(Nov. 10, 2008) — In recent weeks, we've all been inundated with endless political vitriol and countless reports about market meltdowns, layoffs, bankruptcies and recession. It can get downright depressing.
Which is why I found the day I spent in New York on Oct. 30 to be just what the doctor ordered — a healthy dose of inspiration, innovation and optimism. The occasion was a one-day event called The Idea Conference (www.idea08.com), organized by Plastics News sister publications Advertising Age and Creativity. One speaker after another gave a dose of what is the best antidote to what ails the U.S. economy — a robust entrepreneurial spirit, accompanied by vision and a passion to succeed while “doing the right thing.”
This country needs to innovate its way out of the current crisis. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says so correctly: Forget about “Drill, baby, drill” — instead, focus on “Invent, baby, invent.”
What made this event so uplifting is, it reaffirmed that such a drive is widespread and well within our grasp. The lineup of 13 speakers was eclectic and many had little to do with plastics or manufacturing. Still, plastics industry executives would have benefited from listening to some of the speakers' stories.
The most plastics-relevant presenter there was Tom Szaky, the 26-year-old founder and chief executive officer of 7-year-old, Trenton, N.J.-based Terracycle Inc., which recycles — or “upcycles” — all sorts of trash into useful consumer products, from flower pots to backpacks.
General Motors Corp.'s Frank Weber, vehicle line executive in charge of the Chevy Volt electric “extended range” passenger car, chimed in to remind the 200-plus attendees that Detroit still can be a reservoir for innovative concepts.
Blake Mycoskie and Nicholas Negroponte underscored how organizations can do well while doing good. Mycoskie talked about how and why he founded Toms Shoes in Santa Monica, Calif. Inspired by an encounter with poor village children during a vacation in Argentina, he launched the company, which gives a pair of shoes to children for every pair it sells. The booming business, founded in May 2006, now commands an enthusiastic army of customers, employees and business partners. It has donated 87,000 pairs of shoes so far, and expects to give away 300,000 pairs of shoes to children in need over the next 12 months. “Giving,” he said, “is a great business strategy.” (Visit www.tomsshoes.com to participate.)
Negroponte, meanwhile, is founder and chairman of the One Laptop per Child organization of Cambridge, Mass., that helped drive the much-reported development of a low-cost, plastics-laden, hand-cranked laptop computer for use in developing nations. Seeing how fast others copied the clever design and mass-production method to drive down laptop prices to $350 and below, Negroponte says he now is intentionally leaking his group's next design — an electronic book that can double as a laptop. The nonprofit OLPC hopes the exposure will again lead to competitive innovation that ultimately will benefit consumers.
Eric Ryan, brand architect and co-founder of San Francisco-based Method — the developer of stylishly packaged, eco-friendly household cleaning products — talked about how he and his roommate turned Method into one of the fastest-growing private companies in America. Ryan considers Method's stylish plastics packaging to be just another form of good merchandising.
Grant Aschatz, owner of Alinea restaurant in Chicago, was driven as a teenager to become a master chef, paid his dues, and together with a partner, achieved his dream of creating the best restaurant in America, according to Gourmet magazine. To do so, Aschatz deconstructed and then put back together all the elements of the dining experience. He then applied the same approach to dealing with the devastating news in July 2007 that he was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the tongue. Three doctors advised the 33-year-old Aschatz he would die in six months if he did not have most of his tongue amputated. Instead, the chef researched alternative treatments, persevered and, for now at least, has been given a clean bill of health.
Bottom line: Creativity, hard work and a strong desire to improve products and the world, in general, has fostered not only a spirit of humanitarianism, but also has led to the creation of some very successful businesses. “Invent, baby, invent!” Now that's a good idea.
Grace is Plastics News editor and associate publisher.