I first attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) more than 30 years ago and have visited periodically over the intervening years. Rest assured that the creativity and sheer volume of innovation exhibited there never ceases to amaze and impress me. While some of it is developed and showcased by global companies such as Samsung and Kohler, the showroom floor is also filled with talent previously working behind the scenes at various brands, or by truly start-up entrepreneurs.
This was the first time that I have viewed the show through the eyes of a corporate director. As I walked more than 10 miles through the aisles over the course of CES 2018, I considered the governance implications of what I saw.
To me, one of the benefits of being at CES is being away from daily routines and taking the opportunity to observe and just let your mind cogitate the possibilities. And cogitate I did. In some cases, I wanted to know not only what the product did, but how it was made. In other instances, I wondered how a product could be marketed or sold, what companies would create its competitor products, and what adoption rate was required to make the product financially successful.
So, what did I find exciting? What made the governance wheels in my head turn? Below are a few themes that stood out.
Quantum Computers. From a pure technology standpoint, the quantum computer stands out due to its astounding small size yet incredible processing power. Intel, which is one of the leaders of the quantum computing race, kicked the week off by exhibiting its own advancements in engineering one of the most powerful quantum chips yet. The IBM Research group, on the other hand, displayed its quantum computer as a stunning piece of art.
Sensors and the Internet of Things. Sensors—which were imbedded in everything from fabrics to headsets, from vehicles to medical products, and in everything else you might imagine would benefit from being connected—continued to impress due to the breadth of their utility. One clever use of sensors was the ShadeCraft patio umbrella whose electronics and robotics allowed it to automatically raise and lower itself based upon current light and weather conditions. This product not only understood sunrise and sunset, but followed the sun throughout the day to properly tilt the umbrella and gauged wind speed or rain to automatically close the umbrella without human intervention. No more worrying about your expensive patio umbrella being turned inside out, upending your table, or taking off as a projectile when you weren’t available to tend it.
Autonomous Vehicles. There was an incredible number of offerings around autonomous vehicles. I use the term vehicles instead of cars because the auto-drive implications are also clear for vans, trucks, tractors, forklifts, campers, and other vehicles. Here again the use of sensors was key, and there is no doubt that many of these machines will perform better than the drivers that we currently encounter on the road, human foibles and all.
Medical Aids. Regarding other products, I found so many to be interesting. There was an audio system that not only provided a hearing test but progressed to actually construct an ear bud that utilized the results of the hearing test to produce a customized hearing aid. Phenomenal! Anyone who has gone through the rigor of selecting a hearing aid device can appreciate this speedy, streamlined approach, especially when it is at half the price point of today’s offerings. Next, I liked the Gyenno Co., which developed a special spoon that automatically levels its contents to eliminate spilling. This will provide such a caring and practical solution for those with Parkinson’s or other medical issues that have a problem feeding themselves due to tremors.
3D Printing. Another greatly improved invention is 3D printing. Although the method has been around for a while, it is now not limited to plastics or small items. Printers can fabricate in a variety of mediums and to great scale. For example, there was a camper-type van displayed on the showroom floor that was created by 3D printing. It was produced quickly and at much less expense than a traditional van. It is easy to extrapolate the utility of 3D printing to assist various businesses since it permits specialty solutions that previously did not have the volume to be economically feasible from the producer’s perspective, and were not affordable from the buyer’s standpoint.
Odds and Ends. Three fun offerings were related to beer, fingernails, and laundry. Although I am not a beer drinker, the PicoBrew easily allows making craft beers at home and would be a hit with many of my friends. And I know those who would like the fingernail machine that can use any photos to create vinyl nails for application at home. Finally I’ll introduce the FoldiMate, a device that folds your laundry when you feed it into the machine. It could be the next best thing since sliced bread for the lazy among us.
It is worth noting that one of the great joys of CES is that everyone is welcome, and that the exhibitors and subject-matter experts arrive from many countries. CES makes clear that the desire to innovate transcends borders and creeds, and that the glue holding this incredible meeting together is not so-called “geekiness,” but a superior level of creativity, intellectual curiosity, and desire for business success—and, perhaps above all, the desire by many to improve living conditions around the world.
I’ll close by saying everyone should attend this show once their life time. As a director, I suggest setting the goal of attending every three to five years. CES presents a soup-to-nuts view of developments in products and technology that consumers will anticipate. Even if you are not affiliated with what is considered a consumer business, you do serve customers that will continue to expect innovation. As I absorbed the week’s events and considered the possibilities around every corner, CES opened my mind about what could or should be considered in the boardroom related to strategy and risk. It was well worth my time, and would be for you, too.
Kathleen Misunas is a director of Boingo Wireless and Tech Data Corp., two publicly traded technology companies.
Learning how to implement sustainable business practices can be challenging for companies in any industry, and boards may wonder how to integrate sustainability issues into discussions with management. NACD has compiled a set of resources offering practical information to help boards discuss climate-related risks, as well as opportunities associated with environmentally- and socially-sustainable business practices.
The first step is to assess why sustainability and social responsibility are such hot topics for the boardroom. Two important factors to consider are the political environment and shareholder expectations.
Signals From the Current Administration
President Donald J. Trump in June announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, an international deal in which 191 countries have pledged to work toward goals to restrict the increase in temperatures globally to less than 2.0°C and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being created.
The president in April also signed an executive order aimed at “promoting energy independence and economic growth,” curtailing federal environmental regulations. The order instructs the Department of the Interior to lift former President Obama’s ban on coal leasing activities on federal land.
Watchdog group Environmental Integrity Project recently reported that this year, the Trump administration, when compared to the prior three presidential administrations in the same period, has collected approximately 60 percent less in fines from companies’ violations of pollution-control regulations.
