46. Shaz Kahng – changing the stereotype of women in business

November 2, 2022

Shaz Kahng is a serial CEO and Board Director and with a wealth of experience running companies and businesses and is also an award-winning author of two novels, with a third underway.  In this episode she talks about the power of diverse perspectives on management teams and boards, and the tremendous impact it can have. 

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Links

Shaz’s website 

https://www.ceilingsmashers.com/

Amazon for The Closer

Talks at Google

LinkedIn

https://www.linkedin.com/in/shazkahng/

Quotes

The Closer [First Novel]

I noticed in reading a lot of fiction novels was that if there was a male character who was a business leader, he was allowed to be attractive and smart and successful and athletic and had lots of friends. 

But whenever there was a female business leader, she was allowed to be competent at her job, but the rest of her life was really negative: for example, she was trying to quash the careers of other women, or she had 13 cats or she was desperate to get married. 

I thought that these fiction books were not reflecting reality.  I’ve worked with and know so many incredible women who are leading businesses, leading companies who are very inspirational, very positive, who are really focused on helping other women, like Lisa Shalett [co-founder of EWOB]

I thought there was just a void in the fiction marketplace. I wanted to address that and write a fresh novel that had a more modern and accurate take on women in business.

Some publishers were a little concerned about the theme of the book.

I was really surprised [at the reaction by some publishers] because I thought I was offering a very distinct and unique product and one that women would want to read, and I was surprised when I heard from some publishers that they didn’t think women wanted to read about other smart women. They didn’t want to read about successful women. They didn’t want to read about women helping other women, and I just thought they were wrong.

I pushed ahead and published the book, and it’s gotten a great reception from women leaders and male leaders as well. I’ve heard some men who are CEOs say, “When I’m faced with a challenge, I think what would the main character Vivien Lee do in this situation,” and then they make a decision that way. So, that’s been very gratifying to hear.

Big Ideas/Thoughts

Extraordinary Women on Boards

EWOB is really focused on educating current board members. In order to be on EWOB, you have to be currently on a board or previously on a board so it’s for people who really are experienced board directors, but the focus is on continuing education, discussing topics that are top of mind for boards and just really expanding board members’ capabilities and understanding of different issues.

It is a really helpful resource to have such qualified women who are experienced on different boards to be able to share their experiences, share their perspectives, network, and also let each other know of opportunities. 

Strategic war games [at OMSignal, a biometric apparel startup]

I suggested to the board and to the founders that we do a strategic war game, which is type of simulation game that you play, that helps you build a very forward-looking strategy. 

It helps you figure out what the holes are in your business strategy, what the opportunities are, where the industry sector is going. As a result of that strategic war game, we ended up focusing a little bit more on women and I had been asking the founders, “Why are you just focused on men’s compression and introducing a smart sports shirt? Why not women’s compression?” And they said, “Well, what product would that be?” And I said, “Well, women wear a compression product every day, which is a bra, so why don’t we do a smart sports bra?”

I think that’s why populating your board with people of different backgrounds, different ways of thinking, differentexperiences are so critical to ensuring a successful future for your company.

Onboarding: Private vs Public Boards

It was a vastly different experience. With the private company boards, basically on my first day they said, “Okay, can you help us figure out our revenue projections? Do we do it the right way? We need help with marketing. What do you think about this copy? Or should we be spending more money doing these different things with our marketing budget?” it was very hands on, very deep.

With the public company board, it was much more of a formal process. There were certain pieces of information that I needed to review, SEC documents that I had to fill out, and then I also had interviews with, I think, three or four members of the board before I was nominated, and I also asked to meet with all of the board members individually before I actually joined the board

Science Background

I think a science background was a great foundation for a business career, and one of the reasons is that it helps you really approach problems from a holistic point of view. I think it gives you an ability to develop hypotheses on how to solve problems, to experiment with different results that might work and to ultimately pick the right solution.

LiveGirl

LiveGirl was started by Sheri West. She was a former GE executive and she noticed that there weren’t enough opportunities careerwise for women from diverse backgrounds and she wanted to do something about it and she’s doing a terrific job with it.

