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Leading With Optimism: Fast Company’s Message to Innovators

The importance of human connections emerged as a central theme of the magazine’s third annual innovation festival. See what CEOs and other leaders had to say.

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Help others figure themselves out by sharing your own experience.

Lena Waithe
Actor and screenwriter

Emmy-winning actor and screenwriter Lena Waithe — best known for her role on the critically acclaimed Netflix series Master of None — took to the stage before a captive audience in New York last month. But she wasn’t acting. She was talking about the power of human connection in creativity — including, but also beyond, the performing arts. Joined by BuzzFeed Founder and CEO Jonah Peretti at the third-annual Fast Company Innovation Festival, she discussed the importance of connecting through learning, mentoring and coaching, rather than working in competitive silos. That combined human experience, the pair said, is more powerful than individuals acting independently. “Help others figure themselves out by sharing your own experience,” Waithe said.

Sharing her experience is exactly what earned Waithe an Emmy — making her the first black woman ever to win for comedy writing — earlier this year. In a similar way, personal experience and human connection have factored into the success of BuzzFeed, Peretti said. Viral quizzes and lists, such as “27 Signs You Were Raised by Asian Immigrant Parents,” often garner millions of views and transcend barriers, Peretti said. “It says, ‘This is how I grew up. You probably don’t understand it, but look at this content and maybe you’ll start to understand it,’” he said.

Connecting to Stay Ahead of the Curve

Big or small, the most successful companies are connecting with people in innovative ways. Starbucks, for example, is greatly expanding its digital connections with customers, CEO Kevin Johnson said, and innovating with empathy (such as the convenience of placing a mobile order) every step of the way. At the same time, it’s cultivating its stores to be destination hotspots where people go to connect, rather than simply grab a cup of coffee. “We have been true to our values and culture that are grounded in a unique mission — a mission statement to inspire and nurture the human spirit one person, one cup, one community at a time,” Johnson said. “It’s about the heart; it’s about the human connection.”

The virtue that gives you a leadership position is the thing being disrupted in the next phase.

Jim Hackett
CEO, Ford Motor Co.

Maintaining those connections can mean giving up the virtue that made you great, however. “That is the evolution of competition or emergence,” said Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford Motor Co. “The virtue that gives you a leadership position is the thing being disrupted in the next phase.” Ford is injecting customer-centric innovation into every new introduction, Hackett says, from “smart vehicles in a smart world” that find the closest empty parking space to the company’s on-demand ride-sharing strategy called Chariot, now on the road in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Seattle and Austin. “In predicting the moment of disruption, you’re getting the company fit for what else might emerge,” he said.

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Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are innovating the ways they connect with and attract customers too. Italian shoe seller M.Gemi showed exactly how by way of a brand-new studio in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. The company sells high-quality, handmade shoes directly to consumers at what it calls “fair, not inflated” prices. It incorporates video storytelling about topics such as process and authenticity into its e-commerce platform. And it does a new shoe drop each Monday, with designs driven by customer feedback and engagement in studios and in pop-up stores.

Connecting to Deliver Good

FedEx Panel
Thomas Tighe of Direct Relief discussed the idea of giving back with, from left to right, Andrea Sreshta of LuminAID, Rose Flenorl of FedEx and Erin Schulte of Fast Company.

Throughout the event, one thing was apparent — everyone from nonprofits to corporations to agencies is focused on giving back. One example is FedEx, which hosted a panel about how companies can thrive by giving back. One of the participants, Thomas Tighe, CEO of Direct Relief, shared how FedEx has helped his humanitarian aid organization overcome logistical challenges, especially during disasters such as the 2017 hurricanes. “The supply chains get broken and you have to do a lot more rapidly without great information,” he said. “No one better to help figure out how to tackle those problems than FedEx.” Thanks in part to help from FedEx, Tighe said, Direct Relief has become the largest charitable medicine program in the U.S.

Connecting the world with logistics expertise extends to other areas too. “We care about our carbon footprint,” said Rose Flenorl, manager of global citizenship at FedEx, “so we’re always doing research and looking for organizations that support that and can help us do that in communities, especially in those emerging markets around the world. And we have the expertise to help those communities look at what’s the right mix. … We can be consultants.” Tina Duong, who oversees sustainable urban transportation programs for the EMBARQ arm of the World Resources Institute, expanded on the point. “We joined up with FedEx because we’ve always said that the business of moving goods is a lot like the business of moving people,” she said. “We’ve been working with them to tap into that knowledge and know-how to help our cities figure out what to do with their [bus] fleets … and FedEx is helping us accelerate our work.” Together, Duong said, the organizations have helped 4 million people in Brazil, Mexico, China and India, and eliminated 40,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions.

LuminAID, a 2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest winner and FedEx customer — whose solar-powered lights are an important part of disaster relief — joined in on the conversation. Co-Founder Andrea Sreshta said that although FedEx has helped her company understand practicalities such as shipping lithium ion batteries, the most surprising connection has been to other small businesses. “They network all the winning companies together, and we all constantly stay in touch,” she said. “Even though we’re different businesses, the nice thing is a lot of our problems and challenges are the same, so it’s really good to find those networks.”

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WATCH: Check out the 2017 Fast Company Innovation Festival panel discussion with FedEx, Direct Relief, EMBARQ and LuminAID.

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