14 CEOs Who Are Quietly Defining the Future of Business

By July 27, 2018Business
If you don't know all these CEOs by sight or name, you probably will in the future. They're helping define the future of work and business, by example and through the products they’ve created.
If you don’t know all these CEOs by sight or name, you probably will in the future. They’re helping define the future of work and business, by example and through the products they’ve created.AP Photos

Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk. Bill Gates. Everyone knows these CEOs.

But what about the CEOs who don’t generate a news article with every Tweet, but are still making an impact in the business world?

Let’s take a look at these 14 CEOs you might not know by name, but are helping define the future of work and business, by example and through the products they’ve created.

Reese Witherspoon, Pacific Standard

Reese Witherspoon has branched out to lead several businesses, including becoming the CEO of the production company Pacific Standard, which provides more roles to women in Hollywood.
Reese Witherspoon has branched out to lead several businesses, including becoming the CEO of the production company Pacific Standard, which provides more roles to women in Hollywood.Hello Sunshine/Facebook

Yes, you probably know her name.

But when someone says “Reese Witherspoon,” you probably think of “Legally Blonde” or “Walk the Line.” You probably aren’t thinking about an incredible business-savvy CEO who has been trying to give more roles to women in Hollywood. But you should.

Witherspoon owns a clothing and apparel line called Draper James, which is cool, but what’s really impressive is her production company. Witherspoon owns Pacific Standard, which strives to create movies and shows with female-driven storylines. She’s a huge part of Apple’s $1 billion move into original programing, and Witherspoon has direct involvement with three out of Apple’s 10 pilot shows.

Witherspoon’s a driving force on getting more women in Hollywood on camera, and her success proves there’s certainly an audience for it.

Tony Hsieh, Zappos

Former President Bill Clinton speaks with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (right) at the Clinton Global Initiative America in 2014.
Former President Bill Clinton speaks with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (right) at the Clinton Global Initiative America in 2014.Brennan Linsley / AP Photo

Tony Hsieh was already a millionaire when he founded Zappos in 1999 — he had sold the online advertising company, LinkExchange, to Microsoft for $265 million in 1998 — but he wasn’t intent on retiring.

Nor was the going to follow the tried-and-true rules of running a business, even after Amazon bought Zappos for $1.2 billion. Hsieh is all about taking risks to make his employees happier.

In 2013, Hsieh adopted a company-wide policy of “holacracy,” a management structure which strips titles and hierarchy from the workplace. With no managers and no bosses, results first seemed to be mixed: 18 percent of Zappos’ workforce took buyouts rather than remain within the company’s new structure.

There’s another way of looking at it though: 82 percent of employees decided to stay in a company with a whole new management structure and forgo a buyout offer — reported to be a few months’ pay.

Hsieh also created a management tactic called “Pay to Quit,” where new employees are offered a bonus to quit if they don’t like working at Zappos. Jeff Bezos has since adopted that technique at Amazon.

Steve Huffman, Reddit

After leaving Reddit in 2009, Steve Huffman returned in 2015 to remedy the company’s failings, including a high-turnover rate for people of color and female employees.
After leaving Reddit in 2009, Steve Huffman returned in 2015 to remedy the company’s failings, including a high-turnover rate for people of color and female employees.Reddit

Steve Huffman co-founded Reddit in 2005 and left in 2009. By 2012 the company had reached two billion page views per month.

It currently hovers around the fifth most-trafficked site in the United States and is in the top-10 most trafficked sites in the world, according to Reddit’s Alexa ranking.

When Huffman returned to Reddit in 2015, it was his job to turnaround the company’s bad reputation for its high-turnover rate for its people of color and women employees. Under Huffman, the company was quick to jump on the much-needed trend of giving 16 weeks of parental leave to both parents, regardless of which gave birth, and the policy also allows for adoptions.

Huffman also started a crackdown on harassment, bullying and racism site-wide, along with trying to eliminate the spread of fake news websites and propaganda accounts using Reddit to push political agendas. By 2017, Huffman secured an additional $200 million in venture capital funding, bringing the company’s worth to $1.8 billion.

Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe

23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki speaks at an announcement for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco in 2013.
23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki speaks at an announcement for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco in 2013.Jeff Chiu / AP Photo

Anne Wojcicki pretty much created the business of do-it-yourself DNA testing kits.

Founded in 2013, 23andMe is primarily used to identify potential genetic risks with just a bit of your saliva. Early on, Wojcicki faced heavy FDA fines for not going through the proper FDA-approved channels; it barred her from selling the health kit tests.

