A committee of students, faculty, and staff elected to honor these five visionaries at the 2014 Commencement exercises for their contributions to design, social discourse, and global culture, that mirror The New School's core values.
Novelist Zadie Smith was born in North London in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother. She studied English at Cambridge and graduated in 1997.
Her acclaimed first novel, White Teeth (2000), is a vibrant portrait of contemporary multicultural London, told as the story of three ethnically diverse families. The book won a number of awards and prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book). It also won two BT EMMAs (British Telecommunications Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards), for Best Book/Novel and Best Female Media Newcomer, and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Author's Club First Novel Award. White Teeth has been translated into more than 20 languages and was adapted for British television in 2002.
During her tenure as writer in residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Ms. Smith produced a collection of erotic stories titled Piece of Flesh, which was published in 2001. She also wrote the introduction to The Burned Children of America (2003), a collection of 18 short stories by young American writers.
Ms. Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man (2002), a story about celebrity, obsession, and loss, won the 2003 Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction. In 2003, Ms. Smith was nominated by Granta magazine to its Best of Young British Novelists list.
Ms. Smith's third novel, On Beauty, published in 2005, won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction. She has also written a nonfiction book about writing called Fail Better (2006) and a collection called Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (2009). Her most recent novel is NW (2012), set in northwest London.
Ms. Smith became a tenured professor of fiction at New York University in 2010. From 2010 to 2011, she was the monthly New Books contributor to Harper's Magazine. Ms. Smith has also written for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.
Neil Blumenthal is a founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, a successful lifestyle brand offering designer eyewear at low prices, in accordance with a socially conscious business model that has revolutionized the industry.
Before launching Warby Parker in 2010, Mr. Blumenthal served as director of VisionSpring, a nonprofit social enterprise that helps low-income women start their own businesses selling affordable eyeglasses in developing countries. He developed VisionSpring's award-winning strategy (the company received Fast Company's Social Capitalist Award in 2005, 2007, and 2008) and expanded VisionSpring's global presence from one to ten countries. In 2005, he was named a Fellow for Emerging Leaders in Public Service at NYU's Robert F. Wagner School for Public Service.
In 2012, Mr. Blumenthal was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company. He received an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2013 and was recognized as part of "The Next Establishment" by Vanity Fair and as one of Crain's New York's 40 Under Forty the same year. He serves on the board of RxArt and on the United Nations Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council.
A native of New York City, Mr. Blumenthal received a BA from Tufts University and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, Rachel, the founder of Cricket's Circle, and their son, Griffin.
Abigail Disney is a filmmaker and philanthropist. Her first film, the feature-length documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, tells the inspirational story of a mass movement of Liberian women and their efforts to bring peace to their nation after decades of civil war. The film won the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary award and aired on PBS in 2011. Ms. Disney is also an executive producer of Women, War and Peace, a PBS miniseries about women in conflict zones around the world. Her longtime passion for women's issues and peace building inspired the films Family Affair, Playground, Sun Come Up (a 2011 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short), and Return.
With her husband, Pierre Hauser, Ms. Disney founded and heads the Daphne Foundation, an organization that makes grants to grassroots groups working with low-income communities in New York City. Since 1991, the Daphne Foundation has made millions of dollars in grants in areas including women's rights, AIDS advocacy, children's health, labor conditions, and incarceration.
Ms. Disney has played a critical role in a number of social and political organizations. She currently serves on the boards of the Roy Disney Family Foundation and the Global Fund for Women and on the advisory boards of other organizations working on poverty, women's issues, education, and the environment.
Ms. Disney's work in philanthropy, women's leadership, and conflict resolution has been recognized with the Epic Award from the White House Project, the Changing the Landscape for Women Award from the Center for the Advancement of Women, and the prestigious International Advocate for Peace Award from the Cardozo School of Law's Journal of Conflict Resolution.
Ms. Disney has served as a judge at the Tribeca Film Festival and sits on the advisory board of Women and Girls Lead, an initiative of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) that uses documentary films to showcase women and girls who are changing the world. She frequently travels across the country and around the world to deliver keynote addresses, commencement speeches, and lectures. She has participated in panels at The Hague, Davos, the United States Institute of Peace, and dozens of universities and community centers. She is also a member of the Writers Guild of America.
Ms. Disney received her bachelor's degree from Yale University, her master's degree from Stanford University, and her doctorate from Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and their four children.
Chris Thile is a mandolinist and composer who fuses traditional bluegrass music with elements from a range of other traditions, including folk, rock, jazz, and classical music. He is a founder and member of the bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers and from 1989 to 2007 was a member of the acoustic music trio Nickel Creek.
Mr. Thile collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, and fiddle player Stuart Duncan on the Grammy-winning album The Goat Rodeo Sessions and composed music for the post-apocalyptic film The Hunger Games. His most recent project is an album called Bach: Sonatas and Partitas vol. 1, a collection of compositions originally written for violin.
Mr. Thile is a 2012 Fellow and the recipient of a $500,000 Genius grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Other honors he has received include three Grammy awards, most recently for The Goat Rodeo Sessions (2013); the International Bluegrass Music Association award for Mandolinist of the Year (2001); and the BBC's Folk Musician of the Year award (2007).
His recordings include Here to There (1997) and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005), with Nickel Creek; Who's Feeling Young Now? (2012), with the Punch Brothers; and the solo albums Not All Who Wander Are Lost (2001), Deceiver (2004), and How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (2006).
Mr. Thile studied music at Murray State University.
Robert Wong is a founder and the chief creative officer at Google Creative Lab, where he develops engaging campaigns that illustrate the way Google products are woven into our lives. His projects include the Web short "Parisian Love," which aired during the 2010 Super Bowl and shows a succession of Google searches charting the history of an intercontinental romance. Another project, the interactive video "The Wilderness Downtown," uses Google's Chrome browser and Google Maps' Street View to take viewers on an animated trip back to their childhood neighborhoods. Wong has also worked on several of the famous Google Doodles; Mr. Wong jokingly claims that his interactive Les Paul guitar doodle inspired "40 million songs and eliminated 5.4 million hours of productivity."
Before joining Google, he was the executive creative director of Arnold Worldwide, where he rebranded and reshaped the agency and ended a two-year new business slump. He also worked for two years at Starbucks Coffee Company as vice president of Creative and was responsible for developing Starbucks' brand identity worldwide.
Other positions Wong has held include chief creative officer at marchFIRST, partner and executive creative director of CKS, creative director of Frankfurt Balkind. Wong has also worked at Doublespace, PolyGram, Desgrippes Gobe, and Arthur Andersen.
Mr. Wong is affiliated with the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and leadership education for executives in creative industries such as advertising, design, entertainment, interactive, journalism, media, and marketing. He also sits on the board of the New York City–based Art Directors Club.
Mr. Wong's honors and awards include the Fast Company Master of Design Award (2011), 50 Most Influential Designers in America (2011), Time Magazine Top TV Ad of 2011, Ad Age Digital A-List (2011), and Newsweek's New Don Draper (2012). He was also named to the 2012 Creativity 50, an annual list of influential and groundbreaking creative thinkers and doers. His work is represented in the permanent collections of both Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art.
Mr. Wong received a BFA in Communication Design from Parsons The New School of Design.