The 30 Most Innovative Business Leaders

most innovative business leaders

To be a great manager, you also need to be a great leader, and many of the world’s most well-known companies have some seriously smart people at the helm.

What’s more, whether these leaders are running a new startup or overseeing a more established brand, they need to innovate to keep the company fresh and exciting.

The individuals on this list hail from a wide range of backgrounds, yet all of them have pushed boundaries and come up with visionary ways to progress their businesses. By undertaking a business management degree, it’s possible to learn a great deal of the skills needed to run a successful company – yet at the same time, it’s vital to have a naturally good outlook and to take care of one’s employees.

As entrepreneur and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk has said, “Constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

Check out these movers and shakers – The most innovative business leaders are those who understand how to spot trends and capitalize on them in order to stay ahead of the competitive curve. By thinking outside the box and finding solutions to widely accepted problems, they create and innovate products and services that revolutionize industries.

30. Reed Hastings – Netflix

In 2020, Netflix progressed exceptionally well under the leadership of CEO Reed Hastings, who co-founded the company as a mail-order movie rental business in 1998. Over the years, Netflix has, of course, evolved into an on-demand internet streaming company.

In 2013 the firm saw its stock triple, and in September of the same year, it counted a whopping 40.4 million subscribers. This ascent may well be due, at least in part, to one of Hastings’ most successful innovations: in 2013 he launched original TV shows Orange is the New Black and House of Cards on Netflix, to much acclaim.

Some industry experts have noted that people are turning their backs on cable since they can get their favorite shows on Netflix and elsewhere on the web. “Hastings could be the successor to [Steve] Jobs as the model in Silicon Valley for how to innovate,” said Paul Carroll of consulting company The Devil’s Advocate Group.

29. Jørgen Vig Knudstorp – LEGO

Many kids love playing with LEGOs, and plenty of adults have happy memories of building with the multicolored bricks in their own childhoods. Still, not so long ago, in 2004, the future of LEGO looked bleak because the company was bleeding money and seemed out of touch.

In October 2004, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp became LEGO’s CEO and completely reorganized the firm and changed its culture. LEGO’s sales are now increasing by 24 percent each year, and profits have soared annually by 40 percent.

The company has also introduced a range of licensed kits, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story and Star Wars. And with a new LEGO movie due to be released in 2014 starring Hollywood royalty like Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson and Will Ferrell, LEGO’s star has never burned brighter.

28. Sheryl Sandberg – Facebook

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg signed up with the social networking giant in 2008 and is credited with helping to make the company profitable as the brains behind the launch of subtly placed ads. By 2013, 30 percent of Facebook’s revenue was coming from its mobile ads, whereas this source didn’t provide any returns for the company in the previous year.

Also in 2013, Sandberg published her bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which encourages women to fulfill their professional ambitions and examines obstacles in the workplace. This has since gone on to spark the “Lean In” movement, which gives support, education and a community to women who want to succeed in both their careers and personal lives.

27. Karl-Johan Persson – H&M

In 2009, at the age of just 34, Karl-Johan Persson became CEO of the clothing company H&M. Persson has admitted that various of the models H&M has used in the past have been unhealthily thin, and so in 2013 a larger model – as well as curvaceous pop star Beyoncé – was used in its summer campaign. In addition, Persson said that H&M has more than 100 inspectors, who check the safety of the company’s factories worldwide.

And he had a meeting with Bangladesh’s prime minister to discuss increasing the minimum wage in the country – something the company has successfully done twice previously. With brazen innovation, Persson is changing the face of cheap and fast fashion to make it a more ethical choice for consumers.

26. Dominique Ansel – Dominique Ansel Bakery

Cupcakes and whoopie pies were forced to make way for the Cronut in May 2013. This pastry is described as a hybrid of a croissant and a donut and was created by Dominique Ansel in New York City. The tasty treat quickly went viral, and by June people were waiting in line outside Ansel’s bakery at 6 a.m. every morning – two hours before opening time.

Although his Cronuts were sold for $5 each, they were being resold for up to $40 a pop on Craigslist as people became fanatical about sampling them. Ansel trademarked the name, and – unsurprisingly – numerous imitation Cronuts hit the streets. Nonetheless, the genius baker’s original creation earned a spot on Time’s The Best Inventions of the Year 2013 list.

