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Twin Cities business leaders suit up for annual rite of global capitalism

Last summer, John Brodd got a very special email. The World Economic Forum was thinking about inviting him to its elite annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland. He was among 230 finalists for 39 “technology pioneer” slots at the forum, now known to the world as “Davos.”

“I thought, ‘This is a long shot,’ ” says Brodd, the CEO at Cima NanoTech in St. Paul. He applied anyway, and he made the cut. As icing on the cake, his startup has been selected as one of the 2008 forum’s top 10 “green tech companies.” Come Wednesday, Brodd will join 2,000 leaders in business, government, academia, technology and the arts from more than 70 nations at this year’s five-day mega-gala.

A preliminary list of participants looks like a bite-size who’s who of the world: Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, Al Gore, Bill Gates, Kofi Annan, Rupert Murdoch, George Soros, private equity kingpin Stephen Schwarzman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the mayors of London, Chicago and San Francisco, a smattering of heads of state, a clutch of Nobel Prize winners, contingents of Bush administration officials and “shadow cabinet” Democrats, Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt and an armada of other CEOs from around the planet.

“You feel pretty small when you start reading this list,” says Brodd.

The list, obtained by Minnpost, identifies at least eight more Twin Citians, all with backgrounds at large corporations:
• Former Medtronic CEO Bill George, who will moderate a panel on “Creating a Culture of Leadership.”
• Steve Sanger, chairman at General Mills, and Ken Powell, CEO there. Sanger will be on George’s panel.
• Davos regular Marilyn Carlson Nelson, CEO at the Carlson Cos. She’s back again, this time as a panelist discussing “defining human greatness.” In 2004, she became the second woman to co-chair the event.
• Art Collins, chairman at Medtronic.
• Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson. He pops up on a panel titled “Find Your Top Performers: the Corporate Treasure Hunt.” Kalendo Petel, the company’s executive vice president for emerging business, is also on the roster.
• Christophe Beck, senior vice president of strategy and marketing at Ecolab.

This will be Beck’s first visit to the Davos extravaganza, but he has attended other world forum events since he was named in 2006 to a forum-affiliated elite of “Young Global Leaders.” He is the only Minnesotan in this group, which has grown to about 500 members. A Swiss native, he moved to the Twin Cities nine months ago after leaving Nestle to join Ecolab. Then there’s venture capitalist David Spreng, who founded Crescendo Ventures here. Spreng is based in Silicon Valley now but retains many Twin Cities ties. He spent three years on the forum’s working group advising China on how to build up its venture community.

Founder still going strong
In 1971, Klaus Schwab, then teaching business at the University of Geneva, launched the forum. In the 1990s, the Davos fete boomed as the global economy came into its own. Schwab is still orchestrating the event, with help from seven big-name co-chairs from three continents.

This year, a third of the participants are from the United States and another third from the next four most-represented countries (the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany and France, in that order). They’ll be able to select from more than 200 panels. If “Terrorism in a Networked World” is too much for a Davosite, he or she can always go to the “Happiness, How Much Can You Take?” panel instead.

Davos serves up the ultimate format for schmoozing to powerful, gifted and, in some cases, very wealthy movers and shakers. Moguls from three-fourths of the world’s Top 100 companies rub noses with intellectuals, politicians, high-tech entrepreneurs and journalists. Terms or phrases like “thought leader” and “the challenges facing humankind” float through the bracing mountain air. The official theme at Davos this year is “The Power of Collaborative Innovation.” An underlying current, surfacing in a few of the panels, is the unease rippling through the world economy now, thanks largely to the intensifying credit crisis that’s freaked out global credit markets and brought the U.S. economy to the brink of recession.

This year, the forum is pushing what it calls “the first-ever global conversation on YouTube.” Anyone can put up a video answer to “The Davos Question”: “What key action do you think countries, companies or individuals should take to make the world a better place in 2008?”

Skeptics abound
The World Economic Forum has drawn many angry demonstrators and thoughtful critics over the years. The critics say it was glacially slow to throw its doors open to women and non-government organizations, and focuses too much on profit-making, as opposed to problems with corporate governance, ethics, transparency and economic disparities. Some say it lets in too many publicity seekers; is more about style and show than substance, and remains dominated by Western Europe and the United States. Only 1.3 percent of the participants at Davos this year will come from China, a nation that accounts for 20 percent of the world’s population and a rising share of its economic power and growth.

Steve Young is executive director of the Swiss-born Caux Round Table, a St. Paul-based nonprofit with a worldwide reach that focuses on ethical and moral issues. It tries to soften the hard edges of global capitalism.

“We have not been successful in our efforts to incorporate the Caux Round Table perspectives on ethics into the Davos work agenda,” says Young. “In our experience, it is not always easy for outsiders to work with the Davos staff.”

Davos “attracts the glitterati of globalization,” Young says. It responds to global challenges, he adds, but it’s just one of many actors in this game. Beck says the Davos gathering “was seen as a symbol of capitalism and globalization” in its earlier days but has become increasingly diverse and more transparent in recent years.

He views this week’s meeting as a golden opportunity to hear young leaders from many walks of life, attend a score or so of stimulating panels and network with peers, customers and people with different ideas.

“I would say it’s going to be the most exciting experience of my whole life,” Beck declares.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson has noted that when she first went to Davos in 1997, only a handful of women attended. Now several hundred go, often as speakers and panelists. Backers point to many problem-solving initiatives. Brodd sounds more like a passionate entrepreneur than a mogul. A former 3Mer, he combined two companies to form Cima NanoTech in 2002. The company, which employs 40 workers in St. Paul, Israel and Japan, has developed innovative techniques for manufacturing nanoparticles used in electronic applications, such as plasma TVs and radio frequency identification tags.

As Brodd gears up for Davos, he’s filled with anticipation and convinced the experience will broaden his horizons. The panel topics range from what the world has achieved and where technology is taking us to whether we should fear slowdowns, long-term value in a short-term world, global warming, water shortages and the science of love.

It’s a view of the world from 35,000 feet. Now all we need is for those rich, powerful, smart and connected Swiss mountain-climbers to come down to earth and help us climb out of our subprime-induced economic woes.

Dave Beal, a former business editor and columnist for the Pioneer Press, writes about business and the economy. He can be reached at dbeal [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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