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Changemakers: Diana Guzman

World Economic Forum lead on sustainable development putting the big ideas of business leaders and governments into practice

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One of the biggest challenges in improving the state of the world is finance,” says Diana Guzman EMBADS2017. “Who’s going to finance the new world everyone is envisioning and ensure the future of the planet?” Philanthropy and aid can only take us so far.

Governments are struggling with constrained balance sheets. It’s time for the private sector to step up.

It’s Guzman’s job at the World Economic Forum to mobilise private sector money and get it working for sustainable development. There’s a huge opportunity, she says. “In the world of low yields that we are living in today, there are large amounts of private capital out there looking for good investments.”

“Who’s going to finance the new world everyone is envisioning and ensure the future of the planet?”

Her work brings together institutions from different sectors and enables them to pursue solutions jointly that support sustainable development. “It’s easy to have a great idea”, she says. “But there are always many things standing in the way of making those ideas a reality. Ideas need to make economic sense.”

As the Regional Acceleration Lead for the Sustainable Development Investment Partnership (SDIP) at the Forum, Guzman works with decision-makers in ASEAN and Africa. “The Annual Meeting in Davos provides the high-level thinking. My passion is to put these big ideas into reality.”

Her upbringing in the rural south of Mexico, one of the most underdeveloped areas in the country, sparked a determination to improve the state of the world. She says that she shocked her family by choosing to study finance – they thought she would pursue international relations or sociology – but she always had a conviction that solutions needed to be practical and financially viable:

“Coming from a region where people don’t have the means to live the next day, I was concerned about what we can do now. Finance was the best way to understand the private sector perspective. And finance is one of the biggest barriers for the sustainable and inclusive future that I envision.”

Guzman is both practical and a dreamer. She’s emphatic that, to make real impact, you need a big goal with realistic solutions and a plan to get there. Her time at London Business School during her Executive MBA (she graduated in 2017) showed her the necessity of incentives to move people forward and the innate need people have to protect themselves and their families. These views form the bedrock of her vision for a new world, where individualism does not play a role.

For Guzman, awareness of our deepest instincts is vital to creating a world in which we all can live with dignity. The poverty and lack of opportunity she has witnessed – not only in Mexico, but also in China, where she began her career, working in ‘climate finance’ – is her main driver. She considers herself lucky to have had the education that many of her friends did not and is frustrated by the lack of life choices many of them still have today. 

Her experiences growing up in a deprived region of the world and working in different continents have given her the perfect vantage point for the work she does now in Africa and the ASEAN region, where SDIP has two regional hubs; each with a network of institutions that share best practice and collaborate to mobilise capital into sustainable development in developing countries.

The job of SDIP is not to educate, but to be a neutral platform that opens lines of communication and catalyses action through public–private collaboration. 

“We curate,” she says, “but at the end of the day it’s our members and the public, private and philanthropic sectors in the region that decide. I can’t tell a central banker what to do, but we can provide him with the platform that enables the necessary systemic changes to increase local currency financing in his country.”

This is a big focus for Guzman right now. She wants countries in her regions to use internal capital to finance long-term investments. Mobilising domestic resources can enable a more sustainable flow of capital towards development, and with countries like Vietnam growing their capital by 5–6% every year, the tools, intelligence and connections that Guzman and the team at SDIP can provide spur tangible progress.

‘Never stop looking for opportunities. When you are sure that you have the answer, you become part of the problem’

“Coming from the developing world myself, I know that these countries are very well aware of the challenges ahead”, she says. “They know what they should do, but too often they don’t have the means or the access to the right skills and knowledge. Capacity is a big constraint. Historically, development has been about aid and grants.

“We created that system, and it helped, but if we want to improve the world at the speed and scale that is needed, the system needs to change, and countries need to create the investable environment for the private sector to support them in improving the standard of living of their population.”

In her view, LBS and other academic institutions play a massive role in showing the leaders of tomorrow what attitudes and aptitudes they need to have. The job of the average leader is transforming along with digitalisation, and the softer skills are now more vital than ever, she says.

We should all be developing and expanding our skill sets throughout our lives, Guzman says. She is currently looking to get onto a coding course. “Not because I want that career, but because I need the skill.” There are many ways to enact social change and coding might be one of them.

She likes to look at change from every viewpoint: “It’s not about changing from one chair to another; it’s about trying all the chairs in the room. The new business minds need to be set on 100% sustainability. The shaping of these minds is fundamental.”

She believes we need to look at learning as a lifelong mission, not just as a preparation for work: “How will academic institutions enable that, to a broader population, not just the privileged 1%?”

Guzman is fulfilled in her career but impatient for progress – which comes slowly for the full-scale changes she envisions: “We need to change the architecture of the world and society.”

Alongside the poverty she saw in Mexico and China, she also saw motivation to strive. It stayed with her. She urges everyone who wants to devote their career to making a difference to seek continuously to learn and improve.

“Never stop looking for opportunities. But be sceptical, too. Is anyone already addressing that issue? When you are sure that you have the answer, you become part of the problem and that slows things down. Be curious. Be flexible. Are you willing to change what you think? I learn and unlearn things every day.”

Diana Guzman graduated from the Executive MBA Dubai programme in 2017.


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