What determines a person’s influence in today’s business world? For some, it’s the bottom line – wealth. Money isn’t everything, but company leaders who have built businesses with soaring share prices have created something that everyone wants to buy into, so it makes sense that they command respect.
But we also live in fast-changing times where new technologies are disrupting established businesses, so many of us look to the leaders of high-tech companies to see where the future is heading. Social change, too, is reflected in the changing nature of business leadership, as a new generation of female entrepreneurs break glass ceilings and shake up boardrooms.
Here are some of the most influential people in business right now. Drawn from the ranks of the wealthy, the tech-savvy and female rising stars, they represent the pinnacle of company leadership and offer a few signs of where its future may lie.
The rich list
There are many ways of measuring business success, but money can never be ignored. Just one decision from billionaire business leaders can transform the course of entire industries. Their influence is undeniable. So who is topping the rich list for 2017?
In recent months the crown has been passed back and forth between Microsoft founder and global philanthropist Bill Gates and the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, as the share prices of their respective companies fluctuated. Bezos now has an estimated net worth of more than $90 billion. Not bad for a man whose first job was spending summers repairing tractors. After studying at Princeton, Bezos worked on Wall Street on finance software before quitting to sell books online from a Seattle garage in 1994.
It was a risky move, but with Amazon now dominating the online retail market and capturing 53 per cent of its growth, he said at the recent Summit Series tech conference: “If it failed, I would be very proud when I was 80 that I tried.” Bezos also has interests in media, buying The Washington Post in 2013 for $250 million. With a passion for space, he is developing a reusable rocket capable of carrying passengers, through his aerospace company Blue Origin.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Self-made retail billionaire Amancio Ortega, who founded the renowned fast-fashion brand Zara, has also graced the top spot momentarily in recent years. Born in 1936 in the town of Busdongo de Arbas in Spain, the entrepreneur quit school at the age of 14 to work as an errand boy for a clothing shop. He later founded Inditex, which is now the world’s largest clothing retailer. As well as Zara, the company owns eight other retail brands and operates more than 7,000 stores across the world, with an annual revenue of $25.7 billion as of January 2017. Not content with owning 59 per cent of Inditex, Ortega also owns premium office and retail properties worldwide, including one of the tallest skyscrapers in Spain. Despite his wealth and influence in the retail market, he is known for being immensely private and understated, eating lunch with his employees in the company cafeteria every day.
Serial investor Warren Buffett and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg complete the top five for 2017. After the death of Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress of L’Oréal, in September, Alice Walton, the daughter of Wal Mart’s founder Sam Walton, is now the richest woman in the world, with an estimated net worth of $33.8bn.
Since technology is driving business growth, it’s not surprising that some of the world’s richest are also those behind the world’s biggest tech companies, including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
But perhaps no one is more able to capture the imagination with his ambition and showmanship than Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. The South African-born entrepreneur started his first tech company in 1995, before starting the company that would become PayPal in 1999. The payoff from that investment has helped him to spearhead new business ventures in space and automotive technology ever since. Worth an estimated $20.8 billion, he states his goals as reaching beyond business success to achieving global sustainability and making human life on other planets possible.
Elon Musk, Tesla & SpaceX (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
A far more low-key figure, yet no less influential, is Google’s current CEO, Sundar Pichai. Born in Chennai, southeast India, he spent the early years of his life without mod cons like a refrigerator. After studying engineering, a scholarship at Stanford, supported by a year’s worth of family savings, launched him into Silicon Valley. He started a job at Google in 2004, playing a crucial role in the creation of the Chrome browser. After the company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, moved across to Google’s parent company Alphabet, Pichai picked up the top job.
Having already overseen seven products in his tenure as CEO and announced a shift in approach from “mobile first” to “artificial intelligence first”, his leadership will set the course of one the world’s biggest tech giants. Speaking with The Guardian recently, he said: “We want to democratise technology. Once everybody has access to a computer and connectivity, then search works the same, whether you are a Nobel laureate or just a kid with a computer.”
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who is forging new directions beyond Windows in cool devices and cloud services, and Reed Hastings, Netflix co-founder and CEO, are also key influencers in the tech sphere. And the next generation of rising stars are hot on their heels, such as Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, who became the youngest leader of a public company in early 2017.
Women of the business world
The last 20 years has seen significant progress in women’s rights and in the developed world. But that success hasn’t yet closed the gap in boardroom positions. That means those who succeed naturally become figureheads for a wider movement of social change, not just for their industries.
Among them is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most influential women in the world. After serving as Chief of Staff to the Treasury Secretary in Bill Clinton’s government and working at Google, she became COO of Facebook in 2008, overseeing the social network’s business operations. In 2012 Sandberg became the eighth member of the Facebook board of directors, and the first woman. Her bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead sparked a movement in gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplace. She is now worth over $1 billion.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki is also a force to be reckoned with and a powerful advocate for gender equality. She was hired as Google’s 16th employee in 1999, starting out as the search engine’s first marketing manager, and later led all marketing and commerce. Under her guidance, Google acquired the video platform YouTube in 2006 for $1.65 billion. She has been CEO since February 2014, and the company is now worth an estimated $90 billion. With Silicon Valley coming under scrutiny for its “boy’s club” atmosphere, she wrote: “Tech CEOs need to make gender diversity a personal priority.”
In 2004, Mary Barra shook up another male-dominated industry when she rose to the position of CEO of General Motors, where she has impressed with decisive action and a clear strategic vision. Last year, the company posted its biggest sales increase in years and the stock has grown by 25 per cent in 12 months.
Mary Barra, General Motors (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
In a world where a new idea concocted in a basement can disrupt whole industries, there is no room for complacency for those who want to stay relevant in business. These company leaders may be at the forefront of wealth, innovation and social change now, but who knows who will be leading the charge tomorrow?