Have a network that is personally and professionally fulfilling. Having people you can turn to inspire you, to inform your life and business, that’s critical. I bring a group of 20 or so women together for dinner every few months. Everyone shares their stories, challenges, and goals. The gathering unintentionally becomes a platform to help, support, and promote one another.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carola Jain.
Carola Jain is the Global CMO of Spartan, the global extreme wellness company that combines one of the world’s largest participatory events organizations with a very engaged community content platform, and a global merchandise brand and business. Carola also leads Spartan Women, the female-focused community platform designed to defy stereotypes and promote camaraderie, inclusion and empowerment by connecting women and girls from all over the world to confidence-building athletic events and networks. Prior to joining Spartan, Carola spent over 16 years at Interbrand, and in her last appointment as Senior Director of Brand Strategy and Analytics, led the financial services and non-profit practice and oversaw Interbrand’s Top 100 Best Global Brands Study.
hank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’m a native of Dusseldorf, Germany and moved to London to study International Business. After a year of working in marketing for Ralph Lauren in Paris, I moved to New York. I had a plan to work in finance, but had a passion for marketing, and when I learned about Interbrand, that began a 16-year tenure in valuing, creating and managing large companies’ brand value. During my time there, I touched all aspects of branding — corporate branding, consumer branding, internal branding, and not-for-profit social responsibility branding. My move to Spartan as the company’s first Chief Marketing Officer allowed me to leverage my knowledge of how to build a strong brand while successfully expanding the business into other categories.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
If “COVID” qualifies as a “story,” I would say that being a leader in a global pandemic and social justice movement has been interesting, and has revealed that I cannot let a crisis go to waste. Spartan — a business whose revenue before March 16 hinged upon ticket sales to events in 42 countries — had to find, create and invest in opportunities and business verticals that showed promise, but to date had not optimized for customer value, revenue and community building.
We recently took stock of the changes and created a list of creative endeavors that the business gave birth to through this crisis. Notably, we have reinvented our sponsor model to be media- and content-led during the pandemic, built both an app and created branded television shows, invested in free and premium content, and are innovating our subscription model day in and day out. If you told me six months ago that our go-to-market strategy and current revenue model would include virtual races and an “Unbreakable” content platform with branded merch — with less investment and my A-team working around the clock — I would have told you you’re crazy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yes, we still talk about a Valentine’s promo that was basically an image of a Spartan couple who looked “in love,” and we used a lot of trendy-looking filters and effects to make the image stand out! It was too touched up and perfect. We have couples meet, fall in love, and even get married on our race courses every day. That is one of the aspects that our community loves most about Spartan. My head of social media said that the images were maybe too touched up and “designed,” and suggested we just focus on the plain image and story, no touch-ups. The results were staggering, and taught me that Spartan is the most authentic brand I have ever worked with — no “lipstick on the pig” brand massaging required. With a 10-million-strong Spartan community (20,000 Spartans carry the brand’s tattoo), we receive stories that are engaging and inspiring — and need no dressing up — daily, and it is our job to share these stories so our community can connect and inspire each other!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are quite a few people who have really inspired me over the course of the years. Everyone on my list is someone who inspires me to build the business and simultaneously shift the culture.
Andrea Sullivan, the CMO at VaynerMedia and previously CMO at Interbrand, has always been a huge supporter and a great inspiration. She is hardworking — I would even say a “hustler” — has such positive energy, and is an amazing connector and includer.
The Inkwell Beach Cannes cofounders Adrianne Smith — the first-ever Global Director of Diversity and Inclusion at WPP — and Laura Mignott, CEO of Dflash, for creating meaningful dialogue within the marketing and advertising world. Both are inspiring leaders who are constantly pushing us forward to a more inclusive and equitable world by bringing people together.
Uli Becker, who was the CEO of Reebok, is now working with Spartan in an advisory role. Uli has been helping me in this turbulent time to properly frame conversation to focus on future outcomes and our emerging businesses.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I like to get up early, at 5:30am, and spend two hours or so preparing for whatever is on the agenda before the daily work schedule begins — and before my kids wake up. Kicking off my day with an espresso, two hours of what I call “‘thinking time,” and then 30 to 45 minutes of working out gives me energy and focus all day.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
As someone who grew up on another continent, has lived in four different countries, traveled extensively, and is married to an American-born Indian who grew up in Queens, New York, I seek to have my life and work informed by diverse perspectives, and I know that true inclusion will always yield a better outcome.
At Spartan, we have had many internal conversations on how we can be an ally. We pride ourselves on helping people break down obstacles and push for their personal best. However, we recognize that racism and privilege inherently change where the starting line lies for individuals in our society. As an organization, we are learning to listen, share, and ensure that our internal culture is inclusive, and that we recognize and leverage our privilege to speak up and speak out. We have a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee made of a group of employees working together to influence all aspects of our company, and the employee life cycle, from acquisition through retention. All of these efforts make a business, and its teams, stronger and more resilient.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
At Spartan, we prioritize listening. Daily customer interviews and community stories showcased on our platform allow our communities’ voices to be heard. Internally, we strive to create an environment where we foster diversity and inclusion — our town halls, team meetings, DEI committee, and dialogue among the leadership team have been helping us examine where we can do better and commit to “less talk, more action.”
