Grit. Find a way. Chunk a problem or opportunity or project down to size. Get past “no”. Believe that the impossible is possible (because it was never impossible in the first place but just needed to be approached from a different vantage point).
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Fox.
Sharon Fox began her career in brand management on Post®Alpha-Bits® Cereal and subsequently worked in the parenting space across children’s beverages and ice cream brands. Her career led her to Amazon, leading their Diapers.com business post acquisition, where she had the opportunity to work with a team from Amazon and Quidsi committed to creating services and an overall shopping destination that made busy parents’ lives easier. Sharon’s 25+ years of experience attributed to her new board seat at Aden & Anais, Inc. where she was placed in partnership with Women on Boards (WOB) Project, a nonprofit that supports increasing diversity in boards of directors for all consumer companies. Her range of expertise comes from her positions as CMO of two mission-driven brands, Freshly and Melissa & Doug, and serving on the boards of Criteo and Schleich. Fox earned a B.S. in Industrial Operations Engineering from the University of Michigan and her MBA from Harvard Business School.
Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Growing up I always loved math and science and had a real curiosity for how things worked. My father was a Professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and had access to the medical research labs where I sometimes tagged along (and got ideas for the myriad of science fairs that I entered. I am not shy about my nerdy beginnings. I was even a “mathlete” and played “academic games” competitively at both the state and national level). I also had a passion for arts & crafts, photography and music. A bit of an unusual combination. It wasn’t surprising to friends and family when I opted to go to the engineering school at University of Michigan (coming from a long line of doctors and teachers, I was the first to pursue engineering). My ambition was to combine an engineering degree with a business degree and I was fortunate to be able to do both.
I started my career in consulting in the financial services industry and moved to NYC from Ann Arbor upon graduation. The learning curve was incredibly steep and I loved the fast-paced lifestyle. I also learned however during those four years, that I missed using my more creative side. This led me into brand management, which I had discovered through classmates while attending Harvard Business School, because it had a natural combination of analytics and creative applications. Brand management also offered robust hands-on general management training. A win win. I had found my jam and stayed in industry for 13 years working across a myriad of food, beverage and ice cream brands at Kraft and then Unilever.
One July I got a call from a former Kraft colleague about joining Quidi/ Diapers.com post a recent Amazon acquisition. It was an opportunity for me to learn the emerging fast growing eCommerce and direct marketing space as well as work in more of a startup culture. After months of interviews, I decided to take the leap. At the time, I couldn’t have known what the future digital world of commerce would look like, but it was a timely and career-defining moment. I entered a 3-year hyper-learning experience that would allow me to obtain critical new skills and knowledge. Both from the incredibly talented teams at Quidsi but also from Amazon.
Skipping ahead, I became the CMO of two mission-driven brands which had always been a career aspiration — one which was omni-channel and the other direct-to-consumer — that were both founder-led and entrepreneurial. While working in those roles, I was invited to join the board of Criteo. This was the next defining moment as I met and worked alongside the other board members — some of whom were investors — and the Criteo executive team and was energized from the top-down value added strategic work on which we engaged as a board. This experience planted a seed and later led me to move into Private Equity as an Operating Partner in Growth Equity investments focused on consumer products and services.
