The Good, the Bad and Bodacious of the Fast Company Innovation Festival (and Why You Should Go Next Year)

fastcoIf you’re tired of cookie-cutter work conferences, go to the Fast Company Innovation Festival next year – a unique intersection of technology, pop culture, and a dash of cool – all with a business backbone.

Your boss will still likely need convincing to shell out the extra dough for this glittery event, but I’ve done the work for you.

As a big fan of FastCo magazine, I decided to forego my normal writing or marketing conference to scratch that itch I’ve had for this event since it began three years ago. I bopped over to the Big Apple for a week of intriguing ideas, glam celebrities clicking Louboutin heels on stage, and wishing I had a personal driver (but we’ll get to that later).

FastCo Festival puts on an impressive cornucopia of 150+ presentation-style and interactive sessions scattered throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn – from groovy ad agencies to sleek corporate headquarters to the Met Opera House. You’ll never get too comfortable sitting in any one place. Besides the sessions, there are networking events and cocktail parties, infused with trademark New York urban chic.

Unlike many industry events, topics are a complete mash-up, but all hanging from the same business tree, intertwining technology, design thinking, social activism, and pop culture. Here’s a sampling of sessions I attended:

 

• Learning how to adopt more political and social art into corporate life
• Why “irregular thinking” helps to co-create advertising ideas with new clients                   • Peeking into the future of artificial intelligence and how it is both helping and creeping out marketing efforts
• Sitting pretty like a star in Creative Artists Agency’s plush screening room to learn about their social good programs
• Hearing how 3M and a start-up partnered to created a powerless cooler device for developing countries
• Listening to powerful women in tech discuss their efforts to shrink gender bias in VC funding and create a better future for female-run start-ups
• Thinking about new ways to develop better and more meaningful dialogue in the age of addicted smartphone technology
• Attending the “Innovation Design Awards” and checking out submissions ranging from a running hijab to a robot companion for elderly folks

Get the idea? Trust me, you won’t be bored. And you will learn something.

Another distinctive feature of this event is the attendee diversity across race, gender, industries, and ages (though the website pegs 36 as average age). I met a young HR manager from Singapore, a silver-haired German photographer, a few freelancers like me, and yes, some corporate types. Then there was the oversupply of young women in dark jeans and black chunky-heeled boots. Not sure what this demographic is called but guessing they work at ad agencies or social media outfits.

It’s the law that every corporate event has an annual theme and FastCo Fest is no exception. This year’s was “Leading With Optimism.” Hard to stomach in this political climate, but was intended to focus on breaking through the societal and psychic clutter to achieve business and cultural transformation.

But let’s get down to brass tacks: Here’s what you need to know before you chat with your boss (or decide to treat yourself).

#1 You’ll Learn Something New and Unexpected                                                                             
Even though some of the sessions were not directly related to my field, like how to create customized Nike sneakers, or a drill-down of the Cartoon Network, I found myself taking away at least one little nugget, even if it didn’t apply directly to my work. Your mind will be opened even if it doesn’t seem intuitive or tangible at the time – you might surprise yourself to connect the dots to your own work and life later on.

#2 You’ll Be On Your Toes – Literally 

subwayLogistics is something I loved and hated about this event. Sessions are sprinkled throughout different locations –from the 92 Street YMCA to hear Andy Cohen and Cecile Richards discuss their brands of social activism, to sprinting across town to the Viacom Network skyscraper to hear comedian Robin Thede of “The Rundown” interviewed. Become a quick study on the subway system (and be ready to run in some cases), and you’ll be fine. Don’t bother with taxis and Uber, they can’t compete, nor can the ill-timed FastCo shuttles. I missed some sessions the first day of the event and was stressed about navigating, but got comfortable as the week wore on. FastCo could do a better job during registration providing travel times based on reality and planning tips.

#3 Be Aware of “Interactive” Sessions                                                                                                 
For me, it was more of “buyer beware.” I found these sessions to be the least valuable and caused unpleasant flashbacks of corporate team-building events. This might be because I’m a consultant and don’t work for corporate America, but more likely I wasn’t interested in solving an issue with colleagues or hearing about their business problems. I came for the knowledge from the “experts” and their ideas – that’s why I was paying all this money.  In general, I found the first half of these sessions to be valuable and the interactive part to be a waste of time. (I even walked out on one where we were expected to do a presentation). This is my experience of course, and other attendees could find value in these sessions.

#4 Networking Takes Work                                                                                                                 
Let me qualify this: Like most events, if you go with colleagues, you’ll have your instant-posse, but if you attend solo, be prepared to put yourself out there more than normal to meet people. Since the festival is held in various parts of the city, rarely did I see the same person twice, and attendees often traveled in packs. Yes, there are opportunities to gather at the show hub (a spiffy co-working space called Convene on Park Avenue with fantastic snacks), or extend yourself at cocktail parties, but you’ll have to put out some serious effort. (Another side note on food: know that some of the sessions had amazing Epicurean delights, and others had peanuts, literally. Eat regular meals and don’t count on venues feeding you to be safe).

#5 Register Early and Often

fuck itSpeaking of sessions, the most popular ones get filled up ridiculously fast (think “Hamilton” tickets pace). When you register online, don’t sign up for all your sessions and then hit “enter,” confirm your sessions as you go through registration, otherwise they may fill up (I know, it happened to me). There are new sessions added before the festival starts, but you may end up with leftovers you’re vehemently unenthusiastic about, like a kombucha tasting. Some of the session titles were spectacular (kudos to Wieden+ Kennedy)                                                                                                                                                                           

#6 If You Love Celebs, You’ll be in Heaven                   

Part of the reason this event is pricey is because there are TONS of celebrity speakers compared to other business events. Besides the name-dropping I’ve done already, high profile glitterati included Derek Jeter, Jessica Alba, Michael Strahan, Mario Batelli, and Kate Hudson, just to name a few. You’ll be taking lots of snappies at this event, but don’t expect to get selfies with stars, they were off stage before you could even blink.

The net-net? Attend the Fast Company Innovation Festival at least once  — you won’t forget it — but also don’t forget to bring your running shoes.

Get more info on the site. (note: there is also a summer fest in Los Angeles)

 

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