However, Wojcicki has turned that around and received proper clearance for some of 23andMe’s genetic testing reports and had a $1.5 billion pre-money valuation in 2017.

Wade Foster, Zapier

Zapier CEO Wade Foster's vision includes paying employees to leave the San Francisco Bay Area. The company strives for all of its employees to work remote.
Zapier CEO Wade Foster’s vision includes paying employees to leave the San Francisco Bay Area. The company strives for all of its employees to work remote.Zapier

Usually, a company pays its employees to come to its city headquarters. But at Zapier, the company pays you to leave the San Francisco Bay Area — to the tune of $10,000 in moving expenses if you move from the Bay Area within three months.

The brilliant idea comes from Wade Foster and his co-founders of Zapier, a company that automates tasks between apps. According to Business Insider, Foster and his cofounders wanted to create a 100-percent remote workforce which would keep the business streamlined and away from outside investors, keeping its core values intact.

And the reason behind the moving incentive? Quite simply, allowing their employees to work where they won’t spend half their salary on rent makes them happier.

Amol Sarva, Knotel

Knotel CEO Amol Sarva and his company offer entrepreneurs and startups access to workspace without leasing or buying it outright.
Knotel CEO Amol Sarva and his company offer entrepreneurs and startups access to workspace without leasing or buying it outright.amolsarva.com

It’s no secret that start-ups can start small, balloon, shrink and grow again. So how does a new company find the right-sized workspace when its workforce is still going through growing pains?

Enter Knotel, founded by Amol Sarva.

The company offers a way for entrepreneurs and startups to access workspace without leasing or buying it outright, which also frees up capital that might otherwise be used for buying space. Knotel has expanded from its New York City origins to San Francisco, London and Berlin.

Sarva isn’t just involved with Knotel. He’s also the co-founder of Virgin Mobile USA and Halo Neuroscience, which created headphones designed to help people — like athletes and musicians — learn repetitive motions through electrical impulses.

Ben Chestnut, MailChimp

MailChimp CEO Ben Chestnut and his business help other small businesses to communicate better and grow via email.
MailChimp CEO Ben Chestnut and his business help other small businesses to communicate better and grow via email.MailChimp

Small businesses and entrepreneurs often don’t have big tech teams — or even a tech team — to collect consumer data. That’s where Ben Chestnut and his business, MailChimp, come in.

MailChimp, an email marketing company, offers multivariate testing which allows small businesses to see just what kind of emails their customers are actually opening up. The company also offers an abandoned-cart tool reminder and predicative purchase data to help small businesses boost revenue.

The culture of MailChimp might also be something businesses leaders can draw from. The office has a steady stream of light-hearted pranks — a co-founder once secretly created and donned a MailChimp mascot costume and appeared in the office — and Chestnut uses that energy to drive his employees.

Also of note is Chestnut’s wariness to take on big clients, even though they pay well, because it can hurt his company’s creativity. As he told Fast Company: “We’ve lost many, many large clients because we refused to do anything special for them, and it’s improved the product.”

Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi smiles at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2011. She's been CEO of the company since 1996.
PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi smiles at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2011. She’s been CEO of the company since 1996.Virginia Mayo / AP Photo

We know what you’re thinking: “The CEO of Pepsi is a lesser-known CEO?” Well, yes — even if she makes $30 million a year.

Indra Nooyi started at PepsiCo as a chief strategist in 1994; by 1996 she was its CEO. The timing of her new promotion is important: As Freakonomics points out, she joined just before the Great Recession and at a period when the entire world started to view junk food as garbage. And Nooyi managed to take the company and turn around its image, and steered Pepsi from being almost all junk food to buying up healthy stuff, like Quaker Oats.

According to World Finance, Nooyi reclassified Pepsi’s products into three categories: “fun for you” (junk food), “better for you” (stuff like diet drinks and low-fat foods) and “good for you,” (like Quaker oatmeal). Since Nooyi came onboard, Pepsi has purchased Naked Juice, Tropicana and Izze.

Nooyi is a prime example of how CEOs can shift an entire business model to adapt to changing markets. And she is somewhat lesser-known — ask anyone who Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is, and they’ll be able to tell you. Then ask them who runs Pepsi.

