resulted in some terrible pain. Fortunately, it went away, and I was able to make it at 8am for Day 2 with the Shapers. We dove into project management, since that’s the bulk of our work as Hubs. Some tips that stood out to me were to mobilize our Hub members with key talking points about projects, so our message is consistent. Also, we discussed inviting our local Swiss ambassador to participate in events and projects (since the WEF is based in Switzerland). During projects, we talked about celebrating small milestones along the way, as well as to be sure to gather feedback and evaluations for ourselves and to share with the community of Shapers.  Another emerging theme around the idea of not recreating the wheel is to leverage our resources who have experience already in the work we choose to do. Other groups who can help include other Hubs, YGLs, Schwab Entrepreneurs, and the WEF (i.e., validate projects first and do our research). After some great planning and brainstorming, we broke for a lunch with the YGLs and Schwab entrepreneurs.

Instead, I went back up the mountain to see the BBC, and to film an interview on being a Shaper and my expectations for the week.  It was a great experience to film with such a reputable outlet, and a great learning experience for me, too. 

That afternoon, we came back together and had sessions with our counterpart organizations, and then went our separate ways in order to arrive and register, finally, at the infamous labyrinth of a Congress Centre. Part of managing your time in Davos is ear-marking sessions you’d like to attend, and reserving seats in lunches and dinners, which fill up quickly… in some cases almost immediately. To those who listen, often they’ll hear the theme of Davos as being multi-layered. On the surface, you have the 500 sessions offered from Wednesday to Saturday in the Congress Centre, and meals in local hotels. The next layer down are private (invite-only) meetings for the Global Agenda Councils, working on everything from engaging consumers in sustainability choices, to the global epidemic of youth unemployment, to entrepreneurship, to tech innovations, and many more.  Beyond that there are meetings (also known as bi-laterals) between any combination of people you can imagine. Many say that some come and never attend a session: rather, they stack these meetings, and get more work done with global leaders in one week in one place than they could in months otherwise.

Mind you, I’ve described only the daylight hours. Who can leave out the legendary slew of parties every night, hosted by global companies, media outlets, and countries. If you haven’t gotten the picture yet, Davos is oddly both a marathon and a sprint, as you spend your days doing a combination of learning, having bi-laterals, and allowing for the ever-popular ‘serendipity’ moments. Then you dive into private dinners and/or go from event-to-event all night.

Don’t let me forget to mention the ever-present challenges of its being January in the Alps. As you move from location to location, you change your boots and coat each time, as well as go through security checkpoints at each venue. (There are more security and police officers than participants.) 

Now I’ve gotten off-track. Let me go back to Tuesday and our opening session at the Congress Centre that afternoon. Klaus Schwab welcomed us and talked about Resilient Dynamism, the theme of the week. This tended to make for interesting and confused conversation amongst many, as we struggled to determine exactly what that means. He invited his wife onstage to present three awards. One of these went to Charlize Theron, who came to accept for her work in South Africa to eradicate the spread of AIDS from mother-to-child.   Inadvertently, she set the tone for me that this would be a week of constant self-pinching. 

That evening, we had the opportunity as a group to attend a party and panel with Muhtar Kent, Bea Perez, and other Coke leaders. Their energy and support of our program was infectious. 

This was another late night, followed by little sleep due to a combination of aforementioned factors coupled with excitement for the day to come.

The next day started off with an early morning and a walk to the Conference Centre to dive into a session on ‘the social technology context’. This included points on how social media can now disrupt governments, as well as questions on how we can use social media to impact our communities positively. After that, I scouted out some space in one of the many coffee lounges, and met with the head of North America for the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. We had a great conversation about possible deeper collaborations between her community and the Shapers. Before she arrived, I had random conversations with several people – from academics to scientists and technologists. All of this is par for the course in Davos.  

One incredible part of the experience was how plugged in we under-30s were to panels and private sessions. Next, I attended one on the ‘values context’, featuring one of our very own Shapers, who held his own amongst panelists twice his age. Afterwards, I went to my first workshop, which was a smaller group discussion on how data can be used more effectively in education. It was entirely fascinating how much data is already available to give us better insight on how children learn, what time of day is best, and with which teachers they’ll connect best. The same kinds of data are available for teachers, about their style and effectiveness. It was a fascinating conversation on the possible benefits, as well as the privacy implications that could arise. 

That night, I selected a dinner session hosted by media leaders on their top five predictions for stories this year. I sat with a friendly editor of the Wall Street Journal, as well as the President of UNC-Chapel Hill, and the CEO of Duke Energy and his lovely wife.  We had a lively chat about youth unemployment and how universities are preparing, or can better prepare, youth for the work force.

Fast-forward to Thursday and my first night of sleep, totaling a whopping five hours. I kicked off the day with an early morning private session with a Global Agenda Council on how to engage tomorrow’s consumer in sustainability choices. I sat in a room with thirty executives who came from household-name companies. They welcomed my input on how to engage Millennials, as well as children.  This was my first real experience of the week in getting to be so front-line with such powerful decision-makers. I loved getting to hear their thinking processes, and also to be able to engage in a dialogue.

Only 10 A.M. at this point, I suited back up for the cold to go the conference centre to meet with the CEO of the largest educational resource distributor in the US. After an incredible and to-the-point 20-minute meeting, I left feeling full of hope about what can come from meetings in Davos. Then I suited up yet again to go to the Belvedere, the best-known hotel in town, and home of many a sponsor and after-hours event. There I met with five others who also work in financial literacy education. It was great to see what others around the world are doing, and how we can help one another.

