Hero Status: Meet The Female CEO Who Majorly Inspires

When I was growing up, all I ever wanted was to work in publishing. I loved magazines — all magazines — and the thought of becoming an editor and one day creating content I loved practically made me lose consciousness, it was so exciting.
Eventually, I did become an editor, at Gourmet magazine. Which was where I first met Gina Sanders, the magazine's then publisher. It's important to point out that the publishing industry in the '90s, especially on the business side, was not unlike a Tom Wolfe novel…everyone was a Master of the Universe. Dudes in Brioni suits everywhere. And, women — strong, memorable, fire-starting women — weren't the norm.
But, Gina Sanders, now the president and CEO of Fairchild Fashion Media, was different. For me, she became as important a role model as any of the iconic editors training me. Not just because she was a woman in power at a company that I loved, but because she was an entrepreneur at heart — as evidenced by her win for Adweek's Startup of the Year award in 2004 for Teen Vogue, a magazine she tenaciously worked to launch. She did the same for Details magazine and helped bring Lucky into the digital age — both publications that were instrumental in speaking to a changing generation and capturing the shifting cultural zeitgeist.
And, that sensibility has continued to guide her in her current role at Fairchild, where she's steering the fate of WWD, Style.com, NowManifest, and many other titles (all of which she's helped to rebrand in her time at the helm), into the future. Sanders is a Superwoman in every respect, and she's still a role model for me and millions of women who don't just see the goal ahead, but what lies beyond it.
001_GinaSanders01_082Photographed by Winnie Au.
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Did you ever have aspirations to become a CEO? I wonder, did you realize it, or did someone else realize it in you?

"What I really wanted to do from the age of 12 was be an Olympic athlete. I was very competitive. I was running 100 miles a week by the time I was 15, so that drive was in me from the beginning. I’d say my career has really been about channeling that into my work. When I came to Condé Nast, which was 26 years ago, I don’t know if I ever said, 'I want to become a CEO,' but I did walk in the door saying, 'I want to be a publisher as soon as possible.' I was 34 [when it happened]."


What was your path to reaching that goal?

"I started as a salesperson, and within about six years I became a publisher. For me, it was about taking some unconventional paths, like going from House & Garden to take this opportunity at Details. Which I like to say was like going from teacups to nipple rings."

002_GinaSanders02_009Photographed by Winnie Au.

Details, at that time, was revolutionary for a magazine…it was like Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed, and Pitchfork all rolled into one.

"Yes. The one thing I'd always say about career choices is: Choose the less conventional by design. In fact, I always joke that I know I’m on the right path if my peers think, 'Oh my God, she was fired!’ Because that means I’ve done something that doesn’t make conventional sense."

So, is it okay to get fired?

"I’ve never been fired. Well, not from Condé Nast. I think [I did get fired] from a retail job in 1980, but that’s another story. But, that is okay. I’ve really thought about this. And, in my career, what I try and do is identify what I really want. What you really want is a hard thing to get to, and it’s not usually what other people want. But, when that opportunity comes up, you know it — it addresses your spirit, it’s what you’re good at, and you love it. So, it becomes quite easy and quite obvious and others may not understand it, but for you it makes sense, and when you operate out of that place, you can be wildly successful.”

003_GinaSanders05_015Photographed by Winnie Au.

You were the publisher at Teen Vogue, too. Another challenging launch, which faced a lot of scrutiny. Was that hard?

"There had been multiple trials to get it going, and it was a market that had never targeted luxury before. But, we had a vision, and we really went after it. It was the opportunity to succeed or fail on a very visible scale. So, you can do things and say, ‘I improved the margin by 2%,’ or you can go into something and say, ‘Oh my God! I might fail brilliantly, but that’s okay. I want to be in the arena.' And, that’s a choice."

Back in the '90s, as an assistant at Condé Nast, I can remember being really inspired by you as a young female publisher, which was kind of an anomaly at the company. Did you ever come up against any kind of resistance or sexism because you were a woman pursuing a publisher’s role?

"Well, early on, I was a female publisher at an all-men’s magazine. And, back to 1976, or whatever, I was the only girl in an all-boys cross-country team. I'm just very comfortable with being competitive. I think one of the things you have to focus on — accepting your competitiveness as not being a negative thing."

Meaning, it doesn’t have to be unfeminine.

