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As the Unilever Prestige x WWD Project Connect initiative continues to take applications for this unique $15,000 grant opportunity, there’s a looming question: Why is this project important, and why launch it now?

Project Connect Council Members, who will be reviewing applications from tech entrepreneurs whose future-forward products and services aim to help consumers adapt to a post-COVID-19 world shared their thoughts on the importance of this project and how the isolating effects of the pandemic have exposed a missing link between virtual communication and the need for human connection across their industries.

Do you have a product, service or technology that helps people feel more connected? Apply now for this unique $15,000 grant opportunity that also offers business mentorship from the Project Connect Council of industry leaders. 

And while people relied on technology to stay in touch (thank you, Zoom and Slack), many have been traumatized by the pandemic, creating an even greater need for advancements in technology, with innovative products and services that help us reconnect to humanity in a fresh, positive and sustainable way. And it’s also good for business, the council members said.

Esteemed Project Connect Council Members include Vasiliki Petrou, Executive Vice President and Group Chief Executive Officer of Unilever Prestige; Amanda Smith, President of Fairchild Media Group (parent of WWD); Carla Nelson, Founder of the Black Fashion World Foundation; Kevin Fried, Director of Retail at Google; John Melo, President and Chief Executive Officer of Amyris, and Vicky Tsai, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Tatcha.

Vasiliki Petrou

Vasiliki Petrou, Executive Vice President and Group Chief Executive Officer of Unilever Prestige.  Courtesy Image.

Vasiliki Petrou, Executive Vice President and Group Chief Executive Officer of Unilever Prestige.

“There are so many reasons why this is important,” Petrou said. “First of all, if you look at it from a purely business lens, we know that purpose-driven companies grow quicker than others, and helping people feel connected to each other is a timely purpose for any brand to have. It’s simple: driven by society and the increasing awareness of social responsibility, doing the right thing is no longer a nice add-on but absolutely top-of-mind for your consumer. Making purpose a priority and the core of any brand is a smart business move.”

Petrou said the next generation of consumers “are seeking out companies with products and services that improve society and make a positive impact on the world.”

Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith, President of Fairchild Fashion Media Group.  Courtesy Image.

That consumer demand is based in the fundamental changes in behavior directly related to the COVID-19 outbreak — especially in regard to technology. “The pandemic has forever changed life as we know it,” Tsai said. “We’ve had to effectively ‘live’ our lives through our screens over the past year, and because of this, we’re at a cultural crossroads with our technology. It’s standing in for people in ways it never had to before, becoming permanently integrated into our daily lives, and allowing us to fill (to an extent) the basic human need for intrapersonal connections, relationships and interactions both in our work and personal lives.”

Vicky Tsai

Vicky Tsai, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Tatcha.  Courtesy Image.

Petrou echoed Tsai’s sentiment, saying, “the need for industry advancements that drive human connection has never been more important thanks to the isolating effects of COVID-19.”

“By finding ways to keep people connected virtually, but in a way that feels personal and authentic, we are genuinely answering a need that is no doubt going to continue to grow,” Petrou said. “When I look at it from a more human angle, the bottom line is that we as corporations and businesses have enormous power and influence to encourage positive change. Through our voices, our partners, our founders, it is our responsibility to come together to solve for the very real issues our consumer is facing.”

Carla Nelson

Carla Nelson, Founder of the Black Fashion World Foundation.  Keston Duke

For Smith, technology could help us be the best versions of ourselves. “In the past year, technology has connected us in critical ways and advanced more rapidly to meet our very human needs amidst crisis,” Smith said. “As we reemerge, we recognize that the technologies that have the greatest impact are those that amplify our most human attributes.”

And with Project Connect, Smith said: “We have the opportunity to celebrate and support pioneering thinking that elevates a more empathetic, personal approach to technologies that tie us.”

For her part, Nelson acknowledged that having technology “that enables us to connect with our networks has definitely made navigating the pandemic easier” and said if it were not for “the intersection of various forms of technology during this time, the mental health crisis that we are facing would only be exacerbated by our current situation.”

Kevin Fried

Kevin Fried, Director of Retail at Google.  Courtesy Image.

Technology that helps connect humanity “is now an integral part of everyday life,” Nelson said, adding that technology is embedded in the “way we work, do business, connect with family and friends and experience entertainment.” As a result, Nelson said there’s a need to strengthen these connections and noted a recent media report that “revealed an opportunity for a technological advancement, to simulate the human touch to preserve life in the absence of the touch of loved ones because of the social distancing parameters.”

For Melo, his perspective on the importance of Project Connect is rooted in his company’s ethos, which “is driven by the ability to harness the power of biology and technology to manufacture the best ingredients and consumer products across industries while supporting environmental and human health at the same time.” Within that context, Melo said his company is “constantly taking cues from humanity on how to apply our technology.”

Melo said when the pandemic hit, his company had to quickly respond, adding that they are now thinking through what the next phase of the company looks like as they continue to prepare for a world post COVID-19. “We’re now faced with the challenge of providing equitable access to medical resources for the pandemic globally, developing a plan to respond better and faster to the next public health crisis, while reducing our carbon footprint on an over-industrialized global community,” Melo said.

John Melo

John Melo, President and Chief Executive Officer of Amyris.  Courtesy Image.

Which brings up a key point about Project Connect: While it is an opportunity to improve and evolve the connection between people and technology, there is also the opportunity for applicants to submit solutions, product and tech that benefits the planet as well.

At Amyris, Melo said biotech has already proven “its ability to change the world, most recently setting record timelines for vaccine development.”

And while the technology itself is not a silver bullet, within the right context and infused with a purpose-driven mission, Project Connect Council Members truly believe technology solutions can change the world.

“As we emerge from COVID-19 and enter the ‘new normal,’ it’s clear that technology cannot continue to exist as a faceless service provider: it must be able to bridge the gap between IRL connection and digital efficiency,” Tsai said. “And while it can’t replicate human touch, at the very least it must allow us to feel safe, in control of our lives again, and remain connected with both ourselves and each other. It’s our collective responsibility to ensure that the digital tools we use are up to the task.”

For more information about Project Connect, and to apply: CLICK HERE