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The 2020 American Innovation Conference: Innovation Without Boundaries

Featured Events | Nov 19, 2020 |

By Ashley Rabinovitch

The 2020 American Innovation Conference inspired business leaders and students to identify novel opportunities for change across industries.

“Innovation stimulates our imagination of what is possible and what we want our world to be,” reflected Donna Rapaccioli, dean of the Gabelli School of Business, as she kicked off the third annual American Innovation Conference (AIC). Hosted virtually for the first time, the AIC celebrates customer-focused innovation and leaves participants with fresh ideas to integrate into their workplace.

The twin American Innovation and Social Innovation Indices, created in partnership with the Gabelli School, Rockbridge Associates and the Norwegian School of Economics, asked U.S. consumers to rate a number of brands in respect to their abilities to push the boundaries of innovation and societal impact. The 2020 American Innovation Conference recognized the companies that scored in the Top 20 across 19 industries, with the automotive, consumer manufacturing, investment services, and technology industries leading the pack.

Throughout the course of the conference, representatives from the 20 winning companies shared their insights on the role of innovation in driving success in a challenging economic year. “Each of these award-winning firms represents the best of what America has to offer,” affirmed Dean Rapaccioli. “While we celebrate their achievements, it’s even more important that we learn to emulate them.”

Facing an uncomfortable truth

Dr. Sheri Feinzig, partner at IBM’s Global Business Services Talent and Transformation practice, anchored the conference with a keynote speech about diversity, which began with a metaphor. In the early days of the pandemic, the Colorado Symphony’s virtual performance of “Ode to Joy” resonated deeply with audiences around the world. “Imagine if the symphony only had one instrument to work with,” Feinzig considered. “As it is with an orchestra and musical instruments, so it is with teams and organizations.”

At the same time, diversity “is more than bringing together people with different experiences,” Feinzig emphasized. “The exposure to diversity changes the way we think. When we encounter people we expect to be different, it causes us to process information more deeply, and we are better at solving problems.”

A growing body of evidence affirms that greater diversity in terms of gender, race, and other attributes leads to better financial results (such as higher revenue growth and greater return on equity) and more innovation. From corporate board rooms to jury deliberation to scientific research papers, diverse groups consistently outperform homogeneous ones.

Feinzig left her audience with tangible ideas for improving workplace diversity at every stage of the talent life cycle. “Diversity is hard,” she acknowledged. “It’s an uncomfortable truth that, as humans, we like to be around people who look and think like us. But it doesn’t evoke that deep thinking that is needed for innovation.”

Pivoting to succeed  

As diversity drives innovation, innovation drives organizational success. A panel comprised of an executive from John Deere, one of the 20 highest-rank companies on the American Innovation Index and other subject matter experts from exemplar companies delved into the role that innovativeness plays in talent recruitment, work culture, and employee engagement.

Guillermo Corea, managing director of the Workplace Innovation Lab and venture capital at the Society for Human Resource Management, shared insights about using new technologies to tackle workplace challenges across the hiring spectrum. As his team supports the success of innovators creating new systems for recruiting and hiring, he is leading the charge to create a new hiring experience.

According to Andrez Carberry, global director of talent management and diversity, equity and inclusion at John Deere, innovation is central to the company’s social mission as well as its corporate strategy. “As our global population continues to rise, we have opportunities to make decisions that use land in a more sustainable fashion,” he explained. He points to the emerging role of artificial intelligence and machine learning in producing more precise, environmentally friendly agricultural practices.

Carol Costello’s position as tech brand strategist at Spotify is focused on communicating engineering-driven innovation at Spotify. Costello pointed out that the arrangement itself is innovative—her function reports up through the engineering part of the org, not marketing or consumer branding—allowing her to be focused exclusively on tech culture.

A second panel with three leading executives from the 20 highest-rank companies on the American Innovation Index focused on the shapes that innovation takes as leaders across industries respond to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the last year. Steve Revnew, senior vice president of innovation at Sherwin-Williams, shared how his organization drove innovation by addressing customers concerns. New introductions included curbside pickup, online color chip ordering, virtual color conultations and new paints with saqnitizing and air purifying tecnologies. Selwyn Crittendon, business development and innovation manager at IKEA U.S., explained steps the company took to establish a logistical framework to avoid sending returned items to the landfill. Sara Bogdan, manager of sustainability and ESG at JetBlue spoke about the airline’s pursuit of carbon-neutral domestic travel and shifting to a higher proportion of sustainable aviation fuel.

Room for everyone

Lerzan Aksoy, associate dean of undergraduate studies and strategic initiatives, identified a clear silver lining of hosting the conference virtually. “This year, we were able to include speakers and representatives who have not otherwise been able to participate,” she said.

More than 500 people attended the virtual conference, the largest audience on record. When she reflects on the core messages she hopes that students will take away, Aksoy highlighted the wide variety of companies, industries, and professionals represented at the event. “It’s evident that innovation is not the domain of any one industry or job function,” she concluded. “There is room for innovative perspectives everywhere. All it takes to innovate is for one person to identify an opportunity and make it happen.”

Company and Recipient

2020 American Innovation and Social Innovation Index Award

Stanley Black and Decker | Mark Maybury, Chief Technology Officer
General Motors | Craig Buchholz, Senior Vice President, Global Communications
John Deere | Andrez Carberry, Global Director, Talent Management Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
JetBlue | Sara Bogdan, Manager Sustainability and ESG
Sherwin-Williams | Steve Revnew, Senior Vice President Marketing, Product Innovation
Trader Joe’s | Stephanie Mesa-Wise, Regional Vice President
Toyota | Brian Kiser, Vehicle Training Specialist
IKEA Selwyn Crittendon, Business Development Innovation Manager
Goodyear | Ellis Jones, VP, Global Environmental, Health, Safety and Sustainability and Business Continuity
Adobe | Erin Creagh, Senior Manager, Executive Communications


Ashley Rabinovitch is a brand journalist who specializes in higher education, entrepreneurship, and healthcare.

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