In 2004, Klaus Schwab MC/MPA 1967, a Harvard Kennedy School graduate who founded the World Economic Forum (WEF), won a $1 million prize from the Dan David Foundation and tried to think of the best use to which he could put that money. Schwab decided to start a WEF-affiliated program called the Forum of Young Global Leaders (YGL), which, as the name implies, would bring together a new generation of leaders from across the globe and turn them loose on the biggest problems of the day.
Since then, about 200 to 250 “YGLs,” as they’re called, have been selected each year from different countries and different walks of life, representing government, industry, NGOs, and academia. Although no exact statistics have been compiled on this, a significant number of these YGLs are, like Schwab, Kennedy School alumni. Active members make a three-year commitment to meet at an annual summit conference, attend WEF’s assembly of world leaders in Davos, Switzerland, and participate in other events, including a 10-day training session at the Kennedy School that was introduced a few years after the YGL forum was under way.
The purpose of these activities, according to Schwab, is to put the YGLs in a position “to have a real impact on global affairs and to make sure that global decision making preserves the interests of the next generation.” In addition, he wants these young leaders “to shake up traditional thinking and bring a bold, forward-looking approach to the world.”
The enthusiasm evinced by those associated with the program suggests that Schwab is onto something. “It’s always interesting to see how people from this diverse group can come at issues from very different angles,” notes Rouzbeh Pirouz MPP 1996, a YGL since 2006 who lives in Iran and works for a London-based investment firm.
“YGLs won’t solve the world’s problems on their own,” acknowledges Nesreen Barwari MC/MPA 1999, HKSEE 1999 and 2008, a former Iraqi official who was part of the inaugural (2004) YGL class. “But this creates a new avenue in addition to existing ones, and we need more avenues.” Barwari has never left a meeting of YGL peers without gathering some new ideas and imparting a few of her own. “We take them back to our home countries, deconstruct them, and then try to spread the knowledge.”
Pirouz agrees that “the big global issues we face will not be solved overnight. But we’re always trying to find ways of having an impact.”
Each year, for example, YGL’s Education Working Group undertakes a project that can make a significant difference. One such venture, called Deworm the World, is aimed at helping the 400 million school-age children infected with parasitic worms. Deworming programs, which cost just pennies per child, may offer the most cost-effective way of boosting access to education worldwide, while also promoting children’s health. Deworm the World is striving to implement these programs where needed.
Through another YGL initiative called Global Dignity, which was inaugurated in 2005, YGLs go to schools around the world one day each year, talking to students about human rights and dignity for one another and for the planet.
These are two of many examples of what can happen when you put a group of YGLs in the same room, says Jared Genser MPP 1998, a human rights lawyer who joined the group in 2008. “It’s not just about networking. It’s about putting our joint experience and expertise together to solve problems.”
After starting the program, Schwab continued to think about ways of making YGLs better prepared to face the challenges ahead. He believed that the old-guard leaders already in power “lacked a firm grasp of global policy,” explains YGL director David Aikman, “and he was determined to give the next generation of leaders a broader global view.” In Davos several years ago, Schwab spoke with Kennedy School Professors David Gergen and Joseph Nye about putting together a program that would help YGLs grapple with issues that cross sectors, disciplines, and national boundaries. These preliminary discussions led to the Global Leadership and Public Policy for the 21st Century program for YGLs, which has been held at the Kennedy School twice a year since November 2007.
Half of the program is devoted to major policy dilemmas and strategies for dealing with them, while the other half is devoted to leadership skills. “It seems to be working well for everyone,” Aikman says. “WEF is happy with the program, and the Kennedy School seems to be happy to have these amazing people on its campus.”
Robyn Champion MC/MPA 1989, assistant dean for program management in Executive Education, concurs: “This program goes to the heart of the Kennedy School’s mission. We get to teach people who are already in positions of authority, so you can have an immediate and far-reaching impact.”
The idea is pretty simple, says Dean David T. Ellwood. “We bring together a group of rising stars, helping them learn together and learn from each other.” Not only is the program important to the Kennedy School and its agenda of informed global policy, adds Ellwood, but it appears to be important to the young leaders as well. This January, for instance, he was approached at Davos by a YGL who told him, “We all agree that this program offered the best value per minute spent of anything we’ve done in our lives.”
Good as the program may be, says Aikman, who participated in the spring 2009 session, “we still spend a lot of time talking with the Kennedy School people, figuring out how to make it even better.”
One adjustment already made by HKS Professor Iris Bohnet, who chairs the program, may seem counterintuitive. Rather than packing in more lectures and other activities, she’s been paring down the schedule, adopting a “less is more” approach. “This is a group where things happen,” Bohnet explains. “If something of interest comes up in one session, participants always want to go further. Remember, our ‘audience’ is composed of people who know a lot. To draw on those resources, and let the magic happen, we needed to free up more time.”