10 Big Bets On Optimism That Changed The Business World

For more than a century, American companies have been generating huge returns on progressive investments in employees and communities.

10 Big Bets On Optimism That Changed The Business World
[Illustration: Peter Oumanski]

1. Business is about more than profit, 1908

At a time when success in business was equated with ruthlessness, Harvard president Charles Eliot launched a graduate school to teach executives to be moral actors in society.


The impact: The Harvard MBA remains a pinnacle achievement in higher education, and doing good is now widely considered good business.

2. The $5 workday, 1914

Henry Ford doubled his employees’ pay in the hope that other mass producers would follow, establishing a class of consumers who could afford Ford cars and other goods.

The impact: Ford helped create the middle class, but globalization and stagnant wages have since stalled the American flywheel of success.

3. Comprehensive employee benefits, 1928

Kodak CEO George Eastman adopted “welfare capitalism,” granting benefits that were lavish for the era, such as life insurance, profit sharing, tuition assistance, and a retirement annuity.

The impact: As happy employees helped Kodak thrive, its HR innovations spread and still influence the likes of Whole Foods and Starbucks.


4. The innovation lab, 1944

In an old dairy, 3M management set up the Products Fabrication Laboratory (colloquially known as the “funny farm”) for lab technicians to dream big without constraints.

The impact: 3M’s misfits of science invented such breakthroughs as surgical tape. Xerox PARC and Google X’s moonshot labs owe 3M a debt.

5. Managing by walking around, 1957

William Hewlett and David Packard wrote down their company’s approach to leadership, which encouraged executives to interact directly with line workers so each could learn from the other.

The impact: “The HP Way” became the leading Silicon Valley management style; even non-tech firms have embraced its flattening of hierarchies.

6. Putting customers first, 1975

John Bogle refused outside investment when starting his mutual fund company, Vanguard, which let him focus on saving clients money rather than goosing profits for his backers.


The impact: Competitors have had to lower fees as Vanguard has amassed $4 trillion in assets. Jeff Bezos is Bogle’s modern-day customer obsessive.

7. Flexible workplaces, 1993

When advertising legend Jay Chiat opened the new Chiat/Day offices, he sought to boost creativity by banishing assigned desks in favor of using laptops and cell phones to work anywhere.

The impact: Ad folks rebelled against the setup, which was too radical for its time, but Chiat’s idea lives on at WeWork and other coworking spaces.

8. Domestic-partner benefits, 1996

In the same month that Congress banned gay marriage, IBM extended healthcare benefits to its employees’ gay and lesbian partners.

The impact: Corporations helped mainstream LGBTQ rights; in 2015, 379 firms, from Apple to Disney to Target, formally urged the Supreme Court to reverse the Defense of Marriage Act.


9. Going green, 2005

When GE introduced Ecomagination, a suite of environmentally friendly products, it seemed like a joke from the once-notorious polluter.

The impact: GE has generated $270 billion in revenue from products such as windmills; cut greenhouse-gas emissions; and inspired Walmart, PepsiCo, and other giants to be more sustainable.

10. Calling out sexual harassment, 2017

Beleaguered by assault and abuse in the workplace, women are using social media and other platforms to shine a light on wrongdoing.

The impact: Prominent serial predators and bullies have lost their jobs, and enlightened businesses have begun to wrestle with systemic misogyny and long-standing power dynamics.