Davos 2016: Start-ups, supply chains and gender inequality

The global gender inequality crisis, entrepreneurship and multinational supply chains are among the topics up for discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. Ellie Ward reports.

It’s that time of year again, when 2,500 global leaders in business, politics and civil society flock to the Swiss Alps to discuss social and economic development.

Kicking off proceedings with an important reality check on day one of the World Economic Forum in Davos was the chief operating officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg.

She told a panel discussion: “At the risk of shocking everyone so early in the morning – men still run the world. And I’m not sure it’s going that well.

“There are 17 countries in this world run by women, 17 out of hundreds of countries. Almost every country in the world has less than 5% of its top companies run by women, including the United States and every country in Europe. That means we’re not using the full talents of our population. That means when it comes to making the decisions that impact our world, women are not at the tables where those decisions are made.”

Just one glimpse at the makeup of participants at the 2016 forum illustrates Sandberg’s point. Women represent just 18% of this year’s delegates.

Gender inequality is just one of the social challenges being discussed within Switzerland’s snowy mountain range. Two other key issues include entrepreneurship and the behaviour of big business.

Solving global issues – one start-up at a time

A panel discussion hosted by BBC World News presenter Nik Gowing analysed the reality around the United Nation’s (UN) goal of creating 75 million entrepreneurs worldwide. This is what the UN estimates is needed to tackle the global youth employment crisis because globally approximately “75 million young people are unemployed and relying on small enterprises to join the workforce”.

Taking part in the panel discussion were representatives from start-up accelerator programmes, including Edward Thai, a venture partner at prominent Silicon Valley venture capital fund 500 Startups. Thai explained that he believed the UN’s seemingly ambitious goal was possible and that entrepreneurship requires a set of skills that while some people may naturally possess more than others, “can be fostered at any age”.

Key to early development of entrepreneurial skills is receiving encouragement to take risks at a young age, Thai told Gowing. You must learn how to be “willing to fail” but also how to be “very mindful of learning from that experience”.

He continued: “Cultural barriers can prevent this – striving for perfection in school for example”.

When asked the same question around the plausibility of creating 75 million entrepreneurs fellow panellist John Harthorne responded that is was “absolutely possible” – as long as the ecosystem that surrounds the entrepreneur is supportive.

What does this ecosystem entail?  Harthorne, who is the founder and CEO of start-up accelerator MassChallenge, goes on to list a number of factors including; funding, government support, legal infrastructure and "some source of ideas and inspiration that could be universities or other environments". He also explained that “the press and the media have to care enough about start-ups that they cover it and make heroes out of the success stories and the corporations have to play a part as customers or sources of funding, mentorship, advice or talent”.

“All of those pieces have to come together,” he concluded. But presenting a barrier to building a stronger entrepreneurial culture globally are educational systems. Harthorne said: “One of the core problems is that most educational models are designed for an expert to tell somebody what the right answer is… and actually what the entrepreneurial mindset is one where you’re not quite abandoned but you’re given structure and format and opportunities to solve problems but you should be putting more of the the burden on the child to learn and express on their own how to think critically, break things down and solve it without a lot of guidance. The hardest part of being an entrepreneur is that you’re breaking new ground.”

Making big business behave better

Alongside debate around fostering entrepreneurship, the forum is also be addressing the social and environmental responsibility of multinationals. Philip Jennings is the general secretary of the UNI Global Union, which is a global trade union that represents 20 million people in 13 sectors of work around the world. Jennings is a Davos veteran and a champion of promoting human rights through business.

He told Pioneers Post: “Profit margins – to have that as your only business motive is just not sufficient anymore. The rules of the game have changed.” He cited the Ruggie Principles (the UN guiding principles on business and human rights) and the Sustainable Development Goals as key to influencing “the values structure of companies”.  

He also described how following the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse ground has been made in putting multinational supply chains a critical global issue. “The supply chain issue has been taken up by the G7 and the G8, which was a way of impressing upon businesses that they couldn’t escape their responsibilities,” Jennings said.

“There’s a shift out there that is taking place towards increased social responsibility but we still have to face the Wall Street, private equity and venture capital side of things. We have a financial industry that has become brilliant at playing the financial game to their benefit, and at the same time not really doing enough to help the real economy or encourage businesses to do the right thing,” he concluded.

The World Economic Forum continues until 23rd January.


Photo credit: Ben Thompson