I am now a founding member of Stride Consumer Partners, a Private Equity firm. Stride brings together a fully integrated team with complementary skills across three vital perspectives to support our brands as they take decisive steps toward delivering on their vision: an investment team with an operator’s mindset; operating partners who are functional experts; and operating partners who are industry specialists and former founders themselves. I partner with and support our portfolio companies and their passionate founders and business leaders as well as our deal teams in conducting diligence of potential new investment opportunities. I truly love what I do. I am thankful for all the people who have mentored, challenged, and supported me along the way.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I get to meet a lot of extraordinary founders and business leaders. While there isn’t any one interesting story I want to highlight, it is the combination of their origin stories, their struggles and how they found a way and persisted — refusing to give up in the face of challenging obstacles — that has really interested and inspired me. These myriad stories are each so unique and different that I cannot single out any one of them. It’s not surprising that I am a huge fan of Guy Raz and How I Built This. There is so much to learn from others’ paths.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was interviewing at Kraft foods for a full-time position post business school. Kraft conducted “2-on-1” interviews — where two people would interview a candidate at the same time. I was asked to describe a TV campaign or ad for a brand that I didn’t like and why. At the time, there was a long running ad campaign that I personally felt was offensive to professional women that starred a breakthrough female comedian. While it was definitely tongue and cheek, the undertones were insulting to me and I gave this explanation as my example. The more senior of the two interviewers explained when I finished that she had in fact launched the campaign to which I referred several years ago and shared that I was misinterpreting the ad and that it drove a lot of growth for the brand. She was visibly agitated. So, I tried to defuse the situation with a bit of humor and I made a joke that I would just put my foot in my mouth and answered the question again with a different example — but she didn’t crack a smile.
I was quite surprised that I got the offer to join Kraft a few days later. I was convinced that I had ruined my chances by revealing how this campaign made me feel. It was also just bad luck — and a funny coincidence that she has worked on the exact campaign that I selected (note: it wasn’t a food brand). I learned two things. That the world is incredibly small ( ! ) and that if you can’t be yourself and share a different perspective then the role and company culture likely isn’t going to inspire you to do your best work.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been incredibly fortunate for the help, support and mentorship that I have received along the way. I think of this group as my “personal board of directors”. Together they have diverse backgrounds and offer a unique vantage point and perspective. I have found that oftentimes companies who seek to create mentorship programs assume that it’s best if female leaders mentor high potential female employees. The best mentorship can offer diverse perspectives and open leaders’ minds to a different way of problem solving, flexing leadership styles and game-planning possible solutions to challenges. To help leaders walk in someone else’s shoes and to create win-wins within an organization requires diversity of thinking.
For that reason, my board of directors is made up of some powerhouse female leaders and male leaders with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. As well as people with different industry experiences, across different levels of organizations, who live or grew up in different countries, that are also in different phrases of their careers. Lastly, they also work within organizations which are spread across different business life cycles.
These special people in my life know who they are — I am so thankful for their mentorship, patience, and brilliant advice over the years.
As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I actually start each day by waking up and exercising. I have found over the years that this is the formula that works best for me in order to have the energy and mindfulness that I seek to start each day. I am a morning person. My definition of active exercise includes both indoor and outdoor activities that include aerobic exercise, weight bearing exercises, stretching and elements of yoga for strength and flexibility. My favorite activity is power walking. I love doing this with family and friends or by myself (rain or shine) wherever I might find myself in the world to see the sights and discover new paths (I travel quite a bit — pre-pandemic of course). When I am inside, I stream a “must watch” series that gets me excited to get going in the morning (I am a media junkie, and have subscriptions to so many services). I am always asking coworkers, friends and family (total strangers too) for recommendations. When I am outside, I often listen to music, a podcast, or an audio book. I find this really supports in-and-out creative thinking. I am most creative when I distract myself from a problem or challenge and come back at it after focusing on something else. I am also a voracious reader of fiction novels. I often read each night to wind down before falling asleep.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Customer obsession is a critical success factor for any business. Not all customers are alike in fact there are millions of clusters of differences amongst needs states and benefits that people seek solutions for each and every day. In order to deliver on a promise or a commitment to underserved groups of people (and by underserved, I mean segments that have a need state that is not being met satisfactorily by currently available products and services), a diverse perspective is required. Diversity drives problem solving. Innovation. Creativity. Understanding. Common ground. Collaboration. Discovery. Studies have shown that diverse teams may take longer to come to a decision, but that often the decision drives a better more effective result.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Given my career path, I have worked in senior roles across several different organizations. No two were alike. It depends on how an organization is resourced. How it is structured. Is it large or small? Where is the company in its lifecycle? Therefore, I have found that the role of executive is quite fluid. For example, I was the first marketing hire at Melissa & Doug when I joined as their CMO. Some days I was a performance marketing analyst running paid social campaigns or doing keyword analysis and content optimization on Amazon. Other days, I was working to set the vision and mission with the founders and from there a brand strategy that pulled together all of the necessary pieces to create a love brand. Or some days I was a recruiter networking for top talent or a change management consultant.
