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Skidmore College

Driving tomorrow's trends

November 14, 2016

"At Skidmore I suffered FOMO—fear of missing out—when my friends talked about their study abroad. So I quit the basketball team and studied in China," recalls Eli Johnston '14. Now it's FOMO no more: Johnston is back in Asia, where he'd vowed to return, and he's a very marketable professional in a very exciting economy.

eli johnston '17
Trend tracker Eli Johnston ’14 helps
drive business innovation. (Photo by
Benjamin Chia)

In China, he studied international business and interned at the Ogilvy Mather ad firm. Upon graduation he chose a job with AlphaSights—"a very cool, forward-looking 'knowledge brokerage' company, he says—and then moved to another such firm, the Futures Company, which studies social and marketing trends and provides the information to help businesses plan their strategies.

"When I wrote a paper on women in India and ways for business to tap into them as a market while also helping them progress socially," he recounts, the director of Futures' Asia region got him a posting at the fast-growing Singapore office. Since then Johnston's travel and research in the region have included giving a keynote address at a Facebook conference in Jakarta and meeting with staff in Honda's innovation lab in Tokyo.

Futures' survey research has taught Johnston that "consumers are more and more conscious of supply chain, sustainable production, and other corporate responsibility factors. I see this as a huge opportunity for businesses to boost their profits while promoting social innovation." Another lesson: "Artificial intelligence is already more advanced than you might think. I mean, there are robots that can decipher the emotions conveyed by a painting—pretty crazy!" He says AI-controlled driverless cars could be in circulation within a year or so.

Meanwhile, Johnston revels in Asia's vibrancy and promise. He's befriended fellow expats and had roommates from Singapore as well as Germany, India, France, and Indonesia. He says, "It's estimated that two-thirds of the global middle class will be in the Asia Pacific by 2030. So many economies are growing, and societies are changing so fast." 

Recently change again came to his career, as he switched jobs to become head of corporate innovation for Impact Hub's Singapore office. He says, "My job is to help link big brands like Coca-Cola and JP Morgan with the techies and entrepreneurs who use Impact Hub's shared spaces for startups." Budweiser, for example, seeking help with its brewery in China, invited young innovators "to hack it out" and pitch their solutions to Bud executives.

On the side Johnson runs Own Your Brilliance, a firm he created to engage college students in devising market solutions that also address social issues. Working with Professor Cathy Hill and the Career Development Center at Skidmore, he organized an "Impactathon" on campus in September; more are planned for universities in the Philippines, South Africa, and Australia. First OYB asks participants which of the United Nations' sustainable-development goals are most important to them. Next it forms them into teams that mix majors and skills, and then leads them through "ideation exercises" and other coaching. After two and a half intensive days, they present their ideas to a panel of investors and entrepreneurs.  

Johnston says OYB's business model involves "charging a small fee to participants, sharing in the percentage taken by a crowdfunding company that our innovators work with, and taking a small stake in each new company that emerges." In the US this year, crowdfunding just might raise more money than venture capital does, so Johnson asserts, "it's not a fad; it's a new, democratized business paradigm.”

OYB's seven employees include Josh Chacko '16 and Rachel Dance '16. "We're on three continents in four time zones," Johnston says, "but we meet weekly on Skype." Good thing he's as quick and nimble as his industry.  

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