Al Jazeera boss tops innovators list

May 18, 2011

When former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cut off the country’s Internet in an attempt to silence the media, Al Jazeera got creative and began broadcasting via cellphones and reporting through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

This kind of lateral thinking thrust the “Arab CNN” into the global spotlight and landed its leader – Wadah Khanfar – at the top of Fast Company’s 2011 list of “The 100 Most Creative People in Business”.

“We think a lot about who’s going to be No. 1,” said Fast Company executive editor Rick Tetzeli, noting Khanfar’s selection, ahead of innovative leaders at Apple (Scott Forstall, No. 2) and Google (Sebastian Thrun, No. 5), is a testament to the Al Jazeera editorial director’s unorthodox approach to news.

“He had done something over the last year that was very current, very public and really astounding when looked at by an American audience that doesn’t get to see what he does much on television,” Tetzeli said.

Rounding out Fast Company’s top 10 are: Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner (No. 3); Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey (No. 4); Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei (No. 6); social entrepreneur Sal Khan (No. 7); physician Jim Yong Kim (No. 9); Huffington Post founder Ariana Huffington (No. 10) and late-night TV host Conan O’Brien (No. 8).

“We believe that anybody can learn from anyone in whatever industry they’re in,” said Tetzeli, who fought for O’Brien’s inclusion in the top 10 and believes the comedian’s experience leaving NBC to start a new show on TBS is relevant to anybody trying to rejuvenate their career. “I think more people are open to cross-disciplinary learning than they have ever been.”

Fast Company’s list (, which hits newsstands May 24, will likely be just as talked about for whom it omits, and Apple fanboys are sure to voice their displeasure at the absence of Steve Jobs.

“The third article you read about Steve Jobs’ creativity is not as interesting as the first,” noted Tetzeli, who believes that showcasing such a diverse group of new innovators gives readers more insights into their own lives and careers.

Tetzeli’s other favorites on the list included controversial entrepreneur and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk (No. 16), college football coach Chip Kelly (No. 30) and American Idol host Ryan Seacrest (No. 72). As someone who’s been covering technology since 1997, Tetzeli described the inclusion of Amazon tribal leader, Chief Almir of the Surui (No. 53), for his use of Google and YouTube to help preserve his people’s traditions, as “one of those moments that makes it all worthwhile.”

In addition to Dorsey and Musk, other notable entrepreneurs include: Zappos founder Tony Hsieh (No. 29); Quora’s Rebekah Cox (No. 35); Flipboard founder Marcos Weskamp (No. 42); Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione (No. 46); The Onion’s Baratunde Thurston (No. 49); Instagram’s Kevin Systrom (No. 66); Indinero founder Jessica Mah (No. 74); Seth Priebatsch (No. 84) from Scvngr and Rovio’s (aka Angry Birds) Michael Hed (No. 100).

Calagione, who runs one of America’s fastest-growing craft breweries, remembered buying last year’s issue in an airport.

“I’m obviously flattered to be among this year’s ranks,” said Calagione, who recently read fellow Fast Company member Hsieh’s book. “Our brewery is still relatively tiny; I think we have about one eighteenth of one percent market share. But we’ve done a pretty good job of building a pretty distinct brand in a pretty crowded industry.”

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