Reboot America, Daily Beast Innovators Summit: 10 Inspiring Stories

From Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resilience to inventor Marc Koska’s unorthodox PR campaign, Jacob Bernstein recounts the most awe-inducing stories from The Daily Beast’s Innovators Summit.

The Daily Beast Innovators Summit offered a tremendous cross-section of forward-thinking people from virtually every sector of business, popular culture, and social outreach. There were community activists and venture capitalists, fashion designers and corporate executives, politicians and four-star generals. Here, a look at some of the boldest, most inspiring solutions they’re implementing to help reboot America, make the world a better place, and (sometimes) even get rich in the process.

1. Connie Rice’s Bold Community-Building Initiatives

A cousin of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Connie Rice has spent her life working as a civil-rights activist, most recently as the co-director of The Advancement Project. The organization is devoted to stamping out gang violence by working on the front lines not only with law enforcement, but with people in the affected communities as well as the gangs themselves. This weekend, she discussed the bold initiatives she’s undertaken in the name of community building, saying, “We’re not going to get rid of gangs but we can get rid of gang violence… I was interviewing some gangsters, hard-core gangsters, and I said, ‘What would happen if the girls didn’t want to date you?’ They said, ‘The you-know-what would end tomorrow.’ I thought about handing out chastity belts.” Instead, Rice settled on a more pragmatic solution, putting the same principle to work. As she explained to Tina Brown, her group began “socializing” the women to “reject machismo…orienting them toward smarter, more strategic, peaceful men.” Whoever would have thought of that?

2. Rafiq Kalam Id-Din’s Top-Dollar Teachers

Each year, 1.2 million kids drop out of U.S. high schools. Of the top 10 countries in the world, the U.S. ranks ninth in math and is not even ranked in science. By 2020, the U.S. will have 123 million high-skill jobs and fewer than 50 million people to fill them. Nevertheless, there are some hopeful signs. Today, Teach for America is our nation’s top college recruiter, yielding 46,000 applications for 4,000 slots. As Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green said, “They are part of this tidal wave of youthful optimism and zeal that is dedicated to solving our nation’s education crisis.” From there, she introduced four young educators whose ideas have been yielding amazing results. One of the boldest ideas comes from Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, founder of Teaching Firms of America Community, who’s opening the first teaching firm in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. His idea is that law firms and financial institutions are sucking up all the best talent and that the way to improve the system is by making teaching a business that rewards the best and the brightest, just as other industries do. “Like the Cravath model did for the law firm in the 20th century, the teaching firm charter school model inspired by law firms will revolutionize the 21st,” he says. Teachers at his charter school will be paid $150,000 to $300,000 a year. “We are not interested in replicating the billable hour or harsh impersonal working environments ordinarily associated with white-shoe law firms,” he says. “But we will put at the center of our enterprise, highly effective instructional practice, service to our students…With a great education, anything is possible.”

3. Diane von Furstenberg’s Wakeup Call

One of the most important lessons in life: Stop whining. Asked about how the financial crisis affected her business, fashion designer von Furstenberg said the crucial thing was to look at it as a wakeup call. “You could see everything two ways. You can say, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a financial crisis,’ and blame everything on the crisis, or you can go, ‘OK…let’s make the product offering better.’ If you create a product, the only thing that should motivate you is the quality of what you’re selling. You have to believe in what you sell.“

4. Vinod Khosla’s ‘Shots and Goals’

Arguably the world’s most successful venture capitalist, Khosla came to the Innovators Summit to discuss the need for government policies that encourage more “shots and goals.” “We only need to 10 out of 10,000 to succeed to have a completely different world,” he said. Which is a pretty good indication that rebooting America isn’t undoable.

5. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Resilience

Some people get fired from high-profile jobs and go into hiding. Four months ago, Stanley McChrystal lost his job as commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, after giving a candid interview to Rolling Stone magazine. Still, that didn’t stop McChrystal from coming to the Innovators Summit to talk about—what else?—the importance of getting back up and trying again. “One of the things we have to do is inspire people that it’s OK to lead,” he says. “It’s not just OK, it’s a responsibility. We’ve got to help them understand that they can do it, we’ve got to help create an environment that it’s OK to lead and it’s OK to fail, and it’s OK to pick up again and lead again.” How’s that for resilience?

