The Curious Case of the Asian Harvard Annual Conference

More than 600 students, faculty, and invited business leaders from around the world attended the 2009 Harvard Asia Business Conference, the largest annual conference Harvard University has to offer. With large delegations flying over from all across Asia and especially entire student delegations and faculty from Chinese universities, this is a conference that embodies much more than simply regional business issues.

This year has been a bad year overall for organizing conferences. With the external market the way it’s been for the past few months, outside sponsors contributing to less than 1/3 of the amount from last year, and overall traveling either domestic or international at a low point in time, many conferences have been forced to downsize or incur budget cuts. For the Asia Business conference, an annual conference organized by 9 co-chairs and a staff of approximately 50 students from HBS, KSG, and HLS, the situation was further worsened by the 4 day long weekend that coincided with Valentine’s Day on conference day 1. Nevertheless, when conference day finally arrived, all those involved were very happy with the volume of attendees and the quality of the speakers despite these numerous external factors, which shows the increasing interest in Asia in the current global context and the increasing potential role it may play.

This year’s conference theme was Asia in a Whole New World, a theme that we thought fitting due to the recent events that have embroiled the global markets and have left the business communities in Asia struggling to find their new found role and sense of direction. Notable keynotes included: Nam Young Chan,ÿExecutive Vice President of SK Telecom, and Chair of the Executive Committee on Corporate Ethics of the Federation of Korean Industries; Takatoshi Kato, Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, and Former Vice Minister of Finance for International Affairs of Japan; Jeffrey Shafer, Vice Chairman of Citigroup, and Former Undersecretary of the US Treasury for International Affairs under President Clinton and Thierry Porte, Research Associate, Program on US-Japan Relations of the Weatherhead Center and the Reischauer Institute, Harvard University, and Former President and Chief Executive Officer of Shinsei Bank, Japan.

Unlike most conferences, the ABC conference included 2 days and attendees received complimentary breakfasts, lunch and the option to join the formal cocktail reception at the Charles hotel on the first evening to meet and discuss issues with the day’s speakers and to just generally socialize with their fellow attendees. Attendance for the cocktail reception was at its highest this year with more the 300 members attending. Afterwards members had the option to stay and register for 50 seats available and join the invited speakers and their guests for a formal dinner in one of the Charles hotel ball rooms.

This year’s conference placed a keen focus on Asia in the context of the current state of the world. Over this past year, the world has seen a number of new developments led by unpredictable economic, political, and social forces. Faced with the emergence of the current global financial crisis, the recent historic presidential election in the US, an ongoing debate on environmental sustainability, and renewed concerns of national security and regional stability, both the dynamism and fragility of the world we live in today is again reminded. In this whole new world of constant change, the conference tried to examine Asia along several key dimensions, from continuous economic development to radical changes in foreign policy. A total of 14 panels ranging from Capital Markets, Consumer and Retail, Energy and Environment to International Commercial Arbitration insured a well-rounded range of discussions that are most pressing to those interested in Asia business affairs today.
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To many of us, from the perspective of an Asian attendee, the idea of flying 25 hours in order to attend a business conference in the US East Coast, about my home region with mostly my own Asian counterparts listening to CEOs and corporate VPs from companies that may be only a 2 hour drive away back home, might seem a bit preposterous at first. Yet to many conference participants, this has become so much more than simply another Asia-related conference organized and held by yet another school. The first signs of the phenomenon occurred on Friday afternoon, as early attendees arrived and first found their way to the HBS campus, asking HBS students the exact directions to the Spangler Meredith room where registration would take place, and how they could find Aldrich 12. These were not your usual 2-3 individual tourists who walked around campus aimlessly looking for the best photo opportunities in front of Baker or leaning next to the Centennial Bell. Many of them were led by university professors as they meticulously studied the buildings, the fireplaces in Spangler, the flat screens with latest announcements in Aldrich. Yes, to these foreign guests who flew all the way here, they have indeed come to attend the Asia Business Conference. But even more so, they have come to attend a field study about the HBS experience, to understand what makes it what it is, to experience the lifestyle of its students as they listen to panels in the Aldrich classrooms, and engage in case-like discussions with speakers and moderators whom mainly include current HBS faculty as among their credentials. To many, this is a field trip that only happens to include, among many others, the Harvard Asia Business Conference.

During the 2 days, as we the organizers walked the halls between presentations, making sure that the next panel has been successfully set-up, that the next wave of speakers have arrived and their Powerpoint presentations are being uploaded, other often seen sights are encountered: Chinese organizers being surrounded and enthusiastically asked by numerous Chinese student delegations on life as a student at HBS, and what was special about his or her background that allowed them to be accepted here; countless students from other business schools around North America crowding the panelists after their session had officially ended more than half an hour ago and content with the fact that only at Harvard would they be able to meet in person business leaders they had previously only read about in journals, and most symbolically perhaps, the sight of foreign university faculty, having no doubt led student delegations here every year, meticulously explaining the nuances of the HBS campus and where and what they can improve on once they return home to their schools as they too are expected to become “future leaders” in their own right.

These sights serve the purpose of reminding us what we, the fortunate that have actually experienced what it means to be in KSG, HLS or HBS not as temporary guests, but as permanent family members, in our hectic and sometimes self-important schedules, often neglect to remember: that the resources and opportunities we enjoy are not common, that they should be cherished, and that for many outsiders looking in, the world is indeed a whole new place when you look out, sitting as a student in Aldrich 12.