Thea Sokolowski




United States


Social Impact



By Thea Sokolowski

Adaptability and LSE’s Emerging Markets Forum

I spent the latter half of last week in London attending LSE’s Emerging Markets Forum, an extremely well organized and high profile event held annually by LSE’s student union.

Big name speakers from a variety of industries addressed the audience of eager students and professionals to discuss topics around emerging markets, to offer warnings and forecasts and to give us important insights into the way the world is changing. Hot topics often included China and Nigeria, seemingly the most interesting forces in EM. All roads seemed to lead toward the idea of adaptability – that in today’s world, in direct opposition to historical ways thinking, we need to approach the way we do business with increased flexibility, localization and the ability to adapt.

“The world is just beginning to unravel.” Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb had the audience captivated at a striking panel on Security, Risk Management and Defense in the morning of Day 2. “We sit in uncertainty; new threats are emerging though old threats remain. Tomorrow, in our world, don’t take for granted that it will be the same as today.”

Lamb warned that it’s not just security that should keep us awake at night, but rather, “Failed policy, corruption, economic instability [and] failure of the social contract. Historically, we’ve been looking for capability dominance, but the weapon of choice now is propaganda. We’re moving toward capability irrelevance. Listen to Darwin. It’s the species that adapts that survives; those prepared to change.”

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We discussed corruption, the incomplete and weak institution of democracy and unintended consequences. We discussed war and conflict in relation to politics. My biggest takeaway from this panel was the idea that war is merely the continuation of politics by other means. And to politics, it must return.

We moved on to challenges we face in emerging markets. As discussed by Wiebo Vaartjes of Gibson Innovations, this lies in volatility, in terms of “Growth, changing currency values, commodity prices, import restrictions, diverging emerging market destinies and politics.” If you’re running a business in emerging markets, therefore, you need to have a long-term commitment, and a long-term strategy. “Adaptability is the new strategy,” he tells us. “Grand strategy is out.”

Focusing on brand strategy in emerging markets, we heard from VP of Global Business at Pinkberry, Ryan Patel. “We used to think ‘build it and they will come’. Or ‘it’ll work because we’ve always done it this way.’ This is no longer the case.” He spoke of the need for a solid brand strategy in order to achieve growth.

Other discussions were heavily focused on commodities, where business and politics often intersect. “We need faster innovation,” warned Dick Benschop, President Director of Shell Netherlands. “The big challenge for the industry will be to invest and innovate.”

According to Benschop, “Innovation is open in today’s world.” He tells us it’s no longer happening in siloed research labs deep within a single company, but rather, in cooperation with others, leading to unusual partnerships and a theme of collaboration.

Benschop left us with an inspiring but harrowing message. “You live in a much bigger world than I did at your age. But it’s hypercompetitive. You can do things I never dreamed of, but there are a lot of people that have the same dream.”

Looking at trends in emerging economies and around the world, we heard from renowned economist Dr. Dambisa Moyo. “We’re seeing a decline in globalization as we know it,” she told us. “The world is becoming increasingly unequal within countries. Freedom is on the decline. The things we need to think about are below the surface: technology disrupting jobs, social mobility, natural resource depletion and people living longer.”

Specific panels focused on finance and private equity. “Private equity is changing,” Henry Obi of Helios told us. “The industry is increasing in competition and in specialization. Exit strategies are changing; we are moving increasingly toward controlled transactions.”

Later we heard from Jim O’Neill, the economist who coined the acronym BRICs (and now MINTs) and former Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. O’Neill outlined what certain countries are doing right to transition into more developed nations. “South Korea is amazing with technology; it’s available to everyone. They’re great in education and getting involved in world trade and foreign direct investments.”

According to O’Neill, “Economic development depends on two things: the number of people working, and their productivity.” Noting the ever-rising population on the African continent, he warned, “My friends in Africa, you need to stop fighting with each other and start trading with each other.”

Networking at its finest, the conference offered a refreshing perspective on the future of emerging markets and what we as future business leaders face in the coming years. I left with plenty to think about, a few business cards and a firmer grasp on how to approach working in these ever-changing environments.

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