The Harvard Business School Club of Washington president creates a new kind of D.C. salon.
Whether it be the late Pamela Harriman’s famed Georgetown salon which discovered Bill Clinton, or Esther Coopersmith’s dazzling Kalorama salon which feted Jimmy Carter back in the day, the history of the intellectual salon in our Nation’s Capital is long and storied.
For many who attend them, there is often little doubt that the conversations and introductions made at these carefully curated gatherings of Washington power elites and influencers can often lead to bigger things for them down the road.
In the early 90’s, when Democratic power brokers – who’d been out in the cold for 12 years of Reagan/Bush – embraced the little known Arkansas governor they had met in Harriman’s living room, the equal mix of campaign funding and positive press was precious rocket fuel to propel Clinton into The White House, and for Harriman to land in Paris with a plum appointment as U.S. Ambassador. As Clinton said in his heartfelt eulogy to Harriman in 1999, “I would not be here today if it were not for Pamela Harriman.”
In recent years, the concept of the salon has slightly shifted, with books, technology and business innovation taking center stage at newer salons.
Willee Lewis’ PEN Faulkner salons, held for new book authors, meet for lunch each month at some of the city’s most ornate private residences, discussing at one recent event the debate over the military’s use of drones with writer Andrew Cockburn, author of “Kill Chain.” Coach Kathy Kemper’s non-partisan Institute for Education (IFE) salon meets regularly up and down Embassy Row, and once inside the Speaker’s Office on Capitol Hill. For Kemper, discussing the nexus of politics and new technology is a frequent talking point, while solidifying relationships in an informa. “It’s a way for us to bring together thought leaders, break bread with them, solidify relationships and help introduce new policy and foreign policy ideas,” Kemper says.
The genesis of Washington’s newest and most vibrant salon, the Harvard Business School Club of Washington, began to gel in one of the most unlikely of places: The Ipanema beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
It was there that civil engineer Antonio Alves worked in the mid-1990s, managing construction projects for new condos along Rio’s coastline, and dreaming of places outside of Brazil that he would someday go, bringing his ideas and skills as a world-class people collector to bear.
The son of a Brazilian army general who fought in World War II, Alves had studied at the Universidade Federale Rio de Janeiro, before a calculated career switch took him into international banking finance, first in Rio with Brazil’s goliath Itau Bank and then in Paris with Credit Lyonnais, where he earned his MBA in 2005 at the Haute Ecole de Commerce (HEC) in Versailles.
Already conversant in emerging markets debt and fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, French and English, Alves was a natural pick for a new career at the International Finance Corporation (or IFC, part of the World Bank), which dispatched him to sub-Saharan Africa to drum up new business doing short term lending to emerging market banks there. “At first the IFC had no footprint in Africa doing short term lending to smaller banks,” Alves recalled. “But after several years, visiting 40 African countries and spending three weeks per month there, we had a lending portfolio of nearly $400 million.”
Impressed with his success and intent to replicate his lending program in Latin America, the IFC moved him to Washington where he grew the lending portfolio from zero in 2007 to $2 billion by 2014, lending first to 12 small banks in Brazil and growing the portfolio to 85 banking relationships in the region.
In 2010, eager to return to academia and exhausted from a brutal travel schedule criss-crossing Africa and Latin America, the IFC offered to send Alves back to school, this time to the Executive MBA program at Harvard Business School (HBS). He thrived in Cambridge, receiving high marks from his business school professors before returning to Washington in 2012.
HBS professors had urged Alves to become involved with the Washington, D.C. chapter of the alumni association, and Alves did, infusing the chapter with a level of energy and enthusiasm that few had seen previously.
Alves first joined the Washington chapter as vice president of strategy, conducting his first mixer, a Spring networking event at The Huxley which drew 100 participants and raised $13,000 for scholarships. “I guess I’d made my mark by becoming the first person in the club to raise cash sponsorships for events,” Alves recalled. “But, I was dreaming of something bigger for this club.”
Alves quickly moved up to chief financial officer, and after the club’s executive vice president moved to Africa, he was the obvious choice to rise to chapter president. But, he placed restrictions on the role tendered to him. “I told them I wanted a brand new slate of officers,” Alves said. “I wanted to replace everyone at the top of the club’s hierarchy – including the club administrator – so I could bring in new people with new ideas and energy. There was huge push back at first, but with the support of the school and most of the board, they accepted my conditions.”
The result was in many ways a new chapter for the 82-year-old Harvard Business School of Washington, with bigger events and bolder-faced names who accepted Alves’ invitation to speak or be an integral part of the storied chapter, founded in 1933 with a handful of members who would meet over drinks at the Cosmos Club. But Alves is a big thinker, and he would not be deterred. With 4,500 members at or near the top of the city’s power pyramid – one had actually been President of the United States (George W. Bush) – what could be the downside?
His first salon, in May 2014, was held at the French Embassy, followed by intimate dinners that fall at the Embassy of Bahrain and at the Residences of the Ambassadors of Portugal and Egypt. Last month, the club joined forces with the Embassy of Italy, Ermenegildo Zegna and Maserati to host an intimate dinner at Villa Firenze, the $47 million estate of the Ambassador of Italy, complete with eight shiny new Maseratis parked in front.
The events are lively, and the VIP guests (some of whom had not attended HBS) are among the city’s most established movers and shakers. “Antonio has done so much with this chapter,” says Mark Ein, an HBS graduate and chairman of Venturehouse LLC. “He is to be commended for infusing it with new energy.”
Last November, Alves presented to the board his concept of the club’s first gala, with sponsorships offered and table sales. The idea of a “big gala” was initially greeted with almost universal skepticism: “Are you crazy? We are a small non-profit organization with a very small budget…What if you don’t sell any tickets?” club members reportedly warned him.
To assuage the skeptics, Alves offered to cover any potential deficit from the gala from his own pocket, and then set to work raising the dollars needed. “During three months of intense planning, my team and I barely got a wink of sleep,” Alves recalls, “but in the end the insomnia was well worth it.”
The gala went off last June with nary a hitch; 350 HBS alums and other VIPs poured into the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton Washington for cocktails and seated dinner, and to hear a lively forum on business leadership and philanthropy led by keynote speakers Bill Marriott, the legendary hotelier; Glenn Youngkin, president of Carlyle Group, and Jean Case, president of the Case Foundation.
After the $150,000 costs of the gala were covered, Alves presented a $30,000 check to help fund scholarships for directors of non-profit organizations to attend a philanthropic “boot camp” on the Harvard campus each Summer. Since 2009, 10 non-profit leaders have completed the program, with Higher Achievement’s Executive Director Katherine Roboff completing the program last Summer. “It was an incredibly meaningful experience and has made me a far better non-profit executive,” Roboff says. “I could not have done it without the great support I received from the Washington chapter of HBS.”
For 2016, Alves says he is planning even better programming for his nascent salon, including an event for the aerospace industry headlined (tentatively) by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, a celebration of 53 years of women at HBS, a venture capital competition, two intimate dinners at ambassadorial residences and the second annual gala on June 16. “All of these events, before next Summer,” says Alves, with his customary can-do spirit. “We’ve set the bar high.”