Table of Contents:
5 memorable lessons from 2023
BOB SAFIAN: Hi everyone, it’s Bob Safian. Welcome to a very special episode.
This year, we’ve seen some extraordinary developments: from incredible tech advances to the rise and fall of inflation to ongoing war on multiple continents. As we look ahead to 2024, it’s a good time to reflect on what we’ve learned from the year gone by, and how we can best prepare ourselves for the future.
We’ve identified five memorable moments from Rapid Response in 2023 to help illuminate key lessons for the year. In these stories, leaders on the front lines of change share their experiences and provide inspiration that can propel you forward. It’s both fun and instructive.
So, let’s get to it!
SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian and this is: five memorable lessons from 2023.
Lesson #1: Experimentation is your friend
SAFIAN: 2023 has undoubtedly been the year of AI. And whether we like it or not, the next era of business will be defined by this powerful new technology.
But the key lesson from the AI craze isn’t really about the technology itself. It’s about embracing a mindset of experimentation.
Our first memorable moment comes from Rana el Kaliouby, the Deputy CEO of Smart Eye — a leading AI developer, focusing on predicting human behavior. Rana’s been working with AI for years; she was co-founder and former CEO of Affectiva, until its acquisition in 2021.
But you don’t have to be an AI insider to be impacted by AI. I sat down with Rana on Rapid Response in June to discuss how even the least tech-savvy entrepreneurs and businesses should begin experimenting with AI. You can find a link to the episode — and to all of the episodes you’ll be hearing today — in our show notes.
Let’s listen in.
RANA el KALIOUBY: Even if your business is not AI-driven, thinking about how AI can accelerate or change or help you innovate on your core product is really key.
To me, the mindset is an experimentation mindset, exploration mindset, knowing that you’ll try things that may or may not work, knowing that you are an early adopter and there’s advantages to that, but there’s also disadvantages. I’m always asked this question, like, when is AI gonna become mainstream? Like, should we wait? Is it like in three years? I’m like, no, it’s already mainstream. You gotta be trying it now.
SAFIAN: So, you co-founded a business, Affectiva, that utilized AI to identify human emotion by reading people’s non-verbal signals. And now at Smart Eye, you’ve got an expanded portfolio of AI supported insights from industries, from automotive to marketing. You’re already an AI-based operation. So, how does this new wave of AI impact Smart Eye’s business and your plans? Or is it just like, oh yeah, we’ve been doing this the whole time?
el KALIOUBY: So I started my company, Affectiva, out of MIT and right from the get-go, we’ve been deploying machine learning approaches to understand people’s emotions and capture these non-verbal signals. So when we first started, we were using a lot of feature engineering, and then when deep learning came along, we migrated to be deep learning based.
So what we’re doing today is we’re asking the question, okay, AI is at an inflection point with all its generative AI advancements. The question is, how does it affect our core products? And I think every business should be asking this question: how is AI going to affect your core product, whether it’s a threat or opportunity? And then how can you leverage these new AI tools across other functions in your business?
And that spans everything from finance to operations, human resources, sales and marketing, because that’s going to allow the business as a whole to move faster and be more efficient.
SAFIAN: Do you find the folks within Smart Eye are anxious at all about what the implications of this is gonna be for their jobs?
el KALIOUBY: I think AI is going to change the way we all do our jobs. Like for every job, every type of industry, your job’s gonna change with AI. And I really believe that the folks who figure out how to partner with AI to be more productive or more creative or more connected or more empathetic, are gonna do better and be more competitive and more marketable, and more, kind of, in demand than people who don’t. And I believe that at the individual level, and I believe that at the organizational level. So in general, I’ve been kind of encouraging my team to really lean into this.
SAFIAN: The truth is, the AI wave is only at the beginning, despite all the buzz over the last year. Even if AI hasn’t revolutionized your core product yet, it will have ongoing impact across your business, and that of your competitors. Wherever team members are hesitant to try out AI, leaders need to step in and welcome everyone into a new future where experimentation will be increasingly essential.
Lesson #2: Taylor Swift won’t be stopped
As much attention as AI has received, it arguably pales next to the passion and mania around Taylor Swift. From breaking the $1 billion barrier for her tour to boosting the fortunes of NFL football, Swift demonstrates how traditional expectations around brand building are being upended by new channels, new approaches, and a new generation.
In this highlight, Gary dissects the impact of Taylor Swift and her romance with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, and in particular what businesses misunderstand about the power of pop culture.
GARY VAYNERCHUK: Everybody on earth underestimates pop culture. Pop culture is the currency.