LiveGirl helps to provide girls, middle school and up, with the skills that they need to be able to succeed in the workplace, like better communication skills, negotiation skills, interviewing skills and things like that. They also help set up girls in the program with summer internships with different companies.

Transcript

Joe: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to On Boards, a deep dive at what drives business success. I’m Joe Ayoub and I’m here with my co-host, Raza Shaikh. On Boards is about boards of directors and advisors and all aspects of governance. Twice a month this is the place to hear about one of the most critically important aspects of any company or organization; its board of directors or advisors, as well as the important issues that are facing boards, company leadership and stakeholders.

Raza: Joe and I speak with a wide range of guests and talk about what makes a board successful or unsuccessful, what it means to be an effective board member, the challenges boards are facing and how they’re addressing those challenges, and how to make your board one of the most valuable assets of your organization.

Joe: Our guest today is Shaz Kahng. Shaz is a serial CEO and board director and [00:01:00] excels in devising unique strategies, building brand equity and delivering outstanding results. She brings a wealth of experience running companies and businesses, including Gymboree, Lucy Activewear and Nike, and she has worked with many brands, Staples, Carter’s, Sephora, Tiffany, Levi Strauss, Macy’s, Quaker Oats, Kraft, and P&G, to name a few.

Raza: As the first female to hold a global business P&L at Nike, Shaz led a turnaround of the Nike cycling business, making it profitable for the first time in history. As CEO of Lucy Activewear, Shaz and her team reinvented the company and achieved profitability in 13 months, nearly two years ahead of the corporate expectations. Shaz serves as a board director for GoPro, a publicly-traded company where she is an audit committee member. [00:02:00] She also serves on the investor advisory council of AVG Funds, a venture capital firm, and advises PE- and VC-backed startups.

Joe: Finally, Shaz is also an award-winning author of two books, both fiction, with a third book in process, and she is a golfer who dreams of having a single-digit handicap. Welcome, Shaz. It is terrific to have you today with us on On Boards.

Shaz: Thanks, Joe and Raza. I’m happy to be here.

Joe: One of the most impactful and impressive board groups that we have encountered over the past few years is Extraordinary Women on Boards. It would be great to hear a little bit about how you became a member of EWOB as it is known. Tell us a little bit about how that happened and then I have some questions about your experience with the group.

Shaz: Sure, I was actually at my Wharton reunion and a few classmates of mine, and I realized that there were not a lot of boards with diverse board members, [00:03:00] so we started a group called Wharton Alumni for Boards to try to improve that, and then throughout that process, another classmate of mine let me know about this group, Extraordinary Women on Boards or EWOB and she said, “You should really join this organization.” 

I was lucky enough to meet Lisa Shallet and then get involved in the group, and it’s really been just such an impressive group of women who have accomplished much and who have a lot of valuable advice to share with one another.

Joe: How do their missions differ, EWOB and the Wharton alumni group?

Shaz: Well, EWOB is really focused on educating current board members, so in order to be on EWOB, you have to be currently on a board or previously on a board so it’s for people who really are experienced board directors, but the focus really is on continuing education, discussing topics that are top of mind for boards and just really expanding board members’ capabilities and understanding [00:04:00] of different issues. 

The Wharton Alumni for Boards is just focused on matching talented, diverse Wharton alums with board opportunities, and I think it’s quite a bit smaller than EWOB is.

Joe: What in your view makes EWOB valuable to you?

Shaz: I think it’s just a really helpful resource to have such qualified women who are experienced on different boards to be able to share their experiences, share their perspectives, network, and also let each other know of opportunities, so I think those are the key things, but it’s just been so inspiring to meet so many amazing women who are serving on boards. 

Joe: Yeah, we’ve met a few and not anywhere near the number you have, and we agree, it’s really quite impressive in terms of the women who are members. 

There are a lot of really interesting things in your background, but one thing that really struck me was that you’ve been the author of two books of fiction. The [00:05:00] first one was The Closer, which I read just a few weeks ago and really, really enjoyed. Tell me a little bit about how that came into being and why the theme of the book is what it is.

Shaz: Well, something that I noticed in reading a lot of fiction novels was that if there was a male character who was a business leader, he was allowed to be attractive and smart and successful and athletic and had lots of friends. 

