From Bill Gates to Tony Hsieh: 19 Seers Shaping the World

UPDATED: March 20, 2013
PUBLISHED: March 20, 2013

“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible,” wrote the great satirist Jonathan Swift, known for nearly three centuries as the eagle-eyed author of Gulliver's Travels . And those words ring true to this day, though in fact, back in the 1700s when he penned them, a visionary was not the sort of person you hoped to meet for an ale at the local pub. No, he was the kind of fellow who conjured up demons and ghosts.

These days it takes more than a healthy imagination to earn the Visionary title. You need a vast store of know-how, too. It’s not enough to see what others do not; you have to have the might and wisdom to shepherd your vision into reality. Consider Steve Jobs, perhaps the premier visionary of our time. A prolific innovator, he had a knack for creating products before we knew we needed them. He led us to a world where cellphones snap pictures, play music, order our groceries, even monitor our vital signs. But he did not achieve all that until he had mastered the art of the sales pitch.

Does that mean Jobs’ sanity was never called into question? No way. His own wife talks of “Steve’s magical thinking.” Indeed, her husband’s logic was not always linear—or sound. (He once believed he could defeat pancreatic cancer with an all-fruit diet.) But in his unique way, Jobs made the world a better place. And so he felt compelled to champion the unconventional thinkers. “Here’s to the crazy ones,” he exclaimed in a famous Apple ad. “The ones who see things differently.… They push the human race forward.” No doubt he’d make room for a few of these guys at the genius bar.

Bill Gates: For nearly two decades, the man who founded Microsoft has been using his business acumen and personal fortune to tackle the world’s biggest problems through philanthropy. When he learned not long ago that raw sewage poses a greater threat to the poor than measles, malaria and HIV/AIDS combined, he came up with a plan of action, issuing a challenge to reinvent the toilet. Eight universities took him up on it. Didn’t matter that the current design had endured for 200 years, Gates soon had creative thinkers across the globe talking crap. When he announced the winning designs last August, researchers at Caltech took the top prize of $100,000. The team’s water-efficient, solar-powered commode needs no treatment plant to convert waste into fertilizer as well as hydrogen for use in producing energy.

Salman Khan:

When he started posting tutorials on YouTube, the hedge fund analyst had no interest in reinventing the nation’s education system. He was simply trying to help a 13-year-old cousin master algebra. But in the nine years since, millions of people—young and old—have embraced the genius of his bite-size lectures, tuning in time and again to receive one-on-one instruction in the intricacies of math and science. By harnessing the magic of digital technology—giving kids the chance to learn at their own pace, rewarding their budding problem-solving skills with badges, handing teachers the tools to monitor their progress—Khan Academy is literally turning around the classroom experience. Students digest instruction at home and do their homework at school, where teachers are on hand to answer their questions. Now that’s just smart.

Eric Ries:

He was not the first business executive to marvel at the startling inefficiencies in the startup process, the time and money wasted on half-baked ideas. He is, however, the one who unveiled the solution—a strategy he outlined in his best-selling book, The Lean Startup . Instead of following a business plan built on blind faith, Ries argues, find cost-effective ways to test your assumptions before you launch, thereby validating your ideas. Thanks to his insights, the pivot is now part of the curriculum at Harvard Business School.

Craig Venter:

In the eyes of this microbiologist, antiviral software is a vaccine you will one day be able to download on a 3-D printer. Part scientist, part maverick, he envisions a day when man-made microbes will produce nutrients and medicine, vacuum up greenhouse gases, and manufacture the fuel to meet our energy needs. At first glance it all seems far-fetched. Then again, no one believed Venter could map the human genome faster than the federal government, and he did in 2000, three years before the public project was to conclude, and at a fraction of the cost.

Zaha Hadid:

It’s a testament to the wonder of this architect’s fluid design that the Museum of XXI Century Arts (affectionately known as MAXXI) opened in Rome in 2009 without a single piece of art on display. The interior was so intricate, so beautiful, it was worthy of an audience all to itself. The Baghdad-born Pritzker Prize winner creates stunning exteriors, too. Just look at the aquatic center she dreamed up for the London Olympics. You won’t find a better building to represent the digital age. Hadid’s creations are so curvaceous they could not be plotted without computers. Boundaries? Pssh, she refuses to accept straight lines. “There are 360 degrees,” she says. “Why stick to one?”

