40th St. Gallen Symposium

The St. Gallen Symposium is an event (its 40th this year) led by the students of St. Gallen university and is held in the small city of St. Gallen, Switzerland.  This is a very compact city that is incredibly clean with houses and streets having this movie set like appearance (pictures below).  The city itself is about one hour outside of Zurich and was my first opportunity to spend several days in a Swiss city besides my jaunts into Geneva in years past.

Apparently, the weather was unusually wet and cold for the season but I didn’t mind at all.  While it was raining from time-to-time, the weather was nice and crisp.  In fact, I believe we were very lucky because the rain stopped at critical times (i.e., in between sessions when we had to walk between venues or when the Swiss air force or Patrouille Suisse gave a demonstration of their aerial acrobatics – twice).  Furthermore, since this was the last leg of my month long trip out of Tokyo, I did not pack any warm clothes so I couldn’t complain.

Anyway, the symposium was attended by approximately 1,000 attendees. What is unique about this event is that it is completely organized and run by students. While they have many world renowned advisers, the students basically run the 2 day (May 6-7) event. The symposium was actually founded 40 years ago and the organizers make it a point to let people know that they are 6 months older than the Davos event next door. Out of the attendees, approximately 200 are graduate students (this year was the first year they limited it to graduate students) from around the world who have shown an active interest in entrepreneurism. The students were selected to come to the event via an essay contest (in English) and/or nominations by their country heads. This year, out of all the essay contests and nominations, Japan sent (selected) eight students (out of the 45 students that applied (6)/nominated (2) – while this was the most out of all the countries, perhaps because English was a limiting factor, the percentage acceptance was the lowest).  The remaining participants included entrepreneurs, politicians, heads of corporations, academics and business people.

From Japan, we had several people come including the following who had an active role in the symposium were:

  • Hiroshi Mikitani – Chairman & Chief Executive Officer,  Rakuten Inc. 
  • Me

Topic Leaders

  • Yoshinori Imai – Vice President, NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation (moderating my session)
  • Prof. Yoko Ishikura – Professor for International Business Strategy, Hitotsubashi University (moderating Mr. Miktani’s session)
  • Rintaro Tamaki – Vice Minister of Finance for International Affairs of Japan
  • Dr. Hiroshi Tomono – Representative Director & President, Sumitomo Metal Industries, Ltd.
My presentation was the 2nd set of work sessions on the first day of the symposium.  I had the difficult job of coming AFTER Mr. Mikitani’s session.  I say this because, while I had heard, paneled or spoke with Mr. Mikitani in the past, I was very impressed by his eloquence and appropriateness of his answers.  Meaning, many of the answers he gave, I can either relate to or learn from.  I think I also saw this unique angle of Mr. Mikitani because the 1.5 hour sessions are structured so that the speaker only has a formal component of about 5-10 minutes where he/she can give a prepared presentation.  The remaining 80 minutes is intended to be all Q&A.  Therefore, given that this was a very international group of participants, all sorts of questions came.  Furthermore, there were some sessions where the participants “called” the speakers on certain answers and started some pretty intense debates which included yelling.  Thankfully (?), neither Mr. Mikitani’s or my sessions got that heated.  Nevertheless, given the free nature of the questions compounded by being outside of Japan and answering in English, many people (including myself) felt that Mr. Mikitani gave answers that were very honest, thoughtful and probably wouldn’t hear in Japan (especially the parts he was critical of Japan).

For my presentation, I had a about 15 PowerPoint slides ready to setup the discussion where entrepreneurship and politics intersect.  Mr. Imai had opened the session by introducing himself, his fascinating background and me. Slightly through my presentation, I noticed that the mouse did not work as well and didn’t realize why.  Nevertheless, unfazed, I proceeded.  After about halfway through my presentation, the laptop ran out of batteries (someone forgot the plug the laptop in) and the screen went blank.  Murphy’s law would have it that I was one one of my more complicated (not busy)/involved slides.  Since the staff had to look for an AC adapter, reboot the machine, have it sync with the projector, there was probably a good 3 minutes where I had to improvise verbally.  Obviously, God was challenging me to be flexible and entrepreneurial here – it could have been worse.

