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Corine Blesi is head of the Swiss Economic Forum (SEF), the leading Swiss business platform. In conversation with PwC, she explains why Switzerland as a business location needs pioneering spirit and why she is presenting the first SEF.WomenAward in 2021. She explains what distinguishes entrepreneurial responsibility and how the self-image of young people has changed over the last few decades.

‘New Horizons’ – the Swiss Economic Forum’s 2021 guiding theme. Sounds like a new beginning. Why?

It’s true, we decided on a positive theme. Because we want to leave the pandemic behind us and look to the future optimistically. COVID-19 has taken a lot out of us. We hope that 2021 will mark the end of the pandemic and at the same time the beginning of a new decade. ‘New Horizons’ also reflects the role of the SEF. We see ourselves as a platform where new ideas are generated, tested and presented. 

How would you describe this role in concrete terms?

Traditionally, we are a forum for dialogue. We orientate and inspire, scrutinise and discuss current challenges faced by Swiss business. In 2020, face-to-face meetings were hugely limited. In the end, we had to postpone our much-loved annual conference in Interlaken to the autumn, in Montreux. At the same time, we tried out new formats like virtual Camp Fires on a small scale, SEF.Interactive and hybrid formats.

The SEF sees itself as a catalyst for economic, political and social change. With decision-makers from various sectors, we discuss economic, political and social trends. In times like these, when direct contacts are hard to come by, exchanges between various disciplines and players are in greater demand and more important than ever. Through the SEF, we want to keep these exchanges going and build bridges between people, ideas and experiences.

You recognise innovative ideas with the Swiss Economic Award, Switzerland’s most significant young entrepreneur prize. What’s behind this?

Young entrepreneurs are people who want to get something moving, to invest their heart and soul in an idea, and who mostly have a great vision. They want to build something, they want to change the world. And visionary young entrepreneurs aren’t frightened off by the pandemic. Through the Swiss Economic Award, we want to promote and celebrate this drive to make the world a better place. Because Switzerland as a business location lives from the pioneering spirit of its SMEs. It’s no coincidence that the power of innovation is one of our country’s most important success factors. We shouldn’t forget that SMEs account for 95% of the country’s companies, and as such are the backbone of the Swiss economy. Through our awards, we give innovative entrepreneurs a platform and help them build their networks.

And that’s not all. We’ve established a NextGen camp, which we want to use to inspire young people with the pioneering spirit. And, finally, with SEF.Growth we’re supporting young companies and SMEs in funding and other business issues. In this way, we’re providing the ‘young bloods’ in our network with valuable experience. 

In 2021, the SEF is presenting the SEF.WomenAward for the first time. Why another prize?

With the SEF.WomenAward, we’re addressing two concerns: Firstly, we want to make women with an outstanding entrepreneurial record more visible. We’re presenting the prize in two categories, ‘Young Woman Entrepreneur of the Year’ and ‘Woman Entrepreneur/CEO of the Year’. The award also honours an extraordinary personality who has spent her life campaigning for a strong business location and for women’s issues.

Secondly, we want to open up our powerful platform even more to Swiss young women entrepreneurs and to make our network both more female and more digital. The large number of applications for the SEF.WomenAward is a sure sign that we’re managing to do that. Sometimes it’s small things like a prize of this kind that sets things in motion. We see this, too, as part of our responsibility.

Talking of responsibility, what do you understand by ‘responsible entrepreneurship’?

Responsibility is a big word. Often, you first notice this when you yourself become an entrepreneur. And suddenly you have responsibility for employees and their families, your environment, for yourself. For me, responsible entrepreneurship means always being present and ready for your customers, partners and employees. And wanting to ‘care’. It never stops.

Passion, heart and soul, boldness and far-sightedness are always part of entrepreneurial responsibility. You have to answer questions like ‘What am I leaving to the next generation?’, ‘Am I a good employer?’ and ‘What positive effects do my entrepreneurial activites have on society and the environment?’ In this respect we can learn a lot from the companies in our country that have long track records. 

How has this sense of responsibility changed over the years?

Younger generations have a different understanding of the working world. They don’t talk about a work-life balance anymore, but rather of a ‘life balance’. Because of the ‘New Work’ concept, work and life are seamlessly joined together. Today, your job must be much more compatible with personal goals and values. That’s why many young people identify more strongly with companies that have a clear purpose that’s in tune with their own personal outlook on life. This concept didn’t exist 20 years ago. Today, responsible entrepreneurship is associated with a meaningful purpose that goes beyond purely economic goals. ‘Purpose rather than profit’ summarises this best, although I believe that the two terms aren’t mutually exclusive.

Corine Blesi, many thanks for talking to us.

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About the Swiss Economic Forum (SEF)

The SEF was established in 1998. With its platforms and initiatives, it promotes entrepreneurial thinking, networking at national level and an exchange of experience between politics, economics and science. Through the Swiss Economic Award and the SEF.WomenAward, the SEF is actively committed to young businesses and women in business. The NextGen Camp came into being as part of the SEF’s 20-year jubilee. We want to use this to help Generation Z become actively engaged, in the near future, in transforming the economy and taking on responsibility.

About Corine Blesi

Corine Blesi has been Managing Director of the SEF since 2019, as well as Managing Director of NZZ Connect. From 2016 to 2019, she worked as an independent entrepreneur and founded the Zurich Economic Impulse dialogue platform. From 2008 to 2015, she was a member of the extended management team of Swiss Air Rescue (REGA). Previously, she worked for two federal councillors in the Federal Department of Justice and Police. She began her career in 2001 at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos as North America manager. Corine Blesi studied economics, law and social sciences at the University of St Gallen.

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Andreas Staubli

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