"Exactly. And, once you can [acknowledge] that it’s okay or that being tough is still feminine, then you’re home free.”

004_GinaSanders02_080Photographed by Winnie Au.

What would you say are the two or three most important qualities of a CEO today? Because I think they're very different than they were even five years ago.

"I’m going to tell you the three words that I’ve thought before — that I still think about all the time. First, the idea of someone who has stopped is very old-fashioned. It’s not you in the corner office with all the answers. Quite frankly, you have to look to the children — it’s the Inversion of Influence [whispers], and that’s something that has very much been a part of every assignment I've taken on. Where is the information really coming from? To assume it’s top-down is very antiquated. Being the CEO thinking you have all the answers is also very antiquated.

"And, then, curiosity is key because you constantly have to put yourself in positions where there are things that may make you feel uncomfortable because you don’t know. So, that brings in the third thing, which is courage. And, courage isn't the absence of fear — I’m scared all the time! Courage is living in it and performing with it. That’s what I’ve learned by riding horses, that there’s nothing like having a jump in front of you to focus on. The key is you don’t look at it; you look past it."

That’s what Wayne Gretzky always said, about seeing the puck going into the goal before he even shoots.

"Exactly. If you look at it, you will fall, because that’s the law of physics. You have to look past it, you have to guide it, and, most of all, you have to trust it. And, that’s true of guiding teams, true of everything worth doing. And, taking the jobs that require courage, that create discomfort in your life, will have the biggest reward in the end. That’s why I love start-ups."

005_GinaSanders05_008Photographed by Winnie Au.

It might sound very Lean In, but how do you balance leading one of the world’s most successful media companies with raising a family, sustaining a 20-plus-year relationship, and just getting your hair done?

"I think balance is a misnomer. In any life, male or female, you go through periods where certain needs present themselves and you throw yourself at them. So, your life is about the choices you make. Are you making choices that align with your values? Are you on your phone while you’re supposed to be watching Dance Moms with your child? You can choose what you do in any given moment. Balance happens over a lifetime, and I think we have to lengthen the time period by which we judge ourselves."


So, instead of looking at life vertically, we look at it horizontally.

"Yeah! And, I think our families understand that. My kids are enormously supportive. They’re 17 and 15. And, often, we look at the values we’re giving them as negative, as if the idea of work is bad. But, I flip it. What your children are seeing is commitment, responsibility. They’ve seen me be sick and get up, get out of bed to do an event — that’s what they see, and that’s the value of what we’re giving them."

006_GinaSanders03_181Photographed by Winnie Au.
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Do you ever feel pressured to project a younger image — and, conversely, how much do you think about your legacy when you’re making decisions?

"I don’t. I feel a lot of pressure on myself to keep curious and be engaging in conversations that will stimulate people or creating an environment where stimulating conversation can be shared. But, I have to tell you, some of the youngest minds I've had the privilege of meeting, the most curious and the most switched-on, are people in their 80s. And, who cares what people think? I don’t actually think a lot about that question."

A lot of women do, though. As much as we hate it, it's sort of shortsighted to assume it's not part of the conversation. It shouldn't be, but it is.

"If you spend your time worrying about this one or that one, then all that juice is spent on someone else. The only important things are things that someone hasn’t thought about yet or hasn’t done yet. I stay up all night thinking about that microchip that hasn’t been invented yet, that can be planted in my brain to cause people to subscribe. That’s worth thinking about."

007_GinaSanders05_026Photographed by Winnie Au.

If you ask a lot of young professional women today, many of them would rank a promotion above or at least equal to a pay raise. Money is important, but many of them also care deeply about having more responsibility, more influence, more access to resources, and more of a voice that resonates in their business.

"Maybe people think that ‘If I ask for one more thing, maybe more money, it will weaken the next thing I ask for.' But, the funny thing I’ve learned is that the more you ask for, the more you get because you’re perceived as someone who wants results. So, that would be my advice. Don’t think that because you’ve asked for one thing, you can’t have two. You can have two. Don’t edit yourself and think that if you ask for yellow, you can’t have orange. It’s actually easier. Once you get in the habit of asking for yellow, then you ask for orange, too — and you get another color as well. And, then you get the rainbow. [Laughs.]"

Last question: Do you think about taking over the reins at Condé Nast?

"I think about making Fairchild the biggest business in the world. [Winks.]"


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