Mindy Grossman – President & CEO of WW (formerly Weight Watchers)

Episode 76

Mindy is a business icon, President & CEO of WW, and a self-proclaimed "accidental CEO". She is one of *Fast Company's* "Most Creative People in Business", and Mindy has been named "Business Person of the Year" by *Fortune*. She has nearly four decades of experience in building and transforming consumer brands. I'm so excited to have Mindy join us on the show. She's had an incredible and non-conventional career path. On this show, Mindy talks about her entrepreneurial journey and the entrepreneurial mindsets that have helped her become the incredibly successful executive that she is today.

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Kara Goldin: Okay. Perfect.
Mindy Grossman: I’m ready.
Kara Goldin: Hi everybody. It’s Kara from Unstoppable. And I’m super excited to be here today with our next guest. We have Mindy Grossman here today. Very, very excited. Mindy is the president and CEO of WW, also known to many as Weight Watchers. And I was so excited when I heard that Mindy took the role at Weight Watchers. And I’m like of all the people who are going to just come in there and really just transform, really boom into that company, I think Mindy is somebody that I’ve just really admired for years and just somebody that is just a go getter and awesome and kind and all of those things that I really want to see in a leader. So I was really excited to hear that she would come on the podcast today and really excited to have you guys get to know her a little bit too.
But just a few background mentions on Mindy for those of you who are not aware of her. So she’s a business icon. She’s an entrepreneur. She’s a mother. She’s a grandmother, a self proclaimed accidental CEO. She’s one of Fast Company’s most creative people in business and Fortune’s businessperson of the year. Mindy is a disruptive entrepreneur with nearly four decades of experience in building and transforming consumer brands. So prior to Weight Watchers, Mindy served as CEO and member of the board of HSNI, CEO of IAC Retail and the global vice president at Nike, among many other initiatives, I should say, that she’s been a part of. She also serves as vice chairman and member of the board of directors for UNICEF, which is so awesome, and member of the board of Fanatics. So welcome, welcome, welcome. So excited to have you.
Mindy Grossman: Well, thank you. Thank you for that great introduction. It’s great to be together, albeit [inaudible 00:03:05].
Kara Goldin: Super excited to have you here. So let’s just jump right in. And you’ve had an unusual and very successful career path. Tell us your story. What was Mindy like as a little girl and how did you get going?
Mindy Grossman: Yes, definitely not the most conventional path. Just quickly, my mom hadn’t finished high school. Her mother had gotten ill. My dad did and went into the Air Force. They got married when she was 18 and he was 22. My father worked nights in the produce business. And all they wanted was a child. And 12 years went by and they still couldn’t have a child. And it was just devastating to my mom. And they couldn’t afford an adoption. And one night my father went into work at midnight, and his boss handed him an envelope. He loved my dad. And said, “I can’t see you suffer anymore. Here’s the money to adopt a child.” And I’m the child. And so from the time I could remember, I was told I could do anything I want to do. But I also felt that I’ve been given this incredible gift and that I needed to use that gift in the right way over the course of my life.
And so I was pretty serious as a child, as a teenager, I finished high school in my junior year, started college before my 17th birthday. And I was totally focused on being a lawyer and then a judge. I then got engaged when I was 19 to who I was dating in high school. And so that path was set. Then as I was getting ready to go into my senior year of college at GW, I literally had an epiphany that this wasn’t the right path for my life. And I literally called my parents and said, “I have something to tell you. I’m breaking my engagement. I’m not getting married. I’m not going to law school in the fall. And I’m leaving now for New York. And I’m going [crosstalk 00:05:39].”
Kara Goldin: Are where were you living? You were at GW, but where did you grow up?
Mindy Grossman: I grew up on Long Island.
