The Oppy is commemorating some prominent NYU Stern alumni with our ‘Graduate’ series. Each month, we’ll interview notable alum that have made an impact on their community and industry.
As the nation waited in limbo for election results last Friday, I had the refreshing distraction of sitting down, virtually, with Ilana Fischer, CEO of Whisps and Stern MBA (2011). Ilana spoke about leadership lessons she’s learned during her career and how her life-long passion for cheese ultimately led to her dream job.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start off with an ice-breaker question. Describe your go-to-cheese board?
I’m a big fan of mixing milks and textures on cheese boards. I really like to have a cow’s milk, a sheep’s milk and a goat’s milk cheese. And I always like to have a blue cheese on a cheese board. So a mixture of milks, a mixture of firmness and age and always blue cheese.
That’s just the answer I’d expect from my research for this interview. Can you speak about your background and your career journey thus far?
My journey to this job started when I was a little kid. I always really loved cheese. My grandfather always joked I would have to marry a Wisconsin cheese farmer because I would always eat all of his Italian parmesan. I didn’t end up doing that and I ended up pursuing a more traditional business career. That said, I was always really passionate about cheese, and it was always kind of a weird side thing I pursued. I worked at Murray’s Cheese Shop on the weekends on Bleeker Street and at Whole Foods on the weekends. I tried to learn about cheese in my free time.
I went to Stern to switch from working at start-ups to working in consulting. After Stern, I became a consultant at Bain, which I absolutely loved. I wasn’t really looking for a change, but got in touch with an old friend from Murray’s Cheese and she said, “A recruiter just called me from a large Italian cheese company. They are looking for some talent. Would you like to talk to them?” So I drove out to NJ to meet the CEO and owner of this cheese company and sat down with him and we had a three and a half hour conversation. We really got along and he created a role for me to run innovation and strategy for this company. And I just thought: this is my dream job. I can’t turn this down. So I left Bain and went to Schuman Cheese to start an innovation team and a corporate strategy team. The first product my innovation team launched was Whisps.
So I have been with Whisps since the very beginning as we were doing R&D and really finalizing how we wanted the product to taste and be produced. Whisps became such a successful, fast growing product in this cheese company that it was taking up everyone’s time and taking up more attention than they could really give it. We decided to spin off the business. In 2019, we sold the business to a PE firm called Kainos Capital, and they brought me over as CEO.
That is my journey to this job and it’s an unbelievable, pinch myself dream come true. I can’t believe how lucky I am. I have the backing of a supportive PE team and I have a team of 30 passionate people working for Whisps. We’ve just been focusing and growing the business and building our brand.
When I was looking you up on LinkedIn, I was trying to parse out the details. I was really interested in this idea of cheese innovation that was part of your title and now I see the path there.
In the spirit of cheese innovation, can you go further into that process of actually creating the product or when you knew you had something really interesting or different?
We were originally thinking it would be a good product for people to use as a crouton substitute, so we were thinking of selling it more to restaurant chains. We thought of it as an ingredient. We were heavy in R&D, figuring out the exact recipe and how to bake the product perfectly and I had an office full of bags of Whisps in various forms and shapes and sizes and recipes. I was the most popular person in that office! People were coming in all of the time and snacking on Whisps and I just realized the crouton market is a tiny little market, but the snack market is a huge market.
I’ve always thought of Whisps as a better-for-you, cleaner Cheez-It. The Cheez-It of 2020. We have all of the flavor and taste and craveability of a cheesy, salty snack but without the paragraph of ingredients that usually go into those snacks. Watching people eat Whisps, I realized this is something people would eat on its own and then we pursued a path of snacking.
What was the journey from product inception to what Whisps are today?
We’ve only really been in the market for five years, so we are still definitely growing and emerging. It was really important for us that we realized Whisps was a snack before we launched it. However, we thought we were more of a specialty cheese item, and we led with packaging that was more inspired by artisanal design. It was a little bit off-white and we were thinking it’d be on wooden shelves in specialty stores. That was our vision. Then we went into retailers and were a really big success for them, and we realized we were actually hitting snack velocities in store with this bag that we thought needed to convey very high quality. We switched from an old version of the bag to this brighter, more fun, colorful, poppy look. That felt like a major change because I think we felt like we needed to convey fanciness and then we transitioned and were like, no, we are fun. Our velocities went up significantly after the change.
