6 Must-See Inspirational Innovators Who Spoke at SXSW 2015

This year’s SXSW Interactive Festival featured five sessions by some of my favorite motivational technologists and entrepreneurs who I was particularly excited about listening to because they’ve made great advancements in human-centered technology and businesses.  For three years, I hosted UX + Data meet up, which provided an outlet for practitioners in the UX community like designers, developers, researchers, product leads, and recruiters, as well as companies and startups both seeking and providing UX and data analytic services, to meet-and-greet in a relaxing setting.  I really enjoyed hosting this meet up, which gave me the opportunity to talk with amazing UX enthusiasts.  I was also thrilled to watch the idols, who motivated and molded my views of user experience, speak at SXSW’s sessions.  As an entrepreneur interested in innovative startups and technology, I highly recommend you read about and watch these interactive session highlights.

  1. Everything Eric Ries Has Learned Since 2011
Eric Ries, Lean Startup

Eric Ries, Lean Startup

I attended his session and was excited to hear about his new forthcoming book, The Lean Startup, which will be a practical how-to manual for applying Lean Startup techniques in action. As a Lean Startup evangelist and convert, I’ve given Lean Startup books to every one of my major clients for the past several years, and also taught Lean Startup as core reading in UX workshops and courses. It was very exciting to hear Eric speak in person again this year (I heard him also at SXSW 2012), and I’m excited to hear what comes next. The Lean Startup argued that entrepreneurship is the management discipline that deals with situations of extreme uncertainty. Eric claimed that the entrepreneurial mindset could be used in companies of all sizes to pursue continuous innovation. The book also focuses on how companies could build an entrepreneurial culture by changing their processes and systems of accountability.


2. Design in Tech Report


john maeda


John Maeda presented a very insightful presentation on the essential role of UX in creating “Billion Dollar businesses” that highlights the fact that a highly disproportionate number of the top-ranked VC backed businesses have design co-founders and C-level design leads. John is a noteable information & interaction designer from MIT Media Lab, RISD, and now Design Partner at VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers (KCPB). I have been a huge fan of John Maeda for years, ever since studying his seminal Design by Numbers while at NYU’s ITP program in 2002. His session about the evolution of his role and the parallels in the growth of importance and strategic value of design in creating successful businesses was exciting for anyone in the design profession. I also felt validated because his key message was the same as the opening speech I gave at the 2012 UX Awards, which was was the focus of the talk I gave at MIT Enterprise Forum in October 2014 on “Billion Dollar UX” —namely, that design and UX have finally arrived. John provided a data-driven examination of the intersection of design and technology, its implications and manifestations, providing insights and best practices on how to harness the power of both great design and powerful engineering. Watch the full presentation below. Fascinating stuff!


3. How Innovation Happens
Eric Schmidt, CEO at Google and Megan Smith, CTO at US Government.

Eric Schmidt, CEO at Google; Walter Isaacson, President & CEO at The Aspen Institute; and Megan Smith, CTO at US Government.

This was an interesting panel moderated by the leader of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson, who had so much to share that the other two panelists: Eric Schmidt, CEO at Google and Megan Smith, CTO at the US Government didn’t get enough time to speak. This was unfortunate because I really wanted to hear more from Megan and Eric. The session was supposed to be about how great ideas become the technologies that transform business, government, and culture by examining the complementary forces that must coalesce for breakthrough advances to take hold. Since Megan is female, the conversation seemed to be focused on increasing gender and racial diversity in tech.  Over the years gender diversity has been declining steadily. I believe there were other more pertinent national policy conversations that could have happened about privacy, Edward Snowden, encryption back doors, the NSA, social liberties, personal rights, net neutrality, the right to be forgotten, copyright protections globally, etc. that were not addressed and would have been very interesting to hear Megan and Eric discuss in a public forum. I loved the idea of this panel, but it was a missed opportunity because of the biases, dominance and choice of topics the moderator selected to discuss. That said, I was very impressed in hearing Megan Smith speak; she’s articulate, strategic, soft-spoken, reasonable, knowledgeable and accessible. I’m thrilled she was appointed to this role!


4. Princess Reema from Saudi Arabia

Princess Reema of Saudi Arabia

Princess Reema of Saudi Arabia

“You cannot have half of your population not working,” says Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud, CEO of Saudi Arabian luxury retailer Alfa, Intl. Princess Reema spoke about her mission to empower Saudi Arabian women by allowing them more opportunities to work in Saudi Arabia at her luxury retailer Alfa. Not only has she employed 100 Saudi women—and provided them with services such as transportation and childcare—Princess Reema is also building a campaign around breast cancer awareness and education in Saudi Arabia, empowering women to speak openly about the disease. She joined Fast Company’s editor and Managing Director, Robert Safian, for a conversation about the professional and personal evolution of women in Saudi Arabia, and what 2015 holds for the movements she has launched. Princess Reema is an inspiring and admirable woman, who spoke passionately about her mission.  I wish that Robert had asked her more complex, in-depth questions about her business experience instead of focusing on simplistic cultural questions.  All Saudi women could explain why they wear veils, but Princess Reema is one of the few Saudi women with a unique perspective on what it’s like to develop and manage a business operated by women in a country where women have little opportunity to work. Princess Reema handled the entire conversation with grace and great polish. I hope she will be able to push for greater women’s rights within the kingdom now under a new ruler.


5. AI, Immortality and the Future of Selves

Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics and author of “Virtually Human: The Promise – and Peril – of Digital Immortality.

Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics and author of “Virtually Human: The Promise – and Peril – of Digital Immortality.

The highlight of my four years attending SXSW was when Martine Rothblatt spoke. Her talk was inspiring, insightful and deeply thought-provoking—even more so than when I saw Ray Kurzweil speak in 2012. Martine is a major fan of Kurzweil, but in many ways, in my opinion, she goes further and is even more admirable. Martine straddles several worlds and is a truly unconventional, visionary thinker as well as a practical business executive. She believes in a ‘transhumanist’ future comprised of disembodied minds that live on in digital ‘bodies’, and she has prototyped this through a lifelike AI robot of her wife, Bina48, that is supposed to be a clone of her mind and also appears to have emotions, feelings and independent thought. I have been incredulous about Martine ever since I read her interview in NY Magazine in September 2014. The interviewer, Lisa Miller from NY Magazine, not only wrote an incredibly insightful and in-depth profile for the magazine, but she was also an excellent on-stage interviewer, asking smart questions and giving Martine the forum to shine.

Martine is incredible to me for several reasons: she’s the highest-paid female CEO in the US (though her own company); she has founded and sold several high profile businesses and initiatives, including SiriusXM; she has very controversial and forward-thinking views on aging, robots and AI as part of the transhumanist movement; and (by the way) she used to be a man. Before I heard her speak, the last point about her gender change might have been one of the more notable things about her, but that hardly mattered after hearing Martine speak. I was blown away by her demeanor, intelligence, openness and incredible ability to articulate very clearly and simply some very complex concepts around medical ethics, AI, and personal rights. For the first time in a while, I felt I was introduced in this session to ideas of the digital future that I had never heard, nor considered before; this was a truly incredible session.  Watch the full interview here.

If you attended SXSW, share with me what session speakers you enjoyed and found inspirational.


To learn more about 2015 SXSW Interactive sessions, visit sxsw.com.

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