Stewart Butterfield, Slack

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield attends the WSJ Magazine Innovator Awards in 2015.
Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield attends the WSJ Magazine Innovator Awards in 2015.Charles Sykes / AP Photo/Invision

Stewart Butterfield has literally changed the way companies internally communicate with Slack, a business-oriented cross-platform messaging app with more than eight million daily active users.

Currently, Slack has a valuation somewhere from $5.1 billion up to a rumored $9 billion. In 2015, Inc. named Slack its company of the year.

Dennis Mortensen, x.ai

Dennis Mortensen’s vision is to create an A.I. so believable that users will never know they're communicating with an algorithm.
Dennis Mortensen’s vision is to create an A.I. so believable that users will never know they’re communicating with an algorithm.x.ai

When a Business Insider journalist had to set up a meeting with a CEO, he exchanged 13 emails with an assistant named Amy to coordinate a time. It wasn’t until the thirteenth email that he figured out he had been corresponding with a robot.

The artificial intelligence program was the brainchild of Dennis Mortensen, CEO of x.ai, a New York City-based startup focusing on creating virtual assistant artificial intelligence. Mortensen’s vision is create an A.I. so believable, that users would never know they were communicating with an algorithm instead of a real person.

Mortensen is also poised to bring his virtual assistant technology to Slack and Amazon’s Alexa.

Aaron Levie, Box

Box CEO Aaron Levie waits for his company's IPO on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2015.
Box CEO Aaron Levie waits for his company’s IPO on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2015.Richard Drew / AP Photo

Aaron Levie dropped out of college to found the company in 2005; six years later he turned away a $600 million buyout and currently has a $3.5 billion market cap.

Box is a cloud-based storage service, kind of like Dropbox. Unlike Dropbox, Box is aimed at big companies for internal use — and it may change the way many corporations do business.

Levie is also looking to incorporate machine learning into its platform by adding tech like audio transcription and sentiment analysis “so businesses can do things like monitor call center employees and get a quick overview of what happened on a call without ever having to listen to it,” according to Fast Company.

Melonee Wise, Fetch Robotics

CEO Melonee Wise says her company's about incorporating autonomous robots to help existing workers, not to replace them.
CEO Melonee Wise says her company’s about incorporating autonomous robots to help existing workers, not to replace them.Fetch Robotics, Inc.

Imagine wanting a cookie at work, typing “Robot, I’m hungry,” into Slack, and having a robot wheel over to you with a box full of treats.

That’s not just the future. It’s a workplace perk at Melonee Wise’s startup, Fetch Robotics.

Fetch designs, builds and sells machines to warehouses and factories around the world — and Wise is trying to do it consciously. As she told MIT Technology Review, “No one has ever lost a job because of our robots. Customers need us because they just can’t hire enough people.”

Wise’s vision isn’t replacing people with robots. It’s about incorporating autonomous robots to help existing workers.

Marc Raibert, Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert speaks about his four-legged robot SpotMini during a presentation in Tokyo in 2017.
Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert speaks about his four-legged robot SpotMini during a presentation in Tokyo in 2017.Shizuo Kambayashi / AP Photo

Perhaps no other company has captured the public’s imagination with futuristic robots like Boston Dynamics.

Their videos of life-sized robots of runningback-flipping and opening doors have gone viral over the past few years. But while it’s fun to imagine having a robot buddy to help around the house, they may be able to alter the entire business world.

Boston Dynamics’ CEO Marc Raibert is dreaming big. He imagines a future where robots can deliver packages, act as security guards, work construction and help take care of the elderly.

And those security guard robots aren’t far off. Boston Dynamics is set to get its four-legged robo dog, SpotMini, to the market in 2019. It still looks like it’ll be awhile before the SpotMini can outright replace a security guard, but imagine a world where business’ security payrolls are replaced with bills from mechanics.

Sanjit Biswas, Samsara

Samsara CEO Sanjit Biswas earned the top spot on Glassdoor’s 2018 best CEOs for small and medium businesses.
Samsara CEO Sanjit Biswas earned the top spot on Glassdoor’s 2018 best CEOs for small and medium businesses.Samsara

Samsara is a tech company that offers wireless inter-connected sensors that could have applications from grocery stories to trucking companies to municipalities. For example, in a semi-truck carrying food, one sensor may be able to relay temperature back to the distributor. Another example, according to their press release, says publishing snow plow routes could show residents where they can find a clear path.

Samsara’s CEO, Sanjit Biswas, is clearly doing something right: he was awarded the No. 1 spot on Glassdoor’s 2018 Top CEOs for small and medium businesses.