Whisps before and after its rebrand. Definitely more fun.
The last thing is we started as a core set of flavors which were Parmesan, Cheddar and Asiago Pepper Jack. Those are pure cheese crisps. Then we have added another six flavors that are cheese crisps with kitchen spices on top of them. We realized we could find new flavors with really cool spice blends as opposed to trying to bake a new cheese. This really expanded our thinking and allowed us to go head to head with larger snack companies. We launched Ranch and Nacho Whisps this year to compete with Doritos.
Since you brought that up, what’s it like going head to head with the larger snack companies?
We are doing really well. I think we are lucky in that healthy snacks and better-for-you snacking is a trend and a fast-growing category right now. But one of the things that’s often associated with products in that category is that they don’t taste that good. I think with Whisps we hit on all of the healthy criteria – high protein, low carbs, low sugar, clean ingredients – all the things you look for in a healthy snack, but we taste great. So it’s a better-for-you-snack without the compromise. We’ve really benefited from that brought growth to the categories we are competing in in a way other brands have not.
Last question specifically about the product: Where’d you come up with the name?
Now there are a lot more pure protein snacks, but when we first launched in 2014 we thought a pure cheese snack would sound really heavy to people and they might not want to eat it. We wanted a name that conveyed lightness and Whisps came from that.
It definitely does! I have to admit to you, I haven’t tried them yet which I now feel is a sin of journalism. But I promise I will try them and give you my feedback (…jockeying for whether Ilana would send me some or I would buy some myself ensued).
So what’s it like to be a new CEO?
I love being a CEO. I think one of the things that’s nice about having a company that’s totally focused on Whisps as opposed to working on Whisps within a larger company is instead of fighting and angling for resources everyone is coming to work and spending all day every day on Whisps. The amount we’ve been able to accomplish in 18 months compared to what I was able to accomplish before we were an independent company is so exciting and satisfying.
When we broke the company off it was just two of us, and now we have 30 people. We spent a lot of time hiring and have been able to recruit the best team – people who are incredibly talented, passionate and fun. We have a really positive dynamic as a group, and we also work really hard. Then about one year, or even less than one year, into the company’s existence the pandemic hit and we closed the office. I was really nervous the culture we worked so hard to build would dissipate. We’ve now been remote since March 12th, so almost 8 months, and I think our culture has stayed super strong. People are still in really close touch with each other. We have regular weekly meetings and “wine downs” and fun activities and group chats, and I think the culture has really thrived even though we are not physically together. That’s been really, really nice.
Ilana in action in Whisps’ office pre-pandemic.
Besides the huge shift it’s made on the employees day-to-day experience, how has the pandemic impacted your business?
In terms of the overall business, we are a shelf-stable snack, so we were pretty lucky we weren’t heavy in the restaurant industry or other places that have shut down. We had a lot of business in the travel channel that has obviously declined significantly. A lot of people transitioned to shopping online, so our e-commerce business grew. Other retailers have had increases in traffic while some have seen decreases, so our business has grown accordingly. Certainly our 2020 plan versus what has happened in 2020 – those two things look really different, but the business has continued to grow really well.
You mentioned you grew the team significantly. I’d love to understand what you look for in folks that are joining. Who knows? From this interview maybe people might be interested in joining Whisps from Stern.
Awesome! That would be great, I’d love to hire a Sternie.
We are fast growing, so we need people who are able to come into a role that has a job description while recognizing the job description will change as we grow. A lot of people have come on and, even in the last 12 months, gotten promotions or taken on additional sets of responsibilities because we realized, “Ok, this is something that we thought would be your whole job, but you are doing amazing work so we will also add this to your plate or change the structure of the team so you are running this over here.” So one of the things we really look for is flexibility and adaptability and people who won’t react negatively to change.
