“You need to be a lifelong learner,” New York Times columnist and best-selling author Tom Friedman told the rapt audience inside the grand ballroom of the Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong. Though Friedman was literally halfway around the world from Wharton’s campus, the vibrant blue-and-red banners on the stage behind him made clear who was in his audience. “The world we’re going into, learning will be more important than knowing, because the Google machine knows everything. … Today you need a plan to succeed, and you need to update it every six months.”

Tom Friedman speaking at the Global Forum

Friedman was one of the keynote speakers this past June at the Wharton Global Forum, a three-day event that unites alumni from around the globe with leaders of finance and industry as well as Wharton faculty for a unique experience—think of it less as a conference and more like an intellectual vacation. The Hong Kong Forum was the 50th edition, and that milestone was marked with an unprecedented lineup of powerhouse speakers. Consider just some of the sessions, along with Friedman’s talk: Carlyle Group co-founder/co-CEO David Rubenstein in conversation with Kenny Lam W96, president of Noah Holdings; Bloomberg Television anchor Betty Liu C95 moderating an off-the-record chat with Gaw Capital founder and managing principal Goodwin Gaw W91 ENG91 and Tencent Holdings executive director/president Martin Lau; the then-chief-executive-elect of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, and former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd sharing global perspectives on finance and politics; and J.P. Morgan Asia Pacific chairman and CEO Nicolas Aguzin W90 on a closing panel about tech and the future of business.

“As the 50th Forum, Hong Kong was the pinnacle,” says Jane Simons, director of lifelong learning and the Global Forums. “The speakers were unparalleled, and the alumni planning committee was so dedicated. There were activities for the mind, body, and soul. There’s something magical about the Forums, and it really comes back to the alumni. They’re so proud to showcase their school, and they have the connections to make it a valuable experience.”

Friedman’s proselytizing for lifelong learning couldn’t have been tailored more perfectly for the 600 attendees (roughly a 60/40 percent split between alumni and business associates/friends). As he spoke, the crowd in the ballroom listened intently, and some pecked notes into laptops; later, between sessions, the atrium buzzed as alumni reconnected with old friends, made new ones, and talked shop. It was a particularly impressive scene when you consider how this all began with a casual conversation in Singapore 25 years ago. What was once a modest gathering of Wharton graduates is now an essential piece of the School’s strategy for engaging its alumni, strengthening its brand worldwide, and ensuring that education doesn’t end with a diploma.

Inside the Wharton Global Forums 7

“Joe Talks” professors Peter Fader, Mauro Guillén, Karl Ulrich, and Bilge Yılmaz

The offices of CoCoon Ignite Ventures in the Causeway Bay region of the island of Hong Kong look like what you’d imagine from a tech accelerator—workspaces that echo the design of a miniature golf green; a local entrepreneur handing out caramel sea salt liquid nitrogen gelato. The day before the 50th Forum officially kicked off, some 25 attendees were there for a series of Q&A panels as part of a new addition to the usual agenda—four “Day Zero” treks, including a behind-the-scenes infrastructure tour of Hong Kong’s airport and trips to Macau and Shenzhen. The fourth trek, an innovation-themed excursion led by committee member Winston Yung WG98, began at CoCoon and would hopscotch to a marketing tech company and a startup incubator by the day’s end. One CoCoon panelist earned knowing smiles from the crowd when he quoted Wharton’s own Elon Musk on entrepreneurship: “Starting a company is like eating glass and staring into the abyss.”

In the audience was Samita Malik WG06, a digital insurance executive and startup adviser. “I went because I had heard good things from other alumni who had attended previous Forums,” she says. “I’m very glad that I did. The Forum was excellent—both in its organization and in the quality of content and speakers. It was one of the best value-for-money products/services I’ve purchased in a long time.”

The origin story of the Global Forums is set, not in a classroom, but in a bar. Jeff Sheehan was Wharton’s associate dean for international relations in 1992, and after that year’s Asia Executive Board meeting in Singapore, he retreated to a local watering hole with three board members. Those alumni—Sehoon Lee WG75, Ted Huang WG64, and Andy Soriano W72—spoke passionately about helping Sheehan strengthen Wharton’s international presence and foster a sense of community among its graduates around the world. “I asked if they could help, and they said sure,” Sheehan recalls. “Andy ran a food company at the time with a lot of staff and ice cream and beer, so he said, ‘Why don’t we have an alumni meeting in Manila next year and I’ll host?’” The following year, the first Global Forum—or, as it was called then, the Asian Regional Alumni Meeting— drew 100 graduates for a dinner followed by a day of panel discussions, keynote speeches, and a gala banquet.

