Esther Kestenbaum Prozan of ‘Ruby Has Fulfillment’: “Grow the phenomenon of women helping women”

Some of the best companies and products we have the privilege to do fulfillment for solve real problems — a market that has been entirely un-catered to, a daily, weekly, monthly problem that has not been addressed, a new way to come at an issue no one has solved for before. For millennia, women have had to […]

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Some of the best companies and products we have the privilege to do fulfillment for solve real problems — a market that has been entirely un-catered to, a daily, weekly, monthly problem that has not been addressed, a new way to come at an issue no one has solved for before. For millennia, women have had to solve real world problems.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Esther Kestenbaum Prozan

Esther Kestenbaum Prozan is President of Ruby Has Fulfillment, a rapidly growing ecommerce fulfillment provider for direct-to-consumer brands and retailers. With over 20 years in leadership roles at ecommerce startups and retail technology companies, Esther was recently recognized by Supply Chain Digital in association with IBM as one of the top 100 women in supply chain. During her tenure at Ruby Has, the company has experienced a period of unprecedented growth and become a leader in the 3PL industry through its focus on providing automation and integration technologies for growing omnichannel brands.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in a small Brooklyn neighborhood as part of a traditional Jewish community and was raised by a single Dad. It was a great place to grow up and I am very nostalgic about it. I went to all-girls schools and even attended an all womens’ college — Barnard College at Columbia University. This education strengthened my sense that women should naturally always be “at the table.” After College I moved to Israel where all my kids were born, and while they were very small I didn’t work outside of raising them; as they got bigger, I started doing technical writing from home and then when we moved back to the US, I started doing business development for an Israeli startup. That is where my career-long love for, and connection to ecommerce enablement began. I eventually moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and my career continued to align with ecommerce as it has grown into the world-defining phenomenon it is today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There are many, but one thing stands out that became a turning point for me. When I returned to the States I had the chance to either work for the startup company or get an MBA — I would not have been able to do both. While on paper the job itself (BD manager) wasn’t that scintillating, I learned that as the first salesperson in the company I would have the opportunity to work directly with the BOD, all of whom wanted to help the company get its first major accounts. The board was composed of CEOs from a number of major electronics companies. After some soul searching I realized that an MBA was something I could always come back to, but that this was a unique chance to dive right into the heart of an industry and leapfrog many of the usual barriers to junior people. While this might not have been the right decision for others it was definitely the pivotal decision that led to my accelerated progress having joined the workforce after a number of years at home with children. I guess the broad lesson is to trust your instinct as to what is right for you.

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?

It didn’t seem funny then but today it feels hilarious. When I went on my very first business trip it was to Iowa to visit Maytag and Amana; This was before GPS — so I jump into my rental car and take off in the direction I was told to go, only after a while I am driving through corn fields and not so sure I’m headed the right way. I called the person I had my first appointment with and asked for help with directions. They said “sure happy to help, can you give me some kind of landmark so I know where you are? That way I can definitely help you”. At that point I looked up and around myself for 360 degrees, and no, there was no landmark. It was just corn fields for as far as the eye could see in every direction. After some embarrassment I did finally find my way but my big life lesson was to always be as fully prepared as possible!

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 think that for people to succeed they need strong underpinnings outside of work. So I want to focus on the concept community overall and then call out some leaders specifically. As I mentioned I grew up in a lovely community in Brooklyn, and then in Israel I was again part of a great community in the American expat enclave of Jerusalem. So you can imagine how mind-bending it felt when I got to Silicon Valley knowing no one — not a soul. I seeked out community that would be meaningful for me, and quickly found a small yet wonderful one in Palo Alto with a spectrum of people ranging from Bay Area natives to those who came for positions at Stanford, VCs, Startup founders and even the occasional Nobel Prize Laureate all rubbing elbows in a community of a few hundred families.

The Jewish community in Silicon Valley is anchored by several great institutions among a number of Jewish denominations and their leaders, including Rabbi Joey Felsen of the Jewish Study Network and Rabbi Yitzchak Feldman of Cong. Emek Beracha who have nurtured a wonderful community and made me feel supported and included from day one. I encourage people to think about what community means for them in the broadest sense and to seek out their own communities so they can feel the strength that comes from being part of something larger than themselves. It gives you “wings.”

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I have read Viktor Frankl’s famous work “Man’s Search for Meaning” many times and I always find it resonates both personally and professionally. He observed that those who had a sense of purpose — about anything at all, it didn’t seem to matter what — had a better chance of surviving. He developed something called Logotherapy whereby mental afflictions are treated through the finding and actuation of purpose in a patient’s life. I see this in action on the personal front in my own life, but also very much so in business — we all see that today companies that have a positive social impact and sense of purpose outside of themselves are thriving and weather storms with great strength.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Expect nothing, appreciate everything.” Much unhappiness is due to the discrepancy between expectations and reality. Entitlement leads to constant disappointment, and expecting outcomes as given or “in the bag” can lead to complacency that ironically is counterproductive to the desired result. There are many applications for this in life but in work we often see entitlement-driven complacency lead to missing major market trends, sales targets, deadlines and more. Conversely, by taking the “Expect nothing, appreciate everything” approach, organizations and individuals remain ever vigilant and sharp while celebrating co-workers, sales wins and other outcomes with real gusto. That’s a great culture to be a part of.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I feel really fortunate that I work in a field where we get to empower entrepreneurs — I feel that we get to do good while doing well. On a personal level I have often engaged in communal work including sitting on the boards of several non-profits. Most recently, I joined the board of a global NGO called ChildFund International, where I am proud to say my Company, Ruby Has has become a corporate partner. Founded in 1938, ChildFund International works throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas — including the United States — to connect children with what they need to grow up safe, healthy, educated and skilled, no matter where they are. Last year, we reached 13.6 million children and family members in 24 countries. About 200,000 Americans support our work by sponsoring individual children or investing in ChildFund programs.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I would boil it down to two things: Access and Bandwidth.