Elon Musk:

Musk has never lacked ambition. Believers? That’s another story. After the year he had as the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, however, it’s hard to dismiss his ideas, no matter how far-out they seem. In May, SpaceX’s privately funded Dragon capsule completed its first successful supply mission to the International Space Station. Six months later, Tesla’s new electric-powered vehicle—the model S sedan—was named car of the year by Motor Trend magazine. How do you top that? Rest assured, Musk will find a way.

Taylor Wilson:

Not many teens list uranium prospecting among their favorite pastimes. Fewer still get a warm greeting from the folks at the Department of Homeland Security. But Wilson is not your average 18-year-old. For starters, his IQ ranks in the 99.99 percentile. More than brains, though, it’s his eye for invention that earns him a spot on this list. He doesn’t just talk of changing the world, he does it. At 14, he built his own nuclear fusion reactor. Three years later, he used it to develop a low-cost means to screen cargo containers for nuclear terrorist weapons. And after losing a grandmother to cancer, he found a way to lower the cost of radiation treatments for everyone. No wonder he’s been too busy to get a driver’s license.

Perry Chen:

It was music that led Kickstarter’s CEO to his epiphany—specifically a concert that failed to materialize at the 2002 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Instead of risking $20,000 of his own to organize the event, Chen came up with a whole new way to fund the arts, creating an online community that introduced people with money to those who needed it. Since 2009 Kickstarter has raised more than $350 million to help filmmakers, game designers, artists and musicians fund their dream projects.

Michael Bloomberg:

His ability to rise above party politics is admirable, but what really separates New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg from the rank and file in government service is a willingness to confront head-on the problems that limit America’s future. In 2002, in the face of fuming opposition, he pushed through a ban on smoking in the city’s bars and restaurants. More than 3,400 municipalities later followed suit. In 2006 Bloomberg demanded that chain restaurants post calorie counts beside the items on their menus. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 will soon make this practice mandatory nationwide. The self-made billionaire has taken similar stands against transfats, salt, auto emissions, soft drinks and assault weapons. He hasn’t won every battle, but he certainly has raised the quality of the dialogue.

Kevin Carroll:

To a young boy recently abandoned by his mother, the playgrounds and ball fields of Philadelphia offered more than a refuge. They filled him with glee, gave him confidence, led him to the Air Force as a soccer player, the National Basketball Aassociation as head trainer for the 76ers, and eventually to Nike, where his electrifying motivational speeches gave rise to those yellow bracelets that Lance Armstrong used to raise $80 million for cancer research before stepping down from the Livestrong Foundation. Nike distributed clear wristbands with its Kevin Garnett sneakers, and Carroll, a brand ambassador, would often collect a few and trudge out to a school in Portland, Ore., to talk to the kids about chasing their dreams with the same passion they used in hustling after baseballs. When the children started coming home with Carroll’s “dream bands” on their wrists, Nike executives offered the idea up to Armstrong. Today Carroll still delivers those talks, only now they’re requested by executives at Disney and dignitaries from the United Nations. Wherever he goes he leaves a little extra time in his schedule—so he can return to the playground and share what he’s learned about the power of play with neighborhood kids.

Dave Eggers:

Since the life-altering success of his breakout best-seller, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , Eggers has worked diligently to promote the power of the written word. He has launched a small imprint (McSweeney’s), a literary magazine (The Believer), and a nonprofit after-school writing program (826 National) aimed at nurturing the talents of young wordsmiths in eight U.S. cities. In addition to donations, Eggers funds his mentoring efforts with a series of ingenious storefronts: The Pirate Store in San Francisco; Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair in Ann Arbor, Mich.; The Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute; and Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. in New York. Besides generating smiles, the shops tend to cover the rent and draw people in off the street, creating community support.

Chris Anderson:

Never underestimate the value of a great idea—unless, of course, you’re Chris Anderson, in which case, you offer it up to the world for free. When the longtime publishing executive took command of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference in 2001, he quickly sought to broaden its reach beyond the confines of corporate America. In 2006 he started posting TED talks online. Three years later he handed the organization’s microphone to outsiders, allowing them to host local TED conferences. This “radical openness” has earned the organization props as “the new Harvard.” TED events pop up worldwide, and the organization’s videos—available in 40 languages—have been played more than a billion times.

Ben Silbermann:

Believe it or not, the website with the fastest growth rate in history owes a debt of gratitude to Silbermann’s childhood bug collection. The CEO knew all too well the passion collectors bring to their hobbies, but he also understood the pleasure they take in showing off their treasures. So he made certain that Pinterest focused not on words but on images—all lovingly curated by the site’s devoted users. The result? A browsing experience ideally tailored to the digital age. Yes, it’s abundantly clear that Pinterest fans love to shop. And when they do, they spend $180 on average. Let’s see Amazon do better than that.

