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Posted at 08:50 PM ET, 01/23/2012

From corruption to discourse, Millennials finish first full day in Davos


National flags and a flag for the World Economic Forum's (WEF) 2012 annual meeting fly on the roof of the Congress Centre in Davos. (Simon Dawson - Bloomberg)

DAVOS — It was all about generational reflection Monday.

A daylong series of workshops and smaller breakout meetings marked the first, full day of events for the World Economic Forum’s youngest cohort, The Global Shapers. Our group consists of those between the ages of 20 and 30.

Whiteboards lined the walls in a conference room at the Morosani Hotel Schweizerhof and were eventually filled with illustrations representing speakers’ main points. This included remarks and a question-and-answer session by Forum founder, Professor Klaus Schwab — a sign, given Schwab’s role as the annual meeting’s master of ceremonies, of how seriously the World Economic Forum was taking the addition of this new group.

Shapers were repeatedly called on to, in top-three or top-six lists, write down what issues, from our perspective, were the most pressing of the day. We were then called on to discuss how we were empowered to address those issues, and how, with e-mails, Twitter handles and phone numbers exchanging hands faster than light-speed, we could leverage each other’s connections, resources and sheer, individual energy and force of will. After all, who doesn’t want a globally recognized achiever under 30 in their Rolodex?

To the untrained or outside eye belonging to someone whose personal life is continually and, perhaps, unjustly subject to the whims of world leaders (both elected and unelected), not to mention corporate titans, this gathering would be frustrating to the point of madness. “Stop talking,” they’d probably scream. “Just do something already!”

But that’s not the Davos way.

The Forum, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, is not a decision-making body, and the individuals who gather there are not charged with making any decisions while they are at any of its many meetings, included its annual gathering. It is a meeting of stakeholders — highly influential ones at that — who are merely called on to debate and discuss key issues frankly and respectfully off (and sometimes on) the record. But, in Monday’s gathering of Millennials, or Generation Y-ers as we are sometimes called, there were stakeholders that had yet to, at least in some cases, place their hands on the large and oft-referred-to levers of power.

In the midst of the hard-sells, soft-sells, idea exchanges, coffee, danishes, fruit and falling snow was the collection of issues the group determined to be among the most important. Economic disparity, education and corruption all made the list multiple times from North America, to Europe, to Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. And nearly every member of the group referred to the Occupy Wall Street’s 99-percent battle cry.

But it was the inclusion of “discourse” as a core issue that showcased the Shapers’ potential.

Shapers from Tel Aviv and the West Bank had made the trek to Davos and were called on, along with other Middle East members, to work in a group tasked with listing the three most important issues facing the region. What resulted was a moving disclosure to the larger Shaper group that, if their leaders could have the dialog the two Shapers engaged in over the course of 45 minutes, Middle East peace was well within reach.

The moment moved one World Economic Forum staff member to tears, and produced a lengthy applause by the Shapers. And, like many at the Forum’s gatherings, left those in the room with a sense that peace in the Middle East was achievable in their lifetime.

But the scream of the Shaper Not Present still rang in my ears: Do something already.

Later that evening, after a traditional fondue dinner in a restaurant perched on an Alpine slope, I sat with four Shapers at the Schweizerische Alpine Mittelschule Davos, a boarding school in the heart of the small town. After the first day, changes in mindset were evident.

“It seems so top level” looking at the annual meeting from the outside, said Maria Carmela Alvarez, mayor of San Vicente, Philippines, and a member of the Manila Global Shapers hub, “then you realize, they’re people.”

Many of the Shapers were told by family, friends and advisers of the constant networking that occurred at the Forum’s annual meeting. For some, the only members of their Hub to be invited from their home country, the pressure to make the “right” connections and be in the “right” rooms at the “right” times to share not only their personal and professional goals but those of their fellow countrymen was immense.

Today was a day to offload that pressure, at least for a few moments.

“What today brought was a personal openness,” said Simi Fajemirokun, a communications consultant for the public sector and a member of the Abuja hub in Nigeria. “I think going back now I will be more driven to interact online” with other members of the Shapers community.

But the first day of events also highlighted new challenges, such as the question of whether we were truly representative of our generation. The group generally agreed that we were not, since many of us were chosen for strengths that came from the luck of the family draw. Education, money (which in many cases brought a good education and lasting personal experiences) and connections were, for some of us, the byproduct of being born to those who could supply those resources from Day One of our lives.

It’s depressing to think that we’re the one percent of people who do extraordinary things, said Anna Oposa, co-founder of the non-profit Save Philippine Seas and a member of the Manila Hub.

“I think there are people doing stuff,” said Fajemirokun, “they just don’t believe in channels like this.”

“There are stories that aren’t told,” she continued. “I’m conflicted with the need to represent them, but I feel they need to be empowered with certain resources,” in order to engage.

And the Shapers I spoke to recognized that those resources and the resulting empowerment would not come from run-ins with U2 front-man Bono or a chance meeting with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, or a much-coveted sit-down with any of the other celebrities attending the annual meeting, many of whom had yet to arrive.

“As much as there are people that will come to this conference that we will want to meet,” said Udiobang, “I feel like the major stuff is going to be amongst us.”

And, whether or not they make any major decisions here or took any action, the recognition from the Forum was enough, in some cases, to elevate them and, by extension, their causes.

“In the Philippines, you wouldn’t get these distinctions,” said Alvarez, who added she had been called a lesbian by residents of her hometown because she wasn’t married, a reflection of how much a woman’s strength and self-worth were still rooted in marriage.

“It doesn’t matter how much you have accomplished as a woman,” said Simi of a similar attitude in Nigeria. “When you have interactions like this, when you see someone like Carmela ... I think, ‘Can you have something like this happen in Nigeria?’” continued Fajemirokun.

It will be interesting to see if, after an almost week-long wave of ideas-sharing among the snowdrifts of Davos, that will, indeed, come to pass.

Kolawole is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shaper community in Washington, D.C. and is reporting from Davos, Switzerland.

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