Regarding access, till today women have far fewer opportunities to interact with the sources of social and financial capital that ultimately lead to becoming a Founder. This is a legacy problem because people bestow access to people they have worked with or who are “like” people they have worked with. This is a self-perpetuating problem that will not go away without intervention. It is exciting to see initiatives demanding female inclusion as they are necessary to progress.

Regarding bandwidth, this is really about time and the ability to focus. Still today, women assume by far the vast majority of household and childcare tasks in many families. Founding a company is demanding on time and focus so until a more equal distribution of home and childcare tasks becomes more normative we will continue to see women hampered by bandwidth issues leading to unequal representation among Founders.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

At our company we have a front row seat to the day to day workings of hundreds of innovative direct-to-consumer brands. It is heartening to see so many great female founders and to be part of their journey. Along the way I have instituted and we have sponsored Female Founder dinners, spoken at events from executive panels sponsored by Salesforce to business organizations for high school girls called Miss Business founded by my stepdaughter Nicole Prozan when she was in high school in order to encourage them to consider becoming founders in their futures. I am also active in Female Executive forums including a newly formed group as part of my involvement with the Forbes Business Council.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

This is one of my favorite topics, and I know it most closely from the direct-to-consumer ecommerce perspective so that’s the one I will focus on:

“She” has always been “The Consumer”

Those of us who have been around retail and product for decades know that when retailers and brands talk about the customer — well, with few exceptions, the pronoun used is almost always “she.” In an industry that measures not only personal but also household share of wallet, “she” has been the chief procurement officer for so long as any of us in this field can remember. That reality still holds true to a great degree and I believe having been the primary consumer has led to a legacy of sensitivity to features, form, design and functionality that substantively informs the quality of the products being produced by female-led brands.

Women have long been “The Makers”

Another heritage that has pulled a DNA thread of intuitive talent from the past to the present is the history of women being makers of the artifacts of daily living. Long before the concept of being a “maker” was coined, women have been those who have daily seen through the sourcing of raw materials and their transformation into usable objects. Whether food or clothing or household objects and more, the ability to see something in a raw state and imagine a finished outcome is one that many women have observed and osmosed from parents, grandparents and ancestors.

It is an ability not only to do the work itself but to see the potential of the finished in what is yet raw, and to execute in a timely and economical way on the process from the former to the latter that is key, and in so doing, to own the entire value chain from beginning to end — which is just what direct-to-consumer brands do.

There’s a reason why it’s been said “Necessity is the ‘Mother’ of invention”

Some of the best companies and products we have the privilege to do fulfillment for solve real problems — a market that has been entirely un-catered to, a daily, weekly, monthly problem that has not been addressed, a new way to come at an issue no one has solved for before. For millennia, women have had to solve real world problems.

Even as we have entered the workforce in near or equal numbers to men, although unfair, all indicators show that we still bear the full brunt of household and errand tasks as we did before we were so fully integrated in the workforce (aka most women still do two jobs). It’s no surprise therefore, that many gaps in the market and solutions to common real-world issues come from female-driven product companies. The best products are those that are developed to address one’s own real-world needs.

The earliest days of what we call “brands” were female-oriented

Retail started off because those who produced things often lived far from cities with marketplaces where they could sell them. You made butter or cheese, cloth or pottery, but you didn’t have a horse and car, so someone took your things to town and market for you, they sold them at a markup and paid you minus their margin. That’s it. That was what passed for retail in the distant past, and again, often the makers and the market people were women.

In a world where full inclusiveness is still somewhat elusive, you can forge your own path — having your own brand is an equalizer

While full inclusiveness and gender equality in the workplace and in a myriad of other ways is still a work in progress, there is freedom in forging one’s own path. Direct-to-consumer is a great equalizer because a great product, thoughtfully marketed right to buyers, leapfrogs the various biased gatekeepers that can traditionally stall advancement for a product entrepreneur.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Create a richer pipeline of potential founders by starting to plant the seed of possibility with girls when they are in high school and even in elementary school
  2. Girls are often taught to avoid risk and failure in favor of perfectionism. Founding companies is an undertaking fraught with risk taking failure. Let’s think about how we talk to the girls in our lives about the value of risk taking and even failure as absolutely necessary steps to success.
  3. Close the gap between men and women with regard to access to social and financial capital through active interventions. It won’t happen on its own.
  4. Close the gap in bandwidth between men and women by encouraging more equal distribution of home and child care tasks among the genders so heavy undertakings like founding a company can be more doable.
  5. Grow the phenomenon of women helping women. If you’re a woman and you have experienced some success turn around and help others every chance you get.

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.

I am on the board of ChildFund which helps people all over the world, but I also deeply believe that in some ways “charity at home” and that we have got to work both internationally and hyper locally to improve our world. There is great poverty and need right in our backyard. We have intelligent people living in underprivileged communities right here; meanwhile we are outsourcing development and other functions overseas. I would love to see the Googles and Facebooks of the world taking the lead on an organization to help train these intelligent communities for the kind of work that the tech community needs and that would simultaneously uplift their next door neighbors out of poverty.

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.

I have come to find Mackenzie (Bezos) Scott to be an inspiring Renaissance woman. From being part of the founding team at Amazon and writing award-winning novels, to her cause work as Executive Director of anti-bullying organization Bystander Revolution and more recently being as signatory of the Giving Pledge, the arc of her journey is fascinating and I would love to get to know her.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I have written quite a bit and most of it along with the progress of our company and industry can be found on the Ruby Has website and on my Linkedin profile.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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