The first few events were so successful that three years later, the program expanded to two annually, including the first European Forum, in London. By 2001, Wharton was hosting three Forums per year. “I wish I could say that it was all the result of careful planning, but the whole thing was really a response to market demand,” Sheehan says of the program’s evolution. While some locations have hosted more than once—Hong Kong, London, and Paris lead with three, followed by eight locales who’ve hosted twice—the Forums change cities and countries nearly every year to keep pace with the growing Wharton global network. “I didn’t anticipate the demand,” Sheehan admits. “But as soon as we started doing it, we saw how great it was.”

Simons is quick to recognize what she calls the “secret sauce” for each Forum: the alumni organizing committee, whose members begin planning two to three years in advance. “It gives you a lot of time to think about it and ramp up the connections and activities,” she says. “And this is aside from their jobs and being parents. They spend 10 extra hours a week just for their school because they love their alma mater.”

For Hong Kong, committee secretary general David Cameron WG08 G08 L08 and his wife, Jing Cameron C07 W07, were the resident “power couple,” with Jing organizing the first-ever wellness session and both spouses hosting a junkboat tour of the island to close the Forum, among other duties. “We wanted to add unique individual experiences without taking away from the Forum format,” David says. “What helps make a Forum successful is mixing in the local culture and business.” Monthly meetings moved to weekly as the date crept closer, and WhatsApp chat alerts buzzed members each day. The committees spend hours planning every detail—from locations to programming to entertainment and even what’s on the menus. “You work on all the pieces over time and see them fall into place,” David Cameron says. “You get to see everyone enjoying the benefits of the Forum and not worrying about all the work that went into it. It’s nice to hear people talk about the event they just went to and the content they enjoyed.”

Inside the Wharton Global Forums 9

Nicholas Aguzin W90 has a laugh

If there were a Global Forum Hall of Fame, George Hongchoy WG91 PAR18 PAR21 would be among the first class of inductees. The Hong Kong Forum chair was just two years removed from his Wharton days when he attended the first event in Manila; since then, he’s missed only two Asian Forums and has traveled for others to San Francisco, Paris, and Amsterdam. Like David Cameron, Hongchoy is one of the self-professed “Forum junkies”—alumni who’ve been to a number of these events over the years. “We’ve built up a group,” he said with a laugh during a break between sessions at the Conrad Hotel. “You know people who come to every one, so we get to know each other quite well, and there’s a friendship that builds. You also talk to local alumni and get a different perspective than you’d read in the media: How easy is it to do business here? What are the challenges?”

Aside from the networking aspect, attendees agree that the best Forums incorporate the host city’s culture into their programming. Sheehan has enjoyed offering unique, perhaps even challenging experiences for alumni. “We went to Ho Chi Minh City in 2008 to learn from its ghosts and look into its promising future,” he says. “We went to Moscow in 2004 to see Russia’s emerging market face-to-face. Bogotá in 2009 was about understanding how Colombia had changed, and it was an extremely successful Forum.”

Other sites have provided artistry and glamour: In 2001, the second visit to Rio de Janeiro occupied the Copacabana Palace Hotel, with a goodbye gala on its famous dance floor, while Costa Rica in 2007 concluded with a fully immersive tropical-rain-forest-themed dinner complete with trees, birdcall sound effects, and models in snakeskin paint holding live boas. Milan’s programming in 2012 featured a La Scala opera performance at the Palazzo Reale that moved some attendees to tears. Locations like Cape Town in 2008 and Dubai the following year offer reasons to see parts of the world that might not otherwise overlap with business travel. (See the sidebar on the first Forum in Sydney, coming up in March.) There’s a certain urgent timing to some Forums as well, like the 2000 event in San Francisco just before the dot-com bubble popped, or 2002 in Tokyo, at which Japanese tech, particularly in mobile, was way ahead of everyone else and offered a thrilling glimpse into the future.

