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Innovators Explain How Businesses Took Off at Emerson’s Forbes Under 30 Stage

Dr. Deepak Chopra wants you to use technology to improve your wellbeing; Adam Neumann wants you to work and live communally to be happier and more productive; and Neil Blumenthal wants to make everyone happier, one pair of eyeglasses at a time.

Entrepreneurs took to the Tech Stage at Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre for the second day Tuesday, October 18, as part of the Forbes Under 30 Summit. Monday’s Tech Stage events focused on launching ideas; Tuesday was all about the “Moonshot.”

Previous coverage here and here.

President Lee Pelton welcomed a bustling Cutler Majestic and introduced them to Emerson, which was named one of the most entrepreneurial colleges in the country by Forbes.

“You’ve come to a world-class city and now you’re at a world-class college,” Pelton said. “We focus on liberal arts and arts and communication. We’re small, but we have a big impact, and that impact is in the area of innovation.”

Chopra, a world renowned alternative medicine advocate, explained how he sees technology helping people live healthier, more fulfilling lives. A person’s “wellbeing,” their quality of life, can be measured in so many ways, he said—physically, emotionally, socially, professionally.

“We can quantify wellbeing in all these areas now,” he said. “What’s left is spiritual. Are you aware of who you are without your labels, without your career?”

Chopra said technology can track movement, breathing and sleep; it can monitor microexpressions in your face to catch emotions. He and his partners are using technology to improve a person’s spiritual wellbeing, as well: A Brain Entrainment device uses sound and light to induce a meditative state in a person, and coming soon, an immersive augmented reality experience will allow a person to approximate what the Buddha experienced under the Tree of Enlightenment.

“This helps us validate what we’ve known. Whatever happens in the mind gets recorded in the brain, whatever gets recorded in the brain has an effect on our biology,” Chopra said.

One area of research has been looking at how a body’s electromagnetic field can interact with and influence those around it, creating a chain reaction of wellbeing.

“We are the energy of the universe, and our state of consciousness influences not only those we’re in direct contact with…” Chopra said. “Just by shifting who we are within ourselves we can shift other people.”

Adam Neumann, co-founder and CEO of WeWork, a shared office space company, started out his talk, “Building the New Technology Tribes,” with moderator and Forbes Senior Editor Steve Bertoni by announcing the company’s new deal to open at least five new WeWork buildings in India by the end of next year.

“All cities are amazing cities,” Neumann said. “You can’t be a global company without being in India. You can’t be a global company without being in China.”

Neumann talked about the lessons he learned in going from having 3,000 square feet of office space to, six years later, having 10 million square feet and 80,000 members. He said the key to moving into a new market, whether across the country or across the globe, is to learn what works for those people.

When WeWork moved into Boston with their “New York ways,” they swiftly learned that Bostonians were a little more reticent about jumping into community events. (Also, “They drink more beer in Boston.”) When they moved to Denver, they found out that 6:00 pm is way too late to hold a happy hour, because people in Denver, where work/life balance is important, punch out at 4:00 pm so they can do what they love.

The most important lesson Neumann learned from starting five businesses, however, he learned from his wife. He was running a baby clothing company and lamenting that he wasn’t more “successful.” His wife asked why he was in the baby business and told him his definition of success “sucks.”

“[She said] ‘success is about being part of something larger than yourself. When you do that, I guarantee the money will follow.’ My biggest mistake was I was chasing money when I should have been chasing passion,” Neumann said.

Neumann also talked about his recently launched WeLive, which does for apartments what WeWork did for office space. He came up with the idea over a decade ago, when he moved to the United States from Israel and learned how isolated people were in their tiny apartments.

He pitched it in an entrepreneurial competition at Baruch College and was told no one his age would ever get funding for it.

“Don’t kill a person’s dream,” he said. “Don’t tell a person what they can or can’t do. Only they know what they can or can’t do.”

In “Ugly Is the New Beautiful,” three Millennial founders of “boring, back-office” businesses told writer/investor Alexia Tsotsis about the opportunities for people willing to disrupt dull.

For all three—Liz Wessel, co-founder and CEO of WayUp, a job/internship site for college students and recent grads; Rob Biederman, co-founder and co-CEO of Catalant, a freelance talent service; and Ian Crosby, co-founder and CEO of online bookkeeping service Bench—the business starts with solving problems.

Crosby worked his way through college as a bookkeeper.

“I think what dawned on me was, ‘How is hiring me your best option? Doesn’t every business need bookkeeping?” he said.

Tsotsis asked how they knew an industry was boring enough to offer an opportunity.

When neither supply nor demand is being met, Biederman said. Crosby said it’s not so much that the bookkeeping industry was boring, it’s that no one was putting any effort into customer experience.

Wessel said she never set out to find a “boring” space, but the founders realized that no student enjoys career fairs.

“At the end of the day, we sort of realized this has to be disrupted,” Wessel said.

The business needs to be about what it can do for the customer, not what it can do on the back-end, all three agreed.

Wessel said she’s seen one or two engineering candidates come in who were excited to work on a sexy technology, which is great, but “I have way more friends who have jobs than have drones.”

Next, Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO of eyewear retailer Warby Parker talked about taking an online company to brick-and-mortar and creating a culture of social innovation at a startup.

Warby Parker recently opened a store in Manhattan’s Upper East Side that was “not an obvious choice.” It’s on Lexington, which is not where most retail is, and it’s in a building that was in bad shape. But it has a big marquee that everyone would see as they come down the hill, he said.

“We’ve just found whenever we’ve done something nontraditionally, it pays off in droves,” Blumenthal said.

The company was founded as an online retailer, but it’s been “medium agnostic” since the beginning, he said. Six years ago, everything was sold from a desktop. Today it’s mobile, and they’re experimenting with social media.

“I don’t know what the next medium is going to be. Is it going to be [virtual reality]?” he said. “We’re not going to be dogmatic and stick with one or the other.”

Moderator Steve Bertoni asked Blumenthal what the three biggest factors to building a brand are. Blumenthal said authenticity, product quality, and “do something different,” which is linked to timing.

“Launching a brand online was novel. If we were to launch today, that’s no longer novel,” he said.

The company partners with nonprofits to distribute one pair of eyeglasses to a person in need for every pair sold and is going into 130 schools in New York City to screen kids for vision problems and give them glasses.

How does he balance running a business and doing good?

“It’s a false dichotomy to think of these things as independent of each other,” Blumenthal said. “From day one, we’ve believed that Warby Parker is a mission-driven organization, so it’s been part of the DNA; it’s been part of the business model.”

The day also featured demonstrations from author Ian Cinnamon and HP CTO Shane Wall on the future of DIY drones; Madison Maxey, founder of digital textile company Loomia on using code to create; and the founders of salad chain sweetgreen on customer connection in the digital era.

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