Fast Company

Championing Innovation

This month's letter from the editor.

When we started planning what would become the fourth annual Fast 50 competition, we had two major ambitions: First, we wanted to assemble the most accomplished innovators and doers in the four-year history of our global readers' challenge. And we wanted to showcase those winners' passions, ideas, and performances in stories and pictures as compelling as the deeds themselves. The resulting package delivers on both goals.

This is an extraordinary group of people you don't already know -- but should. They invent new products, launch bold initiatives, reinvent organizations, and build brighter futures. No less important, you're not likely to read about these champions of innovation anywhere else because the Fast 50 largely focuses on in-the-trenches achievement. It's not about holding down the top job in a big company. It's not about CEO celebrity. It's about making a big difference in the world of work, seeing opportunities where others don't, and having the smarts and the guts to act on what you see.

In an age when business stories break through the clutter only when there's scandal, we wanted to focus on the people who change the way we live and work, the people you don't get to read about. Who's doing something that's never been done before? Who's changing the way business has been done in their industry for 50 years? Who has broken into the mainstream? This isn't a lifetime-achievement award, so in the evaluation process we kept coming back to what our nominees accomplished last year and what they have planned in order to stay fast in 2005.

Our winners range in age from 24 to 60. They hail from Amsterdam, British Columbia, and Luxembourg, but also Austin, Dayton, and San Jose. They're company founders, designers, educators, and even an exceptionally bright perfumer. Their accomplishments and stories are pure inspiration.

There's Nick Swinmurn, 31, founder and chairman of Zappos .com. Even during the dotcom frenzy, few imagined that you could sell shoes online. But Swinmurn, who started doing just that in 1999, had a breakthrough year in 2004. By emphasizing customer service and a caring company culture, he more than doubled the company's revenue last year to $175 million. Then there's Caroline Sabas, 30, a perfumer at Givaudan Fragrances. A true innovator, she created an all-natural chocolate scent for Origins. The result: Sabas opened up a new frontier of 100% natural flavor-based fragrances for Givaudan.

Let's not forget Ray Lauk, 45, superintendent of an elementary school district in Lyons, Illinois. Faced with a major budget crunch, he was able to persuade voters to approve a 50% property tax increase that would protect the quality of education for 2,200 students. And Jenna Whitney, 38, director of learning and development at Old Navy, figured that if every employee understood Old Navy's big-picture strategy, it would improve service and sales. So she led a massive reeducation of the chain's 35,000 employees across 850 stores in 2004. The upshot: Old Navy staffers are more engaged and employee turnover has decreased.

Keep reading the package that starts on page 52; there are another 46 winners, each one a jewel. It took a lot of late nights, relentless reporting, and tough decisions to hunt them all down. Soon after our December 1 deadline for entries, we pared hundreds of submissions down to 90 finalists. Our team of editors, writers, and reporters, led by senior editor David Lidsky, culled the best 50 over the following six weeks, producing stories you'll see in the magazine.

As you pore over our Fast 50, keep this in mind: Unlike the lists in other magazines, this one is made up of real people -- Fast Company readers, in fact. The Fast 50, then, is not merely a competition. It's an annual opportunity for the Fast Company audience to define itself, our chance to declare who we are and what we stand for. The Fast 50 isn't another breathless listing of the biggest or richest as you'll find in other business magazines. It's a powerful reflection of who we are -- and the best we can hope to become.

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