While at this lunch, I realized how many people never step foot in the actual Congress Centre, but rather conduct meetings off-site all day. There were corridors of make-shift private offices for many a bank and consulting firm to do just that. This was yet another layer of Davos presenting itself. 

That night kicked off several of the major parties. It’s common to bounce from one to another, so I started at Bank of America’s and met some great people. Included among these were some new friends from Atlanta and the CEO of B of A, the person whom I’d most hoped to meet while in Davos. Then I went to a private dinner on financial inclusion, and, yet again, was bowled over when I got to meet and connect with the Chairman of MasterCard, among others. 

Then, back to the Belvedere for several more events. This evening was capped off with a late night dance party with a great live band hosted by McKinsey, where I was joined by twenty Shapers. That was a highlight. I had such fun bonding with my new friends, and dancing alongside executives and dignitaries who may have seemed stuffy otherwise. 

Friday morning came again soon. I’d wanted to attend a televised session to see what that was like, so I went to one on ‘Quick Money, No Growth?’. This featured a panel of finance experts, including Brian Moynihan from B of A, and Ray Dalio, one of the richest people in the world and owner of the largest hedge fund. To no one’s surprise, it was a bit dry. I’d imagine that because it was televised and on the record (anything without press is off the record) they were constrained a bit in their answers.

After that, I had a chance meeting with a contributor to Bloomberg’s Business Week, was given some great advice on working with Media, and conducted an impromptu interview. 

I’d also been wanting to connect with the founder of Kickstarter, Perry Chen, and he was kind enough to email me his schedule that afternoon.  I went to his session called ‘Digital Masterpiece’ which also featured the founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, and a really engaging man named Eric Whitacre, who composes virtual choirs that have gone viral. It was, by far, the best session I’d attended, because it was exciting, motivating, and most importantly, authentic.  Perry was kind enough to share some time with me afterwards to talk about his entrepreneurial journey and what makes a good Kickstarter project. I thanked him for not being one of the stuffy ones. 

Next, it was time to meet the Shapers in the main hall for a photo op with Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola, our largest sponsor of the Global Shapers program, and Klaus Schwab.  From there, I ventured to the Africa tent with my roommate and some friends from our hall, and had a great time getting to know them better. Afterwards, I trekked up the mountain to a women’s leadership dinner. It was really neat to interact with so many successful women, some of whom were simply overwhelmingly humble, even when they were huge names in their country and beyond. We broke into table discussions on women mentoring women. 

From there, I’d had one plan in mind, but let the serendipity of Davos lead me and two other female Shapers to hop into a car with a couple of female executives and join them and their team for a drink. Later, they were kind enough to offer us their car service to take us to our next destination which, naturally, was the Belvedere. Arriving after midnight, it seemed the consensus for our Shaper friends was to try the famous Piano Bar. We arrived, and it felt like a better-dressed frat party. Everyone was crammed in, and it seemed odd that anyone could actually be having fun. After a brief stay, it was time to call it a night. 

Tough to believe it, but Saturday had arrived.  Even tougher to believe: on about three hours of sleep, I was fully functional. I joined a Shaper for a private breakfast with Coke, WEF employees, and some potential sponsors of the Shapers program. It was small, but getting to speak at a podium in front of such important people, all off-the-cuff, was a great experience. It turned out I was seated next to the Vice-Chairman of Citi, who happens to live in Birmingham.  We had a great chat, and I hope I helped, rather than hurt, his thoughts on potentially supporting the program…

Next, back to Congress Centre for a couple of impromptu sessions: one by three YGLs on plugging into the under-utilized human capital markets (disabled/autistic, part-time work force, and close to retirement age people). It was great, and sparked a possible collaboration with one for a potential cross-Shapers project. Also, I got to pop into a great panel on emotions, and loved every minute of it.

Finally, it was time for the Shapers’ wrap up. Quite the love and energy fest! It felt really cool to see how close we’d gotten so quickly. The next little bit of the afternoon was used to pack up and get ready for the cocktail event on Magic Mountain. 

We arrived, and almost immediately I began a conversation with Eric Whitacre, the interesting composer from the digital masterpiece panel. I found him to be the most interesting individual conversation I had, as well as a flycatcher of interesting people. I got wrapped up in that energy and had a blast!

Alas, it was time to go as Shapers for a final hangout. We took over a bar and cheered with prosecco, sang songs together, and had some great conversations. I felt as if some of these people are actual friends now. 

Because we didn’t want it to end, we stayed out late and got little sleep before our 6:30 A.M. cab to our 7A.M. airport shuttle. From there, it was all a memory. 

What did I take away? It’s still too soon to know for sure. For now, I can say that I took away many new friends.  I can say that we, as Shapers, really can make an impact and have some best practice ideas to help make that happen. It became clear to me that our generation is in a unique position where CEOs realize they need our feedback. At times, I felt like a peer in those conversations. I learned that people are people: no matter how important and/or famous one might be, we all are pretty much the same, and they were in our shoes at one time. Also, I was amazed at how worldly and accomplished my peers are. It made me want to be more aware of the greater world around me, as well as to travel more. 

I learned that I’m capable, and I confirmed the power of networking. I hope sincerely that I will be back to Davos again soon on my own merits, because it can’t be done best just once! What an honor and a chance of a lifetime! For all this I am grateful. To Davos: the winter camp I hope to know again.


  1. Darrah:

    Your father sent me the link to your blog so I could get a sense of the adventure that he and I have been discussing for a while. Sounds like an absolute amazing opportunity and that you capitalized on it by getting the most from the experience. To say that you are an eloquent and impressive woman would be an understatement. Thank you for wanting to make a difference.


  2. Well written! beautiful 🙂

  3. Really proud of you Darrah! I mean that. What an opportunity to take your program to the next level!

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