Economists like to debate about the level of economic growth that is driven by innovation. Some think that the days of rapid growth in the U.S. economy is over and any new inventions won’t make up for the slowdown in growth. Others think that innovation and new ideas are still taking off and will fuel lots of economic growth. I’m not an economist, but the one thing I know for certain is that Northern California has a group CEOs who aren’t waiting around to find out. They are leading their companies in developing new technologies and new and better ways of operating their businesses, all while building high performance teams.

I met them firsthand during the recent 28th EY Entrepreneur of the YearTM Awards gala for Northern California at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. The theme for this event, for which RoseRyan proudly served as a sponsor, was “honoring the best of the best,” and it was successful at that. There were 27 finalists out of an original group of over 110 CEOs. Of the finalists, the regional award winners were chosen from nine categories ranging from software and technology to life sciences and digital advertising. There was a very good mix of entrepreneurs from all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences.

This was one of 25 programs in U.S. cities and in 61 countries around the world; the overall national winner will be announced later this year. There were over 14,000 individuals involved in this global endeavor. Some were from established companies, some from startups, and others from large companies. For our area, here are the winners announced at the gala (for quick videos about each company, go to EY’s website):

  • Technology: David Gorodyansky, CEO, AnchorFree
  • Services: Fedele Bauccio, co-founder and CEO, Bon Appétit Management Co.
  • Emerging: Marcin Kleczynski, CEO, Malwarebytes
  • Life Sciences: David Hung, founder, president and CEO, Medivation
  • Software: Vladimir Shmunis, CEO and founder, RingCentral
  • Digital Advertising: George John, CEO and co-founder, and Richard Frankel, president and co-founder, Rocket Fuel
  • Large Companies: Amir Dan Rubin, president and CEO, Stanford Hospital & Clinics
  • Internet: Pete Flint, CEO and founder, Trulia
  • Real Estate and Finance: Doug Brien, co-founder, and Colin Wiel, co-founder, Waypoint Homes

A theme that I heard repeatedly during this year’s program and in the past is that innovation doesn’t just involve the CEO or founder, but rather it is a bottom’s up process involving many people at all levels of the organization. Those honored at the EY event recognized that truth; the first people many of them thanked in their acceptance speeches were their employees. Those who will go far know they need to develop a team of key people who believe in what they are trying to accomplish. “The best advice I ever got from anybody is … get the wrong people off the bus as quickly as possible and get the right people on the bus,” said Kleczynski in a video about Malwarebytes, an anti-malware software provider. “They will get you going; they will get you where you need to go.”

With the help of the right people, entrepreneurs look for ways to disrupt and change industries, and that is what drives them. AnchorFree, for instance, aims to give everyone across the globe freedom when using the Internet and privacy protection when doing so. In his video, Gorodyansky said the company faced “headwinds” in its goals “but also knew in our hearts that we’re doing the right thing.”

Certainly, younger companies have more freedom to get changes made quickly. This is particularly true of the private companies involved in this program (over 80 percent of all award winners are privately held). Studies have shown that what really make the finalists different are their independence, freedom and flexibility. The overarching value they all share is outstanding leadership plus a willingness to try new things. Once a quarter, Trulia lets its engineers pursue any idea they have in mind, without the red tape that oftentimes ties down more established companies from realizing innovation. “It’s an incredible way for us to create an environment where creativity, where ownership is part of the culture,” according to Flint of the real-estate listing site. “So, new employees can come in, they can build a product they’re passionate about, solve the problem they want to solve, and release it to the public soon after.”

Indeed, their nimbleness and openness to ideas are continuing to make entrepreneurs the job engine of our economy, and all indications are that this will continue for the foreseeable future.

We can all learn from their stories, particularly in my industry. The world of finance and accounting consulting has been constantly changing over the past 10 to 20 years. Innovation in the way companies approach the market, deal with clients and look for talent is critical to success. Evolution in our business is oftentimes driven by regulatory changes and new ways of interpreting rules and principles. A firm that doesn’t embrace change and work with it will be left behind. The firms with strong visionary leadership are the ones that are leading the industry and staying ahead of the curve.

Stan Fels is a director at RoseRyan, who joined the finance and accounting firm in 2006. In addition to helping the finance dream team keep their skills sharp and stay true to RoseRyan’s proven processes, he matches gurus to clients in the high tech and life sciences sectors.