Impact Council leaders offer their predictions for 2021

The CEOs of Zoetis, Tillamook, Saffron Road, Farmer’s Fridge, and other forward-thinking leaders tell us what to expect in the new year.

Impact Council leaders offer their predictions for 2021
[Photos: Magda Ehlers/Pexels; Diego Jimenez/Unsplash]

What will 2021 bring? The members of the Fast Company Impact Council—an invitation-only collective of leaders from a range of industries—shared their predictions for technology, health, the workplace, design, and entrepreneurship new year. Edited excerpts follow:


Miguel Quiroga, CEO, Visible
“Consumers are going to want to do business with brands that create a safe space, particularly as it relates to things like data and reputation management. It’s going to matter a lot more particularly now, when people are challenged economically or [going] through health challenges.”

Kristin Peck, CEO, Zoetis
“One of the key trends for 2021 is going to be this new flexible work style. Think about what that trend—where people consume every type of product—means for our respective businesses. And what does that mean for how we innovate? It’s going to be a big opportunity for companies who are really good at reaching the consumer where they are, and making their lives at home easier.”

Guru Gowrappan, CEO, Verizon Media
The new paradigm for mental health is emerging and the pandemic brought many of the mental health issues we faced as a society privately to light and brought these conversations to the mainstream.  As CEOs and companies begin prioritizing and supporting mental health, the most forward-thinking organizations will use key learnings from mental health training to take action and drive change. The key in the year ahead is no longer only understanding and de-stigmatizing mental health issues but also creating a community of support and employee benefits that reflect those intentions, which includes policies and practices that protect and advocate for employees. We’re amplifying these efforts to become a leading advocate for mental health in the workplace and creating a culture of acceptance and support for all.”


 Adnan Durrani, founder and CEO, Saffron Road Foods
“Unlike the last three recessions, you’re seeing lower-income households trading up to buy value-based brands, and paying premiums for them. Unlike the last three recessions, this is a health pandemic and people got a little tired of lasagna and pizza, maybe even ice cream, and they’re now going to start to focus on healthier foods. That’s one of my predictions, that even the lower-income households will continue to have stronger affinity toward value-based brands.”

Fletcher Previn, chief information officer, IBM
“There’ll be an acceleration of I.T. modernization in general. The companies that were headed down that path already were better able to weather the stress we’ve been through this year. And so that will set in motion a whole bunch of activity next year. We’ll see a real kind of renaissance of innovation in these productivity tools. You started to see it with things like virtual backgrounds, noise cancellation, and being able to indicate voting yes or no with head gestures and [teleconferences] evolving from the Brady Bunch or the Hollywood Squares into a more natural meeting-like experience the way you normally experience that in real life. As we try to retain the flexibility [of] work-from-anywhere and combine it with the benefits that you get of being together, there’s going to be a whole technology revolution in terms how we collaborate and how we use these tools.”

Sebastian Schulze, cofounder and CEO, Fit Analytics
“Software and technology continue to eat the world. We believe that AI adoption will become commonplace, 10 years’ worth of digital transformation happened in a matter of months due to the pandemic. In 2021 we can expect more companies implementing A.I. solutions to strengthen their automated, personalized, and contactless experiences.”


Cristiano Amon, president, Qualcomm
“[The] phone call as we know it is forever changed. 2021 will be the year video telephony will be your first choice when you call anybody. Zoom has become a verb in many languages. With the hybrid work models, it is here to stay. I [also] expect continued and broader convergence of the enterprise and home. Enterprise-quality broadband and Wi-Fi mesh networks will become increasingly common in the home, as will redesigned, connected PCs with enhanced security for collaboration, remote productivity and entertainment.”

Marianne Wu, managing director, 40 North Ventures
“We have seen with the pandemic, and we’ll continue to see in 2021, people really embracing purpose. We’ll see, in the tech and innovation space, a kind of broadening of the focus. The venture and startup industry has been criticized of late for being very focused on trivial kinds of applications. The maturity of some of those segments, as well as this orientation around purpose [means] we’ll see this continued push into greater productivity and impact-focused areas like healthcare, education, energy, and climate, where you can feel like you’re doing something good at the same time as you’re doing something interesting and important.”