Kara Goldin: And what did your mom say when your…
Mindy Grossman: Well, stereotypical Jewish parents, I thought she had passed out on the floor. They knew that I was determined. And the reason I tell this story is that that moment for me defined my life and my career. Because I truly believe that risk taking and boldness are the essence of transformation, and not taking a risk is oftentimes riskier than taking the risk and then modifying from there. And you’re a great example of that too, Kara, really putting yourself forward. So I moved to New York in 1977. And I don’t know if I phrased it that way at the time, but my goal was to be in the business of creativity, meaning I might not be the creator, but I wanted to make creativity successful. And so I ended up taking a role as the assistant to the president of an international division of a large menswear company called Manhattan Industries.
And I ended up spending the first 18 years of my career really rising through the menswear industry, which was unusual for a woman, especially being more on the sales and strategy and merchandising side. But I worked for some incredible designers. I worked for Jeffrey Banks. I worked for Willy Smith in the ’80s. It was incredible. I worked for Tommy Hilfiger. Then I was president of Chaps Ralph Lauren. I ran new business development for Ralph. And then I started Polo Jeans Company and built it until it got acquired by Jones New York, got a fantastic phone call from someone named Phil Knight who had come back into the business and was putting a new executive team together. And I ran Nike’s global apparel business for six years while I was doing this crazy commute between New York, Portland, Oregon, and out of the country 30% of the time.
And then after six years of that commute, I said, “This is too much.” And I felt I was ready to take on a bigger CEO role. And in a very unconventional move, I left Nike to join Barry Diller to take over IAC Retail, which was his direct to consumer portfolio of what was called then Home Shopping Network, now HSN, as well as an entire catalog portfolio, such as Front Gate, Ballard Design, Garnet Hill, etc.
Kara Goldin: So that was for a CEO role at [inaudible 00:08:44]?
Mindy Grossman: I would say I had president roles prior, division presidents, or I ran Polo Jeans Company, but I would say the first formal CEO role and then first public company CEO, when I took the company public in 2008. But the reason for joining and which everybody thought literally I had a midlife crisis, how could you leave Nike and go take over this stodgy old thing? But I saw such an incredible opportunity to reinvent and create this idea of editorial program commerce in a world where content, mobility, storytelling were becoming so important. Brands were becoming distribution captive. And here was an incredible platform, both of the ability to create an entire digital format, but also a content platform for brands and for businesses. And so I joined. We launched about a year after I joined, we re-launched the business. And it was amazing how people responded.
And we ended up in the beginning, I certainly feel that I built such great relationships. I got people to trust me to try this new platform. But X number of years later, we were the go-to for launches and for celebrity, etc. So in 2008, August 2008, to be exact, I spun out and took the company public. So I thought that was going to be my big test of leading in crisis. And it’s come in handy given the environment that we’re in right now.
Kara Goldin: I was going to say, you’ve dealt with… The timing, of course, financial crisis 2008, 2009.
Mindy Grossman: But I believe that we took an approach during that crisis that we were actually going to accelerate investment what we were doing with the brand and the business, investing heavily in innovation and technology. We were one of the first people out with a mobile commerce app, and really used the time as air cover for these things that you want to do when you want to accelerate. And I think companies that leaned in, as you will, during that time and fostered innovation and drove that positive culture are the ones that came out of it stronger. And HSN actually grew in 2008 and 2009, which was certainly unusual for retail businesses.
But we totally put our consumer first, and she’s very, very wedded to the relationship that she had with the host and the brands. And we became the respite in the storm during that time and came out of it a stronger company. And when I think about the parallels to now, there are many. So it was an incredible learning experience. I was there for 10 years, two with Barry and eight after taking the company public. And we were at a point where I was putting in another CEO and considering transferring over to chairman. But I knew that I wanted to do one more thing. But I’d made myself a promise that if I was going to do one more transformation, I wanted to deliver both a financial return and a human return on equity.
And I started getting very enamored with the health and wellness space. I felt that’s where the consumer tailwinds were going to be. I felt that consumer behavior was changing. Wellness was becoming too elitist. And so when I saw the opportunity to join this 57-year-old brand that had been transforming lives through the best science-based weight loss program on the planet, but built on years and years of community, I got very excited about now being able to take the brand into a whole new sphere of business around a complete ecosystem of wellness and a complete experience for people to have to help them lead healthier, better lives.
