“What inspires you? And what scares you?” The questions come from a young woman who heads up corporate social responsibility efforts for a Filipino conglomerate. She’s one of 30 young people specially selected by the World Economic Forum to attend its Forum on East Asia. They’re participating in a private session with leaders from Coca-Cola.

And she’s got them thinking.

After a pause, Atul Singh, group president, Coca-Cola Asia Pacific, responds: “What inspires me is how fast the world is changing. What scares me is whether I can keep up with it all.”

The group shares a knowing chuckle. The increasing pace of global change is what prompted the World Economic Forum to create the Global Shapers Community, of which all the assembled young people are members. More than half of humanity is under 27, so the Forum reasons that responses to global challenges must also involve young people. Global Shapers are now well represented in all of its meetings, including its Annual Meeting in Davos, and its regional meetings across the world. “This generation has the passion, dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit to shape the future,” the Forum boldly declares.

Founded only in 2011, the Community is the youngest of the Forum’s multi-stakeholder communities – but it’s also the largest, engaging over 5,000 people through more than 400 youth-led hubs. The Community is deliberately diverse, with Global Shapers coming from business, government, the media and the arts, the sciences and academia, and the community sector. But Global Shapers are united in their commitment to their communities, and each Hub is required to complete a local project each year.

Coca-Cola has been a supporter of the Community since its inception, providing resourcing for those projects, as well as opportunities like these for Global Shapers and its own leaders to learn from each other.

For a group of heavy hitters, the discussion is startlingly jocular. Led by a Global Shaper from China – a former news anchor who then founded her own media company – the group chats first about personal leadership: the importance of authenticity, managing fear and learning from failure, co-creating goals, and about knowing when to get out of the way. A tweet from the session records a key lesson: “Leadership is inspiring people to do more than what they think is possible.”

But it’s during the questions that the discussion heats up, revealing the dizzying breadth of demands on the world’s best-known brand.

The Global Shapers quiz Coca-Cola on a variety of pressing social issues, from water stress (Coca-Cola’s response: “We need to make sure that 100 years from now, there’s clean water around the world, or we’re out of business.”) to child labour (“We audit our suppliers across our value chain, and our compliance standards are the higher of our internal requirements and those of the government.”) to climate change (“Sustainable businesses are profitable businesses.”). In the room, as across the world, people want to see companies like Coca-Cola be leaders, not only in the marketplace, but in society.

Coca-Cola’s executives easily recite details of its community projects in education, tree planting and rainwater harvesting – important, but perhaps now standard for large multinationals. The Global Shapers are more impressed by 5by20, Coca-Cola’s ambitious, longer-term commitment to economically empower five million women entrepreneurs across the company’s value chain by 2020. The company’s solar-powered eKOCool coolers even elicit a few wows. The coolers, distributed to small-scale retailers in rural areas of India that don’t have reliable access to electricity, provide chilled drinks (which Coca-Cola calls “a bit of a novelty”) – but also offer ports for charging lanterns and mobile phones, allowing children to study at night and families to make good on the promise of connectivity.

Coca-Cola sees responsibilities beyond its own value chain, too. Its leaders reveal a brave approach to building a better society. “Because of who we are and what we do, we can bring about change in the communities across the world in which we work. We have a significant role to play.”

Martin Gill, the General Manager of Coca-Cola Indonesia, elaborates: “Beyond what we do, what we say is also important. We were the first major brand that used multicultural advertising, back in the 1960s. There were white people next to black people having a Coke. That was a big statement in encouraging social change.” Today, Coca-Cola’s advertisements continue to feature multicultural communities, as well as messages promoting gender equality. Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl ad last year famously featured gay dads, making it the first Super Bowl commercial to include a same-sex family. And it is an increasingly assertive advocate for climate change action – though some would have it do more – calling for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and the growth of renewable energy capacity. “We have a set of values on which we will not compromise. That’s the right thing to do. That’s why we’ve been around for 100 years.”

There are nods of approval. There’s always more to be done, of course. But the Global Shapers have had days of discussions about the challenges they will inherit: the erosion of trust in public and private institutions, growing inequality, catastrophic climate change, and simmering geopolitical tension. There’s enough to be scared about (or as one Global Shaper put it, enough “opportunities for development”). What will inspire this next generation of leaders? A great variety of things, surely – but perhaps also the uplifting reminder that companies can still do well and do good.



Alan Wu

Alan Wu is the founding curator of the Global Shapers Community Canberra Hub. He is also the youngest member of the Board of Directors of Oxfam Australia, one of Australia's largest development organizations. Alan has previously served as Chair of Australia’s national youth council, as Special Envoy for Young People to the UN Environment Programme Executive Director, and on the Australian National Commission for UNESCO. These views are his own. Follow Alan on Twitter @alanwu_