But whenever there was a female business leader, she was allowed to be competent at her job, but the rest of her life was really negative so she was trying to quash the careers of other women, or she had 13 cats or she was desperate to get married. 

What I thought was these fiction books are not reflecting reality. I’ve worked with and know so many incredible women who are leading businesses, leading companies who are very inspirational, very positive, who are really focused on helping [00:06:00] other women, just like Lisa Shallet.

I think there was just a void in the fiction marketplace, and I wanted to address that and wanted to just write a fresh novel that had a more modern take on women in business.

Joe: How did you find the time to write the book given all your activities?

Shaz: I have no idea.

Actually, I started writing the book while I had infant twin daughters, and what I did was I outlined the book and then I would print out the chapter outline and I would put it in my pocket so when I was with the girls at the park and I had a couple of minutes, I would look at the outline and I’d start writing the book in my head, and then when they were taking a nap, I knew I had about an hour and a half to write so I’d pull out my laptop and just be very efficient with my time. I ended up writing the book in 10 months, which I’m told is relatively quick, but then the editing process took a lot longer than that.[00:07:00]

Joe: Sure. I understand that some publishers were a little concerned about the theme of the book.

Shaz: Yes. I was really surprised because I thought I was offering a very distinct and unique product and one that women would want to read, and I was surprised when I heard from some publishers that they didn’t think women wanted to read about other smart women. They didn’t want to read about successful women. They didn’t want to read about women helping other women, and I just thought they were wrong. 

I pushed ahead and published the book, and it’s gotten a great reception from women leaders and male leaders as well. I’ve heard some men who are CEOs say, “When I’m faced with a challenge, I think what would the main character Vivien Lee do in this situation,” and then they make a decision that way. So, that’s been very gratifying to hear.

Joe: That’s pretty high praise. Well, it obviously went well enough and was interesting enough that you wrote a second and now a third. The series is called The Ceiling Smashers Series. Is that [00:08:00] right? 

Where does that title come from or where does that name come from?

Shaz: Well, there’s always been a discussion about women being able to or not being able to smash the glass ceiling, and what I wanted to show in my books was that you could achieve great success and smash glass ceilings, but do so with your integrity and your own approach intact that you don’t have to change yourself to achieve success.

That was the real message of the book is, you can be positive, inspirational, do things the right way and use your brains and creativity to get out of tough situations, but ultimately you can be successful.

Joe: Women can be smart, successful, good looking, have a great family, athletic and all of the things that all those men were portrayed as having.

Shaz: Yes. all those qualities that were missing in the other books, I put them in my book.

Joe: Yeah, I thought it was great. I love Vivien, and as I said to you earlier, I was rooting for her from the very beginning so thanks for doing that. I [00:09:00] look forward to reading the next one and to the one that’s coming.

Shaz: Thanks a lot, Joe. I appreciate it. 

Joe: I did see that recently you’ve done something called Talks at Google, a speech entitled The Superpowers of Ceiling Smashers. Could you just tell us a little about that and how it relates to the books?

Shaz: Sure, so that talk was about what I call the Superpowers of Ceiling Smashers, which are what are the key skills that you really need to succeed, and basically the premise of that talk was that over a series of different career disappointments or disasters, I learned to develop these skills and they ultimately helped make me successful in those venues or in other opportunities.

Joe: Where is it available to listen to?

Shaz: It’s available on YouTube if you look for Talks at Google, and it’s also available on the podcast, it’s a Google podcast, so Talks at Google podcast. If you search for that, it’ll come up.

Raza: Shaz, you had an early career as a food scientist. Can you talk a little bit about that background and [00:10:00] maybe relate it to how that helped you in decision making and in business in the future?

Shaz: Sure. I think actually a science background was a great foundation for a business career, and one of the reasons is that it helps you really approach problems from a holistic point of view. I think it gives you an ability to develop hypotheses on how to solve problems, to experiment with different results that might work and to ultimately pick the right solution.

But when I started my career, I was a food scientist working for Kraft, and my first project was inventing synthetic blueberries, very exciting. and they’re actually used in like blueberry muffin mixes and dried cereals today, but I don’t get any royalty, sadly.