Today, I think the lines are more blurred than they were when I started my career. I believe that the best executives seek symbiotic relationships. No matter how far along or decorated your career has been to date — you can learn from anyone — up and down or sideways within an organization. Subject matter experts are everywhere. It is critical to walk in others’ shoes and understand towering strengths and pain points within an organization. The most important role of an executive is to remove obstacles that their teams face so that they can accomplish the goals needed to drive critical projects and strategic agendas to fruition. This in turn drives career development and all of the joy and satisfaction that comes from taking something across the finish line.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth that I would like to dispel is where the best most critical work happens in an organization. You often read about CEOs and executives who have changed the world. The world needs movers and shakers. There is a lot to build, remedy, repair and discover. Most of these executives however would not have been successful without the people within their organizations that make it happen each and every day. Executives need to empower and trust the teams that are driving forward key initiatives. The key job of a leader is to set a vision and a strategy that inspires an organization to greatness and to keep it focused with smart decision making. This means empowering and trusting people at all levels who are independent proactive thinkers that drive hard to deliver on the actions needed for the whole organization to succeed. We can do so much more when we all work together toward a common inspiring North Star. For this reason, the CEO and Executive team must recruit, retain, develop, focus and inspire their organizations. Greatness is most often the achievement of many.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
When I first became a manager and then a director (or said differently “a leader of leaders”), I was often told that I was “intimidating”. I am 5’2” (on a good day) and the tallest female member of my immediate family (#truth). I was informal, never hierarchical, and always walked the halls and left my door wide open inviting whomever whenever into my office. I was puzzled by this feedback and couldn’t wrap my arms around what I was doing that caused others to feel this way. It really bothered me. It was upsetting.
One of my mentors who was my direct manager at the time sent me to the Center of Creative Leadership where a battery of evaluations are done to increase a leader’s self-awareness. This was one of the greatest gifts of my career. These evaluations showed (among other deep insights) that relative to other female leaders in the database, that I shared many more similar traits with the leadership style of male business leaders. I was also on the extreme edges elsewhere with my approach to creative problem solving and my overall drive for results. I was therefore thought to be “tough but fair” and “set expectations too high”. This interpretation was also in many ways uniquely tied to my gender. My own direct manager and manager’s manager at the time were some of the hardest driving, most successful executives that I have worked with in my career. I was rising to the expectations that they set for my team. They did not struggle with this same misperception. This is where stereotypes and gender norms are incredibly disruptive to some female executives. We should not change our leadership style if it is effective, society and organizations should work to remove bias from their organizations and teach instead acceptance for diverse styles and approaches where we all can learn from each other.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Being an Operative Partner can be tricky. You are not on the deal team but you are connected and work closely with teams of financial professionals. Your role is to add equity value by being a helpful resource to the portfolio companies and the internal teams that support them. Therefore, you are a floating resource. Before I took the leap from being an operator to becoming an operating partner, I asked several friends who were in Private Equity at the time the key challenges that my role might entail.
Many offered advice that I would likely miss being an operator, a part of a structured team. While they gave me food for thought, I took the leap anyway for a myriad of other compelling reasons. But I was delighted to uncover that I have not missed being a single entity operator. Personally, I love new challenges and meeting new people and serving many different customer segments — the diversity of issues and industries constantly refreshes. I have found that the energy and oxygen that drives my passion for what I do comes from the people that I work with at Stride Consumer Partners and from all of the portfolio companies that we support. I also have the opportunity to sit on a few boards and advisories which further fuels the breadth of subject matter expertise that I am exposed to and unique business challenges on which I am invited to collaborate. This is the most striking difference that I have experienced.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There is no one profile that can predict whether someone will be a successful executive or leader. But from my own experiences, the following traits have stood out: Passion, Curiosity, and Grit.
Passion. Because if you love what you do and you are motivated by the vision and mission that you work to achieve each day, you are all in on working across an organization to make it happen.
