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Beyond Davos' Glamour and Glitz

By Bruce Nussbaum The 2005 World Economic Forum opened on Jan. 25 in Davos, Switzerland, with a town Hall meeting of 1,000 people voting poverty the No. 1 problem facing the world today. The conference closed Saturday night with the same people in effect voting for elegance by donning black-tie and long gowns to celebrate their endeavors.

This trip marked my seventh to Davos, and never have I seen such a sea of swells having so much fancy fun. Yet never have I heard so much serious discussion about dealing with poverty, HIV, malaria, China, Israeli-Palestinian peace, India, Middle East democracy, blogs, nanotechnology, the dollar, global growth, and a host of other very important issues. This was a Davos to be remembered.

WORLD MUSIC. First, the Saturday night parties. As part of Russia Night, financed by Russian trade bank Vnestorgbank and its President Andrei Kostin (no, I never heard of either him or his bank, but it's apparently No. 179 out of the world's top 1,000 banks), we heard wonderful opera and saw dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet who were simply magnificent.

And the Bolshoi was just the appetizer. We were treated to great Russian jazz, courtesy of some of the country's best musicians, and delicious food from Moscow's Café Pushkin. Not surprisingly, the vodka was world-class too, and it flowed like the Volga.

Next door was Egypt Night, a wild scene that included great modern Egyptian music blaring away, with young hip Egyptians (and Indians and Pakistanis) dancing away. Delectable Egyptian food and candies were served. Indeed, the 2005 Davos marked the "coming out" of a new generation of Egyptians. And many more Pakistanis, Libyans, Gulf State people, and other Muslims were at this year's conference than ever before.

NANOTECH AND TERRORISM? I bumped into French actor Gerard Depardieu -- literally -- as he was going to the third party of the evening, French Night. It was much smaller and quieter, with a spiky-haired chanteuse entertaining a room of cigarette-smoking, French-speaking Davosians. I saw Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, sitting in the corner (her book on confidence has been on the BusinessWeek Best-Seller list for weeks), and as I was leaving, I spied Al Gore in black tie trying to enter. This was my third Gore sighting of the week.

The night before the former Veep was at the annual Silicon Valley party at Davos' Kirchner Museum in a sweater. Shimon Peres, leader of the Israeli Labor Party, also attended. He had his own "Nightcap" session with those of us who stayed late, and he talked about, of all things, nanotechnology. Peres believes it can help soldiers defend themselves against terrorists. Another Davos moment.

But there were many. Bill Gates pledged more Gates Foundation funding to fight HIV and malaria. Sharon Stone got up in front of an audience, pledged money to this cause, and asked others to do the same. Many did. Indeed, much of this year's WEF was defined by efforts to increase aid to Africa.

$100 LAPTOPS. While Gates and Stone took a more traditional approach, C.K. Prahalad, professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, offered a totally new model for battling poverty. He said people should see the poor as consumers with limited incomes who inhabit the bottom of the marketplace pyramid. Design products and services for these people that sell at prices they can afford, employ them in the production and distribution, and you generate economic growth, jobs, incomes, and upward mobility, Prahalad said.

In fact, some 50 "social entrepreneurs" at Davos this year presented alternatives to the traditional charity model of helping the poor. They combine nonprofit and market approaches in a whole variety of ways that totally amazed me. I moderated two panels on "Marketing to the Bottom of the Pyramid" that Prahalad spoke at. Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, was at one. He told me he's developing a $100 laptop for kids in poor countries that will be ready for production later this year.

Most of the expense in laptops is in the screen, Negroponte said. His laptop doesn't have an liquid-crystal display screen but a small backlit screen, which is much cheaper to produce. Hector de J. Ruiz, AMD's (AMD) CEO, president, and chairman, was also at the panel, as was Debra L. Dunn, senior vice-president for corporate affairs and global citizenship at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ).

BEYOND NETWORKING. At the second panel I moderated, Anthony Burgmans, chairman of Unilever (UN); Craig Mundie, chief technology officer of Microsoft (MSFT); and Christopher Rodrigues, president and CEO of Visa International, all spoke of their companies' experiences in selling to and producing in the bottom-of-the-pyramid marketplace.

Davos hosted plenty of glitzy parties, and sure, plenty of business networking occurred at them. But that's just part of the story. A lot of very serious issues were discussed, and I hope a lot of very serious plans were made. Nussbaum is BusinessWeek's editorial page editor

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