Irishman working at the WEF: ‘Davos is a fascinating place to be a fly on the wall’

‘My job allows me to play a tiny part in supporting partnerships between governments and the private sector which have direct impact on the lives of billions of people’

Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, David Connolly explains how he went from studying music to working with the World Economic Forum

Where did you grow up, and what were your early career aspirations?

I loved growing up in Tallaght. I went to a tiny primary school in Jobstown called St Maelruan’s which had just four teachers. From there I went on to St Mark’s Secondary School in Springfield, where I sat my Leaving Cert in 2003.

I studied for a Bachelor of Music at UCD, and found UCD to be quite a culture shock. But the chance opportunity to take part in an Erasmus programme in Munich for my third year opened the door to a potential career abroad.

When did you first move abroad?

I met my future wife while in Munich, and followed her to Switzerland in 2009. I'd switched to studies in management after my bachelors, in the hope of securing a qualification in an area a little more suited to a "real job" than music. But the financial crisis of 2008 put paid to those supposedly more realistic employment aspirations.


Moving abroad temporarily was an easy decision to make and I doubt I’m the only emigrant to have told my mother I’d be back home in no time, only to see the months turn to years.

How did you get the job with the World Economic Forum?

I joined the World Economic Forum in 2010. I had learned about the organisation during my studies and applied through their website – as one of many applications I sent out upon arriving in Switzerland – never thinking that I might actually be hired.

I started in a back-office support role and was given the opportunity to rotate through a number of different teams, which proved invaluable in helping me to understand and learn the internal workings and culture of the organisation.

Tell us about your role, how it has evolved since you began working there, and what it involves now.

Today, I manage the relationship between the Forum and a portfolio of global digital communication companies who have a long term partnership with the institution and engage in our initiatives.

The Forum is an international organisation for public-private partnership, a platform which brings together leaders and influencers to address the challenges of the global economy and how they relate to the future of our society.

We’re best known for our annual meeting which takes place every January in Davos, Switzerland, and is attended by heads of state, chief executives from across the private sector, heads of international organisations and representatives from civil society.

Davos is a fascinating place to be a fly on the wall, to observe the interactions between world leaders and to understand the factors and influences that are shaping policy resolutions that have potential to benefit society. Topics are varied, from protecting the future of our oceans, to tackling the global humanitarian crisis, to projects aimed at connecting the unconnected and unlocking the potential of internet for all.

My job allows me to play a tiny part in supporting partnerships between governments and the private sector which have direct impact on the lives of billions of people across our planet.

Tell us about the World Economic Forum ...

This week will be the 48th staging of the annual meeting, with 3,000 participants coming together under the theme Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World. The programme will address the recent divisions within and reactions towards global integration, considering solutions which can encourage global co-operation.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be one of six Irish participants, joining more than 70 heads of state and government. President Trump’s decision to participate has featured prominently in the coverage ahead of this year’s meeting.

This is the first time since 2000 that an acting president of the United States will be in attendance. My hope is that he will engage with other leaders on issues such as trade, migration or climate change and in his capacity as leader of the world’s largest economy can contribute to progress on these topics.

Are there any challenges?

I can understand that as an organisation the Forum has not been immune to criticism. Our model of working directly with the most senior decision makers, who we believe have the greatest potential for leadership and influence, has been met with accusations of elitism.

But I believe we’ve taken positive steps to ensure that all elements of society are represented within our network, remaining true to the multi-stakeholder principles which underpin our work. Sustainable progress on any issue, at every level of society, can only happen when all those who have a vested interest in the question are included and participate in driving change.

Tell us about your life in Geneva.

Switzerland has been very good to me and I’m proud to call it home. I became a Swiss national last year; a decision which family and friends claim was only taken to ensure I have a team to follow at the 2018 World Cup.

But settling here took time at first – with the language barrier, the cultural differences, the day-to-day administration, and adapting to a country where rules are made to be followed rather than bent.

I was blessed to have had the support of a strong local network from day one, through my wife and her family and friends, but the biggest help to integration was joining a local football team, FC Vignoble Cully. My one piece of advice to any new arrival in a foreign country is to sign up to a club of any sort. After one training session you’ve made 20 new acquaintances and opened the door to friendships for life. Thanks to football I found a place to live, I learned the language (if indeed with some questionable vocabulary picked up on the pitch) and even grew a passion for the local wine.

Is there anything you miss about living in Ireland?

I'll always miss the small details of life in Ireland. Dropping in unannounced on friends, games of golf on a Sunday afternoon with dad, long lunches with mam and nights out in town with my brothers and sisters.

I'm blessed, however, that Geneva is only a two-hour flight from Dublin. I know that far off locations such as Australia and Canada come with an exotic pull for those who leave Ireland in search of opportunities, but I'd encourage people to give mainland Europe a chance too. English speaking profiles are in demand across most all major European cities, and I believe the Irish personality lends itself well to international, multi-cultural working environments.

Where do you see your future?

I’ve committed to an internal development programme at the World Economic Forum for the next two years, so my immediate future lies here, but I’d be lying if I claimed that my career has been guided by any big, deliberate plan.

I’ve been very lucky in my current role and feel that as long as I’m enjoying my work and learning something new every day, I’m happy to keep wandering down the path I’ve found myself on.

Had you told me 10 years ago, when I was finishing my music studies, that I’d be living in Switzerland, working in the job I am today, I never would have believed you. So who knows where things might take me in another 10 years? Perhaps therein, in the whole “not really having a clue how things will pan out”, lies the beauty that keeps life and work interesting.

The 48th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting will take place from 23rd-26th of January. You can follow the event here