A day after returning from Montana, I began teaching an intense, weeklong course at Georgetown, one of two each year at. Finished the grading on Monday, July 31, and the next afternoon flew to Dallas/Fort Worth for a connecting flight to Buenos Aires and the South American Business Forum (SABF), the student-run conference I’ve helped with for more than a decade. On the “Skytrain” shuttle between DFW terminals I was again reminded of the powerful “mixing” role flight plays in the world: within six feet of me were six New Americans, immigrants from Panama, India, and Pakistan.
Landed in Argentina on Wednesday morning, out the airport door, and into the car of Damasia Jurada, member of the 2015 SABF team. That she took time off from her new job (as employee #4 of a financial-services startup) to pick me up at the airport speaks volumes to the commitment of the growing SABF “family.” The rush-hour drive was relatively quick, but long enough to cover a range of topics – Damasia’s new job, her boyfriend, the importance of family in Argentina, the accomplishments of the country’s new, center-right president, and more. At the Hotel Waldorf, SABF digs for more than a decade, I greeted Sergio at the front desk and a bunch of students and organizers in the lobby. It was good to be back.
Got my room, took a shower, and at 11 met friend-since-1986 Rick Dow, like me totally committed to the conference – it was my tenth appearance and Rick’s fifth. We had a cup of café con leche and reviewed his presentation for the next day. Took a quick nap, grabbed a late lunch, and at five plunged into the first event of the conference, a get-to-know-you session at the host institution, the Instituto Tecnológico de Buenos Aires (ITBA), a small university that is like the MIT of Argentina. Rick and I plunged into the crowd and met youngsters from Argentina and across Latin America, plus India, Denmark, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and more. Enormous talent and youthful idealism in abundance. We were pumped for the start.
At 8:30, we met a Sofía Fraga and Lucas Diaz, conference alums, for dinner at El Establo, a simple restaurant 200 feet from our hotel – on previous visits Rick and I had a beer at the bar, but never a meal. Time for the first ribeyes and Malbec of the visit, plus some great discussion. Sofía works for the new government’s energy-conservation initiative, and Lucas, known as Luqui, is, like many ITBA kids, working a startup with a promising idea. We had a great yak – as we chatted, I was reminded that experienced old guys like Rick and me have a lot of sharable experience, plus the ability to ask potent questions. Remaining relevant in old age is a gift for which I thank God every morning. At 10:45, Rick and I delivered what has become a SABF tradition: cheerleading with the current organizing team. They were running on adrenaline, and Rick and I were there to salute and enourage them on the eve of the forum.
Thursday morning, and we’re into the conference. The 2017 organizers tweaked the formula a bit, and instead of one theme, the forum had three: challenging identity, the reality gap (fake news and such), and empathic design. Three plenary speakers briefly addressed each theme – 15 minutes or so, then time for student comments and questions. As in every previous plenary, the day went quickly, and as valuable as the formal sessions were, lots of good yakking happened during the breaks and at lunch. It was past 7:30 p.m. when we processed to the traditional dinner venue, El Figón de Bonilla. A week earlier, Rick and I tracked down a participant from the 2016 forum, and invited him to join us for dinner. Pascal Menseh, originally from Ghana, had a fascinating life story, and we wanted to reconnect. Also at our table was Tania from Russia, Pedro from Brazil (studying at the University of Notre Dame), and Rodrigo from Argentina. It was a lively meal.
Friday was given over to breakout sessions of various kinds. I peeled off after lunch to begin drafting my closing remarks, then Rick and I returned to the forum in late afternoon to do “mentoring sessions” with six or seven participants. The youngsters were headed to dinner and a (undoubtedly noisy) party, so Rick and I fashioned the gramps’ plan: an agreeable beer on Rick’s 9th floor balcony, and a mile walk old to Sottovoce, an Italian place we visited for lunch in 2015. Our mezzanine table afforded a fine view of the main floor dining room, glimpses of a convivial neighborhood place where friends and acquaintances hugged, kissed, and bantered animatedly. “What a country” was a common refrain from the two of us. Before turning in, we stopped back at El Establo for a nightcap at the bar, and had a nice “dual T-t-S” with two guys across the bar, who were drinking liter mugs of beer and tucking into serious meat. Turned out they were ice skaters working for a Disney on Ice production; one Canadian and one Brit, late 20s, totally enjoying a nomadic life.
