The empathy-innovation link is the next big thing.
In 2006, a young man traveled to Argentina for an adventurous vacation. While there, he met a group of American volunteers who provided shoes to underprivileged children. This young man spent a few days traveling around with the volunteers from village to village passing out shoes and witnessing the intense poverty and the effects that kids suffered without shoes. They would miss out on school and be exposed to many diseases.
At this point in his life, Blake Mycoskie was already on his fourth entrepreneurial venture. At 29 years old, he decided he could do something about the lack of shoes and inefficient supply chains.
A company that would be the first to make a giant mark on the connection between empathy and innovation was birthed. It was a roaring success, TOMS is now worn everywhere, and the company is a household name. It is a company that acted as a bridge between a non-profit organization and a profitable, booming company, starting a whole new way of doing business.
Mycoskie didn’t travel to Argentina looking for an idea to make millions of dollars. This empathetic innovator went on vacation to relax, learn, and experience another culture. Yet he came back with a brand-new business model that would simultaneously put a dent in poverty and be sold at Nordstrom. “Innovation can come from anywhere as it did for the owner of TOMs who, by experiencing the needs of another culture, became a household name” and continues to be successful at this dual model, aiding millions through the TOMS Global Giving Partners.
Mycoskie began a revolution of empathetic innovators, and the old big business model focused on profit only began to shift. Empathy isn’t just part of what TOMS does; it is the core of its model, business plan, goal, and drive. TOMS is Empathy.
Empathy became the new gold standard of the business world. If a company isn’t empathetic to its customers, employees, and society, there will be less innovation. With less innovation, there will be less change, less growth, and less performance which will always affect the bottom line.
Catapulted to the forefront by TOMS, empathy now richly dwells at the center of three major companies’ ethos and culture: Microsoft, Warby Parker, and KIND. The CEOs from all three have been vocal about the connection between empathy and innovation.
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, firmly believes that “empathy makes you a better innovator. If I look at the most successful products we [at Microsoft] have created, it comes with that ability to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers.”
Neil Blumenthal is the CEO of Warby Parker, an eyewear company that has challenged the industry’s status quo. Warby Parker has a similar model to TOMS; Bluenthal’s leadership model tested the traditional business hierarchy. He and his business partners birthed a different way by having two co-CEOs. Warby Parker is a company committed to collaboration, modeled in their leadership hierarchy, and recognizes the innovative value of bringing more voices and viewpoints to the table.
Daniel Lubetzky, founder and CEO of KIND, has lived his life combining empathy and innovation to bring together neighbors in conflict regions to make and sell food in the Middle East. He donated $25 million in 2017 to create an organization that would “back health policies grounded in science-based nutrition studies.” Not only does KIND combine an empathetic culture with innovation, but Lubetzky’s wallet backs the empathetic value.
Understanding the needs of employees and customers is an empathetic way that drives innovation. Empathy is the rising star in the business world and is changing the values and expectations of consumers and employees alike. Rene Schuster, the former CEO of Telefonica Germany, put it this way: “Empathy is not a soft nurturing value, but a hard-commercial tool that every business needs as a part of their DNA.”
With the changes that come with empathy and innovation, it’s easy to see that business has the potential to emerge as a driver for the good of the world. Empathy and its relationship to innovation is a value that can be taught, caught, and reinvented. If your organization lacks this ever-important value or needs a hard reboot of empathy, I am ready to connect and develop more of a change-leadership culture in your company.