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TechTalks, hosted by the Society of Women Engineers, featuring representatives from Merck, Lockheed Martin, L'Oreal, AppNexus, Moss Rehab, and Penn Credit: Imran Cronk , Imran Cronk

Eight floors above the lunchtime bustle of Locust Walk, over 70 students gathered to learn the secrets of success in the business world.

Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of General Electric, spoke Wednesday afternoon for the last of the Wharton Leadership Lectures of the semester. As leader of three platforms — GE Industrial Ventures, ecomagination and healthymagination — Comstock emphasized the importance of “profit with a purpose” by identifying areas in which innovation is needed, such as healthcare, natural resources and technology.

She cited GE founder Thomas Edison as an inspiration. “I look to what the world needs and then I invent it,” she recalled a quote of his, discussing it as an excellent example of how to identify a market and then innovate to optimize. “Great marketing is what’s essential,” Comstock said, explaining that even the most perfectly engineered product needs a proper business model and marketing strategy.

Comstock also spoke of the new challenges of globalization. “The Asia century is real, we’re living in it,” she said. She emphasized that the only way to navigate the changing nature of business requires technology and marketing to work in tandem. Cooperation is key to succeeding in such a world, according to Comstock. “Problems are just too complicated … Everyone needs a partner.”

Comstock highlighted several examples of problems needing innovative solutions. She pointed to Saudi Arabia, which is projected to run out of exportable oil by 2030. “How do you create a new business model?” she asked. “Find a path. Optimize.” She also used the inadequate infrastructure in many developing countries as a case studywhich GE tackled by investing in a technological startup which helped power cellphone towers in Africa.

Comstock ended by daring the crowd to be risk takers. “Why be small when the world demands you to be big?” she asked, setting as example Warby Parker, the successful eyeglass company begun by a group of Wharton MBAs. “If you’re waiting for answers, you’ll be waiting a long time.” Comstock challenged the students to be instigators and ask questions. “Agitators are needed but rarely wanted,” she said.

Wharton freshman Nicole Granet found the speech to be inspiring but surprising. “One thing I found most powerful is that really successful people take the least desirable task,” she said.

Others appreciated the fact that Comstock made her speech applicable to a wide range of fields. “I thought it would be a lot more marketing focused than it was,” Wharton senior Akshay Bhushan said.

During the question and answer session following the talk, Comstock related her nontraditional path from media to business. Although she began as a reporter for a local newspaper, Comstock worked her way up to a job revitalizing CBS News, where she caught the attention of GE CEO Jack Welch and was promoted to chief marketing officer.

Describing personal embarrassments in her career, she told students, “One of the biggest challenges is, can we fail successfully?”

She left the audience thinking by imparting her personal secret to success — the courage to ask, “What if?”

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