What happened with Taylor and Kelce is, they’re cross pollinating their platforms. So if you’re a mechanic in Detroit, you’re not thinking about hitting up the Thai restaurant down the street, yet, that’s the kind of left field post that will get people’s attention. What if you’re lucky enough to have an employee that works for you, that’s first name is Travis, and another one that’s first name is Taylor?
Literally, you’re a law firm… Travis Johnson, Taylor Smith. You can easily use the micro moment of the infatuation of our society to do something clever and silly. What people don’t realize is that little clever video on Instagram that only got 90 views, one of those 90 views is someone who’s actually considering to hire an attorney. And they actually like the fact that you were a little silly and not buttoned up and you made them feel more comfortable to reach out to you to work with your law firm or your dentist place. People are very linear. They don’t realize how big pop culture is and how they can factor into their boring business.
I had a gentleman reach out to me who has, literally, I used a concrete cement business in one of my analogies. He literally owned an asphalt business, he started to make TikToks, even though he thought it was the wildest, craziest thing he’d ever heard, and it literally has doubled his business. An asphalt seller, the guy that comes and redoes your driveway, made a couple of tik toks. One went decent, another one went viral, and if I recall properly, a business that was doing $800,000 a year servicing a local area, I think he was in Wisconsin, is now doing 2.5 million. The tears were coming through the email. But most people who are listening to this podcast, who are in a B2B or a different kind of business, are not thinking how TikTok can work for them.
SAFIAN: And pop culture doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have your celebrity endorser.
SAFIAN: You’re playing off of what the conversations that are going on are.
And I think businesses and brands have more permission to be contextual to the room they’re distributing the content in. When I make Facebook content, I’m thinking about parents, because I know the demo’s going to be older. Those are going to be different videos that I’m putting into TikTok, where I know they’re going to be youngsters. The words and the videos and the slang and everything I say and do is different. Yet I believe most people are just making a video and then pushing them out on these channels and expecting for it to succeed. They think of it as distribution. I think of it as a place you have to be contextual to win the room.
I’m posting different content when I know you’re at work, than when I’m posting on the weekend and knowing you might be skimming your LinkedIn real quick while you’re catching your kid’s baseball game and you’re bored. I reverse engineer the psychology of the person in the room, at the time that they consume the content. That level of thought, besides thinking what the thumbnail looks like, besides thinking what the first three seconds of the video has to be to even keep you to consume it. This is a level of science, in day trading attention, that I believe 99% are not executing on in social. And therein lies the opportunity and the vulnerability.
SAFIAN: Gary’s jump from Taylor Swift to TikTok isn’t accidental. TikTok cemented its place in 2023 too, as the new town square for pop culture. The speed at which news and content runs through the platform makes pop culture even more significant in people’s everyday lives.
While some leaders may feel it’s beneath them to participate in pop culture discourse, they’re missing out on a massive opportunity. I love Gary’s cocktail party analogy: We’ve got to find ways to engage in the cultural conversation, and not let our business become a wallflower.
Lesson #3: Progress comes from unexpected places
SAFIAN: The past year has included dramatic societal shifts, including the historic overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court. There’s also been a backlash against corporate diversity equity and inclusion programs, or DEI.
Yet, despite that, businesses in 2023 largely reinforced their commitment to diversity — if not as a moral responsibility, then as a business imperative.
In an unpredictable world, diversity of perspective is a more vital advantage than ever, because you never know where a high-value, unexpected solution will emerge.
The memorable moment for this lesson is from my conversation with Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud. Princess Reema is a member of the Saudi royal family and Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States. Before that, she was a CEO, an entrepreneur, and an advocate for women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia.
In the highlight you’re about to hear, Princess Reema demonstrates how alternative perspectives can change the trajectory of a business, a country, and our world. She begins by sharing why she sees her privilege as an obligation, and why the word “no” became more of a motivator than a hurdle — something she realized when returning home to Saudi Arabia.
PRINCESS REEMA: I grew up in the States. I arrived in the States, I was seven years old and 30 with two children when I went home. And I recognized that the experiences I had when I was younger weren’t available to my children. I fell into the world of business because of the word “no.” And the “no” was: women can’t be employed.
And I couldn’t understand that. I said, “What do you mean?” And so I had to sit and think and recognize, I’m a woman born of privilege. I’m born into a royal family. I’m born into the ruling family, and I couldn’t get a job. So what is then the state of women and every other woman, and how many other women are being told no, but don’t have opportunities? But I had an opportunity to make that shift, to make that pivot and try to use skills that I had learned to tell another story. And so I tried to do that.
I was hired into the Ministry of Sports, and I was told that my mandate was female inclusion. And I said, “That’s great, but do you mean myself sitting in an office and we tick a box, or do you mean that we actually have a mandate to create change for female inclusion?” I was told, “No, it’s a mandate.” Fabulous. The only issue was, there was no offices. So I actually worked from home for the first year.