At a Spartan, you will see hierarchies and social “norms” shattered. You will see a young employee help their senior manager over the wall. Many customers tell me when you hit the start line, you’re just a Spartan. And our CEO, Joe De Sena, always provides his email and phone to everyone. He is famous for “dialing you in.” But we have more work to do, internally and externally. Most recently, Joe and I spoke with Chenelle Williams, the head of the Black Spartans community group, to hear her experiences and share her perspective. It was an important conversation that will be ongoing. She will be joining our internal task force as we continue to work towards being a truly inclusive community.
Besides our internal efforts of looking at hiring practices and internal representation, and creating an internal diversity and inclusion task force that meets weekly, our key action items to date have been to create an email (email@example.com) for anyone to share their ideas and suggestions. We had also launched a community series prior to showcase our community voices, called Signed, A Spartan.
For me, raising three ethnically diverse kids in New York City and working internationally with teams such as Rakuten and the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, I want systemic change and will work tirelessly to contribute to it.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Leadership. Right now, there is no playbook or case study to reference. It’s challenging. I find that the financial decision and fighting for what you need and believe in can be something you do alone. You don’t want to burden your team, so you are fighting to keep people and resources and pivot your entire business, while keeping your team buoyed and guiding by laying out a plan or steps that show a clear path forward and KPIs for everyone to focus on.
Choosing a direction and creating a path to success is critical. Right now, with our primary income source and the heart of what we do — races — virtually shut down, Spartan has had to stretch into other areas. At Spartan, we have a strong leadership team. We will argue our points of view, but then quickly align. As the leader, you are always reminding the team where we are going, rather than being weighed down by some of the heavier details of the day or unique challenges — such as fewer staff and ambitious launches — to keep the business thriving. It’s a fine balance, but takes true commitment to the cause.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
You don’t have to always know the answer. Be humble, have a good network, and challenge yourself when you don’t know something. Surround yourself with experts who help you navigate new terrain. At Spartan, we have a great group of advisors, including our investors at Hearst Ventures — who we meet with regularly — and Uli, who I mentioned as a mentor. He is pushing leading a new frontier of the Spartan business — Training. We always knew we had potential, but we were busy with the global race operation.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
That’s the easy one. For me, it’s the guilt that you have to live three lives — mom, worker, and wife — in no particular order. Maybe you can sneak in being a friend, if you have time. You want to be 150 percent on everything.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
It’s very much what I thought. I was working on a freelance project for Spartan, looking at our female platform, and evaluating whether women wanted female-only races (which we quickly learned they did NOT want, since it was the antithesis to our co-gender platform). Serena Saitas, who runs a strategy and research firm, was working with me on this project. One day she commented on the fast pace, dozens of emails, and back-to-back calls that I was juggling. “Do this full time,” she said. “Make it official.” And I did. If at all possible, it’s faster and more furious during the pandemic than it ever was, and I credit that to the team’s efforts and Spartan’s ability to innovate and activate and move into new businesses of merch, content, and membership overnight.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Transparency. Avoid backchanneling at all costs. I value dialogue and am not afraid to disagree with the leadership team or Joe De Sena, our founder. My tact is to pick up the phone immediately and talk through the challenges, and then share my point of view and discuss before aligning on a direction or decision. You are an advocate for the business, your team, the brand, and your consumers. Focus on driving growth, take the responsibility of making difficult decisions, and motivate the team even on tough days.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I don’t know if this advice is exclusive to women. I would say, to anyone: Have a network that is personally and professionally fulfilling. Having people you can turn to inspire you, to inform your life and business, that’s critical. I bring a group of 20 or so women together for dinner every few months. Everyone shares their stories, challenges, and goals. The gathering unintentionally becomes a platform to help, support, and promote one another. Last time, the youngest woman — who had just joined Facebook in a community-building and diversity role — said her goal was to make the “30 Under 30” list. My network inspires me, and I feel lucky to have such a great support network.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am inspired to push, and contribute to push, for change every day. One of the most meaningful relationships has been our involvement with the SSP (Student Sponsor Partners). We have been mentoring three students over the last 16 years, which has been an incredibly rewarding experience.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started,” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. I would become a more resilient parent. I just sent my son to Joe De Sena’s farm in Vermont. He was part of a 24-hour kids “Death Race.” He cried, begged to come home, and went through hell. As a mom, I wanted to rescue him. I questioned if I could even work at Spartan. A day later, he was so proud he went through the ordeal and was better for it.
2–4. Items two through four — There will be a global pandemic! I wish I had known that we would essentially pause the race business, and someone told me to create a plan just in case that happens.
5. How rewarding this would all be. The shared successes, the obstacles, and the stories are all worth it. Our work at Spartan is like the race: It can be grueling and full of obstacles, but at the finish line every day, you believe more is possible.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Spartan is committed to ripping 100 million people off the couch. I am living that mission every day. From our signature kettlebells to our virtual race, we want the world to be healthier. If you know someone who needs to swap their beer for burpees, or an abusive relationship for the Spartan community, call me. I want to support transformation, and so does Spartan.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff, quoted a line from a famous doctor* that is often used in the business world: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” That seems to be the most apt right now, doesn’t it?
As a close second, and very key for Spartan, which is now on the threshold of a new business model: “If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.” — Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger (from his biography, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company)
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I admire Angela Markel so much. She has changed the perception that a country’s leader is inherently male. Kids across Germany are growing up with the assumption that their country’s leader is female, which is an incredible notion. It’s leaders like Angela and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern who challenge the status quo and are truly changing the world.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.