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How Corporate America Sells Success in the 21st Century

May 10, 2017

Invitations to tech-infused schmoozefests and soirees tend to blend together. Meet the Future of Fintech. Celebrate an Accelerator Demo Day. Brunch with the Boss Ladies. Hack Healthcare! They come from corporations, research shops, startups, and agencies. Anyone wanting the slick, shiny sheen of innovation to rub off on them can throw a simple party, conference, or breakfast.

One particular event, hosted by American Express, stood out for a few reasons. The invite promised “plenty of premium cocktails, Instagrammable activations, and inspiring moments you won’t forget.” The content promised “a dream team of celebrity entrepreneurs and business mavens to talk success, being mission-driven, and living a balanced life.” And the venue in Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood described itself as “a collaborative workspace and membership club connecting work, leisure, and entertainment for the community of global professionals and entrepreneurs in the business of shaping contemporary culture.” It was called “Success Makers.” It was also walking distance from Fortune headquarters.

Sealing the deal, the organizers offered me 20 minutes to interview actress Jessica Alba about her startup, The Honest Company. The Los Angeles-based consumer packaged goods company had a rough year, stumbling through a string of product scandals, a failed acquisition, a reorganization, layoffs, and a new CEO. I was interested in discussing all of that with the star-turned-startup founder.

As I approach a chrome podium at the end of a monogrammed carpet walkway, the door lady asks me a question.

“Are you vegan?”

“No…”

“Oh, good,” she says, letting out a nervous laugh and producing what looked like a black dog leash attached to a heavy, gold-plated nametag. “The press badges are leather.” The media kits are equally as elaborate: horizontal binders made of reflective silver like a platinum Amex card. (This event coincides with the launch of new benefits to Amex's business platinum tier of corporate credit cards.)

Upstairs a crowd of well-dressed mid-career executives mill around in suits, dresses, and heels. “Experiential activations,” the corporate term for activities, include a guy drawing caricatures on an iPad. A room-length blue velvet couch separates the bar area from the stage, where signs on the back of each chair declare “DIVIDENDS,” “TRUST,” “MISSION-DRIVEN,” and “#NEXT STARTS HERE.”

This is the language of business today—not power or money or competition, but pie-in-the-sky Silicon Valley-speak, co-opted and stylized for corporate branding purposes. The surest way to sell something to businesses today is to drench it in innovation and entrepreneurialism. It doesn’t matter if the entrepreneurs aren’t yet successful by traditional business metrics like profitability, or producing a return for their investors. What matters is the perception of success and that we all celebrate it.

We are here, we are told, because we are success makers. “You probably don’t think about what that means because you’re just doing it," says Audrey Hendley, SVP and manager of OPEN Acquisition & Prospect Engagement at American Express, to the crowd. A panel of luminaries (star TV producer Shonda Rhimes; skateboard legend Tony Hawk) and startup founders (Chieh Huang, CEO of wholesale e-commerce startup Boxed; Jen Rubio, co-founder of luggage startup Away) discuss how they stay authentic and whether they check their email first thing in the morning.

My phone buzzes with texts from the event’s PR person: Jessica’s team is running behind so the interview needs to happen now. I’m whisked to the green room where a different handler tells me I only have five minutes and a third tells me to cut my list of 18 questions down to two. When I walk in, Alba is tweeting. Several people are hanging around. A man stands over my shoulder with body language that said he does not have time for my B.S. right now.

I ask Alba about The Honest Company’s “reset,” which I though was a respectful way to describe the company’s rough year. She answers with a mix of honesty and corporatespeak: "Last year was about … reevaluating who we are today, what our consumers want from us, and just refreshing our business to meet the consumers’ needs." I follow up with a question on whether the company’s positioning as a tech startup (and subsequent valuation) has hurt it.

It’s nuanced, Alba says. E-commerce is hard, but The Honest Company understands it well, and that’s something traditional consumer packaged goods companies struggle with. The Honest Company now needs to move into traditional retail channels. “We are evolving and we are omni-channel. It shouldn’t even be a ‘thing’ to be omni-channel—every brand should just be where consumers want to be,” she says.

Behind me, I feel No Time For My B.S. shifting impatiently. He cuts me off before I can follow up and I am whisked out. Later Warby Parker co-CEO Neil Blumenthal interviews Alba on stage, declaring he will start with a “softball” question: "How did you come up with the idea for The Honest Company?"

Afterward, the crowd of success-makers mingles around the bar while attractive servers pass trays of precious one-bite foods. Men with expensive cameras bob through the crowd, capturing the scene as the golden light of the afternoon fades into happy hour—a fête that was by all accounts slick, shiny, and successful.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Success Makers Summit was to promote a new tier of corporate credit cards; it was to introduce new benefits to an existing card.

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