Dean Geoffrey Garrett and Lady Barbara Judge CW66

The Forums also serve as an incubator of sorts, one at which business partnerships are forged and others simply blossom from year to year. Hongchoy recalls meeting Robert Zou WG94 in Shanghai in 1997, just before Zou opened his first dental clinic; today, Arrail Dental is one of the biggest chains of its kind in China. Five minutes into the technology trek around Hong Kong, Thomas Bispham Jr. C06 met Roy Cooke WG97, who was working on wireless technology for older cars and needed help with fund-raising and development in China—which is precisely in line with Bispham’s consulting expertise. They plan to produce a prototype by the end of this year.

“It’s like the Forum was tailored for me,” Bispham says. “It’s an amazing opportunity in a short amount of time to get exposed to a high number of opinions and thoughts that you can implement right back into your work. I’m trying to raise funds now, and as a result of the Forum, I’ve set up meetings with people who will possibly become advisers and hopefully investors. You expect high-level conversation, but there were actionable moments that will have a major impact on me, personally and professionally.”

While the Hong Kong Forum is technically over on this sun-soaked Sunday morning, two groups embark on a final round of activities with a distinctly local flair: a team of adventurous souls heads to Stanley Beach to learn dragon boating, while the Camerons lead a crew of 20-some alums on a junk-boat tour of the island (and for “junk boat,” think more miniature yacht than Pirates of the Caribbean-style dinghy). As the vessel cruises past Kennedy Town and through the Sulphur Channel, everyone on board settles into easy conversation— including Wharton undergraduate vice dean and director Lori Rosenkopf, who snaps a photo of the gorgeous vista. Wayne Hao WG11 shares insight into Macau’s rich history from his time working on a real estate project there; co-chair Sanjay Khanduri WG06 offers ideas for connecting more alumni globally through WeChat and WhatsApp. While a handful of folks take advantage of swimming when the ship anchors offshore, Bispham and Deborah Geffken WAM16 chat away, swapping stories about past ventures and Geffken’s rich experience in the Advanced Management Program.

The junk boat eventually docks at Stanley Beach, where the sightseers and dragon boaters meet for a buffet lunch overlooking the water. It’s a fitting end to the Forum—one last moment for alumni to make new friends, forge rewarding connections, and soak up the culture. Each Forum is an opportunity for experiential learning, the kind no “Google machine” (or any other) can fully replicate. The day before, back at the Conrad Hotel in a room with a view of Victoria Harbor, Hongchoy summed up the appeal of Forums with a Chinese saying: “Reading 10,000 books is not as good as walking 10,000 miles.”

Inside the Wharton Global Forums 5

A virtual reality demo

Next Stops: Sydney and New York in 2018

The Wharton Global Forum visits two of the world’s greatest cities for the first time, starting with the 51st Forum in Sydney, Australia, March 7–9. The roster of speakers features a star-studded array of industry leaders, including Vanguard Group chairman F. William McNabb III WG83, Macquarie Group CEO Nicholas Moore, and CEO of MIGA/World Bank Keiko Honda WG89. A dialogue between Westfield Corporation chairman Frank Lowy and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group chairman David Gonski will be moderated by professor and Forum chairman Frederick Hilmer GL67 WG70. Faculty sessions and “Joe Talks” presentations—Wharton’s take on TED Talks—will shed new light on innovation, analytics, real estate and finance, and more, with insights from Eric Bradlow, Karl Ulrich, and Aussie Jessie Handbury, among others. Outside the Forum headquarters at the Westin Sydney, one of the cultural highlights is sure to be the gala dinner aboard the Starship Sydney, a three-level luxury glass vessel that departs from the Opera House and offers breathtaking 360-degree views of Sydney Harbor. Visit whartonsydney18.com for registration and the latest additions to the schedule.

For a grand encore, the 52nd Forum heads around the world on June 13–15 for its New York debut, at which innovation and transformation in the business ecosystem is sure to be a major theme. Some of the Big Apple’s premiere locations are set to play host, with programming at the Jazz at Lincoln Center, just off Central Park West; a kickoff reception at Oculus, the architectural marvel at the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in Lower Manhattan; and an evening of cocktails, canapés, and celebration at the historic New York Public Library. Look to whartonnewyork18.com in January for registration and more details on what’s shaping up to be a once-in-a-lifetime program.

Published as “Wharton’s World Tour” in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Wharton Magazine.