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New Symposium: Learning from business leaders

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As someone with a degree in history and a degree in finance, I always assumed that my interests in the humanities and business would have to exist in two separate realms. Fortunately, the National Museum of American History is busy developing a new exhibition called American Enterprise that will allow me to enjoy and learn about both of these interests at the same time.

On June 16th, the Museum hosted a symposium of business leaders, the first of its kind, that gave curators the opportunity to “pick the brains” of a number of American thought leaders—a group that’s involved in the business world and interested in history. Just like me!

We were fortunate to have symposium participants who represented all of the sectors that will be highlighted in the exhibition: Agriculture, Retail and Service, Finance, IT and Communication, and Manufacturing. The participants discussed three forces that have shaped American business in the last few decades: the global marketplace, competition, and innovation.

David Allison, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs, gives symposium participants an overview of the American Enterprise exhibition.

Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal led the discussion on the global marketplace. Murray’s opening thoughts challenged participants to consider what has changed in the nature of goods and services in the last 30 years to create the super-charged global commerce that we experience today.

Participants considered causes such as changes in global politics following World War II, improved communication capabilities, and ease of access to financing. When considering the types of objects to represent the “global marketplace,” participants suggested dual time zone watches, a simple glass globe, and cell phones.

The second case, which focused on competition in the business environment, was led by Dean C. Oestreich of Pioneer Hi-Bred. The discussion brought up the interesting idea of exhibiting the concept of competition by considering companies that have not survived the competitive environment. For example, they discussed how cassette tapes failed to stay competitive with the advent of CDs and companies like Hollywood Video have been struggling because they did not anticipate changes in consumer preference (i.e., receiving movies by mail or instantly online).

The final discussion of the day examined innovation in American business. Vint Cerf of Google—considered one of “the fathers of the internet”—facilitated the conversation. Cerf asked everyone to consider whether innovation leads to a throwaway culture in America. There is a great deal of emphasis put on having the newest gadget or latest media device; if you do not have it, you feel as if you are lacking in some way.

Director Brent Glass, Vint Cerf, and Bram Bluestein discuss ideas for American Enterprise.

Participants also discussed the important role of failure on the road to innovation. The American ethos expects people to work hard, but it is forgiving if one fails. The road to creating the “next big thing” is always littered with failed ideas. At the end of the day, participants reached the consensus that companies in today’s global marketplace have to be innovative to compete and survive, a point that nicely ties together the themes of the symposium and of the entire American Enterprise exhibition.

Following the afternoon case discussions, Aneesh Chopra, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, addressed the participants. He discussed furthering a culture of innovation by democratizing government data, encouraging market transparency, creating a capacity for innovation, and cultivating innovative ecosystems.

The symposium has given the exhibition team many ideas to consider as it continues to develop the show. The symposium participants have generously offered to continue to work with the Museum as we create this exciting new exhibition. Before American Enterprise opens, we plan on engaging them in another event to facilitate their continued input.

Please share your thoughts about the global marketplace, competition, and innovation with us!

Symposium Participants
John Adams, Jr. (The Martin Agency), Steve Bartlett (The Financial Services Roundtable), Bram Bluestein (McNally Capital), Vint Cerf (Google), Pete Claussen (Gulf & Ohio Railways), Sharon Covert (Covert Farms), Kathryn Fessler (Altria Group), Jodelle French (Intel Corporation), Bruce Gates (Altria Group), Jennifer Goldston (Pioneer Hi-Bred International), Michelle Gowdy (Pioneer Hi-Bred International), Sarah Knakmus (Altria Group), Abby McCloskey (The Financial Services Roundtable), Phil Mooney (The Coca-Cola Company), Alan Murray (The Wall Street Journal), Dean Oestreich (Pioneer Hi-Bred International), Robert Uhler (MWH Global Inc.) and the American Enterprise exhibition team.

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    Jennifer MarquessJennifer Marquess is an intern for the Department of External Affairs and the American Enterprise exhibition at the National Museum of American History.View all posts by Jennifer Marquess