I would go to the ministry and there’s no bathroom. So I was lucky that my home was five minutes away. That’s still just not convenient. So we used to put a sticker on one of the bathroom doors with a little female sign. And we’d come back every day and it would be removed, and then we’d put it back. And then, not to be crass, but we put ladies’ products in the bathroom and they never took the sign off again. They were like, “All right, we got you. We got you.”
And so, I was hired to push the envelope. I was hired to make change. I was hired to push back on, either the stereotype that we had for ourselves or the limiting beliefs that we had for ourselves, or the boundaries that we were always told no, because I was told there is no “no.”
We took four women as wildcards to the Olympics. FYI, at that time, no facilities for women in sports. So they actually ended up doing their boot camp in my home. They trained in my home gym. They stayed in my parents’ guest house, because we just needed to get it done. Get it done, before somebody says no. Because once you break the ice and you take that first step, it is what it is. It’s precedent.
And I will tell you that the women of my country today are leaders. They’re CEOs. 40% of all small and medium-sized businesses are women today. Not a true statement five years ago. Women are in the military, women are in leadership positions in government. We have deputy ministers and vice ministers.
The challenge for women in my country today is no different than the challenge for women in your country. And the limiting belief that we hold ourselves to is what will hold us back. Not the limiting beliefs other people have.
SAFIAN: Princess Reema’s experience is a reminder of how diversity can drive progress — and how despite other setbacks, progress is being made. Staying committed to ideals, despite criticism and an avalanche of “no”s, is what true leadership is all about.
SAFIAN: We’re back with 5 Memorable Lessons from Rapid Response.
Before the break, we heard about AI, Taylor Swift, and pushing back in the face of setbacks. We have two lessons to go, so let’s jump in.
Lesson #4: The workplace is your home
SAFIAN: The lockdowns of the pandemic seemingly anchored remote work into our daily work lives, with some experts predicting that in-person offices would wither away.
But in 2023, the workplace staged a comeback. Business leaders across industries concluded that working in physical proximity has advantages that even technology like Teams, Zoom, and Slack can’t match.
Still, the push-and-pull of how many days in the office, how remote talent is integrated,
how opportunities and compensation might be impacted by less-than-full office occupancy — these questions are still being explored. What the workplace of the future will look like has yet to really be resolved.
One lesson that has become clear though: the lines between work and home are more blurred than ever, for good or for bad.
The memorable moment for this lesson comes from Bozoma Saint John, the former Chief Marketing Officer at Netflix, previously at Apple, Pepsico, Uber, and Endeavor.
In this highlight from Rapid Response, Boz talks about a very personal book she’s written which, in part, examines the modern dichotomy between your personal life and your professional life.
Let’s dip in.
SAFIAN: So, the full headline of the book is The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival. It delves into your family, your loved ones, many painful moments, but it also touches on your life as a professional. And those two realms for you, and you refer to this a little bit, but personal and professional, are they separate? Are they the same? Have they become more the same?
BOZOMA SAINT JOHN: I think 20 years ago, we wanted them to be separate. But I don’t think that was ever a reality. When we think that there’s this personal side of you and there’s a professional side of you.
I think I was just getting into my job at Netflix, and a friend thought they were giving some good advice and said, “Your social handle, Badass Boz, that’s you having fun, you as a normal person, but now you’re getting this enormous job, it’s on the public stage.” And I’m like, “girl, where have you been? I’ve been on the public stage,” but whatever. And she’s like, “You should probably create a separate handle that is just about your work and your professional thing.” And I remember sitting there thinking, maybe that’s a good idea.
Then I was like, “No, it’s not. And that’s crazy.” Because how do I divide myself? That doesn’t work. In today’s age, if you are in any kind of leadership position, your customers, your audience, those that you are trying to sell to, want to know who you are. Gone are the days of us being behind facades or behind a door in the corner office. People want to know your politics. They want to know your favorite food. They want to know if you swim in the morning. Folks want to know all this stuff.
And not because they’re necessarily just going to judge you. I think that’s also a fear, that you’re going to be judged and therefore canceled or not liked or whatnot. But that’s not really it. I think we’re in an age in which we need to better understand our leaders as humans, as people. Human beings prefer honesty. That’s what I’ve learned also as a marketer, and how I’ve also applied it to myself.
Just be honest about it. I respect that more. It is so important for us to be more transparent in our beliefs. So no, I don’t think that there’s room to be two people: one which is professional and one which is personal.