25. Jan Koum – WhatsApp

The rise in popularity of messaging service WhatsApp has been nothing short of meteoric. The company was co-founded in 2009 by Jan Koum, and three years later it was processing 10 billion messages daily. In June 2013 WhatsApp proclaimed a new record of 27 billion messages handled in one day, and by the end of the year, the company declared that it had 400 million monthly users.

Interestingly, Koum – who is also the company CEO – despises advertising and will not have it on WhatsApp. “The user experience would always lose because you always had to provide a service to the advertiser,” Koum explained. “Cellphones are so personal and private to you that putting an advertisement there is not a good experience.” Innovative thinking indeed.

24. Larry Page – Google

With CEO and co-founder Larry Page at the helm, Google has seen some truly visionary developments. In June 2013 Google launched Project Loon, which is an initiative that hopes to bring the internet to people in far-removed locations through the use of special balloons. In the fall of the same year, Page announced Google’s intentions to launch the company Calico, which aims to research how people can live longer. However, perhaps the company’s most widely anticipated innovation is Google Glass: this piece of sleek wearable technology was given to testers in April 2013 and is penciled in for general release in Spring 2014. “A big part of my job is to get people to focus on things that are not incremental,” Page said. And with Google’s revenue rising by 12 percent year over year, there is seemingly no stopping Page’s company.

23. Elon Musk – Tesla Motors and SpaceX

Elon Musk is the CEO and CTO of space exploration company SpaceX and is also the CEO and Chief Product Architect of electric car company Tesla Motors – so he clearly has a special interest in futuristic technology. In 2013 SpaceX made headlines as the first private business to release a satellite into geosynchronous orbit. Meanwhile, Tesla’s electric Model S car received widespread acclaim that same year and won numerous “car of the year” awards. In August 2013 Musk revealed his Hyperloop transport concept, in which passenger capsules are to be blasted through tubes thanks to the use of fans and magnets, achieving a maximum speed of 760 mph. And keeping true to his green credentials, Musk believes the system should be solar powered.

22. Marissa Mayer – Yahoo!

Marissa Mayer joined Yahoo! as CEO and president in July 2012. Moreover, she has certainly made her mark on the internet giant, purchasing a not inconsiderable 21 companies – including Tumblr – between January and October 2013. The same year, she attained a spot on Forbes magazine’s rundown of the world’s 100 most powerful women and also topped Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list. Mayer aims to completely refresh the previously languishing company, and her strategies seem to be working, not least since previous employees have been rejoining. In 2013 Mayer also banned remote working at the company, and although it was a controversial move, she hoped that this throwback innovation would help foster a more collaborative environment.

21. Evan Spiegel – Snapchat

CEO and co-founder of Snapchat Evan Spiegel launched the photo-sharing app from his father’s living room in 2011. Come June 2013 and Snapchat still wasn’t generating any revenue, yet thanks to venture funding, the company was valued at an incredible $860 million. By then, 200 million photos were said to be being sent on the limited-time photo app every day – quadruple the number processed just six months earlier. Both Google and Facebook have apparently tried, unsuccessfully, to purchase Snapchat for billions of dollars. It seems that youngsters who are falling out of love with Facebook are starting to use Snapchat because it is such an innovative and exciting idea. As Spiegel says, “Somewhere along the way when we were building social media products we forgot the reason we like to communicate with our friends is because it’s fun.”

20. Jeff Bezos – Amazon

Amazon’s rise from humble online bookstore beginnings in 1995 to the must-visit website for internet shopping it is now has been helped in no small part by the innovative leadership of its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. After launching the AmazonFresh grocery delivery service in Seattle in 2007, the company – which in 2012 brought in $61 billion in revenue – embarked on an expansion in 2013 to introduce deliveries in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. In August the same year, Bezos also purchased The Washington Post for $250 million. Considering Bezos’ success in reinventing the sale of books, he’s thought to be the right guy for revamping the newspaper and its business model. Also in 2013, Amazon nudged Apple off the top spot to become America’s most trusted company, according to a survey by Harris Interactive. What will Bezos achieve next?

19. Marc Benioff –

Marc Benioff is the founder and CEO of, a cloud computing business that was launched in 1999. Over the years, Benioff has been on an acquisitions crusade, purchasing numerous companies, including email marketing firm ExactTarget, which was bought for $2.3 billion in 2013. That same year, boasted a revenue of just over $3 billion and took the top spot on Forbes’ World’s Most Innovative Companies list – an accolade it also enjoyed in 2011 and 2012. Through its technological offerings, aims to completely change the way in which businesses interact with their clients, and the company claims that it “has transformed the enterprise software market with cloud computing.” It adds, “Now we’re leading the shift to the Social Enterprise.”

