Food for Thought: Inspiring Leaders’ Creativity

Joe Erwin Joe Erwin is currently the President of Erwin Penland, one of the largest full service advertising agencies, as well as the founder of Food for Thought, an unconventional annual creativity and inspiration conference that uses food and atmosphere to spark the creativity of attendees. The Makegood recently spoke to Erwin about the conference, and what he expects for this year.

The Makegood: Congratulations on your exciting conference. What does this conference entail, and how did you come up with Food for Thought? Could you shed light on how this year’s conference will be different from previous years?

Food for Thought takes place over 2 ½ days every spring, and participants come from across the country for what we call an “unconventional convention.”   Erwin Penland is known for helping our clients build relationships with consumers, with kind of a ‘high-tech meets high-touch’ approach to marketing solutions and client service.  Food for Thought is how we bring that to life outside our four walls, so to speak.  We only accept about 100-120 participants each year, so we can deliver a personal, interactive experience for each attendee.  We’ve all been to conferences in oxygen-less hotel meeting rooms that could be anywhere in America, where the food was something to be endured.  We wanted to be the opposite of that!  At Food for Thought, we move around, from a minor league ballpark, to BMW’s North American Driving Track, to a restored Mill building on the banks of Greenville’s downtown river.  Every year is different, but we always have a variety of challenging, inspirational speakers who are using creativity to change the world, plus great food and wine, amazing attendees who arrive excited about what’s about to happen, and all these different venues.  It’s pretty special.

The Makegood: What do you expect of the confirmed speakers and presenters this year? What sorts of backgrounds are these speakers coming from?

More than anything, I expect that our presenters will challenge conventional thinking.  They each come from backgrounds of entrepreneurship and innovation – some have built massive brands and others have focused on helping small organizations or causes succeed by changing the way they think.  And they’re all doing things in a way that will make each attendee think differently about their own situation.  Several of this year’s presenters have ties to non-profits, so I’m particularly interested to hear their stories. Even after 6 years of this, I’m always struck by what I learn, things I didn’t even know I needed to learn.

The Makegood: Why did you choose Greenville as the host town for the conference? Have you seen something special in Greenville that drew your interest?

Greenville is home to one of Erwin Penland’s three offices, and it’s a perfect fit for Food for Thought’s core focus on innovation.  For one thing, it’s beautiful here.  We do this event in late April, when much of the country is still hanging on to winter, so attendees step off the plane and suddenly they’re in Technicolor.  Everything’s green, dogwoods are blooming, it’s warm.  So it doesn’t hurt that you’re going to have this experience in a glorious setting.  Plus, Greenville is a city that reinvented itself, to enormous success.  When the textile business began to collapse in the south, this region really felt the effects of it.  Pollution, economic decay, crime.  But a group of business and local government leaders determined to reimagine and reinvent the city, and they did.  Today, Greenville is one of the most talked about mid-sized cities in America.  It’s home to more international business per capita than anywhere in the country; it’s a dynamic food city, and has miles of urban trails and bicycle paths; there’s a vivid arts community, and a sprawling urban park that winds along the path of the Reedy River to our downtown waterfalls.  So the setting here is a proof point that creativity and innovation can create dramatic, positive change.

The Makegood: Putting emphasis on inspiration and creativity both in and outside of the workplace is very important. For what reasons do you emphasize creativity and what have you seen as a result of this emphasis?

Nearly everyone has creative potential, but we all get so caught up in the daily pace of life that we often fall into the trap of not following our dreams, not chasing that big idea.  I often start the conference with Apple’s iconic spot, “The Crazies,” which features clips of Muhammad Ali, Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi…all these trailblazers who dared to be different.  It’s a reminder for attendees that we have a chance to be like any of these people if we dare to follow a dream, or determine to fearlessly buck convention.

The Makegood: Why food? In other words, what do you believe food adds to the conference, and what made you choose to make food a central “idea” for the conferences?

This question makes me smile, because the truth is that my team and I just love food – and not just fine cuisine, but all kinds.  From sustainable farm-to-table produce to greasy cheeseburgers.  But there’s also a more important reason we made food an underpinning to a conference focused on inspiration and thought leadership.  It’s that people are just more open to ideas, and one another, over a meal.  It’s the age-old concept of breaking bread together.  You really do become more open to new ideas, less guarded about sharing your own.  So at Food for Thought we feed you a diet of big ideas, and challenge you to make the most of each meal by sharing your journey with fellow attendees.  In the end, it’s our goal to surprise you at every turn – and by the end, for you to even surprise yourself.

The Makegood: Thank you, Joe.