Latam 101

HBS receives a crash course on Latin America.

The IX Latin American Conference held at Harvard Business School Saturday, January 20, was like a survey course in contemporary Latin American issues. The conference convened seven expert panels on a wide variety of business topics, and the three keynote sessions discussed the challenges and opportunities ahead from microeconomic, macroeconomic and political perspectives.

Keystoning the conference were two former presidents of Colombia and Peru, Cesar Gaviria and Alejandro Toledo, respectively, who spoke in the third keynote session, “The Future of Latin America: A Political Perspective.” Toledo appeared to capture the admiration of the audience with his speech, for which he roused a standing ovation. Since then, conference organizers have also received numerous emails and phone calls praising the conference and Toledo in particular.

“I think it was really impressive, Toledo’s speech. He had impeccable poise,” said conference Co-Chair Jos‚ Antonio Morán. Toledo called upon all Latin Americans to return to their countries and build a better society. He decried brain drain as one of the major impediments to progress in the region. The biggest impact of his speech, though, was in building the case that fighting poverty in Latin America is a moral, social, and economic imperative. He called for a strategic effort to reduce poverty with partners in the private, non-profit, and public sectors and a push to increase access to products, services and opportunities to those less fortunate.

For every panelist or speaker who raised a challenge for Latin America, another presented an opportunity. Sometimes, the same speaker presented a highly balanced view. In the second keynote session, former Mexican secretary of finance Pedro Aspe presented several slides that showed many Latin American economies have lagged behind other countries in the rest of the world. He attributed its underperformance to overregulation, inflexibility of labor and capital markets, lack of structural reforms, and clientelism. Yet he also provided two examples of companies he has helped launch through a venture capital fund he leads in Mexico that are defying apparent industry limitations. Aspe told the audience: “Don’t wait for government reforms. You can make a difference from the private sector.” At the same time, he invited Latin American governments to adopt a more laissez faire approach to regulation. Joining Aspe on the podium, former Colombian secretary of finance Rudolf Hommes largely agreed.

The conference’s seven panels were also chockfull of experts, CEOs, managing directors and top faculty. For example, in the entrepreneurship panel, Roberto Vainrub, Miguel Angel Davila (MBA 93 A), and Paulo Veras discussed the entrepreneurship environment in Latin America today. Vainrub was the founding director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at IESA Venezuela. In addition to successfully starting two companies, Veras is currently a managing director of Endeavor Brazil, a startup incubator. Lastly, Davila’s experience in starting up Cinemex (a leading movie theater chain in Mexico) was profiled in a book about the history of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, Shaping the Waves. In another example, the social enterprise panel boasted five panelists, each having reached the highest levels in both the for- and non-profit worlds, and was chaired by Senior Lecturer Michael Chu, the former CEO of ACCION International.

Panel topics included entrepreneurship, venture capital and private equity, foreign investments, real estate, Hispanic markets in the U.S., biofuels, and social enterprise. At times, the panels revolutionized attendees’ thinking.

Giovanni Gonzalez, a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley who traveled to the conference from California, remarked about the biofuels panel, “I had no idea palm oil was a form of biodiesel and how Latin America could have a huge impact in this industry.” Giovanni added, “The panel about social enterprise was extremely motivational. All of the panelists talked about projects that really have an impact in society. I think that one of the obstacles we young people face (at least my friends and I) is the lack of knowledge on how to make a difference. We are young and idealistic and want to make a change in the world, but most of us don’t know where to start. This conference definitely helped.” (Please see sidebar for additional comments about the panels).

Headlining the conference, Daniel Servitje, CEO of Grupo Bimbo, and President of McDonald’s, Ralph Alvarez, spoke in the first keynote of the day, “Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise in Latin America.” Setting the tone for the conference, Alvarez and Servitje were very optimistic about the future of Latin America. Alvarez pointed to the region’s great natural resources, strong population growth, commitment to education, proximity of trading partners, solid trade agreements, recent macroeconomic stability, and young population as leading indicators that Latin America is poised for strong economic development in the years ahead.

Establishing one of the day’s major themes, Servitje exhorted the audience to remember its responsibility to Latin America. “We have a responsibility to do more, and it’s our time, we really have to do it,” he said. Urging his listeners to keep dreaming about a bright future for Latin America, Servitje quoted Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, “Does your society have more memories than dreams or more dreams than memories?”

When the curtain closed on the IX Latin American conference, the dazzle in everyone’s eyes signified that the dream of a better tomorrow is very much alive.