Running a little late, we started Q&A.  Here, I felt I could have done better.  Honestly, I think my answers were a little too long.  Regardless, this was a unique opportunity to get about 70 minutes of raw questioning (usually, Q&A is no longer than 5-10 minutes in Japan – effectively inverted from the St. Gallen format) from very smart people from around the world.  I enjoyed this period and learned a lot – never underestimating different perspectives and viewpoints from other countries.  The only question that threw me off was the negative sentiment towards the United States (which is not uncommon in conferences outside the US – esp. Europe) and how governments may have had a part in affecting people’s lives when it came to certain nationally sensitive research (i.e., nuclear scientists and their research).  I suppose this was a fair question given that the topic was on politics and entrepreneurship. 

All-in-all, I always take these opportunities as a humbling lesson on where I need to improve to become a better public speaker.  I have a LONG ways to go.  Obviously, there were many other speakers and some of the people were truly great speakers.  My goal would be to be able to speak 50% as well as them.  I’ve noticed that really great speakers not only have superb oratory and presentation skills, great presentations, can think quick on their feet but most importantly, add a little humor (in the right amount – this is actually very difficult to accomplish, especially so in a multicultural environment where certain jokes may not translate well) to the presentation to keep things interesting.  The following speaker/sessions, I found truly fascinating:
  • Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach – Vice Chairman, Goldman Sachs International
  • Christine Lagarde – Minister for the Economy, Industry and Employment of France (taped)
  • Judy Leissner – Chief Executive Officer, Grace Vineyard
  • Prof. Kishore Mahbubani – Dean & Professor in the Practice of Public Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
I won’t go into details in describing the sessions since I can’t do them justice.  However, you can view many of their video’s here: http://www.stgallen-symposium.org/Media-Channel/Video-40.aspx
The other neat thing about this symposium is that the lunches are buffet style and there are probably seats to accommodate only 1/3 of the lunch crowd.  This is actually pretty smart because it created situations where people had to stand and move from table-to-table and naturally meet people.  Though, this, I had the opportunity to meet many people, especially students, who had great ideas and very optimistic views about their future.  What was more interesting is that many of the students I met didn’t know what they wanted to do in 3 years.  Not that they didn’t think about it, but on the contrary, that they had too many ideas in their mind that it was obvious they needed/wanted to use an opportunity like St. Gallen to get feedback on their futures and not be locked in/destined for a particular dead end job
For dinner, the second evening was very interesting.  I had the opportunity to have sit with the group from Japan (including students) to meet and exchange ideas.  This year happened to be the 100 year anniversary of the founding of Swiss aviation so our venue for this dinner was at an aviation museum. Obviously, most of this was related to the future of Japan and how things looked for them going forward.  What was more interesting was that during this exact time, the DJIA well almost 1,000 points (the biggest one-day drop in history) so a lot of the discussions also involved Greece, GDP/debt and financial crises.  This conversation was naturally occurring with both the students and other participants.

Update: I’ve added links from other participants to the end of this blog.

For some pictures of the St. Gallen Symposium and the city of St. Gallen, you can view my pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/whsaito/sets/72157623910177957/
For Professor Yoko Ishikura’s blog on the symposium can be found starting here: http://www.yokoishikura.com/english/?p=1637
For Ryo Umezawa’s (nominated Knowledge Pool participant) blog on the symposium: http://am6.jp/b0aicm

For Kanetaka Maiki’s blog: http://d.hatena.ne.jp/kanetaka/

Your comments are always welcome.

Posted by whsaito

  1. Dear Mr. Saito,

    I was one of the students who met with you during the lunches. I thought you conducted the work session very well, and the experience you shared about how you started doing business as well as the technical difficulties added the extra humor and creativity that made it a very memorable one. I enjoyed the fact that you answered questions and showed interest in students’ opinions. Certainly not everyone at the symposium was happy to interact in such an honest way with the students.

    Best regards


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