This past week, more than 5,000 professionals from around the globe gathered at the Synergy Global Forum, "A Masterclass in Disruption," in New York to network and listen to some of the most forward-thinking minds of our times. The conference, of Eastern European origin, was held this time at Madison Square Garden. It was originally launched in 2015, and this year marked the first time it was held on American soil.
Throughout the two-day conference, themes ranged from the future of tech to the obliteration of institutional pillars of society, and some of the headliners included The Wolf of Wall St. himself, Jordan Belfort; Malcolm Gladwell, Robin Wright and Virgin Founder, Richard Branson. Despite there being many brilliant talks covering a number of noteworthy issues, an undercurrent emerged; that in today's world of commoditized information, there are certain values that the next generation of success stories must adhere to. Among them; empathy, humility and philanthropy. But perhaps the standout was the fact we need to start correcting the mistakes of the past using cutting-edge technology, rather than just continuing to build businesses and rich CEOs.
The event's afterparty, which was held at the Hammerstein Ballroom and featured Paris Hilton as a costumed DJ (after all, it was Halloween weekend), had a decidedly quirky vibe. A mismatched crowd of Halloweeners who paid to see the heiress on the decks, and suited conference goers stomped the old ballroom until the wee hours. With the Saturday talks beginning early, it meant for quite a few sore-headed early risers.
Below, we've rounded up some essential takeaways from the future-forward conference on everything from sales, to tech, to the power of the branding in this age of copycat businesses.
Richard Branson. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Eagle
1. Choose optimism
Given the recent headlines, it's not hard to be all gloom and doom these days, but according to media mogul, Gary Vaynerchuk, choosing optimism can make all the difference for future success. He went on to say that if you're one of the people thinking on the bright side of things you have a leg up when it comes to launching a business and even dealing with others. “People default to cynicism," he told the crowd. “I always believe I'm going to win even when I lose."
2. There's only one currency: attention
“We're all battling for attention," said Vaynerchuk, also emphasizing the importance of creating mobile-first content. One of the first to pioneer email marketing, Vaynerchuk said that in order to keep top of mind, you have to embrace all options at your disposal, including whatever platforms are new and still untested. The media are great advocates for “buying underpriced attention" and forgetting the common misconception that being “completely organic" in your audience reach matters.
“When it's not so easy, that's when you figure out who you are."
3. Brand bold, brand hard
Richard Branson attributes the success of Virgin to his emboldened (and life-threatening) branding devices. When you live in an era of copycat businesses - what makes your business different from others if it serves exactly the same purpose. Take for example Lyft and Uber, or Birchbox and Glossybox - it's your ideas, your profile, that defines your brand. With this in mind, Branson has made some whimsical and frankly crazy, branding decisions to promote Virgin. Not in the least, this hilarious stunt poking fun at British Airways inability to get the The London Eye off the ground, that lead to the viral headline, “BA Can't Get It Up."
4. It's not a race
Everyone wants to invent something that will make their brand go viral overnight. Not so, said Vaynerchuk, adding that entrepreneurs need to stop “thinking in 50-day terms" and instead think of the big picture. “Life is long and doing the right thing matters.", he said reiterating the importance of giving back.
"Nothing really happens until someone sells something - no matter what business you're in,"
5. “The internet of things" is the next big revolution
OK so we all know about Alexa, but did you know that more of our everyday items are on their way to becoming smarter? A few of the speakers referenced the fact that we are moving towards intuitive automation in a way that will fuse seamlessly into our lives. “Within five years everyone will be interacting with an AI voice," said Vaynerchuk.
6. Emotional intelligence is most valuable
In an age where access to information is becoming commoditized, a creative mind has never been more important. “We're in between the real world and the digital world," Vaynerchuk said, adding that there is no alternative for good old fashioned ethics, empathy and hard work. “Doing the right thing is always the right thing."
The Future Of The Tech Revolution Panel
7. And speaking of emotion, sales is basically just a transfer of emotion
According to the events salesmen du jour, Belfort, “at its highest level sales is just a transference of emotion." famously jailed for money laundering and securities fraud, Belfort happens to know a thing or two about the emotion of selling, whether over the phone, online or in person. Building trust has evolved as with everything in marketing. The basic principles are still there, but the devices to garner trust have shifted. Now, brands begin by utilizing Snapchat and Instagram to create a feeling of good faith, because 85 percent of millennials will buy only from people they trust. “If they don't trust you - will they buy your stuff?" asked Belfort. “No fuckin' way!"
"If you see a situation where something isn't being done well by other people - you jump in and you try to sort it out,"
8. Bitcoin -v- the banks? Banks will lose
Banking is on its way out, according to Jennifer Fonstad, who believes the recent buzz around Bitcoin doesn't bode well for financial institutions. Per the above, trust in brands is defining the millennial generation - and having grown up in the era of the Great Recession, where the mistakes of the big banks have changed the course of the last two decades, we would hazard a guess Fonstad is on the button here.
