Top managers and heads of state will keep the revolving doors of Davos spinning this week. But the World Economic Forum is not just for the rich and powerful. 'Social entrepreneurs' are making their presence felt too.
Felipe Vegara's journey to Davos involved a 9,000-kilometer (5,600-mile) flight from Bogota to Davos followed by a few hours on a train snaking its way through Switzerland's snow covered mountains
The Colombian engineer is in town to attend the World Economic Forum – an invitation-only event normally associated with billionaire corporate heavyweights and powerful politicians – as a "social entrepreneur".
Vegara was invited to Davos by the Schwab Foundation to speak about his work at Lumni, an organization that grants young people loans for university and other training courses – things that many youths in the region cannot afford unless they have wealthy parents.
"Capitalism is in crisis," Vegara said. "The gap between rich and poor must be bridged. Education is the best way forward."
A total of 30 social entrepreneurs have come to Davos this year to promote ethically and ecologically responsible business practices.
One of them is Essma Ben Hamidia. She received a social entrepreneurship award in 2010 for her work at "Enda Inter Araba" – an organization that provides microloans in Tunisia.
"70 percent of our clients are women who don't have regular access to banks because they live in isolated rural areas," she said. "We give them loans to start small businesses, which often feed their families."
Essma Ben Hamidia said she is particularly concerned about the lack of economic opportunities for young people in Tunisia.
"Our country has a million unemployed youths. That leads to social problems," she said, adding that microloans could alleviate the situation by giving young people the resources to do something positive. "The potential is there."
Although the social entrepreneurs attending the World Economic Forum are few in number, recent years have seen them attract a growing audience – especially when they face off against billionaires and presidents in debates about leadership and sustainable development.
Klaus Schwab, the founder and president of the World Economic Forum, set up the Schwab Foundation specifically to support social entrepreneurs.
The network, overseen by his wife Hilde, allows social entrepreneurs to exchange views and learn from each other's experiences to develop sustainable business models.
The foundation's supervisory board is comprised of numerous high profile figures, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered microloans for poor people lacking collateral in Bangladesh in the late 1970s.
Yunus spent his first evening in Davos with this year's group social entrepreneurs.
Setting an example
British social entrepreneur Sue Riddlestone said Yunus was a role model for all delegates attending the World Economic Forum.
"He's fighting poverty," she said. "That's important."
Riddlestone's organization, the "Bio Regional Development Group" is a consultancy specialized in ecological issues. Its projects have been adopted by the Olympic Games in London, among others.
Although her work focuses on the environment, Riddlestone said she was very worried about about Britain's growing income disparity.
"We have to change our economies so they respect ethical and social concerns."
Business of the future
Riddlestone said social entrepreneurs are people who look at the big picture and balance business interests with ethical standards.
"We make profits so we can invest in the future – that's the business of the future," Riddlestone said, adding that sustainability must be the top priority.
Business and government leaders must combat wastefulness and the "disposable" mentality prevalent in many societies, she said. She added that she thinks German people tend to be more environmentally aware than the British, for example, and that the Anglo-Saxon style of capitalism is counterproductive.
This year's social entrepreneurs appeared thrilled when Arianna Huffington turned up at their special dinner held one day before the World Economic Forum officially opened.
The influential journalist and founder of the popular Huffington Post online news site was in Davos to coordinate special media coverage about social entrepreneurship.
She invited the entrepreneurs to provide her website with commentaries, news articles, pictures and videos to help them spread their message around the world via Web 2.0.
Author: Manuela Kasper-Claridge, Davos, Switzerland / sje
Editor: Stuart Tiffen