In 2010 the Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) disrupted itself and its laser focus on film by adding an awards ceremony, the Disruptive Innovation Awards. Co-Founder Craig Hatkoff decided it was the right moment to honor the work of the father and popularizer, or one might say liberator, of disruptive innovation, Clayton Christensen, who he’d met through Tribeca Enterprises’ COO and President Jon Patricof, a former student of Christensen’s. Hatkoff and Christensen co-founded and have cast the Awards as a public stage, a platform that Hatkoff declares is “dedicated to exploring the ever-increasing gap between the rate of technological change and the bumpier, slower-moving cultural adoption and diffusion.” The best part of this year’s awards was the mix, the collective breadth of imagination. On this year’s stage advances in technology and human invention from the worlds of Business, Social Good, Civics, Government, the Arts and Hollywood show up in a wildly diverse tableau of people who probably would not normally be hanging out: Twyla Tharp, Glenn Beck, Quirky founder Ben Kaufman, Aaron Peckham, the Creator of Urban Dictionary, Hamadi Ulukaya, the CEO of Chobani Yogurt, Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American, and Korean YouTube phenom Psy. Hmmm.
Of course, the ceremony is non-traditional. The winners get silver sledge- hammers (to be able to better break things with.) There are NO long, or even short, thank you-to-my-people speeches – which could be a nod to the high-octane shoulders of Webby Awards Founder and film pioneer Tiffany Schlain (whose mandate for 7 word acceptance speeches at the Webbys was just that – a mandate.)
In their place are ‘one question-one answer moments,’ delivered by emcee Perri Peltz who clearly enjoys the knock-down drag-out pacing that replicates the rhythm of creative collaboration, as does the parade of these thinker-doer-inventors. Like most things delicious, it just leaves you wanting more. Because all of these people, from Norma Kamali to the twin set of identical twins, the Agrawals AND the McClays who have taken on the ‘monthly shame’ problem for global girls through Thinx: Change Your Underwear, just have that disruptive ju-ju that makes you want to learn more. As you might imagine from a ceremony that shares its origins with the only De Niro inspired downtown film festival, it’s got a visceral narrative…complete with so many great one-liners that I lost track. Maybe Mamet wrote it?
Imagine a Goodfella’s script crossed with an Umair Haque tweet and you get the existential bent.
Yes there’s much to love about the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. But curate we must. So here are the 10 things about the event and the shift towards DISRUPTION it signifies that have, unshakably, stayed with me:
1. That it exists. This two-hour fishbowl of world-class disruptors exists as a landmark on the nav bar of today’s culture. The Tribeca Film Festival proper was an act of creative defiance. It’s fitting that this satellite comes from Downtown and is both a testament to TFF Founder Craig Hatkoff’s humanity, and passion for world changers. ‘Innovation is a buzzword? Oh yeah? Come over here and say that!’
2. Disruption has an icon – a silver hammer and it’s ready to smash more conventions. You can’t see Focus Forward’s You Don’t Know Jack about 13 year old Jack Andraka and his family’s squabbles about his ambition to cure pancreatic cancer, (“get your own lab!” yells his mother) and the 199 rejections he got before finding a scientist who would give him a chance without getting choked up, and wanting to smash the 199 scientists who said no. For those old enough or hip enough to recall, a certain Maxwell had a hammer too.
3. That it recognizes that disruption has no boundaries – and stands up and points an intentional finger in your face with ‘you talking to me’ recognition that innovation can disrupt cities (Manchester, England), the lives of girls – “weeks of (menstrual) shame that keep young girls around the world missing up to 25% of their schooling (Thinx,) immigration (Define American,) the way we talk (The Urban Dictionary), the way we manufacturer (Quirky,) consume books (Audible,) media (Vine, Uber, Kenzo Digital) and entertainment (Psy,Twyla Tharp,) alike. Disruptive innovation, like oxygen, exists to disrupt and refresh every part of life that is not accurately or efficiently serving people’s needs. And that’s why people are called to do it. They cannot stand the status quo.
5. And disruption relies on committed collaborations:Where else will you find Beth Comstock (GE) hanging out withMorgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) because GE produced his film, You Don’t Know Jack, along with a tens of others at Forward Focus films. Now there’s a woman that knows how to live.
6. And ageless and timeless: Norma Kamali, Twyla Tharp, Harlem Village Academy’s ‘most threatening educator’ Deborah Kenny and Sir Howard Bernstein, the executive who’s led the reinvention of Manchester, England (from the home to the industrial revolution, into banking, new media, biotech, incubator for low carbon enterprise)…these are not overnight sensations. They are the unstoppables — career innovators who disrupt because they must. And then there are the kids with like impulses: the McClay and Agrawal twins, Elise Andrews (I f—ing Love Science/Science is Awesome) and Ben Kaufman (Quirky founder) who seemingly have been doing this all along. Ben’s mom should have accepted the award for him because, according to Ben she raised him in her Queens’ factory. Perhaps a labor law violation allowed this kid to get manufacturing in his DNA. Perhaps we need a take your-kid-to-your-factory day in his honor?
7. And surprising: Wait. That’s Glenn Beck. And he’s telling stories about Walt Disney and Orson Welles and rehab and robots and his views on a new kind of media company, one where he cannot be fired. You could feel the more than palpable admiration in the audience for that business model.
8. And economically satisfying: Who knew ‘the man’ behind Chobani Yogurt, CEO Hamadi Ulukaya, expects the economic impact of their newest factory in Idaho to bring ‘$1.3 billion for the state and 300 new jobs” while being he says, ‘a door to better eating.’ Yogurt can be disrupted. Anything can be disrupted, and that IS the message of these awards. Can. Will Be. Is.
9. And restlessly seeking new domains of life to consume, disrupt and spit out transformed: In accepting his Christensen Award, Clayton Christensen offered three wishes for three arenas ‘badly in need of disruption.’ Never one to dumb it down, he called upon the planet, starting with the US, to disrupt, in this order: terrorism, parenting and religion. Because, according to him, we are losing that which makes us strong. Security begins at home, with us.
10. That it (disruption as a discipline) is not perfect. And, it’s just begun. If seeing is believing, then being relentlessly entertained while seeing is even better, because a movement that requires courage gets plused up when people are moved. I just have one beef with the whole thing: It’s a shame, a terrible shame to limit the examples of these honorees and the catalytic power of their accomplishments to a small audience. To keep the downtown theme going…if you remember the name Petula Clark you’ll remember her singing “when you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go – D-O-W-N-T-O-W-N.” Hult professor Ron Jonash states unequivocally that innovators are lonely, and indeed, we are. And it’s not just those secure enough to say ‘let’s create something better.’ It’s a lonely planet, filled with missed opportunities and connections to do better. For everyone. So Craig Hatkoff, thank you for bringing all these fantastic disruptors to our attention. Now, how do we share them writ large in all the other tiny corners of the world? How do we get their wisdom, guts and inventiveness out to balance the stuff that needs no name? I think you have some fellows who might make a good start. YOLO!*
*You only live once — the most popular term in the Urban Dictionary, according to founder Aaron Peckham.
This is the first in a series of articles about the disruptors celebrated in these awards. Stay tuned.
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Julie Anixter is a principle at Think Remarkable and the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. The co-author of three books, she’s working on a fourth on courage and innovation. She worked with Tom Peters for five years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the US Military, Healthcare, Manufacturing and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference.