• Sheryl O'Loughlin

As a woman CEO, I am the exception

Sheryl O'Loughlin - Former CEO of REBBL & Cliff Bar

When I started at Clif Bar and Company in 1998, energy bars were created by men, for men. The women in our company started questioning why there were virtually no female users. The reason was simple: Products — from nutrition bars to spacesuits — are usually designed from the male perspective, with women as the exception. Back then, no bar was made with women in mind.

So, in 1999, we introduced Luna Bar, the first whole-nutrition bar made for women. Bringing in the female point of view shifted the category, driving huge growth for Clif Bar and the industry. With little marketing, Luna Bar became a $70 million business in three years.

Women make up 51% of the population yet remain the “exception.” Our interests, businesses and successes are trailed by an asterisk signifying, “I’m not male and therefore on the wrong side of the system of advantage and power around gender.” It has followed me throughout my career, as it has many of my peers. We aren’t the “first to...” We are the “first women to…”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Diverse management teams show 19% higher revenue from innovation and 9% higher overall EBITDA than less diverse teams. Women aren’t inherently better leaders. Those companies chose the right leaders — some of whom happened to be outside the usual white male network — and replaced outdated, autocratic leadership models.

Getting to the root of the issue

In the natural foods industry, I’m co-leading a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) initiative to make our products more accessible and bring more diversity into our leadership, boards and teams, to ensure everyone has a voice and can make decisions. At REBBL, the super herb beverage company where I was most recently CEO, we had been integrating this into our mission and culture. At REBBL, I was able to do my best work, with more support than ever. Why? The co-founders, who are male, are keen to collaborate but let me lead — while believing in our JEDI initiative.

I’ve come to realize the core of the issue is not overt racism, sexism, ageism or classism. The bias we don’t see — and don’t even realize we have — is the bigger issue. If we do nothing, we ultimately fail each other as human beings.

I know I benefit from privileges, of being white, heterosexual, cisgendered, formally educated and able-bodied. I also grew up with a brother who had disabilities and a single mom who fought for his dignity in a world that dismissed and dehumanized him. I experience bias as a woman in business and for being Jewish. We likely each have these dichotomous experiences, due to conscious bias and, more importantly, unconscious bias. Enmeshed in our systems and history, this bias is hard to see and recognize, but awareness and understanding diminishes its power.

Seeing others as the exception is a problem

I’m proud of who I am, but every person deserves to be seen and heard beyond labels. Our world is beautifully diverse, yet a singular group — usually white, heterosexual, able-bodied, higher-earning males — controls most spheres of influence. Therefore, our products, laws and policies, and even environmental issues are seen from that perspective.

We use a fragment of society’s potential. Consider algorithms: They profoundly influence our lives but lack the diversity that drives innovation.

“It’s hard to build [code] for a group of people if you cannot put yourself into their shoes,” writer and software developer Vaidehi Joshi recently told On Point, a syndicated radio show. “I think it’s so important for this group of people who’s building for everyone around the world to look like the people around the world.”

How can businesses keep pace if we consider one point of view? We cannot tackle complex issues using the gifts and opinions of a few. We must partner with people whose backgrounds, experiences and views are different from ours, and we must do it with humility, an open mind and, above all else, empathy.

Diversity and inclusion will uplift and evolve us — that’s exactly what happened with Luna Bar. We brought women into the market, and now they represent about 60% of the category, which is even more inclusive of the needs and tastes of other groups.

Working while female in 2019

Women-owned businesses increased by 114% from 1997 to 2017, with an employment growth rate of 27% — more than twice the rate of all businesses combined. Four in 10 businesses are owned by women.

But we have a way to go. Female founders receive a fraction — about 2% — of venture capital money invested in the US. We are underpaid across the board: In 2017, white women earned 77 cents per dollar compared with white men, while black women earned 61 cents and Latina women earned 53 cents. Even equity is unequal. Women own 47 cents per dollar owned by male employees.

We are still seen as exceptions. It’s time we change that, standing together with people of color, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, people living in poverty and other underrepresented communities and groups. Equality and unity drive growth: We can’t say that enough. This isn’t altruism. It’s learning from others and shifting paradigms to get the best answer, not the one we want to hear.

That starts by truly listening to other perspectives — and understanding the benefits of a diverse workforce. According to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to outpace their industry’s national medians. For gender, it’s 15%. (The least diverse lag behind.)

Change is happening. California requires at least one woman on the board of all public companies; a national campaign wants women in 20% of seats. Even Fortune 500 boards are becoming more diverse. Why stop there? I’d like private companies to follow suit — and for not only boards but our workforce to reflect the world we live in. We need to prioritize inclusion and equity training. When we’re all included, we all win. Being boldly humble will start to make this work at all levels, in all companies.

About the author

In 2017, Sheryl O'Loughlin introduced her first book, Killing It: An Entrepreneur's Guide to Keeping Your Head Without Losing Your Heart. The book has been featured in Fortune, Conscious Company, Inc., Forbes and the Huffington Post, among others.

Sheryl was the CEO of REBBL, the first plant-based, super herb adaptogen beverage company. In partnership with Not for Sale, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating human trafficking, REBBL works to create regenerative and just supply chains. At REBBL, Sheryl leads the development of new beverages that use ancient wisdom confirmed by science to help modern-day, busy people adapt to stress.

Earlier in her career, Sheryl served as the CEO of Clif Bar and Company. There she led the concept development and introduction of Luna, the first whole nutrition bar for women, which became a $70 million business in three years and continues to be a core brand in the company’s portfolio. She went on to co-found and serve as CEO for Plum, Inc., a healthy, organic food company that aims to nourish kids “from the high chair to the lunch box.” In 2013, Plum was successfully sold to Campbell Soup Company.

Following her time at Plum, Sheryl was the Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and she held a faculty position at Sonoma State University, where she taught hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs and other professionals.

Sheryl currently serves on the board of advisors for Once Upon a Farm, an organic family food company. She is an advisory board member of the Harvest Summit, an annual gathering of innovators working to solve the biggest world challenges, and a member of One Step Closer to a Sustainable Community (OSC2), a nonprofit whose mission is to address the toughest sustainability problems by building new regenerative businesses. She also co-leads a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) initiative in the natural foods industry through OSC2. She is a member of the Forbes San Francisco Business Council. Previous boards include Zuke’s, thinkThin, Sugar Bowl Bakery, Gardein and the American Sustainable Business Council.

Sheryl earned her Bachelor of Business Administration from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and her Master of Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She lives in Santa Rosa, California, with her husband, Patrick, and their two sons.

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