Opposing Pressure From Shareholders
Despite strong signals from the current administration that enforcement of environmental-related regulations will decrease over time, shareholders are applying an opposing pressure on corporations.
More than half (56%) of shareholder proposals introduced this year on proxy ballots related to social, environmental, or policy issues, and Proxy Monitor reports that this proportion is the highest it has seen since it began tracking such data in 2006.
Shareholder proposals relating to environmental and social issues 10 years ago sought fairly basic changes such as increased clarity into companies’ environmental policies. The proposals now seek, for example, enhanced disclosures around what the company is doing to manage climate risks and how executive pay links to sustainability initiatives, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Proposals about environmental issues received a record breaking average of 27 percent support this year, according to Proxy Monitor. That percentage was 21 percent last year and fell in the teens before that.
Meanwhile, State Street Corp., a global financial services and investment management firm with $2.47 trillion in assets under management, published a report earlier this year in which they found that traditional obstacles (like the lack of quality data about ESG) to investing more heavily in companies that prioritize ESG initiative are diminishing.
“Over the long-term, environmental, social and corporate governance issues can have a material impact on a company’s ability to generate returns,” Ron O’Hanley, president and CEO of State Street Global Advisors, said in a press release.
Resource centers are repositories for NACD content, services, and events related to top-of-mind issues for directors. In these resource centers, individuals can find practical guidance, tools, and analyses on subjects varying from board diversity to cyber-risk oversight. Below we have highlighted a sample of helpful materials from our new resource center on sustainability and social responsibility.
The handbook, produced in conjunction with EY, centers around four key recommendations:
Directors should understand the company’s definition of sustainability in the context of the company’s strategy and specific circumstances.
The board and management should align on the sustainability message and information the company chooses to report publicly.
Boards should clarify roles for oversight responsibility for sustainability activities, including external reporting.
Directors need to establish parameters for sustainability reporting to the board regarding the information required to support robust discussions with management.
A number of items included in the resource center provide expert commentary on myriad issues related to sustainability and social responsibility. A favorite of mine is “Living in a Material World,” an article written by Veena Ramani, program director of the Capital Markets Systems, at sustainability-focused nonprofit Ceres.
Ramani discusses the corporate director’s critical role in engaging with management over which sustainability issues are material for the enterprise. She offers four suggestions for board members who want to address the materiality of certain sustainability risks.
Boardroom Tools & Templates
The resource center houses several tools and templates to assist directors as they oversee sustainability-related risks and opportunities. One such tool is the “Self-Assessment: Is Your Board Sustainability-Ready?” evaluation. Directors can answer a set of questions to gauge their board’s level of engagement—or lack thereof—in sustainability oversight.
Videos and Webinars
The NACD BoardVision—Sustainability Oversight video in the resource center features a candid discussion by EY subject matter experts Brendan LeBlanc and Kellie Huennekens on how investors are engaging with boards around sustainability and social responsibility issues. (A transcript of the video is also available here.)
Our hope is that you find this resource center useful and visit it often. We will continue to update it regularly with new and interesting content. If you would like help finding resources on a specific subject matter, please let us know. We welcome the opportunity to engage with directors on pressing needs and concerns.
When Walter S. Isaacson winds down his 14-year tenure as the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute at the end of this year, his beloved hometown of New Orleans will be seeing more of him. Students in his classroom at Tulane University will be the lucky recipients of his rich knowledge and experience as he returns as a professor in those stately halls in the Garden District.
Walter S. Isaacson will speak at NACD’s 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit.
Isaacson, who has penned biographies of such greats as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs will speak at NACD’s 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit in October on innovation and disruption. (He will also release a new biography on Leonardo da Vinci in October.)
In addition to his work as a writer, Issacson keeps his governance plate quite full: he is a director of United Continental Holdings and an advisory board member of the National Institutes of Health. His nonprofit board service includes the Society of American Historians, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. He also has served as an advisory board member at Perella Weinberg Partners, a global financial services and advisory firm, since 2015.
I recently had the opportunity to correspond with him via e-mail and ask him any question my heart desired. While the edited version of our full interview will run in the forthcoming May/June 2017 issue of NACD Directorship, I saved choice pieces from our exchange that unfortunately landed on the cutting room floor due to the physical constraints of a magazine page.
Many of my questions were inspired by newspaper headlines. “Why I’m Moving Home,” a recent New York Times op-ed piece by lawyer cum venture capitalist J.D. Vance, particularly grabbed my attention because it explores a common question: Can you really go home? Can you re-integrate yourself into that community—let alone revitalize it?
Isaacson seems to think so—and he’s a living example that it’s possible. Both he and his wife have divided their time between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans for some time. “I am happiest in my hometown of New Orleans dealing with issues of urban planning, jobs programs, and education reform,” he writes. “I got re-involved after Hurricane Katrina when I was made vice chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. My wife and I have a place in the French Quarter. I think there is more impact to be made when we act locally, and I am lucky that I have a deep passion for the town where I was born and raised.”
And how have the horrors of Hurricane Katrina shaped his worldview? The storm not only physically decimated New Orleans, but in its aftermath, the city’s population dropped by half largely due to storm-related displacements. Isaacson is determined to help reverse this radical demographic shift by invigorating education and entrepreneurialism to attract top talent and great thinkers back to the city.
“Hurricane Katrina reminded me of the value of home,” he writes. “I think that when we are looking for the good we can do and the impact we can have, now is a good time to be looking locally. I am fortunate to have New Orleans as my hometown. We are trying new ways to reform education and make an innovative environment for creative people and entrepreneurs.”
Do you have a similar experience of returning to your hometown to change it for the better? Do you serve on a board that inspires a company to better serve the communities in which the business operates? We’d love to hear from you. Share your experiences in the comment section.
Judy Warner is editor in chief of NACD Directorship magazine.