Day One of SXSW 2017 was one for the books. From opening remarks by Hugh Forrest and Corey Booker to a live Q&A with Gary Vaynerchuk, from talks on innovation to maker spaces to doing business in Cuba, we have definitely covered some ground. Below are some of the highlights from our first day in Austin. Stay tuned for more tomorrow, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for a first-hand experience of SXSW 2017. 

Opening Keynote: Corey Booker

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker opened the 2017 SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, TX, today with an emotional, heartfelt speech about the “conspiracy of love.” In his speech, Booker spoke of love being the one thing that can span differences and leap obstacles of all kinds, bringing our country together. “The most powerful force in the universe is love. It has shaped and guided our country and universe forever,” Booker said.

Booker spoke to the fact that we can’t be a society of tolerance because that isn’t good enough. We need to be society of love. "I tolerate a cold," Booker said. "I shouldn't tolerate others. Tolerance builds fences. Love rips them down. Liberty and justice for all means nothing unless you embody that spirit. We need now more than ever to give a sacred effort to cut through divisiveness.” Booker stated, “We are all Americans . . . our only salvation is to love one another.”

After his speech, Malika Saada Saar, senior counsel on civil & human rights at Google, asked Booker if social media has had a major impact on how he approaches communicating. Booker said that social media is “more valuable than a speech on the senate floor.” He went on to say that, “the last video [he] placed online had over one million views.” He credited social media for the massive crowds that showed up at Newark Liberty International Airport to protest the recent travel ban, saying, “Social media allowed that to happen.”

#AskGaryVee Live at SXSW

One of the larger keynote crowds gathered to see business leader and social hustler Gary Vaynerchuk hold a live SXSW edition of his popular #AskGaryVee show. Gary Vaynerchuk runs a quickly growing digital agency based in New York with locations around the globe. The agency has grown to over $130M in annual revenue. Vaynerchuk, known for his unapologetically direct and sometime harsh answers, took questions from the crowd and gave feedback.

The session started with Vaynerchuk stating that the SXSW crowd sets the trend, but could improvement upon the focus of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Stating that so many of today’s startups are “just getting from one round to another with an unforeseeable exit,” he implored the crowd to focus on building a business. Turning a monthly profit is the key to being a great entrepreneur.

Vaynerchuk quickly moved into Q&A in an effort to provide more tactical value to the crowd. The crowd asked a number of questions, but the overall answers trended toward a few key points:

  • Find the underpriced attention and platform. In today’s world, TV and Radio are overpriced compared to other platforms, stating that Facebook ads and influencer marketing are underpriced.
  • “Act like a media company, and less an advertiser.” Vaynerchuk suggested being the voice of the market. Listen more than you talk, be entertaining and know what you are talking about.
  • Stay on the offense of positivity. “No matter where you stand on politics or whatever, this is still the greatest time to be alive.” Vaynerchuk stated that nothing is perfect, and sometimes it’s bad, but the only people who are loud are the people who are upset. It’s important to play in positivity and be louder.  

You’re an “Innovator.” Then What?

The SXSW session “You’re an ‘Innovator.’ Then What?” featured talent leaders from some of the world's top creative companies and taught how to find and keep innovators, and how to keep them feeling creative, fulfilled and committed.

Deborah Hankin, vice president of talent at SY Partners, headed a panel of the following experts: Duane Bray, global head of talent at IDEO; Peggy Boustany, lead talent recruitment at Sid Lee; and Susan Cantor, chief executive officer at Red Peak.

Hankin asked the panel how they define what an “Innovator” actually is and what they are really looking for in the people they hire? Cantor said that Red Peak, “ . . . doesn’t believe in hiring specialists. We want people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. People with passion and purpose for what they do in both their personal and professional lives.” 

Bray stated that skills are the baseline. “Are someone’s skills aligned with our firm’s goals? Do they share our same beliefs?” He went on to say that IDEO asks candidates to tell them a story in the interview process, “Tell us about when you helped someone get better? Tell us when you had to sacrifice an idea for greater good of team. It really gets to heart of if they will fit our team or not.” 

Boustany stated that when Sid Lee interviews candidates, it has a conversation to see how they will fit in. “How can they fit in and help grow our company? Do they share our core company values?” She went on to say that, “You need to make sure that everyone you hire is an innovator and creative thinker . . . not just writers and artists, but media, PR, anyone.

