St. Gallen Symposium – Switzerland, Chocolate, and Lessons on Entrepreneurship

“Super! Danke. Ciao.” – That is my chosen foreign phrase around here. I am in St. Gallen in Switzerland for the Leaders of Tomorrow Symposium. Every year, 200 young leaders are invited to join the symposium to discuss entrepreneurship. This is the 40th year, and I was honored to receive an invitation. Over 46 countries are represented. This is a two day “pre-programme”, then the actual symposium with today’s leaders starts. Today was the 2nd day. Here is a recap of my two days here so far.

Day 1 –

I landed in Zurich at 8:30 am. That would be about 1:30 AM Dallas time, so I was extremely jet lagged. After quickly refreshing in one of the airport bathrooms, I decided to buy a pre-paid SIM card for an unlocked phone so I could make and accept emergency calls. There are two big carriers in Zurich – Sunrise and Yellow. If you are wanting to call the U.S. – Yellow offers better deals. For 20 CHF (roughly 20 Swiss Francs equals 20 dollars), I purchased 100 minutes with a Swiss number and texted the number to key parties. It is 25 cents per minute to the US.  I made sure my iPhone was turned to airplane mode and the roaming was turned off. There are many horror stories about people being charged an arm and a leg for using their iPhone abroad.  Also, the exchange rate at the airport is decent, but they do charge a processing fee – so it may be preferable to find a bank. Using your credit card depends on your bank, Chase takes 3% of the purchase as a transaction fee.

After handling the basics, I headed towards the convention table which was mentioned in the personalized programs (had my picture and name on every page!) that were mailed to us weeks ago.  I was amazed to find that every airport employee seemed to know exactly what the Symposium was – and where I was supposed to go. Most of Zurich speaks German, but there are English translations . At the conference table, I was greeted by enthusiastic students who had a packed lunch and a shuttle waiting to transport the group to St. Gallen (1 hr from Zurich). The entire symposium is organized by the students. This is an AMAZING feat considering that the students are undergraduates, and have to  organize individual trips for over 200 GLOBAL busy entrepreneurs.

We were then taken to a buffet lunch. (They like to keep us fed here!) After lunch, we had four panel discussions on topics ranging from barriers to entrepreneurship in foreign countries to general barriers to entrepreneurship. KEY TAKEAWAY –  I realized I had a very American-centric view of entrepreneurship. I never realized how tough it is to start businesses in other countries (regulations, corruption, etc.). Also, the culture around “Failure” is dramatically different. The west sees failure as a necessary step in moving forward, while the East sees it as something to be avoided at all cost.

Day 1 ended with a dinner and us being driven to our hosts. The tradition is that current students host the leaders of tomorrow. My host, Natalie, was most gracious and had a very comfortable bed for me prepared where after checking in with the Dallas office – I promptly collapsed.

Day 2 –

After 7 hours of sleep, I felt more like myself. We were told to meet at 9 am at the Old Abbey – one of the oldest libraries in the world. Using a map, I promptly got lost. But, if you must be lost – this is the city to do it in! I got a cup of hot chocolate from a local shop (real melted chocolate – no powder) and continued to wander the streets of St. Gallen. It truly looks like a city from a fairy tale. After two hours of wondering around and trying to communicate in German (which I don’t speak) – I found the location.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers conducted an entrepreneurial workshop where we discussed everything from risk management to financing. I met some VERY talented yet super humble young entrepreneurs (many younger than me!). Hindy from Indonesia owns over 650 restaurants as part of his national franchise. Raj Dey from the UK who started Enternships – internships for the entrepreneurial minded soul. Rohit from India who just sold his last business for 7 million. Just amazing people with excellent stories. KEY TAKEAWAY: Dig your well before you need it. Find the resources, do your research, be prepared. And, always surround yourself with big thinkers and doers.

A late Italian lunch preceded a keynote by Bert Twaalfhoven – super entrepreneur. He talked about how he built 54 start ups -and failed 17 times. He was the one to introduce coin operated laundromats to Europe. KEY TAKEAWAY from his speech: Do your competitive analysis on ANY industry before you enter. MBA students are great for such. He was a definite inspiration.

Now, I am back from a heavy dinner. I am typing this from an amazing little apartment in the middle of the city. Tomorrow, the main symposium begins – leaders from all over the world are attending. I’ll keep you posted.


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  • Gillian

    So glad you shared this. I would love to have an offline conversation about the Symposium especially the cultural aspects that you refer to.
    I teach Sector Analysis on the MBA programme at HEC Montreal and spend most of my time helping entrepreneurs so TOTALLY agree with you that analysing a sector, competitors is a mustdo. Not convinced MBA students are all ideal though. In my sector analysis class of 40 MBA students I typically have about 5 who get an A and about 10 with A-. These are the ones who I consider skilled to handle research and analysis. So many describe and do not analyse their findings.

  • Paul Davidson

    That sounds like a very good symposium. It’s interesting to hear about the differences in the way “failure” is viewed between the East and the West. I hope you enjoy the rest of it and I’ll look forward to reading your further postings about it.

  • Rajeeb Dey

    Haha – great blog – had an amazing time…”red smiley face group” rocks! :-)

  • Rolf

    Dear Shama, it is very entertaining and inspiring to read your retrospect on the 40th st.gallen symposium, thanks a lot. we can not wait to read part 2. another retrospect is available on – warm regards from St. Gallen