On the Road

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND--Once the music started, nobody would have mistaken it for an Inc. 500 conference. This year's World Economic Forum, the annual assemblage of the planet's corporate and political chieftains, remained a stiff affair throughout.

Even when Israeli singing sensation Noa took the stage at the February gathering's black-tie soiree, the heavily European crowd hardly seemed to notice her electrifying performance, much less dance the macarena. Some politely subdued rhythmic clapping could be heard briefly, but it soon petered out.

"Entrepreneurship in the global public interest" was the motto of this exclusive conference, which corporate executives paid upwards of $20,000 to attend, but the atmosphere was the very antithesis of creative vibrance. "We're among our enemies," whispered Heinrich von Liechtenstein, a tireless advocate of European entrepreneurs, standing amidst a corridor of gray suits. "Bankers. Consultants. Politicians. All the words I hate."

How incongruous it was, then, to watch the world's highest and mightiest--and stiffest--spend much of the six-day conference admonishing themselves to be more entrepreneurial. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu unfurled his vision of Israel as "the Silicon Valley of the Eastern Hemisphere," trumpeting the "thousand high-tech start-ups" that have cropped up there. Japanese executives bashed their overregulated nation for quashing the development of upstart enterprises. "Deregulation will lead to the creation of new businesses," insisted Masaya Miyoshi, president and director general of Keidanren, Japan's powerful big-business lobby.

And the Europeans? They were busy fawning over entrepreneur extraordinaire Bill Gates--easily the most sought-after figure of the conference, eclipsing the likes of South African president Nelson Mandela--as if their mere proximity to him might inject some entrepreneurial vigor into their moribund economies. "What we need is a few Bill Gateses in Europe," argued David de Pury, who last year resigned as cochairman of industrial giant ABB to start his own financial-services company. "The European dream is still to get a cozy job in a big company. We need to change that dream."

It wasn't so long ago that Europe's generous welfare states were widely envied. Or that Americans were wondering if Japan had invented a superior form of capitalism in its state-driven industrial policy.

But today Europe's welfare systems are groaning under the weight of double-digit unemployment. Japan's economy has been in the dumps since 1992. So with few exceptions, leaders of all nationalities issued the same clarion call: trim the social safety net, roll back governmental intrusiveness, unlock entrepreneurial potential. Become more like...well, America.

The biggest generator of hallway gossip was an entrepreneur, too--and he wasn't even there. That was Lars Windhorst, who, at age 20, has become Germany's first entrepreneurial icon. Having made his name reselling Asian-made computer equipment in his homeland, the precocious wunderkind is now angling to build Vietnam's first skyscraper and has been hailed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl as a risk-taking mascot for all young Germans, who are more likely to dream of becoming civil servants.

Surely that sort of encouragement is sorely needed, but as many here bemoaned, Europe still lacks much of the infrastructure to support entrepreneurship. For instance, Europe's businesses lag behind the United States so badly in information-technology that Intel president Andrew Grove warned the Europeans about burdening their children with a "technology deficit."

All the chatter did not escape the attention of forum founder and president Klaus Schwab, who may create an offshoot conference for "global growth companies." His thinking: maybe a gathering that purports to set the world's agenda should be more about creating tomorrow's economy and less about administering yesterday's.

For starters, maybe those suits should learn to dance.


WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM, 53 Chemin des Hauts-Crets, 1223 Cologny, Geneva, Switzerland; 41 22 869 1212; contact@weforum.org 18