Saturday morning, Rick and I did not head to the forum, but hopped on the subway and rode west to the Las Flores neighborhood to attend a remarkable event. Two days earlier at the plenary, Rick and I chatted with Nathalie Stevens, a retired cosmetics executive who had opted to “make a difference” with her remaining years. She organized La Fundación de los Colores (The Colors Foundation), a nonprofit that trains women from the city’s poorest neighborhoods to become make-up artists, to build the skills and capacity to support themselves and their families. And the project does much more: it gives women who often did not have a mirror at home to build an identity, a sense of self. During our chat, Nathalie invited us to attend a graduation ceremony, so of course we went.
During the forum, a recurrent conversation centered on the need for all of us to get outside our familiar social zones. When we arrived at the ceremony, in a reception room of a small university, Rick and I crossed a bridge, to stand with and to celebrate the achievements of people much different than we – but similar, too, in that the three graduates all understood that learning was the key to a better life. At the end of the ceremony, Nathalie placed the foundation’s distinctive tri-colored pins on our jackets, and we felt so honored to wear them. It was a proud day for the graduates, and we were happy to help them celebrate their new identity, and their new skills. With those skills, it will be possible for them to earn more money, and to secure greater dignity and human purpose.
We hopped back on the subway into the city, past the pink presidential palace, and back to ITBA, lunch, and, for me, a small airline crisis – a participant from Morocco did not have proper documentation to transit the U.S. on her way home, so I swung into action, working with longtime American Airlines colleague, Gonzalo, who manages AA’s Buenos Aires operation. In the “can do” fashion that has always set airline people apart, once we connected by phone he had a solution sorted out in two minutes. On to the next task, a joyous one, to deliver brief remarks to parents and friends of SABF organizers. In previous years, I was only able to chat with a handful, in my poor Spanish and some English, but this time the speakers’ coordinator, Guillermina, asked me to deliver remarks to a group of about 30. It was great fun.
My last job, as it has been for the last five forums, was to deliver a summary and closing remarks, an assignment I truly enjoy, helping to end the event on a high note. After a lot of clapping at the very end for each of the 20 conference organizers, Rick and I hugged a lot of people, then slipped out for a beer in Puerto Madero, a former port area with renovated brick warehouses and new construction. At eight, we met Christoff Poppe, United Airlines’ country director for Argentina, and headed for what has become a traditional end-of-conference dinner. We tucked into steaks at La Cabrera in the Palermo neighborhood, plenty of Malbec, and a lot of great chatter. Two former airline guys and a current one, and there was plenty to discuss!
Sunday breakfast was with a young Australian interested in the airline business. Rick and I then zipped by taxi to the San Telmo district south of downtown, which bustles on weekends with a flea market, street entertainers, and more. At ten, we met Luqui (from three days earlier) and his business partner Franco, for a coffee at the historic Café Dorrego and some further discussion about their financial-services startup. Rick has had tons of recent experience with new firms, and I chimed in from time to time. We peeled off and roamed the neighborhood for a few hours, pausing for lunch outdoors. High point was listening to Cien Pájaros, an energetic quartet of accordion, fiddle, and two guitarists. Way fun.
Last stop was the La Boca neighborhood, home of the Boca Juniors soccer team. Walked around the stadium, La Bombonera (literally “the chocolate box,” because if its shape). There was no game that day, so the place was more a shrine. We ambled then up and down streets of Boca, a mix of gritty and touristy. Hopped a taxi back to the center, grabbed a coffee right on the broad 9 de Julio thoroughfare, picked up our bags, jumped on the bus to the airport, said goodbye, and flew home. Rick is an agreeable travel pal and has become an anchor of the conference – we’re lucky to have him.