Kara Goldin: So when you were approached about this role, there was no discussion about, “Okay, we need you to come make it a technology play”? it was you actually leading that conversation saying, “We need to make it more of an experience,” right?
Mindy Grossman: Absolutely. I think what people need more than ever and what brands need to be acutely aware of is that the brands of the future have to marry technology plus meaning to help people lead better connected lives. And I don’t care what business you’re in today. I think too many people still have too narrow a view of even what their competitive set is. And the reality is your competitive set is the last great experience someone had. And today’s expectation of personalization, of ease, of experience, of utilization, and of emotional impact is very, very different. And so this transformation that we’ve been on has really been about giving people a complete ecosystem of wellness at their fingertips 24 hours a day to really help them with sustainable behavior change that they can have as a journey for the rest of their lives. And that was what I was so passionate about.
And I will say that what’s happening now is wellness is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity in today’s world. And being able to be that partner. And people are overwhelmed and confused because look what we’ve been living through? How much conflicting information have we had every single day around what’s happening. And so to be a brand that has science behind everything we do, everything we do, whether it’s in the nutrition space, it’s activity, mindset, motivation, sleep, hydration, even community and the power of that, to have that trust, I think right now, people want and need trust in who they do business with and who they want to spend with, play with, work with, all of this. There’s been a radical reappraisal of people’s lives.
Kara Goldin: Absolutely. I feel like even in mid-March, I look at mid-March as such a huge point of time in the US when we were all kind of waking up, I feel like that week people were saying… They were drinking a lot at home. They were eating a lot. And then all of a sudden after a week, they were like, “Wait a minute, I got to get serious about staying healthy.”
Mindy Grossman: Yeah, we’re certainly seeing that. We’ve had an incredible acceleration of digital members. And we have what’s called a Connect Platform, which is our social content platform, which is so powerful. And it is such a safe place that people are raw. But when you see people joining now, this was a wake up call to, “I have to be healthy. I don’t want to not be here for my family. I don’t want to not be here for myself.”
I think the other thing we’ve seen, when we launched what we called our Impact Manifesto, which was the impact that we wanted to have on the world, and our new purpose, which is we inspire habits for real life, for people, families, communities, the world, for everyone, we wanted to be the brand that could democratize wellness. And that is still a very, very big focus for us because what we’re seeing now are health disparities that really need to be addressed and resolved. And our feeling is that healthy living should be a human right.
Kara Goldin: I agree.
Mindy Grossman: And we have to work hard to be able to. And it’s your ethos as well.
Kara Goldin: No, absolutely. And that’s what we heard from our consumers as well. We gained so many new consumers through this time because people were confused. They were like, “What should I be doing to stay healthy?” From an exercise perspective, I think it’s ironic that it was almost like, stay inside, shelter in place, but you can go out for one hour. And I think all of a sudden people were like, “Okay, well I get my one hour to go exercise.” People who never were exercising before, were now like, “Okay, I’ve got this time to exercise.” But then I think that the second side of this was, “I’ve got to get healthy with what I actually put into my system.” And I think what you guys have really done and just with all your tools as well is really also bring in this needed community that I think so many people really need during this time as well. Because it’s hard.
Mindy Grossman: Yeah. Right now, the power of community is more important than ever. And I’ve always been attracted to brands that truly build community. You look at a company like Nike, or you look at HSN, for example, or even Ralph Lauren, they’ve built a community that lives the brand. And it’s very much the case. But right now, inspiration, motivation, and support are critical for everyone. If you look at what people are going through, so to have a place to be able to share and know that you’re going to be supported is very important. And it was so critical to us, Kara. So we pivoted all of our workshops in our studios in six days. So we ran about 30,000 workshops a week around the world. And we totally took the product tech team and said, “Pivot right now.” And in six days we train 15,000 coaches and guides, and we moved all our workshops to virtual.
