On the first day of August I drove into downtown Dallas for lunch with Christa Hinckley, an aviation lawyer and former colleague at American Airlines. It was great to see her after more than a decade. I then headed to the airport and south to Buenos Aires, to join, once again, the South American Business Forum (SABF), a student-run conference in which, after six years, I am deeply vested.
After clearing customs, I met up with Matías Spanier, a SABF stalwart and co-director of the 2011 program. He was a little baggy-eyed, because he had returned just a day earlier from a long trip to New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia, and was full of great stories. We soon found my old pal Rick Dow, arriving from Chicago. I finally managed to convince another norteamericano to join me; and not just any gringo – Rick, with whom I worked 25 years earlier at Northwest Airlines, has had a huge career in marketing, across several brands. A few minutes later, we collected Nora Brown, the COO of the Global Business School Network (and colleague of Guy Pfeffermann, a fellow I met at Umeå University in 2011 and invited to the SABF), and headed into town. We had a good chat in the car (I had not met Nora before), dropped her at a fancier hotel, and headed to the Waldorf, where the conference students stay. Happily, rooms were ready, time for a quick shower.
I volunteered to serve as Rick’s tour guide for an afternoon look-see. The weather was poor, but we were hopeful. First stop, lunch and a couple of beers at Bar Dorrego in San Telmo. It was great to catch up with Rick; though I consider him a close friend, most contact is by e-mail and phone, and we’ve probably only seen each other ten times since I left Northwest in 1987. We had a good yak across a lot of topics. Our business and social values are aligned, and I had forgotten about his great smarts, huge articulacy, and big sense of humor. Two hours on, it was still pelting, so we headed back to the hotel for what grandfathers often do: afternoon naps.
At five, I walked a few blocks to see the new world headquarters of Streema, an Internet startup of longtime SABF organizers Martín Siniawski and Juan Trouilh (it was Juan’s informal invitation in 2005, at a similar conference in New York, which started my long association with the forum). Streema had just moved into larger quarters, big enough for at least one of the fixtures of high-tech firms, a ping pong table. After introducing me to the team (now about eight young ‘net wizards), Juan suggested a game of ping pong. I had not played in about a decade, but quickly got into the groove – hand-eye coordination was decent, but pivoting on my gimpy knees was a little tough. Still, I managed to sort of hold my own in both singles and doubles.
Headed back to the hotel, and at 6:15 introduced Rick to Martín and Juan, and we headed around the corner to Dadá, an agreeable and totally local bar and restaurant. Martín’s girlfriend Valeria joined us and we had a wonderful dinner; I never eat industrial, corn-fed steaks at home, but grass-fed Argentine beef is outstanding, and the ojo de bife was superb, as was a great bottle of Malbec. The last task of the day happened at 10:15, a sort-of surprise visit to the SABF volunteer team, set up in a small conference room in the hotel. Pep talk, thanks, high-fives, and it was off to bed.
The conference kicked off on Friday morning, and Rick and I immediately plunged into the crowd, introducing ourselves to Gabriela and Guadalupe from Paraguay, Bhekimpilo from Zimbabwe, Christabel from Ghana, and many more, as well as hugs and kisses to old and new SABF organizers. The plenary session began; high point was a wonderful talk by a French economist, Guy Sorman, whose explanation of economic development – and its preconditions – were as concise and clear as I’ve ever heard.
There was a wonderful small-world moment at lunch. Next to me was Roxana Víquez, a conference speaker from Costa Rica. I mentioned I was from Minnesota, and she said she had worked for H.B. Fuller, a St. Paul-based adhesives manufacturer with a strong presence in Costa Rica. I mentioned that we once knew an executive, Lars Carlson; she smiled and replied, “He was my boss.”
The afternoon was at once long and short, some great speakers, with concluding remarks from Diego Luzuriaga, another longtime friend of SABF. Off to dinner, more great chatter. I moderated a workshop on Saturday morning. Mid-morning, the students headed off to visit some offices, and Rick and I jumped in a taxi and headed to La Boca, the touristy but fun (and colorful) old quarter west of downtown. We ambled around, grabbed a coffee, and headed back in time for lunch. Across from me was Julia from the South Tyrol, a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Italy, and she provided a great introduction to a region I had long admired but never visited. Her pride in place was remarkable, but she said most people from there feel the same way. In addition to a good geography lesson, it was a joy to exchange personal information, to learn about her parents and my children and grandchildren, and, of course, our dogs. iPhones were handed back and forth!
A couple more sessions Saturday afternoon. I headed back to the hotel to work on my remarks for the next day, returning to the small campus of ITBA, the host institution, in time for a homemade pizza dinner. At nine, we all walked back to the hotel. The students were headed out to party, but Rick and I zipped across the street and sat at the bar of a traditional restaurant for a couple of drinks and lots of laughs (he’s got a lot of great slang, for example, introducing me to “land manatees,” a nice phrase for tubby people).
Sunday morning was given over to a noisy team-building exercise, then lunch, then it was my turn. Stand and deliver. Like 2011, the organizers asked me to provide concluding remarks and moderate a question period. I wanted to let the students do most of the talking, but I also tried to impart some life lessons about the importance of values, the need to lead by example, and the power of serving others. And just like that, zip, the 2012 SABF was over. Unlike the previous year, I had to leave quickly, and I was sorry to do that, but managed to give a few last hugs, and, especially, to meet several sets of parents of conference organizers, lauding their kids and saluting their service. They all beamed with pride.
Josué Gil, a young former SABFer, drove Rick and I back to the airport. We said goodbye, abrazos, and I was alone. I’m used to that, but after four days of intense interaction it felt a bit odd. I recalled some wisdom from Rick a few days earlier: he counseled solitude as a way to make our interactions more effective.
So as I jumped through the customary predeparture hoops and onto LAN 418 to Santiago, I thought about what I had seen and learned at the SABF. A lot, but here are three things. First, each time I help out, I feel closer and more tied to the conference, the host ITBA, and the committed young Argentines who make it a success. They have become like family. Second, the forum always yields introductions to some memorable youngsters, some, like Bhekimpilo from Zimbabwe, with accounts of struggle that make my life seem so easy. Third, I got to glimpse into the future. I likely won’t be above ground in 30 years, but the students I met will be, and I feel good about their ability to take on and solve problems that we have handed them.
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