The Accelerators: These 5 execs are changing the face of the Fortune 500

When it comes to the creation of world-changing ideas, startups get all the acclaim. We get it—being the new kid on the block is a blessing, not a curse, in the land of innovation. But that’s not the whole picture. A number of landmark tools and technologies can be credited to clever people working for some of the largest companies on the planet. Xerox (No. 143) (XRX) in the 1970s invented Ethernet, now a fixture of the modern Internet-connected office. Motorola (No. 363) (MSI) in the 1980s developed Six Sigma, a set of process-improvement techniques that changed the way Fortune 500 companies operated. And Walmart’s (No. 1) (WMT) use of “continuous replenishment” for inventory in the 1990s is a key reason it has spent more than a decade at or near the top of our iconic list. What will the next 10 years bring? Hard to say—but these five movers and shakers are among those best positioned to grasp it. Read on to discover Fortune‘s 2015 Accelerators.

Sheri Hickok, 37
Chief Engineer, Next-Gen Full-Size Trucks
General Motors (GM)
No. 6

Sheri Hickok, General Motors
Photograph by Billy Delfs for Fortune

“It’s about owning it and not having any regrets.”

“I consider myself the wedding planner of the auto industry,” Sheri Hickok says with a chuckle. “I pull together the pieces, parts, and people who execute a vehicle.” Hickok leads the group responsible for the Chevrolet Silverado, a division so important to GM that a misstep could be “detrimental to the company’s long-term outlook,” she admits. Not that she’s worried. “We have our eyes on the prize. The next truck will take it to the next level.” —Andrew Nusca

Ben Artis, 28
Senior Category Manager, Connected Home
Whirlpool (WHR)
No. 148 (Global 500)

Beb Artis, Whirlpool
Photograph by Saverio Truglia for Fortune

“Never say no to a new idea until you’ve had a chance to see its potential.”

Ben Artis used to link disparate ideas as a weekly improv-comedy performer in Chicago. Now the new father helps his century-old employer strike deals with strange bedfellows—such as Google’s Nest—to help Whirlpool secure a role in the growing Internet of things. The result? A line of laundry machines that can detect when you leave home and switch to a setting that keeps dried clothes fresh. It’s improv’s “Yes, and … ” approach applied to tech. —Katie Fehrenbacher

Starlee Sykes, 39
Vice President, Deepwater Projects
No. 6 (Global 500)

Starlee Sykes
Photograph by Nathan Lindstrom for Fortune

“I was the first woman in my family to become an engineer.”

Starlee Sykes stands out. A woman in a man’s industry. An operations expert in a sea of financial gurus. An executive who spends more time in Angola, Brazil, and Trinidad than in her Houston office. Her job? Extract oil from some of the world’s trickiest spots. The gig puts Sykes—one of six kids and a Texan—in charge of 14 deepwater drilling projects and, in turn, BP’s future. Says Sykes: “I’ve never said no to a challenge.” —Stacey Higginbotham

Ajinder Singh, 38
Systems Manager, Building Automation
Texas Instruments (TXN)
No. 233

Ajinder Singh, Texas Instruments
Photograph by Nancy Newberry for Fortune
Photograph by Nancy Newberry for Fortune

“In my spare time I like to open up stuff to see how it works.”

As a hobby, Ajinder Singh dissects candy machines and remote-controlled cars. At his office he cracks open “smart” building devices—Internet-connected thermostats, air-quality sensors, surveillance cameras—to improve them. A recent feat? Singh and his team designed a way for the gadgets to harvest indoor light, saving energy, money, and (in some cases) the need for replacing batteries. “Engineering is my passion,” he says. Indeed.—Robert Hackett

Leanne Hunter, 36
Purchasing Manager
Caterpillar (CAT)
No. 54

Leanne Hunter, Caterpillar
Photograph by Shane Lynam for Fortune
Photograph by Shane Lynam for Fortune

“Sheryl Sandberg has been a real inspiration.”

Leanne Hunter’s soothing Irish lilt belies the fact that she spends her days sparring with suppliers to reduce costs. “Material can be 70% of product cost,” she says. “That’s huge.” Caterpillar is best known for its yellow tractors, but its lucrative power generators are “one of the company’s best-kept secrets,” she says. Thanks to Hunter’s data-driven negotiating, not for long. —Andrew Nusca

A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline ‘Innovation? Full Speed Ahead. Meet the Accelerators.’

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