Hankin, then probed the panel on how they actually create the best job descriptions to reach the right people. Boustany said that Sid Lee “gets their copywriters, designers and experts from the department that is hiring to help write the descriptions. “Your people need to write the descriptions in the tone of your firm. Then you’ll attract the people that best fit your firm and the specific job.” Hankin added that, “You need to get referrals from great people because know other great people. Listen to your best people, not just anyone at the firm.”

Next, Hankin asked the panel how to create a truly innovative culture? Duane said, "You have to create conditions for people to thrive. Flexibility is key. Let people move around the firm. The more they know, the better they are, the more valuable they are.” Cantor stated that your firm, ” . . . must support different points of view. No one individual should override the creative thinking of the firm. Don’t stop/tamp down creativity.” 

The panel closed the discussion by discussing how they keep innovators at their firms, how to keep them happy, and help them grow and learn. Boustany said that you have to create a unique personal career plan for each person. “A plan is part of evaluation and goals. There is no one path for people. There are many ways to grow and improve.” She also went on to say that, “You need to get their feedback on the company. LISTEN to your people. Don’t make them afraid to give feedback. Cantor said that Red Peak does quarterly reviews. “We get informal feedback in a formal way. Don’t wait a year.”

Creating Space for Making in the Workspace

This panel brought together creative from top companies around the world that have dedicated workspace for employees to get crafty with activities like screen printing, woodworking, skill building and more. 

The panel consisted of Patrick Chew of IBM, Ryan Noon of Nike, Tim Belonax of Pinterest and Alexandra Williams of AirBnB/Triangle House.  All panel members were integral in starting and building out “maker space” in their respective companies. 

The idea of housing a maker space within your company was mainly formed in all situations as a way to engage designers, having them break from the norm and collaborate on more than just their software development or daily work routines. In Nike’s case, Noon mentioned that their designers often sit at workstations across campus, so a maker space essentially becomes a clubhouse for them to get together on their own terms.  Often some random screen print or poster design might even find its way into a final product.

Williams of AirBnB said that while its original space was geared towards creative and designers, it’s now used by all within the company. A space like this allows people to share hidden skills, and often houses classes or lessons in block lettering and other talents.

IBM had the smallest of the spaces featured, just around 400 square feet, and it’s not funded or sanctioned by IBM. Co-workers simply pulled together to do something a little different and get creative. He recommended “start small and start quickly” when it comes to setting up a space. 

When discussing challenges, the panel collectively agreed that making it make business sense, the physical space itself, and funding were the three biggest obstacles. However, the benefits often include social media marketing, recruiting, and helping establish a culture broader than just tech or software. Williams suggested that the best way of doing this was to “align your making with the company activity.”

Innovation in Cuba: The Rise of Azúcar Valley

Like most folks today, Mara Abrams, Marcelino Alvarez and Nick Parish have a side hustle. If you aren’t familiar with a side hustle, it’s defined on as “a way to make some extra cash that allows you flexibility to pursue what you’re most interested in.”

In their day jobs, Abrams is the managing director of Census Labs at the US Census Bureau, Alvarez is the CEO of Uncorked Studios, and Parish is the president at Contagious NA. On a recent trip to Cuba, Abrams noticed that Cubans were using an offline application similar to Yelp and the seed of her side-hustle was planted. Upon returning to Portland, OR, she told her friends, Alvarez and Parish, about her idea to bring fringe diplomacy to Cuba. The trio started Incubate, which is a workshop held in Havana for the nation’s growing group of sole-proprietors.

The idea of entrepreneurship in Cuba is new. In a country where it’s difficult to access foreign media, Cubans turn to “El Paquete,” or a terabyte drive filled with the previous week’s TV, movie and even ads, to consume most content. Nevertheless, aspiring entrepreneurs have developed offline apps like Conoso Cuba, a parallel to Yelp. Like their Cuban counterparts’ side hustles, the trio’s Incubate program was born out of “bias towards action,” helping overcome challenges of holding the workshop in conditions different than they’re used to, including a lack of wifi and Powerpoint in the event venue.

Incubate aims to encourage new developments from necessity for the people of Cuba. When the trio described Uber and the concept of Uber coming into Cuba, the Cubans at the workshop considered it an affront. The idea that they would make something that could eventually be acquired wasn’t normal. They would rather make something for the Cuban people.

While many challenges and barriers exist between the US and Cuba, Incubate’s success continues and hinges upon universal truths that designing together equals diplomacy through empathy, action and shared purpose.