I also really look for a “get to yes” mentality. One of the things about being an entrepreneurial young company in a space that is dominated by large multinational corporations is you have to do things quickly and do things that might seem impossible. You definitely can’t listen to anyone who says, “That’s just not the way things are done.” There are a lot of good reasons not to do many of the things we have done. As a group, we have to get past those reasons together and get to yes. If everyone who told us we were never going to make it had been listened to, we would never have made it.
I feel like this is a “How I Built This’ now. I can hear the intro music (…awkward humming of the theme song).
Being a newer CEO, what was the biggest lesson you learned so far about leadership?
There’s a couple of things. One is having a really positive culture that recognizes and rewards the team for great work is really important. And having really high standards and high expectations is not in conflict with that in any way. They actually go together really well. When people feel like they are doing excellent work, when they are surrounded by other people doing excellent work, and when it’s expected of them – then I think you get a really positive vibe and a sense we are really accomplishing something and doing something special. Lower expectations probably are bad for a corporate culture even though people might feel like it’s easier and nicer to do work there.
The other thing is, normally, when you have someone on your team who is going through a tough personal time, you can cover for them for a while. But we had this situation with Covid where suddenly everyone on the team was going through a stressful time. Not only that, but we had to do more work than usual because we had to shore up our supply chain and ship more products than before. There was a lot of angst and extra work and people were dealing with really stressful personal stuff and working from home with their kids. It was just everything at once. You went through it, too. So the lesson was we needed to switch from being positive, “rah rah let’s get this done, let’s get to yes” to “alright guys, link arms, we will pull together.” I think and hope work became a nice distraction for people without it feeling like we weren’t acknowledging what people were going through. That for me was a tougher balance between focusing on work and being really human with people, and empathizing with what everyone was going through and the stress we all had.
Ok time for our rapid fire questions, let’s go!
Favorite snack that’s not cheese? Pistachios
What’s one word that describes you? Energetic
Favorite professor at Stern? OMG – I had so many can I list more than one?! Yes! Professor Okun, Professor Yermack and Professor Marciano.
Where did you spend the Covid lockdown? In Connecticut at my parent’s house… I’m still here.
When do you have the best ideas? First thing in the morning.
What’s one thing you can’t do that you want to learn? Speak another language.
What are you reading right now? I’m reading a murder mystery.
What is a cause you are passionate about? Black Lives Matter
Favorite movie, tv show or podcast? I listen to My Favorite Murder the podcast.
…I am sensing a theme here.
Favorite time of day? Morning
If you could meet anyone alive or dead who would it be? Hillary Clinton
Who is the most important person in your life? My kids and my husband.
Our last questions are Stern-focused. How do you think your time at Stern influenced your career?
I was able to try out a lot of different things and that’s one of the really special things about Stern. You’re in NYC so you’re exposed to different companies, and you are with such an interesting, international and diverse group of students. Obviously, you can take lots of different classes, so I felt I was able to get exposure to lots of different things I have always been interested in and never learned about before. That built up my confidence that you don’t have to be a super expert on a topic in order to participate in it or ask good questions. I think that’s really helped me as a CEO, because I oversee a lot of things I don’t always know that much about. It would be easy to cower and say, “I don’t know that much, I will defer to you,” but I have built the confidence to drop in on something and ask good questions and lead even if I am not the topic expert.
What advice would you give to fellow Stern MBAs who aspire to become a CEO?
My take on it would be to be confident and ask for what you want. Tell people you want to be a CEO, and try to take responsibility whenever you can and raise your hand for things. There’s definitely some cliches that are cliches because they are true. In this case, you won’t get it if you don’t ask for it. That’s true. If you don’t put yourself out there and say you want this, no one will look at you and say, “She might want this let me ask if she wants this.”
So go out there and state confidently what you want. And then you have to do the work to earn it. You can’t say you want it and it will drop in your lap. You say you want it and prove you deserve it, you’ll get it.
And that’s it. Great advice from an inspirational CEO. So to all of my fellow Sternies with strong career aspirations, get out there and ask for it… and work hard! And as for the election results, we checked one last time when we were done. Nothing had happened yet.