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Event Embed: Looking for a Message at “The Intersection”

by J. Jennings Moss  Jan 15 2012
What do you find at the meeting point of business, technology, philanthropy and creativity? A day-long conference that owed its high points to the late Steve Jobs and the lessons of host Pixar Studios.

The Intersection at Pixar Studios

A crowd gathers at Pixar Studios’ headquarters in Emeryville, California for The Intersection’s inaugural conference.

The Intersection was not your typical business conference. Sure, it had lots of talk about business trends, financial models and philosophies. But this one also had a white-robed motivationalist forcing everyone to sing a song, an all-male a capella group offering a tribute to Steve Jobs, and a special screening of a future Pixar short film.

It’s impossible to imagine an event like this taking place in New York City, even among its t-shirted entrepreneurial class. It makes sense that the inaugural edition of The Intersection took place in the shadow of the Berkeley Hills in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is, after all, the stereotypical home of the counter-culture and the capital of liberal progressive thought.

But, it’s also a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley and the headquarters of such modern business giants as Google, Facebook and Apple. These companies are praised not just for their entrepreneurial thinking but for their philanthropic efforts.

This juxtaposition of business, technology, charity and creativity is exactly what The Intersection was trying to capture and what its name clearly implied. The brainchild of entrepreneur and venture capitalist Randy Haykin, World Vision International executive Christopher Pitt, and yogi Guru Singh, the event attempted to offer a one-day deep dive into innovation and social change. The price of entry for many of the approximately 350 people attending was $1,995, though students, academics and non-profit representatives got price breaks. Portfolio.com was one of a few media organizations invited to attend.

The Intersection certainly had a few moments of brilliance, and many of these can be attributed to the setting—Pixar Studios’ campus in Emeryville, a small community just off the Bay Bridge near Oakland. Pixar, of course, is the Academy Award winning creator of Toy StoryFinding Nemo and WALL-E that was bought by Jobs during the years when he wasn’t running Apple. Jobs, who died last year, was mentioned many times during the day, primarily in relation to his approach to management and creativity.

“We commonly refer to this as Steve’s movie,” Pixar president Ed Catmull said in describing the Pixar campus, which took four years to build and cost as much as a major movie to produce.

Catmull said Jobs never was part of the core creative process at Pixar, the back-and-forth that went into the script writing and animation concepts. He never went to a story meeting because he knew his voice would carry too much weight with Pixar’s artists. “Protecting the dynamic in that room was the most important piece,” Catmull said of Jobs’ philosophy.

Beyond Pixar, Jobs was credited for creating a “reality distortion field.” That expression may have first been coined in 1981, but it was invoked by Leila Janah, CEO of the non-profit outsourcing firm Samasource. “The fundamental thing that leads to innovation is not accepting the status quo,” Janah said. “We’re very habit forming, assumption-reaching creatures. It’s very hard to get out of that.”

Greg Brandeau, a former Pixar executive who is now chief technology officer for The Walt Disney Studios, said that Jobs’ had a gift of “looking at things making them simple.” For example, he worked to demystify how people got paid at Pixar so the studio’s employees would keep a better focus on the products they were making. (At Pixar, Brandeau said, there are only four ways people get paid: salary, 401k, long-term incentives, and a bonus program based on the success of a film).

“One of the brilliant things he did was to provide boundaries … keeping us in a rational space,” Brandeau said, echoing Catmull’s point about how Jobs stayed out of the story discussions. “When he saw we were doing something crazy, he said ‘no, that doesn’t make sense.’ … When you put creative constraints on people, you get better results.”

Aside from the Jobs’ discussion, here are other highlights I took from The Intersection:

Saturday’s event had a few mis-steps. Google was represented on a key panel, but executives with other high-profile Silicon Valley firms were not. Discussions about social entrepreneurship had their high points—especially in profiling people like Samasource’s Janah and Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America—but would have benefited from a more focused discussion about how someone can do good while still creating a profit-making business.

One discussion that had big ambitions—a high-profile panel called Giving Back Creatively that included Rieckhoff, actress and humanitarian Susan Sarandon, and model-turned-philanthropist Lauren Bush—fell off the rails completely, largely because of the moderator. Courtney Taylor, who owns an eponymous consulting firm that connects businesses, non-profits and the entertainment industry, didn’t lead a conversation. She asked odd questions, quoted cultural figures to no discernible effect, made rambling statements like “the human spirit we all know is more powerful than anything else,” and vowed to buy her white t-shirts from JC Penney because it supported Rieckhoff’s organization.

The next edition of The Intersection if already scheduled for January 19, 2013 at the Googleplex, Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. For details, click here.

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