At a time when lack of faith in institutions–government, corporations, and, yes, the news media–seems to be at an all-time high, business and thought leaders who took the stage at Fast Company’s annual Innovation Festival championed the importance of taking a stand, embracing creativity and inclusivity, and finding trusted collaborators. “I really only want to work with partners who share the ambition, understand intuitively what we’re doing, and want to do the same thing,” said Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks. Monroe has teamed up with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment to produce the scripted anthology series Genius–extending a brand traditionally associated with documentaries and wildlife shows. Artist and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams echoed the sentiment when talking about movie executive Chris Meledandri, who persuaded Williams to narrate the 2018 animated version of The Grinch. “I trust Chris in everything that we do together,” he told a packed auditorium at New York’s 92nd Street Y. “The work is so liberating and inspiring, and it elevates me every time.”
Williams and others spoke optimistically about the role creative types will play in shaping the future of business and society: As artificial intelligence enables companies to automate routine tasks, from filling in spreadsheets to reviewing legal documents, employers may come to covet imaginative thinkers who can’t be matched by a machine. While many of us may have grown wary of promises about our rosy AI-driven future, a new generation of designers is actively working to ensure that the next wave of consumer technologies serves all of humanity–and not just the homogenous (highly educated, mostly white, largely male) community that mirrors the engineers who heretofore have dominated software development. “When you are used to being ‘other,’ it’s helpful when you have to think about others,” said Ian Spalter, Instagram’s head of design.
Throughout the festival, held in New York City during a week in October, entrepreneurs and executives alike offered examples of business as a force for positive change in society. Actress Jennifer Garner, a longtime ambassador and trustee of Save the Children, explained that she got into business–last year she helped launch organic baby foods startup Once Upon a Farm–because she saw it as a vehicle for helping improve the way families feed their children. “You can’t expect kids to thrive if we’re not putting good, healthy food in their bellies,” she said. Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian and Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh both talked candidly about business decisions that rankled the gun lobby in the U.S.: After the February 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Bastian ended a group airfare discount Delta had been extending to the National Rifle Association. In September 2018, Levi Strauss & Co. established the Safer Tomorrow Fund, which will grant $1 million to nonprofits and youth activists working to end gun violence.
Bastian and Bergh both took heat for their stances: Bergh says he has received threats, and lawmakers in Delta’s home state of Georgia voted to eliminate a jet-fuel tax break, potentially costing the airline as much as $40 million a year. But neither executive expressed any regret for his decision. “Our values aren’t for sale,” Bastian said, “and I’d do it again.” Bergh was equally unapologetic: “My hope is that other CEOs are going to follow, and that we will encourage the youth who are now marching and emboldened to take this issue on–and empower them to make a change.”
One of those young leaders, Parkland survivor and March for Our Lives cofounder David Hogg, also spoke at the festival. He offered reassuring words to his fellow young activists, but his message is sure to resonate with anyone trying to effect a change.
“The question isn’t, ‘Who are you waiting for?’ ” Hogg said. “It’s: ‘When are you going to do it yourself?'”
Pharrell Williams, Musical artist, designer, and entrepreneur
“Isn’t it crazy that in 2018 we’re still looking for underground routes to freedom?”
Chris Meledandri, Founder and CEO, Illumination Entertainment
“You have to create empathy. You have to create a tone of what our country needs right now.”
Chip Conley, Strategic adviser, Airbnb
“That’s the new sharing economy–sharing wisdom across generations.”
Ed Bastian, CEO, Delta Air Lines
“I want to be in the middle of what’s going on. That’s why I fly coach, because I want to hear from the customers.”
Brian Grazer, Chairman, Imagine Entertainment
“We just did what interested us.”
Ian Spalter, Head of design, Instagram
“Invest in the metaskills that help you adapt. Being able to draw or write clearly, these basic things will pay off.”
David Hogg, Cofounder, March for Our Lives
“Empowerment is not something given to you, it’s something you give to yourself.”
Larry Wilmore, Host, Black on the Air
A joke is truth concentrate–the most amount of truth in the shortest amount of words.”
Chip Bergh, President and CEO, Levi Strauss & Co.
“In a world that is increasingly divided, where governments are pulling away from some of their responsibilities, CEOs have a moral obligation to weigh in.”
Tina Sharkey, Cofounder and CEO, Brandless
“The brand becomes the platform for the customers to be heard, for the products to tell their own stories, and to express the purpose and meaning of the company’s larger mission.”
Sara Blakely, Founder, Spanx
“Humor is important. I don’t believe you have to act serious to be taken seriously.”
Daniella Vitale, CEO, Barneys New York
“Experience today is a younger generation’s currency.”
Gigi Pritzker, Cofounder and CEO, MWM
“When the established community says you can’t figure out how to do it.”
Scooter Braun, Founder, SB Projects
“Success and failure are neighbors. They live right next door.”
John Foraker and Jennifer Garner, Cofounders, Once Upon a Farm
“We’ve got to do a better job of feeding our kids,” says Garner.