Lisa Stone, Chief Strategy Officer at Ellevest, spoke at Ellevate Network Orange County Chapter’s second-anniversary celebration at Avenue of the Arts Hotel in Costa Mesa.
Lisa creates and launches products and strategies that drive reach and revenue for global brands, media companies, and causes. Lisa speaks at keynotes and publishes articles on women consumers. She was co-founder and CEO of BlogHer Inc., which she grew to 100+ million monthly unique visitors and $30 million in revenue before leading a merger and acquisition with SheKnows Media, creating the leading women’s lifestyle digital media company. Lisa started the first blog publishing network at Law.com and was VP of Programming and Editor-in-Chief at Women.com, launching sites for Hearst and Rodale magazines, after Lisa’s first career in traditional journalism. Lisa currently works at Ellevest, a transformative financial technology company created to help women achieve their financial potential. If you noticed the similar company names, Ellevest is sometimes described as a “cousin” to Ellevate with Sallie Krawcheck as the common relative.
Orange Country Chapter President Judith Lukomski, Chief Evolution Officer at Transitions Today Inc. Performance Consulting, introduced Lisa and moderated the discussion. Judith spoke about how business can elevate humanity and about her passion to help women maximize their potential.
When Failure Can be Your Success
Judith asked Lisa to talk about the notion that failure can sometimes be your success. Lisa described starting her career as a journalist and ending up an entrepreneur. She grew up in Missoula, Montana as the oldest of four children, and called herself the beta shipment, otherwise known as the runt. After ten years as a journalist, she was working at CNN when Turner (CNN’s owner) sold to Time Warner, Lisa’s marriage ended, she had a one-year-old child to support, and she was living in Silicon Valley by herself, far from her New York network of support. A lot of change happened all at once, in other words. “This internet thing” looked interesting, she thought, and a fellow expat from CNN invited her to join WebTV in 1996. Lisa wanted to focus on being a mother, so she negotiated a 3 day workweek. Only six months later, WebTV was bought by Microsoft and Lisa was looking for her next opportunity.
Though out of her control, these layoffs from acquisitions could be seen as failures, but Lisa said she focused on the two important lessons from her first web experience combining tech and journalism:
- For every editor there should be 10 people who code.
- Most people and companies don’t understand their own customers.
Women and the Internet
For an example of how people don’t understand their customers, in 1998 Lisa was told that women were never going to use the internet. That’s right, people told her 50% of the population was not going to use the internet. She said this statement did not ring true for many reasons, such as remembering her upbringing among strong ranch women who “could operate both a chainsaw and a sewing machine.”
After WebTV, women.com came calling for Lisa. She set up Hearst and Rodale magazine websites for women.com and was all in on the company, then it had a bad initial public offering and was sold as a penny stock. It was once again time for Lisa to make her next move.
“Where are all the women who blog?” Lisa had been wondering. She could not find a place where women could congregate and share each other’s work online, so she created one: BlogHer. She described this process as being a “highly accidental entrepreneur,” and explained how she focused her decisions on data. 50% of the population was definitely using the internet, according to data. Now it was time to help these women be found, be heard, and be successful, she said.
Career vs. Family: Why Not Both?
Judith observed that Lisa values family and asked how that affects her work. Lisa said, “Balance = baloney, in my opinion. I never thought the birth of my son would result in this much creativity.” She said she wasn’t aware of how she wanted to change the world until she realized she had to love her work enough to leave her son [while doing that work].
That doesn’t mean she thinks she’s perfect when prioritizing family or career, she is willing to admit that she’s screwed up. Lisa said one day she was driving her son to high school, and she was on the phone with Harpo (Oprah’s former network) about Ellevest’s 64 employees and 20K influencers, when she should have been focused on her son who was trying to talk to her about something important. She had a flashback to this moment during the morning of the Ellevate event, when she saw a young child at Starbucks trying to pry his parent’s attention away from their phones.
Diversity Creates Winning Products and Companies
Every case study says if you don’t have a diverse team, you will not be as good, Lisa said. She proved this statistic without a doubt at BlogHer. When a “men’s blogger group” didn’t allow women at their conference, she started a BlogHer conference for women, using a democratic and inclusive approach. “We’re not the boss of [members] or the experts of all. And so we’re only programming half of this. It’s democracy, y’all. If you think something needs to happen at this conference, bring it and tell us and we’ll have the community vote about it,” she said. At BlogHer, she had an advisory board of expert bloggers on vastly different subjects, a true diversity of thought. Twelve years later, when she sold the company, the BlogHer team could find powerful partners like McDonald’s and Procter and Gamble “because we started out inclusively. It’s important for companies to remember that women control 85% of household spending … including electronics. If you don’t embrace the whole community, you’ll never build a robust business.”
When discussing the success of BlogHer, after years of being told women would never use the internet, Lisa said: “We started BlogHer in 2005, so the downturn (2008) happened to my business. The introduction of the duopoly, Facebook and Google, happened to our business. And in every single case, we had to be thought leaders and publishers way ahead of the pack in order to protect our business against plummeting advertising rates from Facebook and Google … and the rise of the discovery of influencers in niche marketing. It was really valuable, being able to say that we were experts on women in technology.” What made people skeptical about her business to begin with, eventually became recognized as its true strength.
Lisa said it’s all about how hard you want to win and how fast – diversity can help both objectives. She said the fastest path to diversity is to normalize, paraphrasing the words of Shonda Rhimes when she said women, people of color, and LGBTQ combined equal way more than 50% of the population, so she’s just making television look like normal life.
Two words are not allowed in the Lisa Stone world: minority and quota. “If you read my articles on Medium, you will see that the people with absolutely the most power on social media are Black and Latino women on Instagram.” If someone mentions a quota, the idea that people are given a seat at the table because someone’s forcing them to, she said, “I can’t work with people like that anymore because I’m too aggressive of capitalist.” Diversity creates winning products that make money, hence the capitalism reference.
How She Started Working at Ellevest
Lisa described how Ellevate co-founder Sallie Krawcheck found Lisa’s writing on Medium, followed Lisa on Twitter, and met her for breakfast. After meeting Sallie, Lisa decided she really wanted to join in order to help build a movement that will close the gaps. “We have some astonishing gaps as Americans and [Sallie and I] were just talking about the real problems that we have in this culture … most of us can’t put our hands on $400 or $500 in an emergency if we have to. That is a problem, right? So certainly we have behavioral gaps in the United States with regard to money. But if you come to the Ellevest site, we have a magazine, and you’ll see that they are critical. Of course, we know about pay gaps. But there are also investing gaps. As CEO at BlogHer, I helped pay out more than $50 million to more than 7000 women over six years. The question is, where does that money go next?”
An audience member asked Lisa about the #MeToo movement, how we haven’t heard much about how it has impacted women financially, how future opportunities have been stolen from women, how it impacts where you are with your 401K, and where you are with your upward mobility opportunities in general. Lisa clarified that she is not a certified financial advisor, her role is chief strategist at Ellevest who speaks as an expert on gender behavior online and offline.
“Consider me an amateur social anthropologist who’s been watching all this for the past 45 years. And what I can confirm for sure, after we’ve looked at all the data, is that we are marinating in a culture where we have been socialized to expect less, ask for less, demand less, and ultimately we are at risk for taking worse care of ourselves because of the degree to which our power as the majority of consumers, the majority of voters, the majority of everything, has been twisted so much that we now think that we need to go ask for that power.”
Women don’t negotiate enough as a whole, Lisa said, and most women don’t negotiate their first job, leaving money on the table. “So if you’re a high school graduate, you have 40 years of career time, you’re leaving $400,000 or more on the table from that one mistake, up to a million plus for those that have graduated college. For entrepreneurs, if you have not negotiated, you’ve lost revenue, you’ve lost money,” she said. Lisa suggested fine-tuning and honing those negotiation skills in order to put yourself in a great position while also showing how other women can do it. “So that’s one of the things that I think Ellevest is really doing well, and I think it is really helping women to close that gap. Yep, there are pay gaps, there are performance gaps, there are savings gaps. And there are investing gaps. “
“Based on the analysis of our Chief Investment Officer, Dr. Sylvia Kwan, and our CEO, Sallie Krawcheck, if you as a professional women do not invest, you’re probably leaving a fortune on the table … the equivalent of $100 a day.”
How do we change that behavior? Lisa said, “I can’t tell you the number of women I speak with on a daily basis, whether they have one dollar or 100 million dollars, who say ‘I wanted to do it, I meant to get to it, but I haven’t or I just delegated it [to my male partner].’ Then I tell my story of my divorce, of my surprise single parenthood, and I suggest that it’s probably good idea just in case that bus does hit him and you need to know where where the bags of money are hidden.” Only you can take care of you, Lisa said.
Advice for New Mothers as Entrepreneurs
An audience member talked about the guilt she feels asking to work from home to be close to her kids, and asks about the people in Lisa’s life who gave her great advice that helped the trajectory of her career.
Lisa responded that she believes in three things:
- No toxic people. “And if you are having a toxic effect on yourself because you’re caught in ruminative blame game, thinking that you’re never enough, my argument would be that you’ve internalized the patriarchy and the degree to which they are going to be very satisfied. Don’t keep yourself down like that. If you started this business because you feel a driving need to start this business, give yourself permission to be the very best you can be.”
- Try not to force yourself to do too many things at one time. “I really narrowed my life. I started a company accidentally in the answer to finding work. The friendships went by the wayside, and to them I said, ‘If you love me, I’ll see you in 10 years, seriously, I’ve got nothing for you right now.’ I used to be an athlete and do a million other things but I stopped all of it.”
- Limit the business. “I never want to be more than five hours away from my kids and so I made a series of decisions. I gave myself permission to do it … and I decided that I was getting limited in a way that made it possible for me to do the two things I really wanted to do. There will be sacrifices on all sides.”
Lisa added, “Every kid comes with their own bucket of guilt. For each of my kids I’ve apologized for the things that I felt like I let them down on. I found forgiveness and understanding and learned, to my surprise, some of the things that they admire about what I did. You don’t have to beat yourself up all the time.”
How Do You Deal with Imposter Syndrome?
Lisa said in 2005, the question of “where are the women who blog,” seemed to echo her detractors’ comments about how women will never go online, the newest version on “women don’t need to drive” and other ridiculous discriminatory statements. “I had all of the data, I already knew my enormous numbers, and I was tired of being told that the data on my on my servers was inaccurate, when it was accurate. So I had zero imposter syndrome on that note.” Lisa said she did struggle with another aspect of her success: she hated public speaking at first. “I didn’t want to do it. Speaking in front of 5000 women in a BlogHer conference, interviewing President Obama in 2015 … that was where I really struggled. My co-founders were central and they basically said, ‘Too bad, we need to do it, otherwise those speaking opportunities would go to a man.’ So feeling the fear, walking through it, and doing it, is a big piece of it.”
Networking is Essential
Lisa said she thinks networking is essential. “How many of y’all have a kitchen cabinet of two to three women or more who you really trust? That’s critical. If you don’t have two to three other women in your life you truly trust, cone of silence kind of trust, go find them. There was a recent survey that talked about the extreme value of this. You don’t need 10, it doesn’t have to be quantified … But we’ve all been in groups where you find out that someone in that group maybe isn’t trustworthy, or doesn’t have your back, and you’ve got to get rid of that.”
If you haven’t found a group of women like that, Lisa said, “I love the Ellevate Network Squads. I think they’re brilliant and they’ve been proven to be the best in the business. I looked at all the data, I think it’s the fact that you’re on the hook every week for 30 minutes.”
How Did You Know When to Say Yes to Certain Things and No to Others?
“I did two things. I did work and family. I’m not kidding. I bought a Lifecycle and put it in my living room in front of my TV. I would get up every morning at 4am for a team in New York … I’d get my son up at 6:30am and we play until I dropped him off at nanny share because I’m going to work until six. I would come up for two hours. I would read on the cycle for an hour, then fall facedown in my bed. I literally didn’t know if my friends didn’t call me or write me or come to my house. They did not see me. It was subsistence light.” Now she has a husband and stepkids, who she said need pieces of her, too. “I felt like I slowly built up some muscles and got better at some things.”
Especially if your children are small, Lisa suggests finding a mentor to help you with those tough decisions. “My old boss called up and he’s like, yeah, you’re not doing too good. So I’m going to introduce you to the smartest women I know. And it turns out it was Patricia, who is a longtime general partner at Trinity Ventures. She invited me to dinner with other working moms, and we met every Monday night for five years.”
Facing Difficult People and Situations: Standing Up for Yourself and Enforcing Boundaries
Lisa said she grew up in Montana before cable TV and the internet, then went to Wellesley College, which was a big culture change. She didn’t understand class economics, “because in Montana, even if you only have $1, almost nobody has $1. It’s a very level society.” Lisa said she was hazed at Wellesley by upperclassmen, which taught her about people who are more focused on status and interpersonal politics, rather than focused on how smart you are, or how good you are at something. She learned how to recognized people who behave that way. When she realized she wanted to become a writer, Lisa said, “I realized I was shit out of luck in New York because I wasn’t related to anybody. I didn’t have the right clothes or the right family. I didn’t have the right connections. So I got myself right back out here to California and started my way up through a series of newspapers, because it turns out that you can build a track record that has data.”
Flash forward to the women.com experience, where she had investors and was managing a team in New York and Silicon Valley. The founder of women.com, who started at 24 years old and who Lisa called a genius, asked Lisa to become vice president of programming. Lisa said no one would respect her at the fancy print magazines, with their obsession on interpersonal politics, so suggested hiring her boss who went on to be the executive editor at Glamour and won 17 magazine awards. “She’s the most normal, wonderful terrific human being in the world. She taught me how to do it, and be myself, so from that point on I said ‘no toxic people’ and ‘always know your data.'”
“I made a decision that I was always going to have the data behind me, because no one can take that from me.”
Lisa said she thinks “the next Sallie Krawcheck, or Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk,” will not come from money. “She’s a scholarship student, and I expect the next group of those people to come from places we’ve never seen. And I’m excited to see that.”
The Culture at Ellevate and Ellevest Headquarters
Asked about what it’s like to go into the office at Ellevate and Ellevest, Lisa said when she visits HQ it’s fantastic, though unfortunately Ellevate and Ellevest no longer share the same office because they grew too large and had to move down the street. “I love Kristy and that whole team. So you may have read that the Ellevest financial planning and investment service has a ruthlessly inclusive team. We’re 40% of people of color, and our product and engineering team is 50% women. It’s just an unbelievable place. And yes, we do have great conference rooms names, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama, so it’s really fun.”
How to Find Founding Partners
Lisa found her BlogHer co-founders when a mutual friend introduced her to a woman who had nine blogs, including one of the first e-commerce blogs. “She sort of blew my mind at our lunch with her passionate positivity and deep knowledge. We were both open source geeks and writing code using the Drupal platform at the time. We were super different in personality. She’s a vegan, I’m the bacon-atarian.” Lisa met her third co-founder at another conference when they both noticed each other writing with pencil in notebooks. Lisa said, “You really learn a lot about someone when you bootstrap something. I’m a big believer in contract-to-hire to this day, because we all put in sweat equity. We were very product-focused as opposed to politically-focused, so I recommend try before you buy.”
Role Models and Perfection
The topics of role models and perfection distinguished Judith’s desire to have this type of event, Lisa said, and she hasn’t spoke at an event like this before, “breaking the eggs and having a very frank conversation.”
“I think that it’s the only way to be taken seriously by everyone. I think if you’re perfect, you actually lose credit.”
Lisa said she hopes that we are building a chapter of our lives where we can bring our true selves. In regard to the declining number of women CEOs, the declining number of women in fill-in-the-blank for role models, she said, “I believe 100% that we have to fight it every day of our lives. And I think that Indra Nooyi [mentioned by the audience member giving the question] did a great job with that. She came in a key moment at BlogHer in 2011. We never paid a single speaker and she traveled all the way across the country to San Diego and donated for time and effort and gave us a full hour keynote. And that’s leadership.”
Lisa continued, “I can’t emphasize enough how we have to figure out how to raise each other up and that starts with how you spend your money. Invest in yourselves so that you have enough money to go out and invest in others.”
To wrap up the event with one word, Lisa said: “Listen. You have to listen to yourself, and if you start listening to each other and to your customers, you will break the mold. I was right multiple times about what we’re doing, when people were openly saying (in the press or to my face) that I was a lunatic, because I was listening harder and I was listening to data. That made it possible for me to go out and do things. We were talking about retail earlier, because the next time someone makes you a cup of coffee, helps you with a pair of shoes, scoops ice cream for you at the fair, or babysits your kids, take a good look at her because that’s a formative part of who I am. I just read Michelle Obama’s book Becoming, and whether you agree with the Obama’s politics or not, we can talk about her belief in the fact that she is an ordinary person that was put an extraordinary circumstances. And yet, the way she executed because of what she listened and learned, is just a real thing of beauty. So follow your interest. So listen to the powerful.”
Judith ended the evening by asking us to take a minute and think about what we heard. “I can do it. You can do it. We can all do it. We can lift one another to do it. I love the fact that she said she gave herself permission to give things up.” Judith mentioned not seeing friends much as an entrepreneur, but look around at the other people in the room who could support you and the need to feel connected. She said she had a colleague in the room she hadn’t seen in 20 years, and “You don’t have to wait that long … it’s finding what’s important to you and what we were talking about earlier around values. Values shift a little bit throughout life and sometimes it’s about needing to be home with my kids, sometimes I know it’s my time to really put myself into a new career or take that next step. Pay attention to what you need right now. Sometimes it’s going out and hanging out with friends, or going to a networking event, or some quiet time where you can have an amazing moment of insight, inspiration, and connection that fuels you to that next level.” Judith said we heard that because of Lisa’s situation, she was forced to get incredibly focused. Focus forces you to drive all of your energy into one direction and that’s why she successful, she found her focus. It’s what catapulted Lisa to where and what she’s doing today. “I suffer from this bright shiny object syndrome, it’s especially common if you’re an entrepreneur, getting focused on where you are is important.” Other themes of the night Judith touched on were finding purpose to that passion, data, boundaries, product product product, losing toxic people, creating a really good environment, lifting women, looking at how you’re buying, giving women credit … and that’s what Ellevate is all about.
Check out what Ellevate San Diego is up to next.
Learn more about Ellevest. If you’re thinking about opening an account, I can send you a code where we will both get $50 in our accounts: win-win!