Whitney Wolfe Herd and Mark Parker might not seem to have much in common. Wolfe Herd, the 30-year-old cover subject of our October issue “Herd Mentality,” is the founder and CEO of Bumble, a privately held company with a reported $300 million in annual revenue that’s best known for its dating app, in which women initiate contact. Parker is the 63-year-old CEO of Nike, an athletic shoe and gear leviathan that does $39 billion in annual revenue—and is Fast Company‘s 2019 Design Company of the Year. But both have endured harsh criticism recently for high-profile business decisions. In March 2018, Wolfe Herd and her colleagues received threats of violence after she banned most images that contained firearms and other weapons from the Bumble app—a response to the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Parker’s September 2018 decision to run an ad campaign built around former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick led to a boycott called by politicians and conservative commentators. His decision this past July to stop distributing a shoe featuring a colonial-era American flag led to yet another. (Kaepernick and others had noted that the flag image had been co-opted by white nationalist groups.)
Business leaders have always had to make hard financial and strategic choices, such as whether to lay off employees or discontinue a project that’s not working. Increasingly, though, they are finding themselves in the spotlight for the tough calls they make about what their companies stand for. Wolfe Herd has always positioned Bumble as a “kinder internet,” and she said the ban on gun photos aligned with her mission of making her users feel safe. Asked why she was willing to risk alienating existing users who might disagree with her decision, Wolfe Herd told Time: “We will always put our values above our bottom line. End of story.” Similarly, when Fast Company senior writer Mark Wilson asked Parker about the criticism he’s weathered, the CEO said: “That’s not a reason not to have a voice. It’s important for me personally, but also for the company, to stand for some values.”
Google, the world’s most powerful company, confronts questions about its values every day, and its push into artificial intelligence might make current disputes over whether or not to accept controversial government contracts seem almost quaint. As contributor Katrina Brooker details in her story, “Google on the Brain,” the strides the company is making with AI research will unleash a new set of ethical dilemmas surrounding privacy, human rights, job security, and corporate power, not to mention machine control, since this technology will be clever enough to learn and make decisions on its own. Consider its AlphaGo Zero software, which, programmed only with the rules of the board game Go, taught itself to become one of the greatest players in the world. Imagine the implications for humanity when exponentially more advanced AI can be applied to monetary policy, or national defense. When the time comes, what values, to paraphrase Parker, will Google CEO Sundar Pichai stand for? Society—and the machines—will be watching.