From the DealBook Summit: Leaders Look Into the Future

This article is part of our special section on the DealBook Summit that included business and policy leaders from around the world.

For last week’s DealBook conference in New York City, The New York Times invited leaders in an array of disciplines to gather together to talk about some of the most pressing challenges they see as they look to the future in their areas of expertise. We asked them similar questions in advance. Their answers, which have been edited and condensed, are included here.

How to Think Freely

What is the greatest obstacle to thinking freely, and how can you overcome it?

Nita Farahany: Robinson O. Everett, Distinguished Professor of Law & Philosophy and founding director, Initiative for Science & Society, Duke University; author, “The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology”

The coming age of neurotechnology will introduce widespread adoption of wearable brain-computer interface technology as the universal controller for our other technology. This presents our greatest obstacle to thinking freely, even as it expands human capabilities and allows us to address leading causes of human suffering. As governments, corporations and society rush to surveil, commodify and even change our brains, we will be driven to censor our thoughts, lest they be misused to ridicule, manipulate, or punish us for what we are thinking. We can preserve our right to think freely by recognizing an international human right to cognitive liberty.

Annie Murphy Paul: Author, “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain”

The greatest obstacle to thinking freely is our neurocentric bias — our wrongheaded belief that thinking happens only inside the brain. The theory of the extended mind, proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers, maintains that we think not only with our brains, but with a wide variety of “extra-neural” resources: our bodies, our physical surroundings, our relationships with other people and our tools and devices. We think more freely when we “think outside the brain” — that is, when we use these mental extensions with skill and intention.

Attacking Climate Change

What was the moment that convinced you to attack climate change? How much of it was a moral issue and how much was an entrepreneurial opportunity? Should it matter? What’s the one thing you wish you could do that you can’t?

Donnel Baird: Founder and chief executive, BlocPower

One of my best friends in college signed me up to take a class at the Duke environmental school [Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment]. Then we sat down and watched “An Inconvenient Truth” together, V.P. [Al] Gore’s documentary. When it ended, I restarted it, and watched it again. After that, I knew I had to help confront the climate crisis. All of the racial justice and economic equality issues I’d been focused on seemed like they would matter a lot less once we were all hunting for rats at night in the desert, due to climate change burning everything. So, 100 percent a moral issue. It took me 10 years before I began to embrace business and capitalism as a solution to the climate crisis.

I wouldn’t bet on climate tech entrepreneurs who are in it for the money, and not motivated by the moral urgency. Building a start-up is hard. Building a climate tech startup is harder.

The one thing I wish I could do was start an air quality sensor factory, and give away air quality sensors for free to every parent in America, so that they could measure the poisonous chemicals that fossil fuel gas stoves and hot water systems force their children to breathe in at home.

Kevin Czinger: Founder and chief executive, CzingerVehicles and Divergent Technologies

I have always believed we are stewards of our planet. For me, climate change is a moral issue, but no matter the stance, evolving automotive manufacturing’s impact is essential. That is why my team and I invented the Divergent Adaptive Production System. This technology minimizes energy consumption and makes products more efficient using nearly 100 percent closed-loop recycled materials. Czinger Vehicles’ 21C is proof of concept, the world’s first 3-D printed hypercar. While there is progress, I want to emphasize to our policymakers the need to plan for an enormous scale-up in battery cell production, realistically considering its environmental impact and cost.

Helping Humanity

What is the most urgent humanitarian or social need today, and how do you begin to solve it?

David Miliband

President and chief executive, the International Rescue Committee

Risks are increasingly global, but resilience is increasingly national. This is driving massive growth of humanitarian need, as civil wars, the climate crisis, the effects of Covid and rising global interest rates combine in a vicious circle. Tonight around 350 million people will end the day hungry. This is a treatable symptom of deadly serious underlying problems. We need to address both symptoms and cause, starting with 50 million acutely malnourished kids, 80 percent of whom who are being failed by the current system, but for whom community-based diagnosis and treatment has been shown to work. This is the most basic investment in the future: fail on this and we will fail on the bigger questions.

Steve Preston: President and chief executive, Goodwill Industries International

We all come into this world with enormous potential to create, to contribute and to achieve. Tragically, millions of us see those possibilities evaporate as we encounter inadequate education, limited access to opportunities, poverty and even violence or other traumas. Later in life, reclaiming potential becomes extremely difficult.