9. Don't stay "romantic"
What got you here won't get you there. “So many of you try and hold on to what made you money and you make excuses about why something new won't work," said Vaynerchuk, who implored audience members to keep reinventing themselves, and their businesses as technology continues to evolve.“You have to love getting dirty." He said that despite many being afraid of social media. You have to be on social media but you have to be smart about it, "It's a race between Facebook and Instagram."
10. College is the next vestigial organ
One recurring theme of the day was the fact that college institutions are on the verge of becoming obsolete. Repeated by no less than three speakers including Naveen Jain, Richard Branson and Malcolm Gladwell, we thought the notion was best summarized in the following words: “The world we live in today is the reason for chronic unemployment. We need an education system that teaches to learn to learn," said Jain.
He went on to explain how, in a four-year college degree, a student will no doubt emerge well-educated, but that education will be rendered useless because of the pace of informational substance today. What's relevant at 3pm on a Monday in 2017 can become completely ineffectual by noon on Tuesday, thus rendering the purpose of college as it is today, obsolete.
11. Reputation is everything (of course we already knew that, right?)
But did we forget? “You live your life on record," reminds Vaynerchuk. “Every action is being seen." It might seem obvious, but he went on to say that because we live so much of our lives on mobile we may forget that everything is being monitored, saved and tracked. “What people say about you behind your back is more important than what they say in from of you," said Vaynerchuk. “Your reputation is your brand."
12. We should be playing soccer, not basketball
When Wall Street billionaire John Paulson gave a $400 million dollar grant to Harvard, esteemed journalist and thought-leader Malcolm Gladwell had a lot to say about it. Among the choice tweets he sent- to point out the ridiculousness of putting more money into the wealthiest college in our country- our personal favorite was “If billionaires don't step up, Harvard will soon be down to its last $30 billion." He went on to say that, as a society, we need to be put more funding towards at-risk and marginalized communities. He used a sports analogy to illustrate his point, that in basketball a team only needs a few top players to win every game, but in soccer, every player is crucial for victory. “We're giving more amenities to the wealthy to make an already amazing life even more amazing. We're not thinking there are people suffering," said Gladwell. “What direction are we heading in as a society?"
13. Space may become Main Street
Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are in a tight race to get the first group of non-astronauts (aka the neighbourhood doctor, your girlfriend, the local bodega cashier) up to space. And Branson, despite setbacks and an extended timeline, is confident that by the end of next year he will get the first group of 500 people up in space. “We're the only space line that has a ship in the shape of an airplane," remarked Branson, which ultimately means that when the astros are returning to earth they won't have to parachute back - they will land on wheels. This serves to make infinite the possibilities for people wishing to go.
“We strengthen ourselves by strengthening our weakest link."
14. Hackers are as good, if not better, than us.
The game has changed. And people like Edward Snowden, who had gambling issues among other personality deficiencies, have access. Breaches in the digital age are a serious concern said Gladwell, adding that because of the sheer number of people in our country with security clearance: 845K to be exact, there's a new set of rules. “A generation ago the job of national security was to monitor a very small number of key players, now the job is to monitor everyone, down to and including people on the very very lowest rung. People who wouldn't show up on any organization chart, people who are so junior that they've been fired a few times, have massive behavioral issues and we don't even know why they have security clearance but they do."
Additionally, hackers are innate at networking among themselves, where government agencies have a tendency to fight with each other over information and data sharing.
15. The self-driving car will break the market, no matter the risks
“Change is always scary for the human condition so it will always be two steps forward, one step back. Putting a device in your brain will terrify some people but what may seem scary at first will eventually be an opportunity," Jennifer Fonstad commented. We're conditioned to be skeptical about change, but advancements will always trump skepticism. Branson too harkened back to the cautionary tale of Concorde. “The demise of Concorde was, for the first time in history, technology going backward," he said - admonishing the idea of scare tactics when it comes to change. Yes, it will be scary, but it will also be worth it.
16. “We all make mistakes"
From Belfort to Branson everyone was instructing the crowds to embrace their mistakes. “What I learned in that fail paved the way for every success I've had," said Belfort, who is a veritable expert on overcoming his past errors to create a better future (cue: two novels and a blockbuster movie). Branson is also no stranger to mistakes. In 1998 he made the mistake of going up against Coca-Cola with his Virgin Cola and was immediately squashed by the giants when he arrived in the U.S to promote his contender.
17. "The world is your market"
In the age of the internet, Instagram, and target geographical marketing - “there are no borders," said Branson. In this way, entrepreneurs are at a huge advantage over the likes of Branson who started off with no internet and when the government had a controlling stake in all of the big enterprises in Britain. Your reach is infinite and your product can go anywhere. “Us entrepreneurs, we don't see borders," Branson told the crowd. "We see this world as one world, and we see people as one people."
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.