Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook and Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma were there. So too were former US President Bill Clinton, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini.
The forum’s goal is to bring political and business leaders together to meet some of the world’s toughest challenges, including environmental degradation, income and development disparity, hunger and disease.
At the center of the event was Michael Bloomberg, founder of one of the biggest business news networks in the world and three-time mayor of New York. He has not only achieved great success in both worlds, but has been able to harness his wealth and political experience to advance a number of causes that can fall under the umbrella of social responsibility.
Listening to the speakers, most of whom have become celebrities in their own right, a common theme emerged. The business leaders at the forum were incredibly wealthy, but most if not all of them did not see being a for-profit corporation and socially responsible as incompatible. On the contrary.
Improving the lives of people in your community and beyond, treating employees with respect and protecting the environment are not just ethically and morally commendable, they are a great way to do business.
Throughout the day-long conference, participants spoke with clarity, sincerity and passion about what is most important in life. There was little mention of meeting stockholders’ expectations or the bottom line.
Clinton delivered the opening remarks and set the tone for the day. He has been described by some American historians and analysts as the most gifted politician of his generation. At the forum he did not disappoint.
At the outset, Clinton challenged participants to do more than just speak eloquently about public policy issues. He stressed the importance of cooperation as the key to the survival and advancement of humankind. He also delivered a memorable line when he said “multiplication” is “better than division.” If there was a single sentence that perfectly captured the theme of the day, that was it.
One expects political leaders to speak about the importance of cooperation, domestically and internationally. But some assume that the language used in the business world is different, that it is a world where the winner takes all and businesses have to be shrewd and ruthless. The sentiment expressed at the forum was very different.
Serving the public interest has always been the main objective of governments.
Ma, Cook and Gates spoke of finding opportunities, encouraging innovation, healthy competition, and searching for new ways to provide goods and services to people worldwide. Everyone spoke about the world as a collective, with countries and companies acting as interconnected components.
Ma stressed the importance of youth and encouraging small businesses. Macron spoke about the importance of protecting the environment. Bloomberg and Cook argued that treating people with respect is the foundation of any worthwhile business endeavor.
Clinton told the audience that if these business leaders were motivated by profit when they began their careers, it is no longer the case. All of them, either personally or via their companies, have invested time, energy, and often billions of dollars in social causes and philanthropy.
Gates famously relinquished most of his responsibilities at Microsoft to dedicate most of his time to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose charitable work spans the globe, with a particular emphasis on eradicating infectious diseases. Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor who has battled Gates for the title of the richest person in the world for many years, famously donated $30 billion to the foundation.
One could not leave the forum without a sense of hope that some of the most influential leaders in politics and business understand that they must work together to meet the world’s myriad challenges.
Serving the public interest has always been the main objective of governments. Business leaders at the forum understood that their profit margins need not prevent them from improving the general human condition, and that serving the public is good business.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.