Curiosity. Learning, knowledge attainment and continuous improvement requires a lifetime of curiosity. Being open-minded and curious about what others think is a key skill. The world around us is not static and industries and marketplaces constantly evolve. This has accelerated with the digital revolution. People and talent are unique and being curious about what motivates them (e.g., having a high EQ) is also differentiating.
Grit. Find a way. Chunk a problem or opportunity or project down to size. Get past “no”. Believe that the impossible is possible (because it was never impossible in the first place but just needed to be approached from a different vantage point).
I also would add that being approachable and willing to roll up your sleeves and support your team whether they bring forward positive news or challenging news, is also a key success factor. Strive to build an organization that is transparent, agile, and resilient.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Not nearly enough. There is so much to do and I have only barely scraped the surface of how I can support making the world a better place. I have tried throughout my career to “pay it forward”. Whether previous colleagues, friends of friends, friends of colleagues, or family members that reach out for advice I always aim to be responsive and helpful however I can. I have spent a decent portion of my career in the food industry and have partnered and volunteered with organizations that aim to donate healthy nourishing foods to families in need. I tragically lost a very dear friend far too young to rare cancers. For over a decade, our close circle of friends aimed to support her legacy by taking part each year to rally around increasing awareness of rare cancers and fundraising. I was recently placed by the WOB Project, a nonprofit that supports increasing diversity in boards of directors for all consumer companies, onto the Aden+ Anais board as an independent director. After being exposed to this non-profit initiative, I immediately asked the founders of WOB Project how I could get involved. Stride Consumer Partners is now a WOB Project private equity partner and I am thrilled to be leading as the point person on this initiative for us as it is near and dear to my heart.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
90% or more job satisfaction comes from the people that you work alongside. A great company. A great brand. A fab title. Lots of accountability and responsibility. But most of it comes down to your direct supervisor and the teams you interact with every day.
The interview question “where will you be in 5–10 years” … just forgettaboutit ! You never know where each chapter in your career will lead you. If you follow your passion, and where you thrive, you cannot go wrong.
A career is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to train for it, heal when you are injured, and stretch yourself in order to get to your personal finish line.
Networks matter. It’s true. The more people you know, the more you can learn and see around corners, and the faster that you will see and react to trends that can impact your career and personal satisfaction. Active two-way participation cultivates engagement. I once read that your network should mimic a spider web. If a key mentor or connector in your life moves on, your network will still function well and remains intact. And new strands can be added over time.
The world is not fair. If you constantly benchmark yourself to others and measure your success against some arbitrary bar of the moment, you will find yourself constantly dissatisfied.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Every person should be grounded by their own beliefs and experiences. That is part of what makes each of us unique. But at the same time, we all should realize that having an open mind and listening to others whose points of view may differ from our own can go a long way to help us stay informed, aware and compassionate to other differing points of view. After the last four years, I wish we were all inspired to reach across a little bit more. Just baby steps. Use phrases like “tell me more about that” or “what led you to that conclusion” or “what can I read to be more aware and informed on that perspective”. And really listen and seek to understand. The consequences of not doing so can be dire. The upside could unleash limitless potential.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When they go low. We go high” — Michele Obama
In her own words:
“Going low is easy, which is why people go to it. It’s easy to go low. It’s easy to lead by fear. It’s easy to be divisive. It’s easy to make people feel afraid. That’s the easy thing and it’s also the short-term thing,” Obama said.
“We instead need to ensure that we are a positive role model for the next generation and create positive change. If our words are not fixing a problem or at least moving the needle in the right direction, we know we are not going high enough.”
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Sal Khan of the Khan Academy. I listened to him talk about his journey on a podcast. His mission to “provide a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere” is about as inspiring and game changing as it gets. Democratizing access to knowledge and learning levels the playing field and makes academic mastery accessible to the masses. It’s been translated into dozens of languages and over 100 million people use the platform worldwide each year. It is a non-profit organization. Sal is an inspiration to so many and a modern-day reminder that one person can make a difference.