Dean Kamen:

The Segway scooter is his best-known invention, but all told, Kamen has more than 440 patents to his name. Were it not for his fertile mind we might still be waiting for the insulin pump and the portable dialysis machine. This year, in partnership with Coca-Cola, he has his mind set on cleaning up the world’s water supplies. The Slingshot, his latest creation—10 years in the making—weighs less than 300 pounds and is capable of converting river water, salt water, even raw sewage into safe drinking water, using less than 1 kilowatt of electricity, roughly the equivalent of powering a hair dryer. Look for the Slingshot to spring up in schools, health clinics and community centers in South Africa, Mexico and Paraguay this year, and in India, Asia and the Middle East in the near future.

Jenna Lyons:

First lady Michelle Obama wears her clothes, Oprah Winfrey once asked for a peek into her closet, and various blogs devoted to her work take note when she reveals her favorite diaper bag. Yes, many people have an eye for style, but few can match Lyons’ clout. “I can’t change the world. I’m not a stem cell scientist,” the J. Crew tastemaker told The Wall Street Journal not long ago. “But this is my way of giving back.” By expertly blending classic with chic, Lyons creates clothing that appeals to virtually everyone. And, it will come as no surprise, that the once on-the-rocks J. Crew has experienced a stunning turnaround since she assumed the role as the company’s creative spirit. Its annual sales have jumped from $700 million to $1.7 billion, in the process erasing a $40 million-a-year deficit.

Yvon Chouinard:

Though he calls himself a reluctant businessman, Chouinard is beyond shrewd. He spotted the merits of eco-friendly commerce early on, donating 1 percent of his company Patagonia’s sales revenue to grassroots environmental groups back in 1985. In the years since, he has strived to lower the company’s footprint, going so far as to advise customers in a full-page 2011 Black Friday ad in The New York Times not to buy a new Patagonia jacket if an old one could be repaired. Radical though such a notion once seemed, it makes fiscal sense. As Chouinard argues, millennials don’t take kindly to polluters. That’s why the chief executives of Nike, The Gap, Levi Strauss and Adidas follow his lead. The standards laid down by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which Chouinard launched with Wal-Mart in 2009, now apply to a third of all clothing sales worldwide. The renegade CEO is not ready to call it a day, though. “I hang onto Patagonia,” he told The Wall Street Journal not long ago, “because it’s my resource to do something good. It’s a way to demonstrate that corporations can lead examined lives.”

Tony Hsieh:

Where others see a scorching-hot wasteland in downtown Las Vegas, he sees the makings of a cultural renaissance. So for his next trick, the man who put Zappos on the map will attempt to play SimCity with Sin City. After studying the campuses of Apple, Google and Nike, he decided against hiding his staff on a private island. By year’s end he will instead ferry about 2,000 employees into the old city hall building in the center of town. And to make sure they approve of the move, the CEO is investing $350 million of his fortune into creating a neighborhood that attracts artists, musicians, college students and entrepreneurs. A pipe dream? Perhaps, but unlike companies, metropolitan areas get more productive as they grow, Hsieh argues, so why not put Zappos in a position to profit from that?

Steve Ells: One look at the suffering on the farm where Chipotle’s pork was raised, and the company’s founder saw the light. This was back in 1999. His restaurant chain was 6 years old. When the CEO returned home, he set about finding a more humane alternative for those barbacoa-stuffed tortillas. In short order, his fast-food menu was stocked with free-range meats and locally grown vegetables. Prices went up, but customers kept scarfing his burritos and his guacamole. Chipotle’s revenues have tripled since 2006. The number of restaurants has doubled. The company is now valued at $12.2 billion. All because one man saw an opening for healthier fast food.

Felix Baumgartner: Due to a visor malfunction, he did not get to fully enjoy the view. But on Oct. 14, 2012—65 years to the day after Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound in his rocket-propelled X-1 jet—Felix Baumgartner stepped from a helium-filled balloon perched on the edge of space. Free-falling from 128,000 feet above the Earth, he reached Mach 1.4 before deploying his parachute and safely landing in the desert sand of New Mexico. Like the daredevils of the Space Age, he pushed the limits for science, allowing researchers to study how his body handled the dramatic descent from such an extreme altitude.

Chris Raymond is a contributing editor for SUCCESS magazine.