My Take on the Future of Everything

Embark on a New York City midweek getaway? Get a glimpse into the future of work, money, cities, food and happiness from leaders grappling with these and other big topics as we - and technological innovation - speed ahead? 

I accepted that invitation, spending May 8 and 9 at Spring Studios in Tribeca attending the Wall Street Journal-sponsored Future of Everything Festival (FOEF) Because I didn’t see any of you there (or maybe I did?), I offer for your consideration the best of my takeaways from the interviews and presentations I attended - all focused on what the future ahead of us looks like. 

1. Can you be politically neutral as a CEO in the future? This was a question asked of Chobani Inc.'s CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, who responded with a resounding no: “It is our responsibility to make the difference we feel needs to happen in the world.” Among his top priorities: creating “stakeholder employees” with shared ownership, reducing income inequality and providing six weeks of paid leave for all parents (he waxed rhapsodic about his own one- month old son and the Dad’s Club he recently created at headquarters). And Ulukaya has a clear point of view on what a “good job” looks like. The big point: inspirational leadership matters and will continue to matter - and it pays off. 

2. Cool – and successful - companies are being built with mobile in mind. Salad chain Sweetgreen has gone cashless in financially transacting with all of its partners and customers. Co-founder and CEO, Jonathan Neman made the case that operating without cash is safer for employees (no theft), cleaner (money is dirty, especially for food handlers) and more efficient (pre-ordering allows quick and transaction-less pickup). Neman’s focus on seasonal and local food sourcing, creating a healthy food ethos, and doing good in the communities in which Sweetgreen operates makes him a CEO to watch. 

3. AI is disrupting the recruiting and hiring process. Angela Antony (Scoutable), Steve Goodman (Restless Bandit) and Frida Polli (pymetrics) offered their perspectives on the advances that AI presents in connecting people with jobs. Their belief: that both hiring organizations and candidates will benefit, and that one big challenge in hiring - unconscious bias - will be reduced. It is clear that the biggest splash AI can make in hiring is still ahead of us, and all agreed that people still matter in recruiting and landing best fit employees. (My take: job seekers - no matter how they connect with potential jobs- need to bring their A-game to the table: crystallizing a distinctive personal brand (what they do so well, what they want to contribute and why it matters) and then relentlessly communicating on those points.

4. Brain science and workspace design are partnering up. Developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules, John Medina, reminded us that our brains are optimized (and stress is reduced) when we exist in boundary-less green spaces - not conference rooms and cubicles. He’s recently partnered up with Ryan Mullinex, Workplace Design Partner at NBBJ, not only in the recent creation of Amazon’s Spheres but also in re-designing workspaces all over the world to optimize brain health, and foster optimal team dynamics and productivity.  

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5. Millennials are about experiences, not stuff. According to millennial financial advisors Erin Lowry (Broke Millennial) and Tonya Rapley (My Fab Finance), millennials care more about having unique experiences, and less about acquiring material goods. Like the rest of us, they also need help with money management, and save less than the national average (to be fair, they also engage in more jobs that lack retirement benefit savings plans). Erin and I spoke afterward about her upbringing and how she made her way to this field, and, just for the record, I found this millennial to be smart, inspiring, thoughtful and accountable. 

6. We’re still trying to define what happiness really is, now and for the future. I spoke with Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton (of "How to Buy Happiness" Ted talk fame) and Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project) who agreed that, for all the research that’s been done on what constitutes happiness, researchers are still wrestling with this all-important question. They did agree on the fact that it’s easier to track, measure, and feel relative happiness (we are more conscious that we are happier this year than last year, for example), and re-confirmed the age-old notion that money doesn’t buy happiness (and that it hurts big when you DON’T have it, and when you do, you take it for granted). 

Some final thoughts:

With few exceptions, the leaders I heard from understand the gravity and value of emotional intelligence. No matter how sexy the technology, no matter how ground-breaking the innovation, to be successful, organizations still need leaders who are high in EI- who are both self aware and able to interact on a high level with others.  

Many (if not all) of the groundbreaking products and ideas I saw and heard about were built upon - really, adapted from - concepts, products and practices of “the past”. Far from an “out with the old, in with the new” mindset, many future designs and plans pay homage to what existed before. Gadi Amit, (principal designer at NewDealDesign LLC) is creating a virtual wallet which mirrors the feeling of how we spend cash, stating that he values keeping “some of the good elements of culture and heritage with us."

AI is not replacing the human factor anytime soon. Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, in his talk “Bracing for Impact- AI at Work” said: “Machines will always need to be accountable to people”.  

Would I attend FOEF again?

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The short answer- yes. It’s great (and heat-creating) to get out of one’s comfort zone. While technological innovation and I aren’t the closest of friends, at FOEF, I pushed myself to listen, understand and even hold conversations with tech folks, and came away both more curious and positive about the road ahead. If you’re seeking an opportunity to break free from your "today", ponder what "tomorrow" might look like, and see what connections you can make to your own life and work, this may be the conference for you.

Onward!