Steve Forbes: A Founder’s Reflection, Looking Forward
What do Henry Ford, Israel, antibiotics, and the Bank of Italy all have in common? They were all key examples used by Steve Forbes during his thought-provoking keynote speech at the 44th iteration of Business Today’s International Conference: a compelling speech dedicated to lauding the importance of innovation.
During our interview, I couldn’t help but ask him if he had ever anticipated that his organization would grow to the scale and grandeur that it has now achieved. Exactly 50 years ago, Mr. Forbes co-founded Business Today with two other students on Princeton’s campus; however, he did not found it explicitly with the intention of eventually hosting three annual New York conferences, each featuring some of the most talented corporate leaders in the country and brightest students from all across the globe. No, Business Today was actually founded as a fiery, politically-motivated magazine; it argued for capitalism and free markets in direct contradiction to pervading social opinion, which (because of the Vietnam War) was completely against the corporate sector. It was the attempt to defend the corporate world and educate students across the country on its potential for good.
As he stood in front of the 132 attendees, Mr. Forbes was looking not just at a national conference, but an international audience. He didn’t have to fight to prove the value of the business sector, but instead was able to gaze out confidently and know that all the students present had chosen to attend out of an active interest in the business world. He explained to me that the feeling was one of “huge fulfillment”, to move past the road bumps he faced in the late 1960s and know that business is increasingly viewed as a pursuit with a “noble purpose”.
All attendees and Business Today members clearly felt his enthusiasm and appreciation for the growth of the organization; it was so evidently reflected in his aforementioned speech. When he went on stage, Mr. Forbes was entirely focused on projecting his passion for challenging the status quo: the importance of free information and leveraging it to create innovation.
In a conference themed “The Future of Work,” we have received endless instruction and insight on the value of innovation in technology; in the cloud; in design; in robotics; and more. Perhaps the most powerful part of Mr. Forbes’ presentation was reminding us that although all of these improvements have deep significance, the most important source of innovation is the human mind. It was the human mind that transformed oil from merely a naturally occurring substance into one of the most valuable and sought after products in the world. It was the human mind that brought irrigation to Israel, the automation of the processing line with Henry Ford, the discovery of antibiotics in curing stomach ulcers, and the Bank of Italy deciding to service low-income people. Although these all required massive technological support, it was ultimately the human mind that drove the idea engineering.
Mr. Forbes is an iconic figure not merely because of his vital role in the legacy of this organization, but because of his committed pursuit of open information, innovation, and exploration. Perhaps his greatest and final message was related to these three ideas. When I asked what piece of advice he would give to students, he told us to not be afraid to fail. He asked us to lose our commitment to perfect GPAs and resumes, and instead to take necessary risks when they need to be taken. None of those inventions and innovations mentioned above would’ve been achieved without risks and failure. As a writer for the magazine that Mr. Forbes produced half a century ago, a risky endeavor that didn’t have a guaranteed promise of success, I am thrilled that he took on the challenge that he did, and I am inspired to do the same.