Joe: That’s too bad.

Shaz: Yes, I wish. But one of the things that I noticed was that in the group that I was working with, we would invent new prototypes or [00:11:00] new products, and we would present those ideas to marketing who would then fund the ideas that they thought were the best, and I thought that they were not always picking the products that were the most consumer focused or most easy to produce and distribute. 

I thought, “I think I can make better decisions, and I think I want to run a business someday.” That kind of started me on the path of wanting to become a business leader and CEO.

Raza: I think that’s a great foundation. I’ve also noticed in the current environment that there is a little bit of an upswing for science founder-led companies, especially in life sciences and biotech around us in the area. I think that’s a great thing. Usually science folks are not associated with business skills and investors are looking at that gap, but I think increasingly that actually provides a wonderful foundation and we hope to see more and more of that.

Shaz: I agree. And at the time when I was in my career as a scientist, I [00:12:00] didn’t see any scientists as CEOs, so I really didn’t have an option to become a CEO through the science path. That’s why I ended up going to Wharton to get my MBA and it really changed my career path, but it’s great to see that there are opportunities today.

I think actually, once you have the science background, that’s the tough part, and adding on the business knowledge on top of that is a little easier.

Raza: I think that’s a really important point, that you can teach a scientist business, but it’s really hard to go back and teach somebody in business the science part, so it’s truly valuable. 

Maybe talk about your board work now and how did you end up finding your first board opportunity, and what was it?

Shaz: Sure. I was doing a lot of advisory work for different primary research firms and giving talks to different investors and hedge fund managers on retail or apparel or footwear, and one of the firms that I worked with had a board search [00:13:00] practice so they said, “We have a company that’s actually looking for somebody who’s got sports product and retail expertise, and we think you’d be a great fit.”

I ended up meeting the two founders and I really liked the guys. I thought they had a really interesting technology and interesting product and I joined the board, and I was the only woman. I was the only non-financial person so all the other board members were investors and also I was the only person who had experience actually running a business. It was a great platform to be able to leverage my skillset.

Raza: What was the company and what were they building as a startup?

Shaz: The company was called OMsignal. It was a biometric apparel company so a smart apparel company, and their only product at the time that they were creating and wanted to launch was a men’s smart sports shirt, it was a compression shirt, so it was very tight fitting to the body and I helped them launch a joint venture with Ralph [00:14:00] Lauren and we ended up launching Polo Tech, which was the first men’s smart sports shirt. 

It could read your heart rate as accurately as an EKG. It could tell you your calories burned, it could measure your breathing rate, steps. I mean, it was really amazing technology and all the sensors in the shirt would read out and you’d be able to look at the app on your phone while you were working out or after your workout and see all the data there, so it was a really unique product. 

Raza: Sounds futuristic and maybe even ahead of its time.

Shaz: Yes, probably, so we launched it and I don’t think that the sales were what they expected them to be, and I had actually suggested to the board and to the founders that we do a strategic war game, which is kind of a simulation game that you play, and from that, it helps you build a very forward-looking strategy. 

It helps you figure out what the holes are in your business strategy, what the opportunities are, where the industry sector is going, so that was really helpful. As a result of that strategic war [00:15:00]game, we ended up focusing a little bit more on women and I had been asking the founders, “Why are you just focused on men’s compression? Why not women’s compression?” And they said, “Well, what product would that be?” And I said, “Well, women wear a compression product every day, which is a bra, so why don’t we do a smart sports bra?” 

I brought in a designer that I had worked with and we ended up designing the product, getting it launched and at CES we launched the product and I think immediately we had something like almost 7,000 people on the waiting list to buy the product.

Raza: Well, it shows that it does take a different perspective to come up with new insights. The men wouldn’t have thought that they could think about a women’s product in that space.

Shaz: Yes. I don’t think any of the folks on the board would have considered doing a bra.

Joe: Yeah. Or that it was a compression product, that it really actually fit the model of what they had already designed, which is part of what makes it interesting and part of why you need different perspectives on a [00:16:00] board, because there are just things people are gonna miss no matter how smart they are, if they’re from the same gender, background, all of the things that make perspectives different so I think it’s a great illustration.