18. Dick Costolo – Twitter

Amazingly, before he entered the world of tech and tweets, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was a standup comedian. Costolo joined the microblogging and social networking company as COO in 2009 – fresh from a post at Google – and he went on to become Twitter’s CEO in 2010. Moreover, he has certainly made an impression, and in 2013 he earned a spot on Time magazine’s rundown of technology’s 40 most influential minds. The year was a busy one for him: in April, Twitter Music was launched; then in August the site’s timeline was changed to allow for a new conversation view, making it simpler for users to grasp. Costolo loves uncomplicated design and regards Apple as an inspiration. “We like the way that they think about simplicity in design,” he has said. In September 2013 Twitter had 200 million users, between them sending in excess of 400 million tweets a day.

17. Angela Ahrendts – Burberry

Angela Ahrendts became CEO of Burberry in 2006, and since then she has definitely made her mark on the luxury clothing company. At the time of Ahrendts’ appointment, the brand’s iconic tartan design was featured on many of its products, was copied extensively in knock-off merchandise, and had been adopted by B-list celebrities and low-market youth subcultures, all of which poorly impacted the Burberry image. Ahrendts restricted the tartan to a fraction of Burberry’s items, clearing up the brand’s image in the process. What’s more, since she took the helm the clothing company’s stock price has soared by 250 percent, and Burberry has also achieved a notable presence on social media. Twitter and Facebook, for example, see the firm as a brilliant example of progressive thinking. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in 2013 tech giant Apple confirmed that it had signed up Ahrendts to oversee its retail wing as well as online stores from mid-2014 onwards.

16. Warren Buffett – Berkshire Hathaway

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett may be 83 years old, but he’s displaying few signs of slowing down in his later years. Buffett is currently CEO and chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, and he has held these positions since 1970. At present, he is also worth $58.5 billion, yet he uses a portion of this vast fortune to do good deeds. In July 2013 he bestowed $2 billion of his company’s stock to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Interestingly, the TV show Secret Millionaire’s Club began to air more frequently in 2013; in it, an animated Buffett character – voiced by the man himself – gives help and advice to entrepreneurial kids. “There is no better time to teach kids about financial matters,” Buffett explained. He says that helping children get to grips with financial issues and the ramifications of their choices can “help them develop healthy habits early on that will serve them a lifetime.”

15. Mark Parker – Nike

Nike CEO Mark Parker has been dubbed “the Steve Jobs of sneakers,” and it’s easy to see why. He has been with Nike for over three decades, so he knows the brand pretty much inside and out – from sole to tongue. Despite having led the company since 2006, Parker still plays an active role in shoe design and has worked on different projects with his team. He also takes Nike’s environmental sustainability very seriously. And since he has headed up the company, Nike has seen its profits soar by more than half and its revenue surge by 60 percent. “The commitment to great design and to innovation – that’s really at the core to any successful business and it’s a prerequisite to realize your great potential as a company,” Parker has explained. What’s more, his ideas must be working, as Nike was named 2013’s most innovative firm by Fast Company.

14. Howard Schultz – Starbucks

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has seen the global coffee company go from strength to strength in 2013, as it has achieved record sales and profits. And despite having worked for Starbucks for over three decades, Schultz is still looking forward and has some exciting plans for the coming years. “We’re doing work now on the store of the future,” he told USA Today, explaining that this would connect not only to the physical space but also to a “digital experience.” Impressively, every week Starbucks processes over three million mobile payments. This more intimate relationship with the consumer will enable the coffee giant to bring in various innovations, including highly individually targeted marketing and customers maybe being “recognized” before they’ve even ordered. Excitingly, Schultz has also suggested that there will soon be one-off coffees “like rare or cult wines.”

13. Jonah Peretti – BuzzFeed

Find yourself perusing BuzzFeed when you should be hard at work in the office? You’ve got the site’s CEO Jonah Peretti to thank for that. Peretti co-founded BuzzFeed in 2006, and by November 2013 it had pulled in 130 million unique monthly visitors. Moreover, whereas previously the site concentrated on silly videos and lists, in 2012 it started to revamp its content to include hard news written by professional journalists (though don’t worry: there are still plenty of cat videos). “I would rather have the occasional critic saying, ‘Look at this dumb thing that BuzzFeed did’ than have people who are afraid of experimenting,” Peretti has said. And his attitude to business certainly seems to be working, with BuzzFeed claiming a spot on Fast Company’s coveted list of Most Innovative Companies 2013.