6. Sergio Fajardo’s Innovative Crime-Fighting

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Fajardo first ran for office in Medellin, Colombia, a hotbed of cocaine-related crime, back in 1999. He came in third, but he didn’t let that deter him. For the next four years, he spent day after day on foot, walking the city, building capital simply talking to the people. In 2003, he won and quickly set about to reduce crime by investing the most money in the poorest neighborhoods. “We came up with the following concept. We’d build the most beautiful things for the humblest people in the city, in the humblest parts of town,” says Fajardo, whose father was an award-winning architect. That meant opening gorgeous parks in crime-ridden ghettos, building quality schools housed in buildings that would make Santiago Calatrava blush, and setting up massive libraries and cultural centers. End result? In just four years, the murder rate dropped 89 percent. “We all have to be healthy, we have to feel secure, but we also have to develop our talent,” Fajardo says. “And that’s what we did.”

7. John Fetterman’s Unorthodox Approach

Innovation is all about thinking outside of the box, and no one has done this more forcefully than John Fetterman. A graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School, he became mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 2005. It’s the poorest county in the state, but Fetterman has taken an unorthodox approach to just about everything, whether it’s pitching green businesses or getting Levi Strauss to shoot its ad campaign there. His initiatives are clearly having an effect. One of the things he’s been most successful at has been reducing crime: His jurisdiction hasn’t had a murder in 30 months. An inspired anecdote he tells involves the tattoos on his arms. It’s a series of dates when killings occurred, and as he puts it, “It’s…a way for me to acknowledge that…It motivates me.”

8. Marc Koska’s P.R. Campaign

One of the most inspiring things to come out of The Daily Beast Innovators Summit was the persistent argument from entrepreneurs that helping the world can be more than an act of grace—it’s also great business. Koska, for example, is the inventor of the K1 syringe, a non-reusable and auto-disposable syringe that took more than 17 years to develop but has since been credited with helping to save 9 million lives. In the developing world, Koska explains, the average syringe is reused four times, frequently in hospitals. One place where this problem was endemic was India, where 62 percent of injections in hospitals were carried out using dirty needles. Unfortunately, Koska just couldn’t get the minister of health to acknowledge the problem. “I asked for a meeting and he said no,” Koska recalls. “I asked him for another meeting and he said no…We hit a brick wall.” Rather than accept defeat, Koska started a PR campaign to shame the minister into reacting. “We made a film that dramatically showed the problem, and we were able to show this on television five and a half thousand times,” he says. “We had radio announcements from a very famous celebrity in India, we had 14 press conferences, 240 newspaper articles, and we were able to do that in a five-day period. Net result? “Seven hundred million people saw the message, and the minister saw me straightaway.” Soon after, the reluctant bureaucrat mandated the use of non-reusable needles (there are about 10 brands, aside from Koska’s); the law has now gone into effect in 11 Indian cities with an aggregate population of 250 million people.

9. Robin Chase’s Environmental Profits

Koska isn’t the only one making a bundle off a business that’s also great for the world. Meet Robin Chase, CEO of Meadow Networks and founder of Zipcar. The success of her previous company is mainly due to its extremely competitive rates, but the environmental effects have also been tremendous. “This is a for-profit, investor-driven company,” she points out. Still, they’ve discovered that when people rent cars by the hour, they drive an average of 80 percent less. “So the reduction in CO 2 would be about three-quarters of a million tons less last year,” she says.

10. Zochen Zeitz’s Sneaker Reset Button

At 30, Zeitz became the CEO of Puma, and now, 17 years later, he’s just become the chief sustainability officer for the massive luxury conglomerate PPR, which owns Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, and 64 percent of Puma. “It’s all about sustainability today,” he says. “If we don’t change the paradigm, we won’t be here to enjoy the fruits of our business.” At Puma, he’s doing away with shoeboxes, opting instead for a bag that’s both reusable and biodegradable. It sounds like a small thing but is a pretty big step for a company that sells millions of shoes each year. Next up: “Pushing the reset button” and transferring Puma to more environmentally friendly fabrics. “We cannot just operate on the same model by taking, making, and wasting,” Zeitz says. “That has to change. Rebooting the world is something we all have to work on.”

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.