The implications are often devastating and multigenerational. They perpetuate inequality, affect family well-being and community health, drive societal divisions and undermine labor force competitiveness.

It’s imperative that all people receive quality education, training and essentials like stable housing, nutrition, health care and transportation, so all individuals, communities, and indeed our entire society, thrive.

The labor activist Chris Smalls and other protesters demonstrated outside the summit, where Amazon’s chief, Andy Jassy, was interviewed.Credit…Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Future of Labor

If you were running a company, would you embrace a union? Why? What is the next great challenge in labor rights, and how do you meet it?

Sara Nelson: International president, Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A., A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Whether to embrace unions is not the question. The owner class has been stuck on union busting and that’s illegal. “Embracing” unions is embracing workers with a safe, efficient, reliable workplace in a thriving economy. If we value doing business in a democracy then we have to value collective bargaining rights to engage workers. Democracy, and our very future, are at risk in unchecked capitalism. Unions are the best, and most democratic, check. Over two-thirds of all workers want a union but don’t have one. We have to fix that.

Rachel Korberg: Executive director and cofounder,Families and Workers Fund

I embrace building an economy where all jobs are good jobs that enable people to get by and get ahead. The next great labor challenge is to ensure no one working full-time lives in poverty or can’t afford to take time off to care for their family. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s smart for business, and we can get there by changing policies that perpetuate poverty; rewarding companies that invest more in their employees; and backing overlooked and underestimated workers in scaling their own visions for a better future (e.g., through initiatives like Better Builder and Resilience Force).

The Next Frontier in Medicines

What is the next frontier in the development of critical medicines, and how do you pursue it? Who should pay for it?

Angela Hwang: Chief commercial officer and president, global biopharmaceuticals business, Pfizer

In the next decade, we’ll be living a scientific renaissance driven by advancements in biology and technology that will come together and produce solutions of great scale.

In order to make these advances at speed, collaboration will be necessary across the life sciences industry and with public and private organizations.

Our research efforts are concentrated on innovative medicines and vaccines, driving the urgency to get these breakthroughs to patients as quickly as possible. We collaborate with health care providers, payors, governments and local communities to support and expand access to reliable, affordable health care around the world.

James Peyer: Chief executive and cofounder, Cambrian Biopharma

Our health care system addresses the diseases responsible for the greatest suffering and loss of life and health today — the chronic age-related diseases like cancer, neurodegenerative disease, frailty and cardiometabolic disease, reactively. The most impactful medicines of the 21st century will be those that address the molecular damage that cause these diseases proactively, before symptoms of these diseases manifest.

Breakthroughs of the past decade demonstrate that new interventions can slow down or reverse this damage, preserving cellular health and preventing multiple diseases. These drugs will be approved for acute diseases, then tested for prevention; they will be inexpensive and covered by every insurer.

Investing in Innovation

When identifying entrepreneurs, what are the metrics you use to evaluate them? Any unusual traits you focus on? Any novel red flags?

Anu Duggal: Founding partner, Female Founders Fund

At our stage, we are often investing pre-product, and therefore the most important factor in our decision-making is around the founder or founding team. Specifically we want to understand how and why is this founder/team positioned to win in this particular market — what is their unfair advantage and how does their professional history set them up for success. In addition to this, we look for resilience and ability to attract great talent especially in the early days. Some novel red flags are blind optimism, unrealistic assumptions for market capture and not consistently following through/communicating during our diligence process.

Li Jin: General partner, Variant Fund

As early-stage venture investors, our approach to investing is very founder-centric: we select for and back long-term-oriented, mission-driven founders who are doing their life’s work. The best founders have a quality of endurance and persistence (not in a stagnant way, but being able to adapt creatively to all kinds of unforeseen challenges), as well as an urgency about them — they take action. It’s not enough to just be smart or have a great insight about the market; they need to be relentless in materializing the vision for the future they want to build.

Jean Case: Chair, National Geographic Society and chief executive, Case Impact Network

A key metric that can signal positive potential of an entrepreneur is how many startups he/she has been a part of before — with success or failure. Traits that can signal likely success include a passion for problem solving, grit to withstand the ups and downs, curiosity to peek around corners, and nimbleness to pivot when called for. Red flags include too much of a “go it alone” spirit that doesn’t value collaboration or seek and consider the perspectives of others.