12. Kat Cole – Cinnabon

Kat Cole’s rise to become head honcho of Cinnabon has been a little unconventional. At the age of 17, she started working at Hooters as a hostess, and just nine years later, she was an executive vice president there. Then in 2010, aged 32, she joined Cinnabon as president – at a time when the baked goods company was struggling because of the recession. Cole is credited with helping to turn the brand around by licensing it out, and this avenue now generates over 50 percent of Cinnabon’s revenue. Impressively, Cinnabon was set to hit $1 billion in sales in 2013, and the brand is talked about every ten seconds on social media platforms. No small wonder, then, that Cole earned a spot on Fortune magazine’s 40 Under 40 list in 2013.

11. Brian Chesky – Airbnb

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky (pictured in the center, above) co-founded the online company in 2008 along with Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk. The innovative site allows users to rent unused space to guests such as holidaymakers. In 2013, Airbnb saw massive growth. In its first four years it catered to 4 million guests, but in a mere nine months following this period it added an extra 5 million guests to this count. Each night, an estimated 140,000 people sleep in Airbnb lodgings, and the site lists half a million options in almost 200 countries. Chesky – who left his apartment in 2010 and has been staying in Airbnb accommodation ever since – promotes a good company dynamic and tries to meet every new staff member. “Culture is so incredibly important because it is the foundation for all future innovation. People with passion can change the world,” he said.

10. Ben Silbermann – Pinterest

CEO and co-founder of Pinterest Ben Silbermann hit the nail on the head in 2010 when he launched the hugely popular pinboard site. Pinterest hit 70 million users in July 2013 – an enormous increase from just under 49 million users five months prior. In 2012 Pinterest was lauded as the most rapidly growing social networking website ever – and things keep getting better. For one, in 2013 it was named on Fast Company’s list of the Most Innovative Companies, despite the fact that it’s not yet turning a profit. According to Silbermann, the site is all about looking forward and planning ahead. “People use Pinterest every day to get ready for and excited about something in their future,” he said. “If we can create a set of connections between things that they’re interested in, we can help them plan for that future.”

9. Patrick Doyle – Domino’s

Domino’s saw its sales stack up throughout 2013, and the pizza company’s success has been aided in no small part by CEO Patrick Doyle, who took up the mantle in 2010. “We have to wake up every day and figure out how to get better,” Doyle proclaimed in 2013. “Otherwise, eventually the brand starts to fade.” Putting its money where its mouth was, that same year the pizza chain introduced revamped restaurants with open kitchens so that patrons could watch their pizzas being put together. In addition, 2013 heralded the launch of “Pizzavestments,” a promotion that witnessed startups being given $500 Domino’s gift cards along with a letter signed by Doyle himself. The CEO explained that people often munch on pizza while engaging in nighttime brainstorming sessions and, he said, “We’re going to give pizza away to people who are generating those new ideas.”

8. Tim Cook – Apple

When Steve Jobs passed away in 2011, Tim Cook became CEO of Apple, and naturally he had some pretty big boots to fill. However, Cook proved himself capable of the challenge, and in 2012 he earned himself a spot on Time magazine’s run-through of the world’s most influential people; meanwhile, Apple saw its most productive 12 months. The following year, the tech giant garnered a spot on Fast Company’s list of Most Innovative Companies, because of its much-touted Retina display. And Cook oversaw more exciting developments in 2013, including futuristic fingerprint recognition technology for the iPhone 5s, as well as the iBeacons Restaurant Ordering & Reservation System, which allows iOS users to check waiting times and seating options in local eateries. Rumors have also surfaced about Apple iTV and an iWatch.

7. Harriet Green – Thomas Cook

In late 2011, the oldest travel agent in the world, Thomas Cook, was in trouble. Its share value had plummeted by about 75 percent, and the news was that it was going to shut down a significant number of its agencies and foreign exchange bureaus. However, Harriet Green took over as the company’s CEO in May 2012 and soon transformed the business into a success story. Amid other innovations, Green revamped some of the stores so as to become “a lot more Apple than travel,” and she announced the launch of SunConnect breaks, which offer holidaymakers high-tech resort experiences. The U.K.-based travel agent scooped various awards in 2013, and Green – who still personally replies to all her emails – also picked up the National Business Awards’ esteemed Leader of the Year honor. “People don’t really remember what you say or what you do,” she explained. “But they always remember how you make them feel.”

