Edward Norton, AI, Arts, and Governance at Salesforce Conference

This December’s World Tour NYC included discussions of AI, plus insight from actor and entrepreneur Norton on aligning stakeholders with innovation.

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Editor

December 18, 2023

5 Min Read
Actor and entrepreneur Edward Norton speaks at the Salesforce World Tour NYC conference.
Actor and entrepreneur Edward Norton speaks at the Salesforce World Tour NYC conference.Joao-Pierre S. Ruth photo

Noted actor Edward Norton dropped by the Salesforce World Tour NYC conference last Thursday to discuss collisions of technology with art, as well as using tech to find alignment with stakeholders.

It was one of the many sessions held at the one-day conference at the Javits Center in midtown Manhattan, which included a panel on investment in AI development. Cloud-based Salesforce, like many other companies, dove further into AI with updates to its Einstein 1 platform to bring business data to AI prompts in order to enhance GenAI across Salesforce applications.

A press panel on AI included Michelle Kwon, head of operations and partnerships at Runway; Paula Goldman, Salesforce’s chief ethical and humane use officer; John Somorjai, president of Salesforce Ventures; and Sanjna Parulekar, vice president of product marketing with Salesforce, who moderated.

Somorjai said innovation and monetization are both important for Salesforce Ventures when considering investing in companies, especially in the AI space. “Innovation first and foremost is kind of where we are, right now because your belief is that monetization will come when companies start adopting this technology more,” he said. “I think one of the key challenges that you have when you look at these companies is, with so much hype around AI, are you finding companies that are truly differentiated where the innovation is so unique and so hard to replicate?”

Related:Data Leaders Say ‘AI Paralysis’ Stifling Adoption: Study

Salesforce has several hundred AI experts, Somorjai said, within its research team to help with due diligence on such companies. When it comes to monetization, he said they look for a willingness in the market to pay for what is offered through such innovation. This vetting can include testing with customers and discussions with an advisory board. “At the end of the day, we want to find companies that not only want to test what they’re doing, but they’re going to become durable, long-term businesses that will have profitable growth,” Somorjai said.

Kwon said in the hype cycle, for AI or otherwise, actions speak louder than words. “If you look at what they’re actually putting out, are they providing a product? Are they providing a service? Are they doing something that can actually be used by enterprises, customers, users, and that brings value?”

There is a certain inevitability in the use of AI, just one year after it surged into mainstream attention. “I think that we’ve had a really exciting year of new companies that are energized by this technology,” she said. “This will become kind of table stakes. Every company is going to embrace AI, one way or another, otherwise it will be difficult to continue to be a solution for your customers.”

Related:Adapt or Extinct: Custom GPTs and the Evolution of Startups


Technology’s Role in Governance

Meanwhile in a breakout fireside chat, Norton sat with Lynne Zaledonis, executive vice president of customer success and partner marketing with Salesforce, to talk tech, arts, and stakeholder alignment.

When he is not starring in movies such as “Asteroid City” or “Glass Onion,” Norton is a co-founder and chief strategy officer of Zeck, and co-founder of EDO (Entertainment Data Oracle). Zeck is an app meant to modernize board decks and other prep for meetings, to improve engagement among leadership as well as for investor updates and business reviews. EDO is a platform marketers and television networks can use to understand the effectiveness of “convergent” ads on driving consumer behavior by using data on predictive and historical behavioral engagement.  

Norton spoke on the need for certain disruptions of board oversight of company leadership, both in terms of spirit and ways technology can come into play. There is a tension in the board - leadership relationship, he said, whether it is from investors or institutional donors who want to protect their money, monitor investments, or protect donations.

Related:Julia Roberts and Runaway Teslas ‘Leave the World Behind’

“That is not a positive relationship,” Norton said. “One of my favorite people in the investment space, what I really admire, has a policy that he never sits on the board of a company that he invests in because, he says, ‘If I don’t have conviction in the team, then my diligence on my investment is wrong. If I can’t invest with confidence that the management team knows what they’re doing, I shouldn’t have invested in the company. If I think I have to sit on the board and monitor them then this is all wrong.’”

He acknowledged that as companies grow larger, governance becomes increasingly necessary as the consequences of failure escalate -- however, such interaction does not have to be confrontational.

“For many, many companies, I think there’s an unnecessarily antagonistic relationship and it’s based on people monitoring their money,” Norton said. “I think that it needs to be talked about, and I think leaders, organizations have got to be willing to challenge that assumption that you get to be here just to monitor us.” He said part of what Zeck tried to do is make it so that the platform itself allows the management to monitor the board.

For example, the platform lets management see the read time spent by every single individual member of the board. Basically, it allows for board members to be called out for not doing their homework. “We like the idea that there’s a capacity for the management to set expectations and not have a board be so passive.”

Norton admitted he hoped personally to be on fewer board meetings in the future and that the post-pandemic world has shifted its understanding of work and meetings with Zoom and other remote resources. “There’s something about this idea of the conference room and the table and it’s kind of -- it feels very antiquated to me,” he said. “We’re coming at it from a tools-based sense, to try to really upgrade aspects of it, but I think you could make the argument that there ought to be an entirely, much more radically different structure of the governance of a company.” Norton expressed his appreciation for mentorship, guidance, and alliance but felt there needs to be new mechanisms of “accountability that’s different from what feels like a parole board.”

About the Author(s)

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Senior Editor

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth covers tech policy, including ethics, privacy, legislation, and risk; fintech; code strategy; and cloud & edge computing for InformationWeek. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, reporting on business and technology first in New Jersey, then covering the New York tech startup community, and later as a freelancer for such outlets as TheStreet, Investopedia, and Street Fight. Follow him on Twitter: @jpruth.

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