Where are the solutions? Road notes from Davos to Barcelona

I know there is a crisis going on out there. I experience it directly every morning as I get on the Tube at Liverpool station, in the heart of London’s financial district, where people walk slouched over, noticeably dragging their feet with their grey suits and greyer faces and actively avoiding any chance of eye contact. I try to force myself to smile when I walk in the station, even if it’s before I’ve inhaled my first coffee, but inevitably the headlines in the newsstands catch my eye, or I see another 70-per-cent-off sign in a shop window…

This feeling of there being a giant discontinuity playing out around us was thick in the air at an event I attended in Davos this January. Despite having my new favourite accessory, ready to use as a show-and-tell to explain what social entrepreneurship is all about (one of Eako’s stylish handbags made of salvaged fire hose) I was surprised at the heaviness and pessimism that infected the town. I’ll admit that my time and exposure to the full “Davos” was extremely limited, however from my eavesdropping perch at one of the bars in the main hotels it seemed people were mainly focused on the problems, with little talk about solutions.

Fast forward one month exactly to Barcelona the weekend of February 27th. I was invited to chair a panel at the Doing Good and Doing Well Conference at IESE with three upbeat and positive entrepreneurs. Kyle Zimmer from First Book, Lily Lapenna from MyBnk and Jessica Jackley from Kiva — each a stunning role model and inspiration in their own right. Yes, they admitted that the recession was making things tough, but guess what, that didn’t mean that there wasn’t room out there for growth and ideas — and with times changing there will be new opportunities to create new kinds of value! The student attendees agreed.

In the panel introduction I asked the group of about 100 how many of them were entrepreneurs. A handful of hands went up. I then asked how many aspired to be entrepreneurs either after graduation or down the line. Many hands shot up. And how many people had an idea that connected to social and environmental value creation at its core? Most of the hands STAYED up! I then asked if there was anyone brave enough to share their idea with the crowd — which led us to twist the panel into an interactive session where these entrepreneurs in the making bravely and energetically pitched their ideas to the group. Fabulous. Opportunity bursting forth!

The students and other participants seemed to agree. With very few recruiters on campus this year, MBA graduates are being forced to think about solutions — and it is encouraging to witness creativity emerging — rooted in looking for opportunity in these dark times. And what better setting than a city full of colourful and vibrant art like Barcelona where Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia serves as the beacon?

So maybe this is a generational thing. If it is, then I’ve found the light I’m setting my sights on to get me through the doom and gloom. What is putting a smile on my face in the morning is the Phoenix generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs who see opportunity in the ashes of the crash.