Crash Parties, Escape Dull Chitchat and Make Powerful Friends: What Davos Elites Know - Kanebridge News
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Crash Parties, Escape Dull Chitchat and Make Powerful Friends: What Davos Elites Know

The elbow-rubbing tactics on display in the Swiss Alps this week can apply to any business gathering or cocktail party, regardless of your VIP status

By CHIP CUTTER AND EMILY GLAZER
Tue, Jan 16, 2024 10:27amGrey Clock 4 min

For a master class in power networking, it’s tough to beat the one taking place in the Swiss Alps this week.

The annual World Economic Forum brings the planet’s power brokers together for morning-to-past-midnight meetings over coffee, cocktails and fondue. For the thousands of CEOs, billionaires, intellectuals and world leaders descending on Davos, the setting is unrivalled in its potential to spark relationships, dealmaking and big ideas for the year ahead. After all, there are few other places where you can run into Al Gore at the hotel bar and wait next to Bill Gates to pass through the metal detectors.

Maximising all that powerful proximity and turning it into actual connections takes skill, chutzpah and the ability to think on your feet. What to do if you spot Sting in the elevator? How to know whether a tête-à-tête merits more than a minute of your time? And how do you divine someone’s importance without peering at the badge dangling at their midsection?

The tricks of Davos movers and shakers can apply to any business gathering or cocktail party, regardless of your VIP status. Here’s how they do it.

Names and spaces

For Salesforce Chief Executive Marc Benioff, getting the most out of the high-powered gathering often comes down to location—in this case, the top of a staircase in the Davos Congress Center, the main hub of the event.

The Davos regular said he plans to spend an hour each day of the forum perched there or in an adjacent hallway. Why? In a single hour—amid a packed calendar of meetings, lunches, dinners and other engagements—he might see 100 people he would otherwise not encounter all year.

“The amount of serendipity that happens is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Benioff, who has attended the forum for two decades and hosts parties and gatherings that people vie all week to get into. “It’s an incredible thing.”

Benioff has a hack for dealing with a common conundrum in Davos and beyond—forgetting your conversation partner’s name. The Salesforce chief said he sometimes takes photos of their badges if he isn’t able to take notes. If he exchanges contact information with someone, he gives his cellphone number or email and recommends they text, email or tweet at him.

“I’m generous with my contact information,” he said. (At least one reporter can attest to that.)

Or, simply ask the person to repeat their name, said Alisa Cohn, an executive coach and author attending her third Davos. She phrases the question with a touch of humour, asking: “‘Listen, this has been a great conversation, and I’ve already forgotten your name. Can you remind me?’”

Few people respond poorly, she said. “The truth is, they will ask you the same question because they forgot your name, too.”

Big deal, or big whoop?

Seated next to an unfamiliar guest at a dinner or lunch, several CEOs said they weren’t above stealth under-the-table googling, surreptitiously reading up on their Davos dining companions to make better conversation or to understand what, exactly, it is that they do.

When introducing herself to someone new, Cohn gives people conversational “hooks” to latch on to. For her, that means explaining she is also an angel investor, based in New York, and a fitness fanatic with a love of kettlebells. The icebreaker often spurs people to detail their own fitness routines.

True Davos experts know how to escape a long, dull or—horrors!—low-status conversation partner. Nick Studer, head of consulting firm Oliver Wyman Group and a longtime Davos attendee, believes there is value in all sorts of conversations. But he has perfected the art of extraction with a favourite line: “Anyways, it’s obviously fantastic [chatting]. I mustn’t keep you from your guests.”

Most people follow his lead, he said, “as long as you wrap it up appropriately and politely.”

No ‘Windexing’

One big Davos no-no is what the finance executive Anthony Scaramucci has come to describe as “Windexing.”

Say you are chatting with someone interesting, but notice out of the corner of your eye that the British prime minister or a well-known billionaire-entrepreneur walks into a room. You might suddenly feel the urge to move on, and look past the person you are talking to “like he’s a sheet of glass,” Scaramucci said. “Don’t be that person.”

Instead, apologise for needing to end the conversation, he said, and offer to circle back if there is time.

Scaramucci, founder of the hedge-fund investment firm SkyBridge Capital and, very briefly, communications director for the Trump administration, started jetting to Davos in 2007.

He hosts a popular and well-attended wine night there each year. Over time, he has learned a tactic for getting into a must-attend party—even when he isn’t invited.

“I crash every single party that I can possibly crash,” Scaramucci said.

Several years ago, at a party held by a Russian oligarch, a security guard stopped Scaramucci because he wasn’t on the list. Scaramucci says he didn’t blink. Instead, he disarmed.

“I said, ‘I know I’m not on the list. I’m Vince Vaughn from ‘Wedding Crashers,’” he recalled. “Five minutes later, I was eating the caviar and drinking the vodka.”

When Scaramucci spots a mega luminary he is dying to meet, he tries to be authentic. He said he developed a friendship with David Rubenstein, co-founder of the private-equity giant Carlyle Group, by introducing himself in Davos years ago.

“I just walked over to him. I said, ‘Hey, listen, I watched you on TV, I’ve seen your interviews and I’m a great admirer of yours,’” Scaramucci said. “People are incredibly nice. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they don’t want to meet you.”

Tight timing

At major conclaves like Davos, Scaramucci and others said it is important to realise you can’t do it all. Prioritisation is key.

Denelle Dixon, who runs the nonprofit Stellar Development Foundation, said her organisation sets a theme for the conference so executives can take meetings with government officials and others around that sharp topic. This year, it is blockchain’s role in expanding access to the financial system. (Davos loves a buzzword.) “It allows us to really focus,” she said.

Saying no is essential. Salesforce’s Benioff and his team usually meet with roughly half of the 600 CEOs attending Davos. But a request for five or 15 minutes of his time is likely to fail if the person isn’t a critical customer or somebody he already knows well.

“It’s not going to get part of my time,” he said. “Maybe it’ll get part of somebody else’s time.”



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”