Listen To Forbes

For those of you who didn’t get a chance to read the centennial issue of Forbes magazine, you missed a collection of thoughts from 100 of the greatest living business minds. I thought I would select some excerpts from the visionaries and early adopters.

Steve Case, Co-founder, AOL & Revolution: The story of American business over the last 100 years is a story of different sectors rising and falling (and often rising again in unanticipated ways) in different regions of the country. When Detroit was an automobile powerhouse and Pittsburgh was the steel city, Silicon Valley was just fruit orchards. As the industrial revolution peaked and the technology revolution accelerated, the role of these places changed. As we enter the internet’s third wave, where entrepreneurs will leverage technology to disrupt major real-world sectors—like health care, education, financial services—startups will increasingly move to cities where industry expertise exists. The opportunity to grow companies that spur job creation and economic growth holds great promise for what I call these “Rise of the Rest” cities. This will lead to a more dispersed innovating economy, where jobs and wealth are created across the country, not just on the coasts.

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Michael Milken: Philanthropist: I came of age and went into business right in the middle of these past 100 years. Two issues of Forbes, the 50th and the 60th, had a particularity significant influence on me. Both issues really made me think about how financial structures changed over time and how leading companies changed. A century ago, the automobile was radically changing transportation and mobility. Ford Motor was the 21st largest company. By the time it went public in 1956 with what was then the largest stock sale in history, it was one of the most valuable companies in the U.S. Today its total market value is less than the annual price variations of Amazon, Facebook, Apple, or Google. In 1917, most of a car’s cost was based on raw materials, the country’s largest company by far was U.S. Steel. Today the American steel industry directly employs fewer than 140,000 workers. Today’s growing challenge: create meaningful lives for the world’s population. We’ve accomplished the greatest achievement of mankind, the extension of life. Since 1900, average life expectancy worldwide has grown from 31 to over 70. Economists estimate that about half of economic growth is tied to the public health and medical research advances that underlie increased longevity.

Bill Gates, Co-founder, Microsoft: In early 1975, when I was in college, my friend Paul Allen showed me an issue of Popular Electronics, featuring the Altair 8800 computer, the first commercially successful personal computer. We both had the same thought: “The revolution is going to happen without us!” We were sure that software was going to change the world, and we worried that if we didn’t join the digital revolution soon, it would pass us by. That conversation marked the end of my college career and the beginning of Microsoft.

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We’ve just began to tap artificial intelligence’s ability to help people be more productive and creative. The pace of innovation is accelerating—and that opens up more ideas for exploration. Big advances in clean energy will make it more affordable and available, which will fight poverty and help us avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The next 100 years will create more opportunities and we need people to keep believing in the power of innovation and to take a risk on a few revolutionary ideas.

Masayoshi Son, Founder, Softbank: When I was 19 years old I saw a photo of a microprocessor in a science magazine. It was just a tiny chip that could fit on a fingertip but represented an entire computer. ‘Oh my God,’ I said to myself, “this is going to change mankind’s life.” This is the biggest invention that man ever created. Those microprocessors were compacted into PCs, then linked together to create the internet and later smartphones. Now they are extending our knowledge and intelligence via artificial intelligence.

Tim-Berners-Lee, Inventor: I published my proposal for the World Wide Web in 1989. From the outset, I imagined it as an open, universal space, where anyone, anywhere could take their ideas and bring them to life without having to ask for permission or pay royalties. I hardwired these factors into the Web’s design and made a conscious decision not to try to copyright or patent it. In 1993, CERN, my employers at the time, agreed to make the code available to anyone royalty-free, forever. But now, as the Web matures, this openness is under attack. For the economic, social and political benefit of all, the Web must be recognized as a public good and locked open through appropriate corporate and government action—including the preservation of net neutrality.

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Marc Benioff, Founder, Salesforce: We are living in the fourth industrial revolution, with advancements in robotics, genetics, stem cells, autonomous vehicles and especially artificial intelligence. All will dramatically change life itself. We need to have a beginner’s mind to think about what is happening. That idea of a beginner’s mind is the core to innovation.

Michael Dell, Founder, Dell Technologies: The Computer Age is just beginning. Most companies today have about a thousand times more data than they actually use to make better decisions. When you overlay the latest in computer science—AI, machine learning, deep learning, unsupervised learning—you will create an explosion of opportunity and a real emergency. Over the next few years, as the cost of making something intelligent approaches zero, companies will succeed and fail based on their ability to translate data, including historical data, into insights and actions and products and services in real time. We like to think of ourselves as a company with big ears: We listen, we learn, we understand—and we create things.

Jeff Bezos, Founder, Amazon: We’re in the midst of a gigantic transition, where customers have incredible power because of transparency and word of mouth. It used to be that if you made a customer happy, they would tell five friends. Now with the megaphone of the internet, whether online customer reviews or social media, they can tell 5,000 friends. In the old days, an inferior product could prevail in the marketplace with superior marketing. Today customers can tell whether a product and service is good because there’s so much transparency. They can compare it to others very easily, and then they can tell all their friends—the customers will do part of the heavy lifting, marketing-wise. Rather than inferior products shouting louder, we have sort of a product meritocracy. It’s very good for customers, it’s very good for the companies that embrace it—and it’s very good for society.

So what can we take away from these various reflections? We don’t have to be the visionaries who start a revolution, but if we want to succeed in an ever-evolving social and economic landscape, we need to be positioned for adaptation. Organizations that make the best use of data will recognize the signs of change first. And the organizations that design their product offering to fit the customer—rather than hoping that customers will change their behavior to fit the products—will have the competitive advantage regardless of the industry in question.

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