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  • 05.15.17

12 Lessons From The 100 Most Creative People Of 2017

These innovative leaders are changing the world through their work in tech, fashion, food, entertainment, and more.

As a journalist, maintaining a healthy level of skepticism is a requirement. Sources routinely put their own actions in the best possible light, while undercutting the activities of rivals. I just can’t take everything people say to me at face value.

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SEE THE FULL LIST: The 100 Most Creative People Of 2017


But every now and then, I get to engage in a project that is so inspiring, my wall of cynicism melts. That’s the way I feel about our annual coverage of the Most Creative People in Business. Each year, our editorial team scours the globe to identify 100 all-new honorees whom we have not significantly covered in print before. This is how we initially introduced readers to Instagram founder Kevin Systrom–before his business was acquired by Facebook. It’s where we first talked about Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, and Warby Parker cofounder Neil Blumenthal. And where we made the business case for Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s amazing accomplishments with Hamilton.

Since appearing on last year’s Most Creative People cover, Lin-Manuel Miranda has been nominated for an Oscar and a Peabody Award. [Photo: ioulex; Stylist: Michael Fisher at Starworks Artists; groomer: Asia Geiger at Art Department]
This year’s pool of honorees is every bit as extraordinary.

I dare you not to be stirred (and maybe a little intimidated) by all that this group is making happen. What our Most Creative People coverage reveals each year is just how broad and rich an impact business can have, regardless of any external economic and political conditions. There are always amazing things going on, if you pick your head up to notice them.

What follows is my list of creativity lessons for 2017, drawn from our honorees’ achievements. The tangible outcomes defy expectations and limitations. You can’t make this stuff up.


Related: Why “Atlanta” Creator Donald Glover Is One The Most Creative People In Business 2017

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1. Leaders Find A Way

As geopolitics and nationalist agendas put more pressure on cities, mayors find themselves at the epicenter of both conflict and opportunity. Which is why we highlighted James Anderson (No. 1) of Bloomberg Philanthropies, who is using technology, data, and a focus on sharing to spread best practices from Stockholm to Santa Monica. Rodney Hines (No. 16), director of U.S. social impact at Starbucks, is using a corporate perch to address the gnarliest problems of modern society, making good on a pledge to hire 10,000 refugees and bringing economic development to depressed U.S. communities.

2. Surprise And Delight Can Be Designed

Today’s new-product landscape mixes the high-tech and the tactile, generating a gee-whiz feel of the future. Apple’s Isabel Mahe (No. 6) developed features (like syncing with two devices at once) that have made AirPods a back-ordered hit. Snap’s Lauryn Morris (No. 37) gave us video-enabled Spectacles that are intuitive, easy to use, and stylish. ThirdLove’s Heidi Zak (No. 89) used data and computer-vision algorithms to rethink the way bras are built and sized, creating a buzzed-about brand.

3. AI Is Driving Conversation

Amazon’s Alexa has become a ubiquitous voice, thanks to Rohit Prasad (No. 9) and Toni Reid (No. 10). IBM’s Harriet Green (No. 73), who talks about “augmented intelligence,” is helping companies including BMW and North Face incorporate language-processing capabilities and other smart-services technology into their operations.

4. Positioning Can Make A Difference

When Tali Gumbiner (No. 76) and Lizzie Wilson (No. 77) were hired to come up with a message for State Street Global Advisors on International Women’s Day, they created the Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street, which has become a symbol of empowerment. Phillip Picardi (No. 36) chose to try boosting traffic on TeenVogue.com by aligning with young readers’ social consciousness–and politics now beats entertainment as the site’s most popular channel.

5. Compassion Has No Boundaries

Ahmad Denno (No. 40) is guiding Syrian refugees in Germany through the cultural transition to a new home. Chef Massimo Bottura (No. 24) is feeding the hungry from Brazil to the Bronx by tapping surplus ingredients from supermarkets and networks of suppliers.

6. Learning Is Never Finished

Anant Agarwal‘s (No. 68) nonprofit digital university edX has served 11 million students, and is now offering graduate-level programs that can count toward a traditional university degree. Meanwhile, Justin Hall (No. 56) is teaching former coal miners in Kentucky how to code, allowing them a vibrant new start in a changed economy. Sesame Workshop’s Sherrie Westin (No. 71) is using a hijab-wearing Muppet to champion female literacy in Afghanistan.

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7. Moonshots Are More Than Dreams

Made for just $1.5 million, director Barry Jenkins‘s (No. 18) Oscar-winning Moonlight has earned 40 times that at the box office–proving that nontraditional story lines can have outsize impact and can break down stereotypes. David Stack (No. 43) of Pacira Pharmaceuticals is commercializing a non-opioid pain treatment that can help reduce recovery times and addiction risks. Naveen Jain (No. 27) has raised $45 million for his aptly named Moon Express, a startup that will begin test flights this fall with a goal of making space travel possible for all.

8. Fintech Is Charging Ahead

Square’s Jacqueline Reses (No. 14) is providing $1 billion in customized, automated real-time loans to merchants, as a low-cost, low-risk cure for liquidity crunches. Vijay Shekhar Sharma‘s (No. 28) Paytm is displacing India’s traditionally cash-centric business culture with digital payment platforms. Wayne Xu (No. 49) of Zhong An has built that Shanghai-based online insurer into China’s largest with a customer base of 535 million.

9. Power Is Shifting

Ganesh Bell (No. 11) is using GE’s Predix data-analysis software to improve the efficiency of utilities–from nuclear to natural gas–and businesses, helping GE Digital generate $3.6 billion in revenue. Jeffrey Grybowski‘s (No. 99) Deepwater Wind is pulling clean energy from offshore farms in the northeast Atlantic Ocean.

10. Healthy Living Is Getting Easier

Dana Lewis (No. 78) hacked together code for an “artificial pancreas” online for anyone to use. Harvard Medical School professor Tom Delbanco (No. 88) launched an OpenNotes movement that has given 13 million patients easy access to their own records. CVS executive Helena Foulkes (No. 5) is moving people “from sick care to self-care” with wellness products, CVS Curbside, and a pharmacy app that improves speed, safety, and customer service.

11. Openness Should Be Embraced

Former Goldman Sachs employees Porter Braswell (No. 52) and Ryan Williams (No. 53) are connecting underrepresented communities across the country to companies via their recruiting site Jopwell. “We’re going to help you climb the ladder,” says Braswell. Massachusetts state senator Patricia Jehlen (No. 44) is making equal pay for women a legal requirement.

12. Unlocking Human Potential Is An Art

From cover subject Donald Glover (No. 8) to writer-director Phoebe Waller-Bridge (No. 48), artists are infusing entertainment with social impact. In the corporate world too, the human factor is at the core of our advancements, even as technology and science provide a swath of dynamic new tools. As Facebook’s Fidji Simo (No. 2) puts it, “Feelings are universal.”

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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