The American Swiss Foundation: History
The American Swiss Foundation was created 75 years ago in response to World War II. Then as now, our mission is to connect, inform, and engage Swiss and American leaders through innovative and inspirational programs to strengthen our shared values of liberty, the rule of law, and free enterprise.
by Karina Rollins
The American Swiss Foundation’s roots go back to 1945 and the end of World War II. The transatlantic relationship had been badly damaged during the war and was in need of repair. Against all odds, Switzerland managed to maintain a neutral stance throughout the armed conflict, and that position was frequently misunderstood, if not resented, in the United States. As a result, there was work to be done for the Swiss and American diplomats and businessmen who founded the organization—then called American Friends of Switzerland—who knew and valued the common democratic values that are at the core of both countries.
Over the years, the group changed names, and at various times was known as Friends of Switzerland and the American Swiss Association, mirroring the change in focus and priorities of the leadership of the day.
In fall 1988, top leaders of the American Swiss Association, including its chairman, Shelby Cullom Davis, a highly esteemed former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, asked the current U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, Faith Whittlesey, to become chairman of the small organization. After two tours as ambassador to Switzerland, no one was better suited to breathe new life into the bi-national group. Ambassador Whittlesey brought her signature person-to-person diplomacy as well as the experience and skills she developed during her time in government to create a model of bilateral cooperation through the private sector. Ambassador Whittlesey became chairman and president of the newly renamed American Swiss Foundation in 1989.
Ambassador Whittlesey believed that bringing together the next generation of leaders was critical to revitalizing the organization. Her personal experience with exchange programs as a student contributed to her drive to establish a Young Leaders Conference for the American Swiss Foundation. Ambassador Whittlesey initiated a week-long series of events, panel discussions, speakers, and excursions around Switzerland to stimulate conversation and friendship between young Swiss and American leaders. The idea was to generate a fuller, more meaningful understanding of the two countries among their future leaders.
The first Young Leaders Conference took place in 1990. Ambassador Whittlesey recruited a young Swiss college student named Patricia Schramm to assist her in creating a program from the ground up. Speakers were invited, Young Leaders were nominated by senior government and business officials, and sponsors lined up to provide lodging, meals, and airline tickets for the participants. Swissair, UBS, Credit Suisse, Schindler, and Nestlé sponsored the earliest conferences and continue to support the annual program.
Mercer Reynolds, former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, succeeded Ambassador Whittlesey as chairman in March 2008, navigating the Foundation through the storm of the global financial crisis.
During this period, early plans were made for a joint U.S.-Swiss reunion of Young Leaders, which eventually came to fruition with the first Building Bridges Conference in September 2012. The triennial event features panels, speakers, and a gala dinner in an institution of prominence in Washington, DC. In addition, the alumni network remains vibrant through social media, annual dinners, and reunions.
In 2011,the American Swiss Foundation elected its first Young Leaders Conference alumnus as chairman. Under the leadership of Steven Hoch(YL 1990), the Foundation expanded its outreach to the now 1,300 alumni through the addition of reunion events—notably the launch of the Gallatin Forum discussion series; increased communications; and the creation of a Young Leaders Directory on its website. Two new alumni organizations were founded to advise the board and broaden the financial base of the Foundation: the Young Leaders Alumni Foundation in Switzerland, co-founded by Gabriela Lippe-Holst (YL 2005), and now headed by Bettina Schaller (YL 2011); and the Young Leaders Alumni Council in the U.S., co-founded by Charlie Gerow (YL 1998) and led by Joe Hurd (YL 2008) and Kent Anker (YL 1994).
In 2016, Robert Giuffra was elected chairman. Since that time, the American Swiss Foundation has significantly expanded its program offerings to include, for the first time, virtual programs. In 2018, the Building Bridges Leadership Conference series was expanded to include regional reunions, most notably the Tech Tour in Silicon Valley (2019); an apprenticeship retreat in Chatham, MA (2018); and an apprenticeship and entrepreneurship conference in Rüschlikon (2017). In 2019, a new regional event series focused on biotechnology was launched in Boston.
In 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the American Swiss Foundation launched a new series of virtual programs called ASF CONNECT. The series includes conference calls featuring experts on how the pandemic has affected various sectors of the global economy, public-private partnerships, public health initiatives, and related topics of current importance. In addition, virtual Young Leaders Reunions via video conference were initiated and continue to be held on a regular basis.
The alumni of the American Swiss Young Leaders Conference have proven to be vocal and effective advocates for the organization, encouraging their companies to sponsor the annual event and nominating new Young Leaders to participate in the program. Today, thanks to the vision of Ambassadors Davis and Whittlesey, the momentum generated by Chairmen Hoch and Giuffra, the steadfast support of the Swiss Advisory Council, now chaired by Markus Diethelm, and the careful stewardship of President Patricia Schramm (YL 1999), the American Swiss Foundation has become the leading private organization in U.S.-Swiss relations.
The Foundation connects and engages Swiss and American business, political, and cultural leaders through innovative and inspirational programs to strengthen the shared values of liberty, the rule of law, and free enterprise.