More than Tacos and Beer –SXSW Gives Us Hope

Each year, brands, influencers and innovators convene in Austin for the smorgasbord of events, panels, films and concerts know familiarly as “South By.” The SXSW conference has built a reputation over the years as a tech-inspired and forward-thinking convening, bringing together the brightest minds talking about the latest topics.

Our team was on site this year listening and learning from the likes of Melinda Gates, Elon Musk and Karlie Kloss about what’s next at the intersection of technology and culture. And what did we learn? The future is focused, fearless, and overwhelmingly female. And, of course, influence is undoubtedly necessary.

The Future is Focused–On Creating a Better World

Say what you will about millennials, but also know that they are changing the way brands and companies do business. With so many inputs and opinions and distractions, values and causes can get pushed aside –but not for this generation of innovators. According to a number of Forbes articles, millennials place a high importance on doing good in the world, are effecting change with social responsibility and are driving brands to adopt socially responsible practices.

As employees and consumers start expecting more from their brands, the old CSR models are no longer cutting it. From her solo social impact session, “CSR is Having an Identity Crisis”, Tiffany Apczynski, VP Public Policy & Social Impact at Zendesk and Executive Director at Zendesk Neighbor Foundation, discussed the importance of CSR strategies being authentically baked into a company’s business model and tackling tangible, relevant and often thorny issues in order to have a meaningful impact on both internal and external audiences.

This revelation comes at the same time that we’re seeing a shift in corporate philanthropy from traditional grants to the more-focused impact investing models. At Handshake, we call this component the “Social Capital” of influence, and companies that don’t start making the betterment of society a priority will miss out on this key piece of influence-building.

Along these lines, we were proud to be at SXSW for the launch of the Caterpillar Foundation’s Value of Water campaign. With their partners, like charity: water and, the Caterpillar Foundation, in furtherance of their goal to empower 50 million people to rise out of extreme poverty by 2020, is working to provide access to clean water around the world. The campaign focuses on work that tackles water issues head-on through thoughtful effort, impactful partnerships, and sustainable development to empower communities to create a better future. Read more at and join the fight #ForWater.

The Future is Fearless–Even in the Face of Adversity

In the landscape of constant change and seeming chaos under which our society functions, it would be easy to shy away from challenges–but that’s not what’s happening. As we face social and humanitarian issues, political instability and financial uncertainty, we’re seeing people stand up for the marginalized, the forgotten and those without voices. In fact, we’re seeing more and more people inspired by adversity who speak out with their stories and empower others to make real, lasting changes.

Case in point: Faced with an ever-evolving tech scene in the fashion industry, supermodel and entrepreneur Karlie Kloss made the choice to empower herself through learning to code to gain a better grasp and leg up in her industry. Inspired by the possibilities coding opened for her and determined to empower the next generation of women in tech, Kloss launched a nonprofit, Koding with Karlie, that teaches girls to code and other skills necessary to keep up with the fast-paced industry.

At SXSW, Kloss joined Adidas Head of Global Brands Eric Liedtke, for a featured session titled, “Create the World You Want to Live In”, about how brands can address social problems and actually initiate movements. This isn’t about being a bystander or even a participant, this is about seeing an issue, fearlessly grabbing the bull by the (long)horns and empowering the future to make changes.

The Future is Female–And Overwhelmingly So

And how! There were so many female-led, female empowerment-themed panels and amazingly inspirational women in attendance that we (almost) couldn’t keep up. From panels like “Women Are Changing the World” and “Wonder Women –Living Life as Female Founders” to speakers like Susan Wojciki (YouTube), Kay Koplovitz (Springboard), and actress/activist Lena Dunham, the focus on the future of women in business and society was undeniable.

Our stand-out moments from these female-centric discussions? Business-savvy philanthropist Melinda Gates discussing the 21st century workforce and the role of new technologies, business models and social movements in building inclusive work places. In her keynote, Gates spoke to a packed crowd about how women and minorities can have greater roles in business and tech, the unique challenges still faced by these groups and how to overcome them.

On a more intimate level, Cosmopolitan, Handshake, Bumble and the Ordinary League of Extraordinary Women, in partnership with Hub Culture, invited men and women to share the stories of their paths to power over dinner. Michele Promaulayko, Editor in Chief, Cosmopolitan, reminded the group that while we are at a unique gender intersection in our society, there are men who have supported women, will continue to do so and should not be tossed aside because they are part of the male gender. Similarly, Alex Williamson, Head of Brand at Bumble, reminded and urged everyone to, overall, be kind. Whether you’re female or male, being kind actually makes a difference in someone’s day, in society, and in achieving progress.

Our Takeaway

We left Austin feeling enlightened, inspired and hopeful that the future will follow these focused, fearless and female leaders with the goal of building a better world. While we can’t deny the draw of endless tacos, margaritas and music at SXSW, we hope that other attendees came away with more than a great Instagram story –we hope they take the learnings that are only possible through such collaborative convenings and implement them in their own communities –we certainly will.