SALT LAKE CITY — Former President Barack Obama revisited some of the highs and lows of his political career at the Qualtrics X4 Summit Wednesday, and even slipped in a few sly, but good-spirited jabs at the current White House resident to a packed audience.
The former president encouraged attendees, many of whom represent some of the biggest businesses in the country, to build the best support teams they can to get to the best solutions, as Obama said he worked to do as leader of the country.
"(Don't be) afraid to resort to gathering people that have greater experience than you do," Obama said. "I was good at making sure that the people who are working for me, with me, were there for the right reasons and there was a core integrity to what they were doing."
Obama lamented what he described as the polarization of American society, but expressed his hope that individuals can collectively put aside partisan leanings and instead recognize that "what we have in common matters more."
He also made note of the current Beltway political mayhem and how, perhaps, it may have been avoided.
"If you can build a culture where it's about solving the problem, or getting the work done, as opposed to who’s getting the credit or 'how much money am I making out of this' or what have you, that builds a transparency that allows for good decision-making," Obama said. "Because there’s clarity about the goals and objectives and values at the heart of the organization.
"And it also means that you don’t have big scandals and indictments."
Qualtrics managed to stack its list of speakers for the X4 user conference with some of the hardest-to-get speakers in the country. Besides Obama's appearance on Wednesday, Virgin Group founder and billionaire Richard Branson spoke, as did movie star and tech investment guru Ashton Kutcher. On Thursday, talk show host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey and NBA commissioner Adam Silver are on the docket.
Qualtrics co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith told the Deseret News ahead of the event that the speakers all have great insight to share on how they changed, or redefined, the realms in which they've found success.
"I think our speakers are all great examples of people who have made huge impacts on experience," Smith said. "You've got Branson, arguably changed the experience, redefined it, of so many different brands. Oprah and how she's transformed the experience of everything she's ever touched. And Obama, who's had one of the most unique experience impacts running a presidency."
Branson found early business success in '70s London with a record store that would evolve into a record label. Virgin Records became the home for acts like the Sex Pistols, Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel and XTC, and the business would later evolve into a global conglomerate that now counts some 400 brands under the Virgin Group umbrella.
On Wednesday, Branson said entrepreneurs should expect to "fall flat on your faces sometimes," but the key to success over time is to outperform the competition.
"It's the business you create, the absolute uniqueness of being the best in its field," Branson said. "That's what matters."
Branson's business endeavors have found that success across multiple sectors including retail, hospitality, the travel industry and, most recently, private spaceflight with Virgin Galactic. But, in addition to building an expansive and diverse portfolio, he's also deeply involved with philanthropic efforts including working to address global warming and bolstering education programs, and economic empowerment, in developing nations. He noted that being a responsible corporate citizen should be a part of running a successful business.
"We can’t leave it to government and the social sector to work out the world's problems," Branson said. "When you’re a global brand you can draw a circle around the world and use your entrepreneurial skills in the same way you use them in your business to look at some of the big problems in the world, and go tackle them."
Tackling societal problems is also on the to-do list of Kutcher, who, while perhaps best known for his role as Michael Kelso in the TV comedy "That '70s Show," is a successful tech investor and active philanthropist. About a decade ago, he co-founded, with his then-wife Demi Moore, an organization aimed at curbing human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children that has since evolved into Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children. On Wednesday, Kutcher was also ready to call foul on what he sees as wide attacks on personal freedoms.
"What’s happening in the world right now that scares me is I see a democracy that’s under siege in many ways," Kutcher said. "We have these bullies and trolls that want to take any given word you put out there and put it down for whatever their own agenda is. We have folks in the world right now that any news that doesn’t behoove them or doesn’t jibe with the way they see things is a lie or fake news.
"We're flawed people and we can’t come together if we’re just picking each other apart."
Kutcher recounted some of the mistakes of his past, noting that he has worked to remember, and own, his low points, including being jailed as a 19-year-old for third-degree burglary. Being your "whole self," Kutcher said, allows people to do the most good for those in the most need.
"The breakthrough is loving your flaws, owning the things you’ve done and going 'I’m scared as hell but I’m going to take this plunge and try to fix this thing because it’s broken,'" Kutcher said. "Being able to see someone else's pain, and connect with it … and do something about it."27 comments on this story
Qualtrics was founded in 2002 by Ryan and Jared Smith based on technology first developed by Ryan and his father, BYU researcher and professor Scott Smith, amid the elder Smith's successful fight against throat cancer. Initially conceived of as a tool for academics, the company and its platform has since evolved into a tech behemoth that leverages survey input and a business analytics engine to let its clients — now numbering over 10,000 — know exactly how well, or not, their companies are performing.
Qualtrics was acquired last November by European tech giant SAP in an $8 billion all-cash deal, but Ryan Smith remains CEO of the company.