Shaz: That’s true. And I think that’s why populating your board with people of different backgrounds, different ways of thinking, different experiences is so critical to ensuring a successful future for your company.

Joe: Well, especially when you’re looking at risk. We’ve talked a lot on this show about the importance of board members helping management identify and manage risk, and I can’t think of anything that would make a group more powerful than having a real diverse perspective on it, because the likelihood is that between management and a diverse board, you’ll probably catch most of it. You might not catch everything, but you have increased the likelihood that you will reduce risk or take more risk when you need to, if you have that kind of a board.

Shaz: That’s [00:17:00] true. I totally agree.

Joe: You joined your first public board, GoPro, in October last year, almost a year ago. Tell us about how you came to join that board and a little bit about the board itself.

Shaz: Sure. Well, it’s something that I’m sure you know and the people who are listening to your podcast know is that 90-plus percent of all board roles have gotten through networking, and I was on the investment advisory committee for Alumni Ventures Group which is a VC fund and I met one of the women on the investment committee. I thought she asked really great questions and seemed really smart and I just thought this is the kind of person I’d like to get to know.

Whenever I see people that I really respect and admire, I just always try to get to know them. I reached out to her, we started a conversation and then I just learned this a couple weeks ago, she knew another classmate of mine from Cornell and she mentioned that GoPro was looking for board members. She was the chief legal counsel and my friend from Cornell said, “Oh, well, you [00:18:00] have to talk to Shaz.” All of the components kind of came together at the right time, because I mentioned to her I was looking for a board role, so I entered the interview process and got the board role.

Joe: Fantastic. What does the board look like? I want to ask you a few questions about onboarding, but what does the board look like?

Shaz: It’s actually a really interesting board. It’s a 10-person board, three women, seven men. There is one African-American person, myself, and then one LGBTQ person. As far as boards go, I think it’s very diverse, but more importantly, I think the diversity of thought is really there and I think when we have discussions, we really get just a rich discussion because people come from so many different perspectives. 

We have a lot of people on the board who have a great deal of expertise in the media business so I think that’s been helpful, but everybody comes from a different company, different perspective, and they’re all just very sharp people who really contribute a lot to the [00:19:00] board discussions.

Joe: I think a vibrant conversation in the boardroom kind of ups everyone’s game. I mean, I think it’s just another added factor.

Shaz: It does. I learned something from all the different board members, so I’m enjoying it.

Joe: What was the onboarding like for this and how was it maybe different from the private company boards that you’d served on?

Shaz: It was a vastly different experience. With the private company boards, basically on my first day they said, “Okay, can you help us figure out our revenue projections? Do we do it the right way? We need help with marketing. What do you think about this copy? Or should we be spending more money doing these different things with our marketing budget?” it was very hands on, very deep.

With the public company board, it was much more of a formal process. There were certain pieces of information that I needed to review, some SEC documents that I had to fill out, and then I also had interviews with, I think, three or four members of the board before [00:20:00] I was nominated, but I also asked to meet with all of the board members individually before I actually joined the board, because I just wanted to get a sense of who the other board members were, what they were like, how they worked together, what were some of the main issues that they saw with the company? 

It was really helpful to be able to meet with each person, and I also met with, I think, about six of the key executives in the company as well.

Joe: Oh, that’s terrific. Did you feel that that process really helped you this first year on the board?

Shaz: I think so. I think what was great with GoPro. I think they have a very talented team, but they also are very hungry and they still are open to innovation. They still want to succeed in new and different ways. I think there’s an openness to new thinking and ideas, which I really appreciate, and there’s also definitely a sense of humility. Even though they’ve been successful, they are very humble about it. They’ll admit [00:21:00] when they’ve made mistakes and learn from them. I think those were all really important traits to ensuring that you have a bright future as a company.

Joe: It sounds like a terrific environment. You’ve served on a number of boards, you’re serving on a public company board, what are some of the top issues that you are seeing that boards are grappling with now?

