Alain is the Founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs, a strategy and design consultancy that provokes progress for companies, people and society at large. Clients include Google, American Express, Airbnb, Spotify, BlackRock, Samsung, Pepsico, Diageo, Hilton, AB InBev, IKEA, GM, Sonos, the NBA and others. Founded in 2010, the company is headquartered in NYC, with offices in Amsterdam and Richmond, VA, and is a Certified B-Corporation.
Alain is a seasoned strategist, entrepreneur and speaker that provokes audiences to think about the issues facing businesses, people and society at large. Having spoken at some of the largest conferences in business and tech around the world, including Collision Conference, Fast Company Innovation Festival, The Atlantic’s Power of Purpose, The Next Web, and the 99U Conference, he’s known for his provocative points of view and not letting anyone off easy. Alain has a vast knowledge of history, pop culture, branding, innovation, consumer insight, leadership and business strategy, and builds his thinking around the unrelenting belief that when culture and commerce unite, real progress is possible.
Alain is a partner and investor in several ventures, including Master + Dynamic, a design-driven, premium audio brand, So Choice Softworks, a mobile gaming company, Lilo, an açai bowl company, and PetMio, a smart pet food startup. He is on the board of Plus Pool, an ambitious project to build the world’s first floating, filtering swimming pool in NYC harbor, a founding member of Kindred, and a member of the New York City Mayor’s Creative Council. Alain is also an active contributor to various non-profit initiatives around the world including the Lower East Side Girls Club, The Bowery Mission and Anseye Pou Haiti.
The Currency of Otherness
How acknowledging the limitations of your own perspective and authentically channeling that of The Other creates new opportunities.
Society is continuing to reckon with a history of discrimination and harassment related to race and gender – as well as other aspects of identity like sexuality, language, nationality, etc. What often gets lost is the profound value Otherness has in creativity, invention, and innovation. The perspective of The Other is rich and often contributes to groundbreaking new ideas, behaviors, and cultural phenomena. While the topic of diversity and inclusion is well-tread, in this presentation, Alain will argue that there is an inherent and unique value in taking perspective from the margins.
The Savagery of Pop Culture
Even in it’s frivolousness, pop culture used to be the common language we leveraged to subconsciously discuss and deliberate the issues of the day. The shows and movies we watched, the music we listened to, the sartorial choices we made, and even the foods we ate all reflected our collective perspective. And brands exploited this monoculture to share their stories and influence our habits.
But today pop culture doesn’t exist and brands don’t have a natural right to culture in general.. What is the role of brands when culture is increasingly fragmented, constantly changing and not welcoming to brands? Drawing from history, science and of course pop culture, Alain will explain how brands and products have a responsibility to further culture – and not capitalize on it.
The Fetishization of Innovation
How business's obsession with ‘innovation’ robbed the word of its meaning, and how we can reclaim it
As businesses–brands and consultancies alike–we fetishize ‘innovation.’ We’ve thrown the word ‘innovation’ around so much that it’s lost its meaning in a time when the true practice of innovation has never been more essential. And it’s not the first time. Business corrupted terms like “design,” “diversity,” “empathy,” “collaboration” to name a few. So, how can we redeem “innovation" and bring dynamic new life to the practice?
In this talk, Alain will draw from neuroscience, linguistics, history, pop culture and his experience with clients like Airbnb, Spotify and BlackRock to argue that by liberating the meaning of innovation, we have the power to unleash a new wave of creativity in business. He'll also detail a ‘new code of innovation’ that transcends products and services to impact consumers in new, visceral ways.
The Exploitation of Purpose
Companies are “woke-washing.” Has ‘doing good’ become appropriated for the wrong intent?
The concept of "purpose" has become something of a cliché—a fashion accessory in the world of business. Corporate leaders preach about it, employees desperately crave it and consumers are buying into it more and more. But is it even possible for a company to have a conscience? To have a moral compass or reason for being that is bigger than profit? Has purpose started to be appropriated for the wrong intent?
And what about us? In our day to day work, are we thinking about “purpose” in the right way?
In this talk, Alain will answer these questions using contemporary examples, history, pop culture and more. He’ll draw from his journey as a founder, his company’s recent experience in joining the ranks of leading Certified B Corporations, and his work with clients including BlackRock, Waze and the WNBA. Finally, Alain will argue that while the need for business with purpose is at an all-time high, many companies today are still exploiting it to drive their own agendas.
The Progress Instinct
For brands in a recession, it’s a poignant time if we can activate the right instinct.
Let’s face the truth. Moments of crisis are scary. They’re triggered by external shocks and leave us all in a state of heightened anxiety. And we’re right in the middle of one.
