A revealing moment of confusion kicked off the panel between actor/entrepreneur/eternal fashion plate Sarah Jessica Parker and AOL’s Tim Armstrong at Fast Company’s Innovation Fest.
Moderator Robert Safian, the editor-in-chief of FC, mentioned that he would “magically” receive the audience’s tweeted questions from his vantage on stage. Parker’s eyes twitched between tendrils of her perfect—and I mean, like, infallible—hair, as she tried to figure out how exactly these questions would be transported to Safian’s eyeline. It turns out he just meant he would be reading them from his phone.
“Oh, I thought it was some new system,” Parker said, with perhaps a touch of disappointment. For a brief moment, there was some new innovation out there she’d possibly have to learn; instead, it was just mobile Twitter, which she has already clearly mastered. This demonstrated interest in the world’s constant conveyor belt of newness, though, was a fitting kickoff for a panel that kept returning to the theme of Parker’s inherent curiosity.
Parker is perhaps most famous for her role in the epochal HBO comedy, Sex and the City, which she starred in and also served as producer on. Since that show’s end a decade ago, however, she has embarked on many business ventures, including her thriving line of upscale shoes, SJP. During the panel, whose official title was “Taking Risks and Evolving In Business,” she discussed how being curious has guided her through both her creative work and her entrepreneurship.
“Not everybody gets to take risks, but it’s important to be curious,” she said early on. “There are times in your life when you’re not in a position to take a risk, and that’s a big decision. I don’t want to overlook this evolution of who you are in the grown up world of business or as you pursue ideas in college. It’s important to have ideas that you believe in, and accumulate those internally too. And a lot of decisions early on, if you don’t have financial means to support the risk, there’s other ways of pursuing things and doing what all of us did, which is take jobs you don’t like, which is part of the process. It’s a badge of honor to have survived things that weren’t inspiring, or weren’t creatively interesting, or challenging, because you had to survive to subsidize the risk, the dream, the idea.”
When Safian eventually asked outright why Parker pursued entrepreneurship at all when she’s proven herself so talented as a performer, she told the story of her initial indoctrination into business, and reiterated the role of curiosity.
“I love to learn new things, and have new experiences, and have new challenges, and overcome what seemed to be insurmountable problems, and collaborate, and create, and meet new artists and new idea makers,” Parker said. “I was a terrible math student, but I love business. It started for me when [series creator] Darren Starr said I could be a producer on Sex and the City. I was fortunate enough to be thrown into a career and I discovered that business is complex and there are profits and margins and all kinds of stuff that’s incredibly important, but it’s also the people. It’s the people that make the business, and the business is about people. It’s not that surprising that an actor who likes to connect with people would also like to have other areas of their life where they can connect with people too.”
At this point, Safian interjected that numbers are also important in business, and AOL’s Tim Armstrong, with whom Parker collaborated on the documentary project city.ballet., concurred.
“We will not be in business together ever again,” Parker replied, smiling. Then she adopted a hippy voice and mocked what she had just said: “But, man, it’s about peoplllle.”
Lest there be any confusion about Armstrong’s regard for his occasional collaborator, he then clarified: “Sarah Jessica is a business person dressed up as an actress, not an actress dressed up as a business person.” Later, he went on to call her one of the most talented people on the planet, to which she said that he needs to get out more.
Eventually the discussion turned to social media, which Parker has leaned on heavily of late to promote her new HBO series, Divorce.
“Social media confounds me and I have this really weird relationship with it, and it’s like the endless dating period, but being able to connect with the audience is everything,” she said. “Without them, I have no show. They are as important to the creative process as any of us, and you have to keep listening to them, communicating with them, spending an hour and a half every other night just responding to comments about the show. You share your gratitude, and you also learn from them—even when it’s painful. I’m new to television in 2016. I haven’t been on television in 10 years and there are about 3,000 more shows now that are competing. So I talk with the audience constantly, in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive or pushy. I don’t think you can talk people into anything anymore. I think there’s too many options. If that was the reason I was talking, I think that would be disingenuous. I’d feel like I was lying and doing a bait and switch. I feel like I’m talking to them to learn. I do the same thing with the shoes too.”
Safian closed the event by asking the panel what they consider to be their mission. Parker’s answer should not have been surprising for anyone who’d been paying attention throughout.
“I am a believer in curiosity,” she said. “So my mission is to support curiosity and encourage it in others, and my children, and let it be my guide.”
Judging from her track record, Parker’s audience will remain curious about whatever she’s up to as well.