Peter Lattman: Managing director, media, Emerson Collective

So much of what I learned about spotting talent I learned from David Bradley, our partner in The Atlantic and a Hall of Fame-level businessman. To spot talent — whether it’s identifying entrepreneurs, executives or employees — David looks for two key traits: force of intellect and spirit of generosity. Those qualities are crucial. A couple of others I’d add to the mix, especially for entrepreneurs, are hunger and clarity of vision. As far as red flags, well, I’m wary of Boston Red Sox and Dallas Cowboys fans.

Countering Threats: Data Privacy and Security

What is the most pressing data privacy and security threat today, and how do you counter it?

Christopher Krebs: Founding partner, Krebs Stamos Group

Our seemingly pathological need to connect everything is creating an increasingly complex and vulnerable technology ecosystem. All the while an exploding set of globally distributed bad actors attack insecure organizations with increasing frequency. We must reorient our strategy towards building resilience and limiting opportunities for the bad guys. Business leaders need to step up and actually lead — treating cyber risk as an existential business risk rather than simply a technical problem. Governments must also meaningfully intervene on offense and defense, taking the fight to the bad actors, while providing support and incentives to institutions here to build up our defenses.

Karl Racine: Attorney general, District of Columbia

The answer is many fold, but I will focus on one — the pervasiveness of discrimination and bias in our everyday lives fueled by big data and algorithms. Algorithms impact the schools we can go to, the homes we can purchase, the loans we get approved and the jobs we are hired for. One of the unfulfilled promises of our civil rights laws is the prevention of discrimination through tools that could not have been predicted decades ago, like algorithms. We need laws in place to prevent discrimination in these tools — and we also need to enforce laws that already exist.

Lessons in Entrepreneurship

How did you invent your first product? What went right? Wrong? What was the lesson?

Uzoma Orchingwa: Cofounder and chief executive, Ameelio

Ameelio’s free prison communication and education platform was invented out of immense urgency and necessity. During Covid-19 all prisons and jails across the country prohibited in-person visitation. This heightened the financial burden families with incarcerated loved ones face and limited access to educational services for those behind bars.

The articulated users’ need for Ameelio’s platform was our biggest advantage, and we fulfilled it with rapid product development. However, in the B2G cycle, users’ needs don’t always drive adoption. Departments of corrections have procurement processes divorced from the incarcerated users. We launched Ameelio Policy Lab to understand and recommend procurement practices.

Matteo Franceschetti: Cofounder and chief executive, Eight Sleep

Before I started Eight Sleep, I was the founder of another company and an athlete. Sleep was critical to my recovery and I wanted to sleep better and more efficiently. No innovations in sleep existed since memory foam in 1966, so I decided to use technology to help people get more quality sleep faster.

Early on we nailed a big problem for users: thermoregulation. People don’t sleep well when they’re not at comfortable temperatures. To succeed you have to make something people want. Since Day 1 our mission and passionate users have guided us to make the best product possible.

Howard Lerman: Founder and chief executive, Roam

In 1996, while in high school, I used to prank call people, telling them I was from “Body Odor Problems Anonymous” (BOPA) and I’d been hired to let them know they have Body Odor. It was obviously a joke and everyone loved it. My high school classmate Tom Dixon suggested we make a website that let you send anonymous email tips. We invented It went viral and sold in 2000. This began a lifetime of obsession about daily active users stats. Twenty-two years later, I’m still constantly reloading usage stats reports. If you’re in technology, you probably are too.

Laura Modi: Cofounder and chief executive, Bobbie

It’s 2016. A new mother stands in a drugstore, holding a screaming infant as she fights mastitis, desperate to feed her baby. Each formula label leaves her disappointed, riddled with guilt. There has to be a better way. The idea for Bobbie is born.

After years of research and countless mistakes, the Bobbie recipe is perfected. It’s simple, clean and, most importantly — judgment free.

Now it’s the fastest growing formula since the 1980s, navigating a formula shortage and changing the conversation. Biggest lesson is that the most-needed disruption is often within our everyday essentials — and there’s nothing more essential than infant formula.

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