It’s important to look back as we try to move forward. Throughout modern history, crises have served as platforms and incubators for new products, innovations, ways of thinking and deeper senses of purpose that have played monumental roles in progressing human societies. It’s moments like these that spur the creative constraints we often need.
But that doesn’t mean these moments of uncertainty don’t get to us. Global leaders, corporations, brands, education systems and families alike are all wondering how they should be managing through and responding to the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. What world will emerge on the other side of this and how will we handle the change? How can we actively shape it?
In this talk, Alain will argue that the answers to these questions are dependent on activating the instincts that don’t come naturally during a crisis. He’ll unpack the energy and adrenaline that we must navigate, and the potential it brings if we can activate what we call “The Progress Instinct” over “Fight or Flight”-- an instinct that allows for longer-term thinking and planning. He’ll explore the roles of brands and companies of all sizes in shaping this seminal moment in business, and argue that it’s time to forget lofty words and embrace the true utility of brand purpose in the fundamental needs and wellbeing of people. Finally, he’ll identify the imperatives crucial to provoking The Progress Instinct amidst a recession -- and the techniques we need to get there with the upper-hand.
When you discover your unique relationship to power you unlock new potential
We all have inherent relationships to “power”. We either flourish or falter in the face of them. Whether it’s based on where you’re from, your relationship with your parents, partner, friends, or education - the fact is, our unique relationship to “power” shapes every interaction we have.
Similarly to the way in which language has the incredible power to connect us and unlock new realities, our relationships to power have the potential to either hinder or propel, isolate or engage us. Effective interactions and problem-solving are dependent on our understanding of them.
In this talk Alain will unpack his take on different human relationships to power and their effects on personal and professional life. Using his own experiences and drawing from history, politics, neuroscience, pop culture and more, Alain will encourage the audience to understand their own relationships to power. He’ll argue that through strategically harnessing it, you can unlock a new creative identity, purpose and success in and beyond the workplace.
Designing for Collective Trauma
What happens when we all experience trauma together? And how can brands help us overcome our shared sense of PTSD?
On an individual level, trauma can crush our sense of wellbeing. But on a collective level, trauma takes on a whole new meaning. When society experiences an event that’s distressing for the collective, our individual stress is topped with a crisis of social identity. Our understanding of the world is disrupted, and our place within it can become lost. We’re feeling that more than ever in 2020 as society reckons with health and economic crises, continued police brutality, the passing of revered cultural heroes, trying new work, life and school routines, and actual fires blazing across the west coast. And that's just scratching the surface.
Can brands have a role in helping society cope with its collective trauma?
In this talk, Alain will explore the science and psychology of trauma on the collective psyche. Drawing from history, pop culture, science and marketing, Alain will unpack what happens when we all experience the same distress - and how we cope. He’ll identify the ways in which brands can begin to design and innovate their products and ideas towards the common goal of overcoming our shared PTSD and establishing an enduring way to come together.
The Myth of Originality
Everything is derivative. But it doesn’t have to suck.
Does originality still exist? Isn’t every idea based on something else? And does being creative mean being original?
In fact, everything is derivative. But in a culture obsessed with innovation and independence, the fear of being unoriginal can drive us crazy. We fear being cliche, stale, or ordinary.
Our capacity to imitate and build off preexisting ideas is actually a natural human instinct. But the thing is, derivative ideas don’t have to suck. And that as ideas pass through your worldview and frames of reference, they become authentically yours.
In this talk, Alain will explore the myth of originality in the context of human and brand creativity and argue that while most ideas are derivative, they can still be not just stimulating, but actually move the world forward. He’ll reference examples from social psychology, business, pop culture, art, and copycat cultures around the world to argue that you don’t have to be original to be creative. In fact, you might just be onto something if you’re not.
The UnHackable Gen Z
Brands spend endless brain power and countless dollars on trying to understand Gen Z. But there is no getting to know this generation. Gen Z is everywhere and nowhere. Quiet and loud. And the things we can identify contribute to their complexity as a group even more. They’re shapeshifters, change-hackers, rule-benders.
You can’t label what you can’t see, and so we must embrace Gen Z as the ‘anti-definition’; one that ultimately transcends what marketing labels can accomplish.
In this talk, Alain will explore the myths and realities of Gen Z across the fluid facets of their lives and ask, if you can’t hack them, why not hack with them? Drawing from ideas in science, history, psychology, pop culture and current brand examples, he’ll unpack the ways in which brands can join forces with Gen Z’s inherent rebellion against any standard rulebook. And finally, he’ll argue that while you may end up hacking your own system in the process of reaching them, maybe that’s just what you need.
Partner and Managing Director of A.T. Kearney’s Global Business Policy Council & Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
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