EMI Conference 2019: New ideas and new rules as we enter a new decade
The final panel of the day at the Emerging Markets Institute (EMI) Conference was titled Building Constructive Engagement. Bryce Quillin, chief economist at Pfizer, exclaimed: “Elections around the world are not referendums on nationalism…but on mercantilism!” The room grew quiet. Something profound had been said. We, the audience, nodded along gravely. Quillin moved on to his next point. I, however, was scrambling to open Wikipedia to look up the definition of “mercantilism.” I had yet to cover that in Econ class. I scanned the first line: mercantilism: a national economic policy that is designed to maximize the exports, and minimize the imports, of a nation. Well, okay then. I had just learned something new.
Back in 2010, Cornell University founded EMI to provide thought leadership on the role of emerging markets in the global economy. To further that goal, the university annually hosts the EMI Conference. This year, the event was at the Cornell Tech campus in New York City, and the theme was “Constructive Engagement.” The agenda for the day included not only panels on fintech, entrepreneurship, Chinese banking, and Indian brands, but also a case competition with prizes of $5,000, $3,000, and $1,000. The conference was the kind of day you dream of as a business school student: compelling speakers pouring new knowledge into your brain, interesting new connections eager to trade business cards, and, it should be noted, the possibility of walking home with some cash.
Emerging market challenges: Women workers and unbanked citizens
The opening talk, a launch of the EMI Emerging Multinationals Report—authored by Lourdes Casanova, senior lecturer and director of EMI, and Anne Miroux, EMI faculty fellow—included a call-to-arms for women’s rights in the global workplace. Hyeshin Park, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Centre, made her case that women in many emerging economies are still fighting for the legal right to work in all industries. In fact, 104 nations have laws that do not allow women to hold jobs in certain fields, Park said. Half a billion women around the world work in countries that do not have sexual discrimination laws. This is not only a human rights issue, but a business issue. If an emerging market is not interested in unlocking the capacity, ingenuity, and productivity of 50 percent of its labor force, how is it ever supposed to compete on the world stage?
Before we could finish processing this, the fintech panel began. The panel focused on financial inclusion and the challenges of reaching the world’s many unbanked people. Panelists from International Finance Corporation (IFC), First Access, and Haitou Global brought a variety of perspectives to this multifaceted issue. Financial inclusion is about more than just microloans; it’s about making sure everyone has access to credit. With credit, folks can start small businesses, invest in their education, or improve their home. fintech can be the engine that powers the growth of developing economies, the panelists said.
Presenting our case at the conference
After the fintech panel, it hit me that I would be presenting later at this conference. Several weeks earlier our Executive MBA case team had been notified that we were named finalists in the competition, and as such, were expected to present. Now, after weeks of preparation, research, and practice, the case competition was an hour away. I realized I would have to get up in front of this audience of impressive judges, speakers, and fellow students and make an attempt to sound intelligent.
Impostor syndrome began to creep into my consciousness. Even as a mid-career professional who specializes in communications, I still get nervous speaking in front of a room of strangers. What if I forgot what I was supposed to say? What if I let my team down? What if I can’t answer the questions from the judges? We were the only Cornell team to have made the finals, and we had to do the Big Red community proud.
For nights and weekends leading up the competition, we had worked hard to wrap our arms around an issue foreign to many of us: How should a Chinese consulting firm move into new markets? This was challenging because our team was not your typical b-school case team. It consisted of myself (a nonprofit manager), a consultant, an architect, a supply chain manager, a human resources professional, and a lawyer. There was not an investment banker among us.
We had never worked together before, and we were not experts on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, let alone the intricacies of scaling international consulting services. Nevertheless, we were Emerging Markets Institute Fellows because we wanted to dive deeply into issues of global scale and impact. We embraced the challenges of the case brief and walked away with a more sophisticated understanding of the international consulting landscape, international public partnerships, and the difficulties in attracting talent to emerging multinationals. We also made connections with each other, learned lessons, and forged bonds.
To prepare for our presentation, we met during the conference lunch session, practiced one final time, and bravely walked back to the venue. In addition to our team, others from INSEAD (France/Singapore), Universidad De Los Andes Facultad de Administración (Colombia), and Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (China) presented. When it was our turn, I spoke. I answered some of the judges’ questions. It was over before I knew it. I do not have a great recollection of what I said or how well (or poorly) I may have said it, but we were runners up, and for that I was proud.
Constructive engagement across borders takes mutual understanding
The final panel of the day featured Pfizer’s Quillin; Timothy Heyman from Franklin Templeton Asset Management; Bianca Chen, financial reporter and film producer; Paula Kovarsky from COSAN; and Charles Ferraz from Itaú USA Asset Management. They discussed constructive engagement across borders. Like other panels, the discussion was wide-ranging and insightful, but something else struck me. The panelists spoke of creating mutual understanding and building bridges, not about beating your competition or “doing whatever it takes to win.” I also recalled that when a previous panel was asked about their most important life lessons, they focused on family and finding their purpose.
It seemed, then, that the values and ideals of EMI align with a vision for the twenty-first century that needs collaboration, not confrontation, to maximize the economic benefits of the global marketplace. This is the time for opening doors, not closing them. It would be foolish to experiment with mercantilism.