Shaz: Well, it’s interesting because whenever I am talking to companies about what they are looking for in a board director, when I’m talking to other board directors, certainly the ability to create a compelling strategy is something that they need. There’s also a definite need for operational oversight, so if something goes awry with the supply chain, helping the company think through what are all of the different aspects that need to be addressed in order to ensure stability or as much stability as possible. 

ESG is a topic that has come up a lot and then also something that I’ve found with many companies is that they are [00:22:00] looking for more marketing and branding expertise, so for board members who bring that, I think that’s a definite advantage.

Joe: Yeah, that seems to have become higher on the scale of what boards are looking for. Another thing I’ve heard a lot lately is chief of human resource. Have you heard that much or seen that in any of the boards or in the folks that you know that are joining boards?

Shaz: Yeah. I think the chief human resource person is a little bit easier to find than the marketing person, and the reason why is you do have talented people in charge of people or HR in different companies and you know who they are. 

With marketing, the thing is it’s really tough to be a very effective chief marketing officer, you need to be able to not only create brand strategy and be able to create an emotional connection with consumers to your brand, but the other piece of it is also the ideas and the tactics and how do you allocate your marketing spend? What should your playbook look like? And it’s [00:23:00] very difficult to find somebody who has both the kind of creative and the tactical elements together. 

I think that’s why I’ve seen so many companies struggle with it. Usually, they’re finding people with the tactical capabilities or the analytical capabilities, but that’s not what helps to create really amazing brands.

Joe: Yeah, great point. Thanks. 

Raza: Shaz, maybe talk about some of the differences or even similarities between the private company boards and public company boards that you’ve noticed as you’ve seen both.

Shaz: Well, for me, I think the adjustment actually going from CEO first to then on a board, that was a big adjustment because I’m used to being more of an operator and jumping in and fixing problems or coming up with ideas, and I found that on private backed boards it’s easier to do that and they actually are looking for you to get more in the trenches, work alongside them, come up with ideas, help them execute, but on a public company board, it’s a lot more [00:24:00] arms length, I would say, and you are giving ideas and sharing your perspective, but it’s a little bit more of a formal process, I would say, where you’re discussing things at the board. There are certain elements on the agenda that are going to be discussed and if you have an idea about something else and it’s not on the agenda, you’ve got to figure out a different way to do that. 

It’s been a good learning experience and also I’ve joined the audit committee and this is my first time on an audit committee and I’m definitely using all of the finance skills that I picked up at Wharton. I haven’t used some of them for a while, but the audit committee, I would say, it’s a lot of work and you have to be very thorough and you have to really allocate the time to make sure you’re reviewing everything in detail. I feel like there’s a much bigger added responsibility on audit committee, but it’s really been a good experience.

Raza: I think on the slider of formality to informality, startup board is probably a little on one end and the public company board on [00:25:00] the other, and same for the hands-on mess of the slider one side or the other. 

Shaz, we also want to talk to you about the advisory board that you were on for a nonprofit called LiveGirl. Tell us about that.

Shaz: Sure, it’s actually LiveGirl, so LiveGirl was started by Sheri West. She was a former GE executive and she noticed that there weren’t enough opportunities careerwise for women from diverse backgrounds and she wanted to do something about it, which I think was really admirable and she’s doing a terrific job with it.

LiveGirl helps to provide girls, middle school and up, with the skills that they need to be able to succeed in the workplace, like better communication skills, negotiation skills, interviewing skills and things like that, and they also help set up girls in the program with summer internships with different companies.

They were focused mainly in Connecticut, [00:26:00] but they’ve expanded over the last couple of years so they have they some people and some companies that are involved outside of Connecticut across the US, but I think it’s a great organization and it’ll continue grow.

Joe: Shaz, it has been great speaking with you today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Shaz: Thanks. It’s been my pleasure, Joe and Raza, and I’ll see you soon.

Joe: And thank you all for listening to On Boards with our guest, Shaz Kahng.

Raza: Please visit our website at OnBoardsPodcast.com. That’s OnBoardsPodcast.com. We’d love to hear your comments, suggestions, and feedback.

Joe: Please stay safe and take care of yourselves, your families, and your communities as best you can. And we hope you’ll tune in for the next episode of OnBoards. Thanks. 

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