Guillotines and Talking Heads at the ‘Fast Company Innovation Festival’

Since Monday, a Financial District convention center called “Convene” has been taken over by the “Fast Company Innovation Festival,” the business magazine’s annual “celebration of business and creativity.” This year’s iteration is Fast Company’s eighth, although the magazine has been hosting innovation-related events along these lines since 1997, when it launched a proto-social network called the “Company of Friends” whose members filtered into regular conferences around the country. Those events — they preferred the term “gatherings” — were “light on hard information and heavy on motivational speakers,” the New York Times wrote in 1998, often resembling “some sort of Tony Robbins inspirational jamboree.” The magazine presented itself as more of a radical movement than a media company, at the intersection of “Harvard Business Review and Rolling Stone.” When it came to its live events, this yielded odd amalgams of cultural programming and corporate training sessions, as in, for the Times, “a seminar by a dance troupe about how to ‘out-dance the competition.'”

Twenty-odd years later, Fast Company has become less of a New Age outsider in the world of financial outlets, mostly because its original philosophy —”a concordantly boosterish, quasi-mythical universe,” a 2000 Times article read, “in which managers are enlightened, labor unions are unnecessary, and any ill social or economic consequences” can be countered by philanthropy — has become the status quo. That much is clear from the 2022 festival’s schedule, which lists events like “In Defense of Stakeholder Capitalism,” “How to Be an Empathetic Boss,” and “Discover NYC’s Newest Neighborhood: ‘Manhattan West,'” the latter of which was presented by the real estate developer that owns Zuccotti Park and had Occupy Wall Street protesters evicted back in 2011. The “Company of Friends” is gone, but FC has befriended a stable of high-profile celebrities — Judd Apatow, Billy Eichner, Jamie Lee Curtis , Jennifer Garner, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, among them — who stopped by the conference to expound upon this year’s theme: “Innovation Unbound.”

These presentations were largely consistent with Fast Company’s business-friendly approach to arts-adjacent programming — which is why comic Wayne Brady was onstage Tuesday afternoon explaining what improv could do for business. Brady’s particular unbound innovation was the plan he announced last year to build “an improv empire,” or as Variety put it, “a business consulting firm that uses the tenets of improvisational acting to help coach executives and other leaders.” His concept is something like a celebrity-sponsored team-building exercise: good improv requires listening and building off your scene partner — for its central tenant “yes, and” — and the business world could benefit from both. Combining two of the world’s most destructive forces (corporate bonding and improv comedy) isn’t an especially novel idea. But Brady, one of 30 Rock‘s funniest guest stars, sold it pretty well in the scenes he demonstrated onstage. The man is good at making stuff up, and also at recreating believable sound effects. I was charmed against my will.

Innovation, in this context, is one of those somewhat meaningless buzzwords that repackages a familiar idea as a revolutionary ethos ripe with potential for disruption, and the highest-profile panels seemed to operate along similar lines. The day after Brady’s presentation, for example, America’s first gay man Billy Eichner and Judd Apatow took the stage alongside Universal Pictures Chairwoman Donna Langley to talk about Bros, the first-ever gay rom-com from a major studio, and the “reinvention” of the rom-com. The panel couldn’t quite agree on whether the rom-com had in fact been reinvented; at various times, the members alleged that the genre had died off after the 90s, and alternatively that it lived on in the entirety of Apatow’s oeuvre. They did screen a clip of the film, which I’ve heard is very funny despite its inscrutable promo campaign, in which Eichner’s character seems to predict the recent Adam Levine sexting scandal (“What, is Maroon 5 writing your texts?”). It was the rare moment during the conference when a presenter showed any talent at foreseeing the future.

Brady and Eichner’s panels at least attempted to live up to the theme. The other celebrity events did not. Jamie Lee Curtis showed up to talk about Halloween Endswhich was novel in that the movie just came out, less so in that it is the 13th installment of a horror franchise that debuted in 1978. She appeared alongside production studio Blumhouse’s CEO Jason Blum, and proceeded to be refreshingly charming for 45 minutes while also debuting an exciting new talking point: in the same way the 2018’s Halloween was abouttrauma,” and this year’s installment is about “bullying,” 2021’s Halloween Kills was about “mob violence,” of which she accidentally listed as examples both the George Floyd protests and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Priyanka Chopra Jonas made a last-minute appearance Thursday morning to weigh in on streaming, and Jennifer Garner closed out the day with a session on her organic baby food company, Once Upon a Farm. At the latter, Garner and her co-founder, former Annie’s exec John Foraker, made the case that they had introduced the concept of “fresh” baby food to the American market. This would have perhaps seemed more innovative if they hadn’t made the same case at the same festival four years ago.

The only panel that elicited genuine surprise was a much more sparsely attended session called “Employees Strike Back: A Look at the New Worker Moment,” featuring three labor activists — Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants; Saket Soni, the founder of Resilience Force, which has been organizing disaster recovery workers; and Chris Smalls, the now-famous president of the Amazon Labor Union. Hosting a labor-related event was clearly out of Fast Company’s wheelhouse (perhaps evidenced by their use of the word “employees”), and the moderator, an endearingly nervous editor, was visibly aware that the crowd mainly comprised the executives and HR personnel labor is “striking back” against. At one point, he asked everyone to raise their hands if they were in a union; you could count the number of hands on two hands.

In a line-up of speakers who catered their talks to the corporate audience, Smalls was the only person who seemed sincerely off-script. “Let’s talk about bosses first,” the moderator said at one point, “What is coming for them, I guess, as this movement continues?” Nelson, a persuasive speaker in her own right, gave a diplomatic answer that shareholder capitalism had put CEOs, as well as workers, in their own kind of bind. Unions, she argued, “put power back in the hands of the CEO, because the CEO gets to say, ‘No, we can’t do stock buybacks, we’ve got to reinvest in the company.'” Smalls followed up more bluntly:

We’re just sending direct messages to the CEO that enough is enough. We’re not going to take being mistreated anymore. We’ve been at their front doors, and we’ll continue to be at their front doors. You know, if I had anything to do with it, there might be a guillotine outside. But I’ll keep it professional.

You could see the blood leave the moderator’s face when Smalls said “guillotine,” although the ten union members in the crowd cracked up. He got a bigger laugh later on, when the moderator asked about the National Labor Relations Board and its struggle to serve the labor movement with limited resources. “Where are our tax dollars really going?” Smalls answered. “If they could give $10 billion to Amazon for Jeff Bezos to fly his penis rocket up to space, then they can give $10 billion to the NLRB so that they can be funded to hire more staff.” The moderator tried to move on (“I’m just going to move on”), but Smalls had managed to win the room over. The laughter was too loud to hear the next question. “It does look like a penis,” the mod conceded, “I don’t know what else to tell you.”

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