6. Huateng “Pony” Ma – Tencent

Elusive entrepreneur Huateng “Pony” Ma co-founded the company Tencent in 1998 and is its current CEO and chairman. As for the firm, Tencent arguably hit the big time with the launch of voice messaging service WeChat in 2011. In 2013, WeChat started expanding with purpose internationally, and Tencent became the most valuable private business in China. Tencent’s stock price rocketed by over 60 percent between January and November of that year, while Ma himself is now worth an impressive $12 billion. Even so, he looks after his staff, too: as well as ensuring that they get frequent salary increases, he has teamed up with local authorities to keep housing prices stable. WeChat had 236 million active users by June 2013, and in the same year Ma earned himself a spot on Fortune’s rundown of the top people in business.

5. Jeremy Stoppelman – Yelp

In a new city and hungry for some tasty noodles? Chances are you’ll visit company Yelp to read reviews and information about local restaurants, as well as other businesses. The online guide’s CEO and co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman set up the website alongside CTO Russel Simmons back in 2004, and since then it has become an internet staple. Moreover, while the company has yet to make a profit, that may well change with Stoppelman’s 2013 launch of Yelp Platform, which allows users to order their food straight from the Yelp mobile app. However, Stoppelman – who was featured on Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list for 2013 – doesn’t fling lots of perks at his staff, preferring to concentrate on their enthusiasm for what they do and indeed his own love for engineering and product. “We’re not Google. We don’t have lobster stuffed with caviar every day,” he said.

4. Sophia Amoruso – Nasty Gal

Nasty Gal CEO and founder Sophia Amoruso is proof that you don’t necessarily need a college degree to build a successful business. In 2006 she set up an eBay store to sell vintage fashion pieces she’d found in secondhand shops. What’s more, it turns out she was pretty good at it: within 18 months she was moving $115,000 in sales. In June of 2008 – after being booted off eBay – Amoruso launched the Nasty Gal website, selling vintage clothing. The site was a hit, and by 2012 it was rated the Fastest Growing Retailer by Inc. magazine. In 2013 the same publication recognized Amoruso on its 30 Under 30 list. And the same year, she launched a new ready-to-wear range for the brand, as well as a shoe collection. Amoruso cleverly restricts the runs of her fashion lines, meaning that almost all of the clothing is sold at full price. Not bad in an industry that normally discounts one third of its goods.

3. Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook

Life has been a whirlwind for the chairman and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. He famously launched the ubiquitous social media website while he was still in college and later dropped out to fully focus on its development. The site now has well in excess of one billion users, and its 2013 revenue topped over $6 billion. Zuckerberg has some exciting methods of generating ideas and fostering innovation within his company. For example, Facebook stages “hack-a-thons” in which engineers work all night creating anything they like. Moreover, in 2013 the CEO announced his groundbreaking plan to get the whole world online through the foundation of “The richest 500 million have way more money than the next 6 billion combined,” Zuckerberg said. His solution: “Getting everyone online… by building out the global internet.”

2. Kevin Systrom – Instagram

In a relatively short space of time, Instagram has gone from being a virtually unknown service to a must-have app and social networking platform. Cell phone users can’t resist snapping pictures then allowing the Instagram filters to work their magic, transforming amateur images into something far more stylish. The man behind the app is CEO and co-creator Kevin Systrom, who launched his brainchild in 2010. The rapid rise in Instagram’s popularity saw it gain over 150 million monthly users by December 2013 and also earned Systrom a spot on Time magazine’s rundown of 30 people younger than 30 who are changing the world. Also in 2013, new video sharing capabilities were launched on the app, which will no doubt help increase its standing.

1. Jeff Weiner – LinkedIn

Jeff Weiner is the CEO of professional networking website LinkedIn, and in early 2013 he earned the Silicon Valley Business Journal’s title of Executive of the Year for the previous 12 months. Weiner has been credited with helping the site become the hugely successful network it is, with 259 million users. In 2013 LinkedIn took the innovative step of opening up to high school students and also launched University Pages. Its goal: for young people to start searching for colleges and begin building their own professional networks. Impressively, the company’s revenue for the final quarter of 2012 outstripped expectations by a massive $25 million. And how did nice guy Weiner reward his staff of 3,500? By gifting each of them an iPad Mini. Sweet.

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Rowan Jones
Chief Editor