written by Barbara Palumbo of Adornmentality
“People in the luxury industry have to be optimistic. They’re selling a dream.” – Jing Ulrich, Managing Director and Vice Chairman of Asia Pacific, JPMorgan Chase
How many times in your life have you been somewhere extraordinary and thought, “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”? Somewhere that maybe you’d never been before. Somewhere drinking water from the dips in a melting glacier. Or maybe standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon as you looked over its vastness in the realization that you – as a human being – really were so very tiny in the grand scheme. Maybe it was that moment you went to see La Traviata in Milan, when for the first time (as you wept during Act 3) you understood how uninhibited attraction can lead to a timeless, death-defying love. There are likely few moments like these in your life which is the reason each of them becomes so unique; so special. As I sat in a room at the historically significant Watergate Hotel, listening to the likes of some of the most well-respected authors, reputable politicians, and successful businesspeople of our generation, I had one of those feelings. I felt like I belonged; like I was supposed to exactly where I was at that exact moment in time, and I’m certain that Nina Nguyen felt it too.
The day started with a lovely breakfast where Nina was seated next to White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough before heading into a conversation between current U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, and Former U.S. House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor. The discussion, titled “The New Washington, Part II: What It Means for Business” gave differing, but diplomatic opinions on what the new Trump administration would mean for the economy, particularly in the luxury sector. It was not a discussion anyone was surprised by but one that felt imperative to the reasons we were all there. However, it was the following session that made my ears perk up; the one where New York Times’ Editor at Large, Andrew Ross Sorkin, interviewed the extraordinary Ray Kurzweil about artificial intelligence, data-driven design, and advanced machine learning. Nina and I sat in awe while scribbling notes as Ray Kurzweil (if you don’t know who he is I suggest you Google him immediately or at the very least watch the session here which was recorded by the NYT) discussed the future potential of physical immortality; an idea that he believes is possible by the year 2045. He discussed the artificial regrowth of organs and reprogramming of broken hearts (not because of love but rather because of damage) and how extending our mental capacity with AI is happening currently but not yet perfected. He believes that humans will be a hybrid of biological thinking and nonbiological thinking and thinks that by 2045 humans will have expanded their intelligence by a “billion-fold.” He also stressed how those in the design and creative fields use artificial intelligence currently to expand their creativity which directly speaks to those like Nina who are in the jewelry industry and who use computer programs, design software, or machines to help them take their ideas from the thought process to physical form. It was a mind-blowing discussion that was both hard to comprehend as a person just trying to live in the now but one that also shined a light on just how unadvanced we are at the end of the day.
While Ray Kurzweil would be a hard act to follow for the lay-person, if anyone could do it successfully, it was best-selling author and NYT Foreign Affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, who shared highlights from his new book: “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations” before offering to sign the free copy that was given to each of the attendees in house. I’m not sure I ever saw Nina Nguyen more excited. She even took her own copy of the book from home with her so that she could have Mr. Friedman sign a copy for her husband as well. She let me know going in that it was the writings of Thomas Friedman that had helped her to launch her business and that reading his book gave her the courage to do it in her own way. When it was Nina’s turn to meet him, she told him so in person as he graciously thanked her and posed for a heartfelt picture.
The day proceeded with discussions about Russia’s political and economic plans as they shape up to be a global superpower as well as with insights on Asia’s economy coming down from its superstar status. Former Vice President Al Gore discussed our country’s “Sustainable Future” which was a topic close to Nina’s heart as her brand prides itself on using ethical practices, ethically sourced or recycled metals, and diamonds that comply with the Kimberley Process. And after lunch, Nina and I were both transfixed with the sessions about hacking as well as the “New Digital Narrative” which frankly blew everyone in the room’s mind (one word of advice: if you think Millennials scare you, they’re NOTHING compared to what Generation Z has in store.)
As we finished off the day with breakout sessions that grouped us without 8 to 10 other attendees coming from all genres of the luxury sector it was apparent that many of the discussions, sessions, and remarks had made their intended impact. Our eyes were very much wide open to seeing the potential writing on the wall and our ears were all listening intently to the chatter being had worldwide. There was a bit of fear, a little uncertainty, and yet thankfully, a lot of hope left still.
Two things that Vice President Gore said that stood out for me were the following:
On climate change he said, “We are going to win this. We ARE winning this. But we’re not winning it fast enough.” And on sustainability, he stated, “Virtually every industry and company that embraces sustainable processes performs better.”
These are things to think about – politics aside – no matter what you do in your life; whether you’re a jeweler, or a designer, or a parent, or a college student. Mother Earth needs us as much as we need her, and taking care of one another now means that we’ll still have a planet to provide our grandchildren’s children with in the future.
Thank you to Nina Nguyen for letting me ride shotgun on this short but sweet journey with her. If you’d like to watch more of the videotaped sessions, you can find them on the New York Times Global Leaders Collective website by clicking here.