Op-ed: Bringing Ottawa expertise to star-studded global conference in L.A.

Milken Institute
Ottawa’s Janice McDonald at the Milken global conference. (Photo courtesy Milken Institute)

Anyone strolling down Wilshire Boulevard or Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles this spring could not miss the Milken Institute Global Conference signs hanging from every light standard. They went on for miles. Around 4,000 people descended on L.A. to attend the global event, and the city put out the red carpet to welcome everyone.

The annual conference attracts some of the brightest minds in business, government, science, philanthropy and academia, and I was excited to not only attend this year but to participate as a speaker.

The goal of the conference was to find collaborative solutions to the most important challenges of our time, and the overall message was one of hope with some fear mixed in. There was plenty of optimism about the overall state of the U.S. and global economies, and many panels highlighted the considerable innovations in important sectors such as transportation, energy, space travel and food. Concerns were expressed about trade barriers, rising debt levels and the perceived erosion of democracy in much of the world.

Canadians could be found on many of the stages across the three days. Pierre Beaudoin, chair of Bombardier’s board of directors, Kevin Beggs, chair of Lionsgate Television Group and Dave McKay, president and CEO of RBC, were all there. So was Ailish Campbell, chief trade commissioner of Canada. A Milken veteran, she came to sell Canada to the global attendees, and she succeeded.  

Famous faces

The event was held at the posh Beverly Hilton, and law enforcement officials were out in full force, with police officers visible throughout the venue and undercover officers surrounding specific speakers. Every curb was jammed with shiny black Lincoln Town Cars and special hotel shuttles to ferry guests around. Security was tight, with entrances closely monitored. Attendees were easy to spot because of the large conference passes with their name and picture hanging from a bright coloured lanyard and the complimentary grey fabric computer bag that everyone received and used.

Celebrities such as businesswoman Arianna Huffington, director Tyler Perry and actress Ashley Judd mingled with financiers and philanthropists and many senior executives in the Trump administration, including Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.  

The list of notables went on and on. In an unusual pairing, famed British anthropologist Jane Goodall shared the stage with Oscar winner Goldie Hawn. Campbell was lucky enough to bump into Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the green room before she went on stage. Her panel topic was “Can the Open World Economy be Saved?” whereas the five-time Super Bowl champion shared insights about his life in football in an interview with sportscaster Jim Grey. Campbell’s photo with the legendary QB was the envy of many.  

Even Canada’s own Kevin O’Leary was there. The entrepreneur and former Dragons’ Den star joined former New York Yankees great Alex Rodriguez for a panel discussion on How to be a Man.

My session was private and by invitation only. Designed to garner candid thoughts, the session was packed as we discussed “What’s Next for Women.”

Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri, managing director of human capital management for Goldman Sachs, was a panellist with me, as was Tina Tchen, an American lawyer who served as an assistant to former president Barack Obama, chief of staff to former first lady Michelle Obama and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Kara Nortman, a partner with Upfront Ventures and founding member of a non-profit organization called All Raise that is pushing for more venture capital funding for female founders, rounded out the speakers.  

Richard Ditizio, president and chief operating officer of the Milken Institute, was our skilled moderator. I shared the Canadian perspective, and the audience was keen to learn about different Canadian approaches to inclusivity. The Americans in the audience seemed particularly impressed by the recent change in O Canada’s lyrics from “in all our sons command” to “in all of us command.” Nortman said, “Now we all want to immigrate to Canada!” – a sentiment shared by many.  

Our one-hour conversation went by all too quickly, and I hope to be back next year. There is so much more to discuss and learn while navigating a world in transition.

Janice McDonald is the founder of business strategy firm The Beacon Agency, an adviser at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business and the co-author of two national studies on women entrepreneurs.