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Valerie Frankel Headshot

CEOs Talk, Dreamers Listen

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During day one at C2MTL in Montreal, "a business conference somewhere between genius and insanity," several multi-milionaires delivered TED-Talk style inspirational speeches to the aspiring moguls in the audience. A few misguided lecturers bored the audience with platitudes, preaching the value of adaptability (change is a constant), innovation (think different) and passion (love what you do and you'll never . . . snore). And then there were the winners who delivered fresh, inspiring ideas that anyone in business can take to heart, including:

Fearlessness. Cindy Gallop, founder and CEO of makelovenotporn.com, the most dynamic presenter of the day, said, "The biggest business obstacle is the fear of what other people think." She should know, having struggled to get investors and a bank partner for her real-sex video site. The rejections spur her on. She's not just out to make a fortune, which seems inevitable, but to fundamentally change the way people discuss, experience and learn about sex. "Women challenge the status quo because we're not it," she said. "If you want innovators, hire women." The take-away for non-CEOs: Struggle strengthens conviction no matter what you're selling.

Connection. Jonathan Becher, CMO at SAP, believes in the marketing power of social media, but not in racking up the numbers. Any connection, even online, should be based on shared passions and the honest desire to exchange thoughts and ideas. If you're using Twitter to push your products and boost your ego, you're not doing it right. The take-away: Depth of connections outweighs breadth.

Community. Tony Hsieh, CEO of zappos.com, gave an impassioned talk about his new Downtown Project, a plan to revitalize a depressed neighborhood in Las Vegas. His theory is that a vital community depends on the serendipitous collision of people and ideas in public places, so he's investing in small "hang out" businesses, new tech companies, and local enrichment (festivals, art projects) to the tune of $350 million. His goal is to turn Vegas into the city that "makes you smarter," and for his urban renewal model to be used all over the world. The take-away: Serendipity can be contrived, so get out there to do stuff and meet people.

Diversity. A few speakers blasted homogeneity, and issued dire warnings about groupthink and "yes" men. Economist and Eyes Wide Open author Noreena Hertz pointed out eloquently that experts are often wrong, and the people at the bottom usually know more about what's really going on than those at the top. The familiar is the enemy of progress. Mixing a wide range of backgrounds results in creativity. She drew a political comparison, extolling Lincoln's famous team of rivals that contentiously and effectively dragged our nation forward. The take-away: Practice coopetition (new word alert!) by seeking out unlikely partnerships to bring new energy and ideas into the fold.

Reflection. Another point raised often, the notion that our fast-paced culture has deprived us of quiet reflection. Hertz asked audience members to add thirty minutes a day to their schedule for "time to think." Added value of strategic reflection: Meditating on what you can learn from your mistakes, and how to turn failure into its own kind of success. The take-away: Drift daily to allow bright ideas to float in.