SAFIAN: There’s a lot of talk about “being your authentic self.” What Bozoma is amplifying here is that, for leaders in particular, hiding yourself just doesn’t work anymore. The more you share with your team, your partners, your customers, the more they’ll trust you. It may feel uncomfortable to link your work world and your personal world, but like many things in today’s business climate, we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Lesson #5: Keep learning, keep hoping, keep helping
SAFIAN: The final unforgettable lesson of 2023 has to do with the war in Israel. Since the Hamas attacks on October 7th, we’ve produced a series of episodes speaking with business leaders and aid workers directly impacted by the conflict in Israel and Gaza. The series has both harrowing and inspiring moments, and we’re going to play a few of them for you today.
A warning: the clips in this segment contain descriptions of violence that some may find distressing.
We’ll begin by hearing a moment from my interview with Maayan Cohen, the CEO of Hello Heart, as she attempts to navigate the war from the company’s offices in Israel.
MAAYAN COHEN: This was by far the most difficult week of my life. My CTO texted me and said, “Hey, Israel’s under attack.” And I was like, “Yeah, there’s rockets. Israelis are tough.” And she texted, “no, this is really bad.”
We started sleeping in the bomb shelter. Nobody’s hanging out in the streets anymore. It’s war.
I’m in the office every day. I have 80 employees here that depend on me. I have soldiers out in the field that, until a week ago, were software engineers and project managers. And a lot of our team members, their spouses are out in the field. And I have three team members that are survivors of the strike zone. And I have to take care of them.
SAFIAN: Maayan gives a window into one side of the conflict, and the leadership challenges involved.
For a different perspective, I spoke to Mercy Corps’s Arnaud Quemin, who has team members in Gaza.
SAFIAN: And your team on the ground there, what are their moods like?
ARNAUD QUEMIN: Some are completely focused on taking care of their families. Others are like, “okay, what can I do today? Find me something to be useful please.”
SAFIAN: We have a voice memo from inside Gaza from one of the Mercy Corp team members. The voice memo is in Arabic, the translation you’ll hear is read by an AI, Pi:
PI: We went to buy bread today. We now go out food shopping every 2-3 days. I live in Northern Gaza, but had to leave my home and go to the southern part. We are staying in a family house that is hosting 20 people in a very small apartment. And I consider ourselves lucky because other apartments of the same size are hosting up to 50-60 people, like in 90-100-meter apartments. We went to another area, which is a refugee camp to find a bakery. When we arrived, we found out that the bakery was bombed. We went to another area. We found the bakery, and there is a long line of about 300 people waiting for their turn to get bread.
The area has been targeted previously by airstrikes. It was not safe to wait. Crowds of people have been targeted many times. Yesterday, they targeted a food market that was full of people. I went back to the area we were staying in to buy some groceries. In the store, we continually heard the explosion of the airstrikes. These explosions have become a normal thing to hear.
SAFIAN: For a third perspective, I sat down with the founder of Kind Snacks, Daniel Lubetzky, who is based in the US, but has worked for decades trying to use business as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians. His hope is that we can turn this difficult time into an opportunity for cross-cultural unity.
DANIEL LUBETZKY: As a son of a Holocaust survivor, to see people marching and saying, “Gas the jews,” I take that very personally.
People know me as the founder of Kind. I’m very proud of that, but well before Kind existed, I started my first company called PeaceWorks to use business to bring Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Turks, to trade with one another. And then to use vested economic interest to cement and deepen human relations between all peoples.
My daughter came to me two days ago, and she said, “Daddy, I understand that you’re trying to help your friends in the Middle East, your Palestinian and Israeli colleagues, but you’re not smiling anymore.” And it just made me remember that I cannot let them diminish me. I’m going to choose to laugh. I’m going to choose to live. I’m going to choose to build. And particularly now that there’s so much darkness, I’m going to choose to be a light.
And I want everybody that’s listening to you today to choose to be a light with me, to reach out to the other, and not allow the terrorists a victory, because they want to divide us.
SAFIAN: The lesson I’m taking away from the series of clips you just heard is: Don’t lose your empathy, whatever your anger, your frustration, your disappointments and confusion.
Beyond Israel, 2023 has seen plenty of conflict, plenty of challenges. Fears of recession, layoffs, historic union strikes, bankruptcies, political dysfunction on all sides. Yet when people are hurting, that’s when true leaders step up. Human-centered organizations take into account the hearts of team members across the board. So keep listening, keep learning, keep hoping and keep helping. If empathy is at the forefront of your strategy, you will cultivate a happier, bonded, more productive team — and do your part to usher in a better 2024.
Happy Holidays to you all. Take a rest. Recharge. And be ready for what the new year has in store.
I’m Bob Safian. Thanks for listening.