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Newsom stumps as CEOs vamp and call for return to office at APEC San Francisco

Gavin Newsom is seated in a chair with his arms outstretched and legs crossed. To his right, in a separate chair, is BBC presenter Helena Humphrey.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is interviewed by BBC presenter Helena Humphrey at the APEC CEO Summit in San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy HeadShots Inc.

As President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for the first time in a year about 30 miles south of Downtown San Francisco—a tense reunion encompassing a far-reaching set of topics that could have global implications—a sense of turmoil prevailed right outside the doors of the APEC CEO Summit. 

In Moscone West’s immediate vicinity, demonstrations—against Biden, against Xi and against the CEO Summit and its “greenwashing”—threatened to dampen the event Wednesday and the congregation of industry and political titans inside.

Inside Moscone West, world leaders and industry executives spoke in hours’ worth of sessions, seemingly unfazed by the goings-on just outside the convention center doors. Some positioned themselves as do-gooders, balancing the needs of commerce with their obligations to the environment, while others held themselves out to be luminaries with global reach.

Here are some of the highlights of the CEO Summit’s first day. The second day of the summit will feature the likes of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Biden.

Newsom Tries Out His Stump Speech for CEOs

Throughout his 15-minute fireside talk at APEC’s CEO Summit, California Gov. Gavin Newsom positioned California not just as the eminent state in the U.S. but also as an influential world power. In doing so, he set himself up as a world leader—one who shapes national and global policy. He seemed to make his presidential ambitions clear.

Newsom quipped that the state’s GDP was set to surpass Germany and has already lapped the United Kingdom. (Newsom jokingly credited Brexit for California’s leapfrogging. The moderator, BBC presenter Helena Humphrey, played along, responding "no comment" with a chuckle.)

California, from his vantage point, sets the pace for the modern environmental movement—and for the tech that portends to enable that movement. He said Tesla “exists in California for a reason,” shouting out friend (and sometimes foe) Elon Musk even though Tesla moved its headquarters to Austin. 

As if to buff up his bona fides, he brought up his October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and, of course, his first meeting with former President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Paradise fire.

He cracked a joke at the latter’s expense. 

“Of course, he doesn’t believe in climate change, but again, he had to have believed his own eyes,” Newsom said to a chorus of laughter. “… He also said we should rake our forest—I mean, actually, in real life, said rake them with rakes.”

Newsom came prepared with mantras. 

Of climate change, he said, “We’re burning up, heating up and choking up.” 

Of the United States’ relationship with China, he said, “It’s not a closed fist. It's an open hand.” 

And, to drive home his involvement in China-U.S. relations, he brought up his 7-year-old son, Dutch. “You know what? I think he'll be proud of his dad.”

How presidential.

Uber CEO Wants To Go Green—but It Ain’t Easy

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was the lone local representative among an odd grab bag of personalities on hand to speak about “equity in sustainability.”

The session opened with an address from controversial Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. followed by a panel that included Khosrowshahi, Chinese solar industry billionaire Li Zhenguo and Anna Bjerde, the managing director for operations at the World Bank. 

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is seated at a table while speaking at the APEC CEO Summit in San Francisco.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi speaks at the APEC CEO Summit in San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy HeadShots Inc.

Khosrowshahi argued that transitioning Uber's fleet to electric could have an outsize impact on emissions since Uber vehicles drive over four times as many miles as the average car owner. But there are some setbacks: the typical Uber driver fears the costs of electric vehicles and the lack of charging infrastructure in their areas, while Uber riders are generally unwilling to pay for a green ride. 

In an effort to nudge drivers to switch to EVs, Uber has a partnership with Hertz that allows drivers to rent a Tesla from the company. But progress is slow: Currently, only 1 in 20 miles driven in the United States on Uber’s platform are electric. This puts the company far from its goal of full U.S. electrification by 2030. 

AI, AI, AI, O, Says Microsoft CEO 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella framed his session at the APEC CEO Summit a bit like a sales pitch for the industry and political leaders in attendance.

His talk at the summit went through three core points: This is how you can harness Microsoft’s AI product, Copilot, for your company or organization; these are the companies across the Asia-Pacific region that have benefitted already from using Copilot; and crucially, these are the steps Microsoft is taking to ensure AI safety for those in attendance who are concerned. 

Early on, Nadella hyped up the potential of artificial intelligence, comparing it to the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s, the World Wide Web in the ’90s, smartphones in the 2000s and the cloud in the 2010s. It’s apparent that Nadella is placing Microsoft as the leader of the Big Tech pack when it comes to AI. After all, the company lost the smartphone race to Apple and the cloud one to Amazon but dominated the PC and internet game.

Halfway through his talk, he briefly paid lip service to OpenAI, which all but set Microsoft as the automatic frontrunner among Big Tech firms in the AI race, but didn’t mention it much at all. 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks at a clear podium at the APEC CEO Summit in San Francisco.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks at the APEC CEO Summit in San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy HeadShots Inc.

Earlier this week, OpenAI’s Sam Altman suggested he may need more money from Microsoft to achieve the company’s ultimate goal of artificial general intelligence.

And from the looks of it, Microsoft is keen to continue its partnership with the hottest AI firm in San Francisco. 

After all, societies that don’t adopt AI, Nadella suggested during the talk, risk falling behind those that do—citing a Dartmouth economic professor’s research on the matter.

“Since the Industrial Revolution,” Nadella cautioned, “societies that have been most likely to thrive have been the ones that have been able to adopt new technology, but most importantly, apply the new technology to create new value-added technology right in their region.” 

The message is clear: Microsoft wants to expand its AI presence across the Asia-Pacific region.

Pfizer CEO Says the Office Can Be a Loneliness Cure

It’s clichéd to start a speech by defining a word, but that didn’t stop Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. 

Bourla, best known to the general public for helping to usher the first Covid vaccine through FDA approval, themed his remarks around inclusion, which he defined as “having a sense of belonging.”

He diagnosed a lack of social, economic and political inclusion as the root of an ailing world.  

Economic exclusion means unrealized opportunities for marginalized groups, he went on to say, adding that social exclusion has led to a new epidemic of loneliness, particularly amongst young people, which is correlated to a host of related health issues. Meanwhile, he continued, political exclusion breeds xenophobia and a dramatic increase in hate crimes against Asians in the wake of the pandemic. 

Bourla’s speech was a bit of a downer, full of references to growing polarization, ethnic violence and the problem of disinformation in medicine. But he said that companies remained a trusted voice that can help the pendulum swing in the opposite direction. 

So what can corporations do about it? Well, he said, bring people back to work in person, for one.

Bourla described workplaces as “the modern-day town commons where people who otherwise might not meet can come together.

“We must return to the office and see each other face-to-face,” Bourla said. “Teleconferencing is simply no substitute for the personal interaction that makes it possible to build connections or even agree to disagree.”

Editor's note: This story has been edited to clarify BBC moderator Helena Humphrey's remarks.