Luke Saunders, founder and CEO, Farmer’s Fridge
“Our business had a strong presence in the urban core, feeding people going into their offices every day, and we saw about 90% of that go away overnight in March. You’re going to see a lot of disruption in the urban core, and how people are feeding people that go back to work, whether it’s a cafeteria or a new QSR [quick service restaurant] concept.”


Bradley Lukanic, CEO, CannonDesign
“The last year rapidly accelerated change in the built world. Designers and government officials alike will explore new ways to repurpose and adapt, especially in urban environments, during 2021. One can only imagine the innovative event programming and planning of our parks, streets and urban spaces as great opportunities to connect communities in new and diverse ways,”

Linda Ong, founder and CEO, Cultique
“People have been writing about the death of demographics for decades. The election has really proven that people don’t vote monolithically based on their age or their race or their sexual orientation. So what we’re really anticipating is the rise of more anthropological, cultural measurements. We’re anticipating that cultural segmentation is going to become very, very valuable.”

Leighanne Levensaler, executive vice president, corporate strategy, Workday and managing director and co-head, Workday Ventures
“‘Skills’ has started to sound like a buzzword as more companies adopt skills-based talent strategies. But with the pandemic changing the way we work; the conversation has reached a fever pitch. There’s been a shock to the system, accelerating investment in continuous learning and the skills needed for predictable unpredictability of business. Technology advancements—that created the disruption and serve as solutions to this skills movement—will be center stage next year.”


Aditi Javeri Gokhale, chief commercial officer and president, investment products and services, Northwestern Mutual
“Financial planning will become more of a “team sport”. The work-from-home environment and virtual meetings mean that financial professionals aren’t just meeting with one individual client in an office—they’re meeting with whole family and getting a closer glimpse (literally) into the lives they’re impacting. This format also invites other experts—from tax to estate planners—to join check-ins and be connected to the plan. This will lead to more engaged, and invested, advisors and clients.”

Patrick Criteser, president and CEO, Tillamook County Creamery Association
“I think we’re going to see a recovery fueled by an amazing research and entrepreneurship. We’re going to see things like massive investment in sustainable energy. We’re seeing consumer trends around wanting more transparency, [higher] quality, and lower environmental impact. The banks are strong. We’re going to have an entrepreneurial era unlike any we’ve seen before.”

Cindy Eckert, CEO, The Pink Ceiling
“Companies with exceptional customer service with leave others in the dust in 2021. It has been my experience that many companies during COVID have adopted what I call “Customer Distancing”—and not out of necessity. Over the last nine months, I’ve called countless businesses and been placed on never ending holds with pre-recorded excuses for why it’s justified, only to be struck by how now, more than ever, they should be leaning into customer service. There is always a path to connect with customers. Turn on a chat function, digitally surprise and delight, send out handwritten notes in packages. Imagination remains free even in a pandemic. 2021 will be all about customer service. And how fitting that we reconsider how to ‘deliver happiness’ on the heels of losing [Zappos founder Tony Hsieh,] the visionary who showed us it absolutely can be done.”


Jeff Semenchuk, senior vice president and chief innovation officer, Blue Shield of California
“2020 showed us that we need to think bigger and faster in terms of innovating our healthcare system. And while it allowed for us to progress in telehealth adoption and new payment models, it has illuminated areas where we still have so many deficiencies. So, my hope is that for 2021, and in the coming years, that we go from “how might we” change thorny issues, to creating and implementing better solutions for interoperability and standardization of medical records, mental health, managed care for patients with chronic conditions, preventive and holistic care resources, as well as health equity.”

Barie Carmichael, Batten Fellow, Darden Graduate Business School, University of Virginia
“I foresee a lot of corporate policy issues that haven’t been considered in terms of vaccination questions. If you have essential employees [who are] required to work, what are you going to do to ensure they can get vaccinated? Or are you going to require vaccination in order to, to enter the workplace? Company legacies are being determined on how you think through and established policies at this time.”

Joe Kiani, founder, chairman, and CEO, Masimo
“We have a bright future ahead of us. I think the “Roaring Twenties” will return. I’m excited about the vaccine. I’m hoping by June life will turn back to normal. [President-elect] Biden…is going to pay attention to the cancer moonshot again, and we’re going to hopefully see some real improvements in what’s possible for our health.”