And the reason we were able to do that is certainly we wanted to ensure the safety and security of our employees and our members; but more important, the community was sacrosanct. We had to keep our community together now more than ever. And even now where we are opening some of our studios, albeit a smaller footprint, we’re keeping the virtual workshops going because it’s been so important for people to still feel that they have their community. And that’s what drives us as a brand, as an organization, and as a human. It’s so important.
Kara Goldin: I think you are one of the top leaders that I know. And I mean that really sincerely, not just because you’re on the show today, but like I said, I listen to you and I just think that you have all of these words of wisdom that you talk about, just I think because of your experiences and you’ve been in lots of different amazing organizations as well, and worked with great people too. You just talked about how in six days you were able to create a change in your company. And we did something very similar. We knew almost overnight, we made a prediction that we were going to lose 15% of our business, because we do so much with micro kitchens and lots of tech firms and with [inaudible 00:22:19] and supplying products into lots of offices. And we predicted that offices would be closed until the end of the year.
And we said maybe a few will come back. But we were saying this in March, when everybody was saying, “No, no, no, it’s going to last a couple of weeks.” And we said, “People are going to close. There’s not going to be a vaccine.” And people were like, “How do you know this?” And again, we didn’t know, we were just predicting and moving fast because we felt like me and the rest of our executive team had been through different situations where our gut was just like, “We need to move and we need to lead into this.” Do you think that’s your leadership philosophy? Has it always been where…
Mindy Grossman: I’m a big believer, never waste a good crisis. And I think the most important things to your point during times like this is acute agility, communication. I like to say I’m not just the CEO, I’m the chief communication officer, the chief crisis officer, and the chief hope officer. And that’s where you have to put yourself out there in such a way to make sure that everyone is focused on the things they can control, that you’re listening to the organization, that you’re listening, in our case, to our members, and really trying to provide the support that is needed. But at the same time, you need to imagine where you’re going to be coming out the other side. And why not accelerate those efforts if you can?
Another thing that we did is I felt that everybody was going to be so head down, were they still going to be thinking about the future and innovation and where they’re going? So we took a team of people from around the world and we did a six-week exercise on moonshots and what else should we be thinking. And now fast forward, that’s going to become an underpinning of our next multi-year strategy. So I think these are times where you want to be more creative in a way and more innovative and give yourself permission to do the things that are really needed in terms of how you want to be coming out the other side.
Kara Goldin: Do you think your team is more connected through this, having sort of lived this way for the last few months? And as ironic, I never would have guessed in January if we were saying, “Okay, everyone needs to go virtual.” Virtual, I was talking to somebody, a friend of mine from Apple, Jennifer Bailey, yesterday, and she was saying that the person that was on the screen remotely in some other country while you were all sitting in the room, they were sort of an extra in the meeting. And now it’s like everybody’s on virtual. I don’t know. It’s like democratized, to your point earlier… She was just saying to me that she feels like they’re that much more connected because everybody’s just working this way.
Mindy Grossman: Yeah, I do think that’s the case. I absolutely think that’s the case. I’m very fortunate to have an incredible team that is very aligned. I think the other thing that was really important, this is the moment where you have to focus on empowering your team to do the work. It’s this idea of non-hierarchical leadership. And there’s a book Leading Without Authority by Keith Ferrazzi that I’m a big fan of, for that reason. And I think the reason we were able to move so quickly and we’ve been doing the things is we’ve set out what we’re focused on, we’ve set out the action plans and the measurements, and then we empower people to do what they need to do. And that’s a critical component as well.
Kara Goldin: I love it. And talking about the beginning in January, you kicked off 2020 on a super high note and bringing your community together with the one, the only Oprah. It was so amazing watching that.
Mindy Grossman: Yeah, we entered the year with unprecedented momentum. We had launched My WW, which is the first personalized program in the company’s history. We did a nine-city arena tour. We had 135,000 people that we touched during that tour in the full-day event.
Kara Goldin: I watched it on social. I loved it. You did such an an amazing job.
