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How do you lead in a VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—world? That was the dominant theme of a fascinating Chicago Booth conference that drew some 300 alumni and guests to London in November.

Setting the scene, Tim Craighead, ’87, senior European strategist with Bloomberg Intelligence, pointed out the rapid pace of technological change faced by leaders today. It was a subject his panelists were familiar with. Birgit Conix, ’04 (EXP-9), CFO of German travel company TUI Group, said her sector was one of the most disrupted, by online travel agents.

Yet, she agreed that disruption was both a threat and an opportunity, saying TUI had partnered with tech-savvy startups, such as a bike rental company, to offer their services to TUI’s customers. “We have changed our business model entirely.”

Meanwhile, for Vahe Torossian, ’10 (EXP-15), president of Microsoft Western Europe, the bigger leadership challenge was embracing change. “That’s a new key skillset, to be comfortable with change and embrace failure, not being afraid to try new things,” he said.

It was a sentiment echoed by Chantal Schumacher, ’99, group CFO of credit insurance company Euler Hermes. For her, educating the workforce is a priority, as technology automates some mundane tasks, freeing up time to focus on more important work, rather than displacing employees completely. “We are trying to use data to improve the predictability of insolvency,” Schumacher said, “[but] we need people with data skills who can present [their insights].”

Still, uncertainty is a lingering issue for many global workers. Downward social mobility was one of many “worrisome” economic trends cited in a keynote address by Luigi Zingales, Robert C. McCormack Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance, and Charles M. Harper Faculty Fellow. He said capitalism had flattened US male workers’ salaries in real terms, while increasing some mortality rates.

And yet, most countries had increased their GDP per capita since the 1960s and the number of poor people has fallen globally. As Zingales noted: “In many ways, it’s the best of times.”

Indeed, several Chicago Booth entrepreneurs spoke about their success. Enty, for example, was rated by Grazia as one of the five best fashion technology startups worldwide. That’s according to Sophia Matveeva, ’16 (EXP-21), CEO and co-founder. “We plan to reach one million users, are already monetizing through in-app purchases, and are launching a B2B product in a year’s time,” she told a captivated audience.

The conference heard that entrepreneurship is the number one concentration at Chicago Booth—and that alumni are, of course, on hand to help. The Angels Network was founded in 2013. “We connect people with great ideas, with people who provide money, expertise and a network,” said Cornel Chiriac, ’12, its investment director. The network has over the past five years funneled $2.2 million to 25 startups, he said.

And that—the alumni network—is at the heart of the Chicago Booth experience. As Madhav Rajan, Dean and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Accounting, noted: “The alumni are very appreciative of the experience the school gave them. It changed their lives. They came to the school knowing something and left with a better ability to figure out how to approach problems, deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, influence and motivate people. The engagement the school has with alumni is a very solid foundation [for learning].”

The Takeaways

“It was good to reconnect with the alumni—a very powerful group of successful figures—and hear new ideologies and perspectives. It’s a very important part of the MBA experience.”Mustafa Aramaz, ’10 (EXP-15)

“It was a good experience and a great opportunity to meet alumni who you don’t usually get to cross paths with. The panels were high quality, in particular the discussion on the medical sector. It was not just about banking and finance.”Philip Sigwart, ’17 (EXP-22), director at Equity Group Holdings, Kenya