Editor’s note: Judy Oh is a member of Atlanta hub of the Global Shapers, a group of young global leaders designated by the World Economic Forum to further its goals and initiatives in more than 400 hub cities in 154 countries.
Each January, some 50 Shapers are chosen as delegates to the annual forum in Davos, Switzerland, where they participate in high-level dialogues with presidents and prime ministers as well as corporate, diplomatic, cultural and nonprofit leaders working to tackle global challenges.
As director of strategy for Atlanta-based BrightHouse, a Boston Consulting Group company, Ms. Oh was the only Shaper selected from Atlanta and one of a handful of Americans to join this year’s “Davos50.”
At the forum, she leveraged her expertise on the future of work and how organizations blend purpose with profit in meetings with global leaders including WEF Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and more.
Global Atlanta caught up with Ms. Oh by phone for a conversation on her experiences, from chatting with music icon Yo-Yo Ma to sharing ideas on global consciousness, shaping the future of responsible capitalism and collaborating across cultures and generations to effect change. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Global Atlanta: How were you selected for the honor of representing the Global Shaper community around the world, and particularly the Atlanta hub, at Davos?
Judy Oh: I applied with a video and a written application on how I’m working to advance our community’s goals. Last year, our hub hosted a regional conference called SHAPE North America and Caribbean in Atlanta. I played a big role in developing our vision and programming, which was rooted Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of beloved communities, and aligning it to our Global Shaper community’s impact areas. That gave me experience in speaking about the way we’re driving change and representing the voices of our global community.
Also, the Davos theme this year included examining the purpose of a corporation in the fourth industrial revolution. I was glad to see that my expertise in organizational purpose and work at BrightHouse was directly relevant to this context.
What were some of the major themes that were addressed at the forum, and how did the discussion impact you?
Climate action was really at the forefront of the agenda this year. Some of the Davos50 — that’s what they called us — were from parts of the world that are experiencing climate change in a visceral way. Sharing human stories personalizes what climate change really means, and hearing from young people whose futures are at stake, like my Shaper friends from island countries like Jamaica and Seychelles, was powerful.
Another conference thread was that this is the decade to deliver action. There was a sense of urgency around making real progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how we need private-public, intergenerational and interdisciplinary cooperation to do that.
What were the forum events like, and what were the undercurrents of thought you encountered? How were your expectations what some see as a disconnected conclave of global elitists confirmed or challenged?
I had a healthy amount of skepticism going in. I thought perhaps the inclusion of young people was just to check off a box. It’s one thing to invite you; it’s another thing to actually hear you.
Some of that skepticism is still alive, but I was genuinely excited to have met and talked with people who really wanted to hear our perspectives. I reached out to some people on the forum’s internal messaging platform and was pleasantly surprised to get responses to requests for meetings and chats. I’m also happy for the select Shapers who did get official speaking roles in panels and other discussions.
How did this experience interacting with the upper crust of global society alter your view of the potentially competing imperatives of multilateral cooperation and local action? Do you see them as competing identities or ideologies, as is the case within growing nationalist movements?
The global-local and macro-micro views are two sides of the same coin – you can’t have one without the other. In some places you see a lot more movement at the grassroots level but not enough attention at the global scale. In others, it’s the opposite. There are many phases on this continuum, and again, climate change is one issue where the need to blend the two perspectives is so evident.
Tell us what it was like to be at the forum alongside corporate and government leaders from across the globe.
When you first register at Davos, you get this white badge that signifies that you have the same access and opportunity as all the CEOs and heads of states that are attending. That was surreal. But it also made me think about what this access means.
Just outside of the WEF Congress Center, the storefronts in the town were taken over by Fortune 500 companies like Facebook, Salesforce, Google, etc. While this was a one-of-a-kind experience, I wondered what the implications were for the local community.
Many shuttle drivers talked about the huge economic boost during the week of Davos, which some interpret as positive and others as unsustainable. I also met a woman cleaning the restrooms at one of the dinner events who shared some serious concerns about the waste being created at the events. She even took me out back and showed me a dumpster that has to be emptied every day. That made me wonder whether we are really truly embodying the spirit behind creating a sustainable and cohesive world.
You met with some pretty amazing people, from Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaido, whom 50+ countries have recognized as the country’s legitimate interim leader, to WEF Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab. What were your most memorable meetings or conversations?
My favorite experience was a bilateral meeting with Yo-Yo Ma, who has been one of my inspirations for a long time. Ready to make an impression, I wrote a list of questions to ask him before our meeting. But when he came and sat down with a group of six Shapers, he actually wanted to ask us questions.
That astounded me – a cultural leader who said he wants to dedicate his entire next decade to working on impactful projects — with us! Real conversations like this were at the top of my list, where people went beyond saying the right things in front of a camera to figuring out what it would mean to really work with each other.
How did all this inform your conception of capitalism — was there a strong sense that it needs to be reformed in order to survive?
There’s momentum building around ‘stakeholder capitalism’ – this idea that the business needs to serve not only its shareholders but all of its stakeholders. Driven by key leaders such as Larry Fink from BlackRock and CEOs from the Business Roundtable, companies are making commitments to this notion. I think this is a great start, but there’s more work to be done.
My expertise at BrightHouse is focused on organizational purpose and governance. So I had something to add to this dialogue when discussing this paradigm shift with these executives. But I didn’t hear enough about how the companies will actually deliver on stakeholder needs in line with their companies’ authentic purpose. Their ‘why’ needs to drive this. When purpose is leveraged right, it can be a powerful lens through which companies can make decisions and commit to real action.
What do you bring back to Atlanta from this trip?
Optimism about the role of our hub and our city in the world. Atlanta has so much to offer. It is home to many Fortune 500 corporations. It is built on the foundation of the civil rights movement. It celebrates people and stories that make up the multi-cultural fabric of our city. There is a lot to do here and a lot of resources that we can pull together. Global Shapers look forward to working with other organizations to spearhead more collaboration.
See the full list of Atlanta Shapers at www.globalshapers.org/hubs/atlanta-hub.