The world's most creative people—and what colleges can learn from them

The editorial team of Fast Company recently named their 2017 picks for the most creative people in business.

Editor and managing director Robert Safian explains that, each year, his team looks for 100 new honorees who haven't gotten much previous coverage from the magazine.

The top 10 honorees in 2017 are:

  1. James Anderson, head of government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies
  2. Fidji Simo, VP of product at Facebook
  3. Todd Yellin, VP of product at Netflix
  4. Diane Greene, SVP of Google Cloud at Google
  5. Helena Foulkes, EVP at CVS Health
  6. Isabel Mahe, VP of wireless technologies at Apple
  7. Pamela Fletcher, executive chief engineer at General Motors
  8. Donald Glover, actor, musician, writer, and producer
  9. Rohit Prasad, VP and head scientist of Alexa at Amazon
  10. Toni Reid, VP of Echo devices and Alexa at Amazon

The list also includes several individuals who have connections to education or organizations aimed at serving young people, such as:

  • Kelly Peeler, founder and CEO at NextGenVest, which advises teens on college financial decisions
  • Phillip Picardi, digital editorial director at Teen Vogue who pushed for more coverage of politics, recent events, and LGBTQ issues
  • Anastasia Yendiki, assistant professor in radiology at Harvard Medical School researching early signs of depression and anxiety in adolescents
  • Jenna Tregarthen, cofounder and CEO of Recovery Record, an app that individuals with eating disorders can use to track relevant data and share it with their practitioners
  • Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, a digital education organization that partners with colleges and universities
  • Suz Somersall, founder and CEO of KiraKira3D, which encourages young women interested in technology, digital product design, and 3-D printing

How leaders can make more time for creativity

In his reflection on this year's list, Safian identifies a few lessons from the careers of the honorees.

For example, Safian points out honorees who used a deep understanding of their audience and current events to achieve their organization's goals. Picardi pushed Teen Vogue to cover politics because he sensed the strong social consciousness of today's young people—and now politics is the site's most popular topic.

Colleges have successfully tapped into similar trends. Earlier in 2017, Wheaton College in Massachusetts hit a public nerve when it responded to President Trump's travel order with a scholarship for a refugee student from one of the affected countries. Within weeks, the story had generated more than 850 million media impressions.

Read more: How one college's response to the travel order went viral

Another lesson Safian identifies is the importance of design that not only meets users' needs but also creates "surprise and delight." For an example, he points to Isabel Mahe, VP of wireless technologies at Apple. When building Apple's wireless earbuds, Mahe and her team tested a wide variety of ways to overcome a basic design challenge: the devices have no buttons, but users have to turn them on and off, among other basic commands. The results are so popular that the earbuds are constantly on backorder, Safian writes.

In recent years, colleges have also been focusing on design. Apparently small changes in classroom design can have a big effect on student engagement and academic performance. Relatively simple modifications like whiteboards, swivel chairs, and tables with wheels can have a bigger impact on learning outcomes than expensive technology. Even things like classroom temperature, light, and acoustics can influence student performance (Safian, Fast Company, 5/15; Fast Company list, accessed 6/15).

Learn more: Which features of active learning spaces have the biggest impact on student learning?

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