Mindy Grossman: And it was amazing. And so it’s still mind boggling to me, I was telling you earlier that on March 7th, I was excited to be with 15,000 people at the finale in Denver, then came home March 8th and we started pivoting everything right after that. But then we also said, “What are people going to need?” And in talking with Oprah, we said, “People need support now more than ever.” And we took the team that had produced the entire tour, our team, we pivoted them and we created a four-week virtual tour every Saturday for two hours around a different team. And we made the decision to make it free to everyone globally, because we felt that this was really what people needed right now. And we had three and a half million people and 30 billion media impressions. But the reason we did it was because we truly felt that we could support and help people, all people. And I think doing it with the right intentions right now is so important.
Kara Goldin: Yeah. It’s super huge. And I bet the feedback on that was just amazing.
Mindy Grossman: The feedback was incredible.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, and new customers.
Mindy Grossman: The feedback was incredible. Yeah. And it’s no different internally. I think that I’ve had more town halls and one on one conversations. We use Facebook Workplace to communicate with everyone. And what I think is important is just the honesty of what we’re going through at the moment. And I always like to say that the days where vulnerability was considered a weakness are over. A vulnerability as a strength. And being able to bring yourself to people so they can relate and they can share and they can be as transparent to others and to the team. And I think that’s been another important element across our executive team.
Kara Goldin: Super, super, super important. So what’s something you’d love to talk about but no one ever asked you, Mindy?
Mindy Grossman: I haven’t really thought about that.
Kara Goldin: Zinger, the zinger question.
Mindy Grossman: Yeah. Yeah. What’s next? No. What I like to talk about is why I do what I do. And I’ve had a mantra my entire life and career that my decision making tree… And this is where Oprah is amazing. She practices such laser-focused purpose. What she chooses to do and what she chooses not to do, it’s ultimate discretion. And so for me, it’s am I truly passionate about it? Whether it’s in my personal life or my business life. Is it purposeful and will I have impact? And I’ve tried to have impact at every stage of my career. And now I feel that I am fortunate to have a platform and a voice. And I need to use that platform and voice to try and create the most positive impact I can. And whether that’s around the health and wellness of the world, or whether it be about the importance of diversity and inclusion, or any other element, that’s my filter and that’s the lens I look through. And I think it’s more important now than ever.
Kara Goldin: Well, it’s so inspiring. And it’s your super power. You you look back on everything that you’ve done, and it hasn’t been easy to sort of I’m sure even get a job at these companies, right? And you’ve just pushed through and really been such a huge role model for women and a mother as well and somebody who is just doing it. So I really…
Mindy Grossman: Well, thank you.
Kara Goldin: No, I mean that sincerely. And it’s nice to see people. And I really do believe, too, that kindness is something that is underrated, I think. And really it’s so amazing.
Mindy Grossman: Oh my God, I so agree. Kindness and empathy.
Kara Goldin: And that’s what I hear about you all the time too. And again, sometimes people don’t always share that with other people, but I think it’s something that is such a huge piece for leaders, male and female. I think it’s something that..
Mindy Grossman: And actually, I love the fact that the first time we met, I was interviewing you on stage.
Kara Goldin: Yes, I know, which was so great. Hopefully we can do that again sometime.
Mindy Grossman: A lot has happened since then, a lot of great things.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, definitely. Well, I love this. And where can people find you, Mindy, and obviously Weight Watchers and join some of the different groups there as well? What’s the best way?
Mindy Grossman: Well, certainly can follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn. And certainly we love people that want to become part of the WW community. And I’m a member, not just the CEO, and that’s my communications out. And what we’re really looking to do is partner and do everything we can to work across businesses to really change the health trajectory of the world. That’s our goal.
Kara Goldin: I love it. Love it. Well, thank you so much. And I can’t wait to hear what’s up next for you. And everything is so exciting. You guys find Mindy, and she’s so inspiring on social as well. So thank you so much, Mindy, and have a great rest of the week.
Mindy Grossman: Thanks for this.