Each year, the 100 Most Creative People list offers Fast Company’s own, idiosyncratic perspective on business. The selections reflect the breadth of new ideas and new pursuits at play in our business landscape. What follows is a selection — nine leaders whose work demonstrates that responsibility and creativity can mix, and mix well. For the full feature, click here.
Professor and Consumer advocate Harvard Law and Congressional Oversight Panel
By calling the likes of Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit on the carpet, jawboning with Jon Stewart, and pushing to create a consumer financial protection agency, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, 60, has taken what could have been a paper-pushing position as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel on the bank bailout to the forefront of the public conversation over financial reform. In the process, she's been mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee and a Massachusetts Senate candidate. "I'm often described as an advocate," she says. "What I'm really doing is describing what I see from 25 years of research on the economics of the middle class. Whatever that means politically is a secondary concern for me." In D.C., that alone makes her stand out.
He isn't a doctor or a senator, but Steve Burd played a crucial role in the recent health-care debate. The ordinarily low-profile exec, 60, appeared repeatedly on Capitol Hill to describe the health and financial benefits of the grocery chain's unconventional wellness program, which includes lower insurance premiums for nonunion employees who maintain healthy blood-pressure and cholesterol levels and don't smoke. Burd insists that the company's health-care costs rose just 2% from 2005 to 2009 compared to a nearly 40% increase for most companies. "The Safeway amendment" -- a provision that increases the incentives companies can pay healthy employees -- is now law. Fresh off the victory, Burd launched Safeway Health, a subsidiary that designs similar wellness plans for other companies.
VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation, Nike
"I didn't expect to go into business," concedes Hannah Jones, 42. A philosophy major who did a stint on pirate radio, she says she joined Nike's sustainability team to test whether it was "more effective to shout from the outside or work from the inside." Her conclusion: The creative combination of both is the most potent. She has paired Nike with NASA and venture capitalists to address water shortages; with Creative Commons to launch GreenXchange, a platform for companies to share green intellectual property; and with PopTech to create an Open Collaboration Lab for scientists and engineers. "We need to get to a place," Jones says, "where businesses leverage renewable energy, do not produce waste, and have clean water coming in and clean water coming out."
CEO Bloom Energy
In 1994, NASA tapped professor KR Sridhar to create a device that turned water into oxygen for Mars. Afterward, Sridhar was left wondering: If we reverse the basic process, could we put oxygen in and get electricity out, right here on Earth? The result is the Bloom Box, a refrigerator-size, emissions-free power station that uses natural gas or biofuels to generate as much electricity as a coal plant. The handmade box costs some $750,000, but Sridhar, 49, hopes to slash that price to $3,000 within a decade. Some folks can't wait. Google, Walmart, and eBay were among Bloom Energy's earliest clients, and eBay estimates five Bloom Boxes have saved the company $100,000 in just under a year.
Susan Smith Ellis
The Lazarus Effect, the Red-sponsored documentary that premiered at MoMA in May, is proof of Susan Smith Ellis's impact on the AIDS group most often associated with Bono. Since leaving a cushy post at Omnicom three years ago, Smith Ellis, 57, has expanded Red's product partnerships, but she also moved into new areas. "We felt it was important to get the African perspectives," she says. Thus the film about AIDS patients in Zambia before and after they receive antiretroviral drugs. Next up: selling music on a new Web site to raise money for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
President JPMorgan Chase Foundation
When Kimberly Davis flew from New York to San Diego to announce the $1 million recipient of JPMorgan Chase's crowdsourced philanthropy competition, the winners waiting for her on the other end weren't expecting much -- a buttoned-up figurehead, maybe, who would breeze in for 20 minutes, shaking hands and kissing babies for the cameras. "But she showed up at 6 a.m. and talked to every single volunteer about what they did at the organization," says Laren Poole, cofounder of Invisible Children. "It was so clear that she's the heartbeat behind the whole thing. She got it in a way that I didn't expect."
EVP of Member Experience USAA
"Our mission is serving the military and their families," says Wayne Peacock, 51. How do you reach that widely dispersed constituency -- many of whom are deployed -- with sophisticated financial services and advice? By rushing innovation after innovation to USAA's 7.4 million members, thanks largely to an in-house developer team in San Antonio that feels as if it belongs at a Silicon Valley startup. Recent successes from Peacock's crew include a mobile app (for Android, iPhone, BlackBerry) that lets customers find, finance, and insure a car. And in its banking apps, USAA customers can snap a photo of a check to "deposit" it -- with same-day access -- into their accounts.
Founder Majora Carter Group
"There are South Bronxes all over the country," says Majora Carter, 43, seated in her down-to-earth South Bronx offices, adjacent to the highway and above an auto-glass repair shop. She rattles off a few: New Orleans, northeastern North Carolina, Detroit. That realization prompted her in 2008 to make the leap from not-for-profit to for-profit entrepreneur. She founded the Majora Carter Group to take what she'd learned while transforming a dumping ground into a park in her distressed New York neighborhood and apply those lessons elsewhere. She already has projects going in all the above-mentioned locales. "We want to help folks unlock the potential in their communities," she says.
Inventor, Cofounder Singularity University
The renowned and provocative futurist is not only predicting our techno-future but also helping to create it. Ray Kurzweil, 62, launched Singularity University with X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, based on the themes in Kurzweil's best seller The Singularity Is Near and backed by Google's Larry Page and the NASA Ames Research Center. The mission: to educate young entrepreneurs on the latest in such hot fields as artificial intelligence, biotech, and nanotech -- and then focus them on "the major challenges of humanity," Kurzweil says, including climate change and sustainable energy. "Only the scale of these exponentially growing technologies will be able to address these challenges." Four projects begun by the first graduates of the 10-week program last year are on the verge of becoming startups.