I have attended the St. Gallen Symposium three times (in 1999, 2000, and 2002) and without a doubt I can say that that experience changed my life, personally and professionally.
An experience that changed my life
Coming from a low-income farming family in northern Peru, I did not know anything about the world. My world was just my farm and my community. Thanks to my parents’ hard work, I went to college with just one objective in my mind: have a career and make money, a lot of money. That is why I studied business and economics, a career that, according to my plan, would help me develop a successful career in the most important national and multinational companies in my country. Embarrassingly, I should admit that, at that time, the only driver in my life was to make money.
In 1999 I applied for my first symposium in St. Gallen and that was the beginning of a change for me. Just being invited to participate in St. Gallen boosted a lot my confidence; for the first time I felt like I was a good student and capable of accomplishing great things. Also, that was the first time that I took a plane and visited another country.
If I had to describe the St. Gallen Symposium with one word, I would definitely say: Inspiring. I had never had the opportunity to meet such a diverse group of people; not only in terms of nationalities, but also in terms of knowledge, capacities, and point of views. It was so exciting to hear different stories from my friends from India, China, Nigeria, Argentina, Spain, and Switzerland, among others; and also learn the successful stories from the speakers and lecturers. However, in all this diversity I could find a commonality: Change. We all wanted to change things, to make things better, to improve the lives of our families, our communities, our countries, and the world. Another great lesson I learnt from the symposium is that we are not alone, we are not islands, we are all interconnected, and we always have to think globally. Successes and failures are shared around the world. Poverty in the global south affects economies in the north, industrialization and pollution in the north change weather patterns in the south; again, we are all connected.
Another of the many lessons I got from the symposium is the power of connecting people and learning from each other; once you know something you can change things. I have organized trips for high executives from companies such as Starbucks, Nestle, and Lidl to visit producers of coffee, cocoa, bananas, and other commodities in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It was an amazing experience for them to learn how difficult and hard it is to grow the food that we have in our tables every day. Thanks to this learning experience, Nespresso (part of the Nestle group) established a pension plan for coffee farmers in Colombia; Lidl is supporting a climate change adaptation program in Peru; and Starbucks is developing a coffee practice program to improve livelihoods of coffee farmers is Central America. On the other hand, I also organize visits of farmers from the global south to Canada and the United States; from this experience they understand that development is not about charity, instead it is all about entrepreneurship, innovation, passion, and hard work.
If attending one symposium changed my view of the future, three symposia made me take one of the most important decisions of my life: to re-orient my career and work for a change, too but not just for me, a change for everybody. After I finished my undergraduate studies I did not apply to work in a big multinational; instead, I applied to a master program in International Development to combine my studies in business and economics with the concepts of sustainable development.
After my participation in the three symposia, I have dedicated my professional career to advocate for sustainable development, business and social responsibility, and ethical sourcing. And I am a strong promoter of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to researchers, to achieve the SDGs by 2030 an investment of US$ 7 trillion will be needed. International aid from governments and multilateral organization will not be enough (as an example, Swiss international aid for 2015 was US$ 3.54 billion); so, more help is absolutely necessary. Governments, NGO’s, multilateral organizations, but also businesses and civil society groups will play a crucial role to achieve the SDGs.
I always remember one lecturer in St. Gallen who said: “Dreams are only dreams if you do not take any action”. That is why I also do advocacy work for ethical sourcing and fair trade. I have advocated for fair practices in public procurement in the European community, and the governments of Canada and the US. Also, I have promoted the application and legislation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in Canada, this is the first corporate human rights responsibility initiative to be endorsed by the United Nations.
I really believe that the St. Gallen Symposium changed my life and is helping me to change the lives of others through my work. I am working on different projects on human rights, gender issues, fight against child labour, promotion of social enterprises, etc. I am happy to see companies involved in social responsibility initiatives and I will keep knocking doors to get more companies engaged in this venture. The symposium taught me that there is no better business than helping others to succeed, and that is what I am doing now.
Finally, I have to make a comment about the amazing people I met at the symposium in St. Gallen. People like me with dreams, who struggled in some moments of their lives, but still with a lot of energy to work for a better world. People who inspire me and help me to believe in myself. People who push me to pass from the dreams to the actions. People who I will never forget. And just as an interesting fact, I met three of my best friends in St. Gallen, and now I am the godparent of the son of the student (my dear friend) who hosted me in St. Gallen during the symposium.
The St. Gallen Symposium helped me to find the right path; maybe I do not have a fancy office in a skyscraper (and I do not have any regret for that) but I am happy with what I do. Thanks to all the ISC-Teams, keep up the amazing work you are doing, and keep changing and inspiring lives of many students.