At Harvard, WW chief highlights value of risk

Mindy Grossman, CEO of WW, told her audience that getting ahead requires taking chances. When Mindy Grossman is pressed to define her various career roles in a single word, she lands on “transformer.” That’s how the chief executive officer of WW Inc. — rebranded from Weight Watchers International — described herself Thursday during an appearance at Harvard University.

Grossman, who participated in a discussion organized by the Harvard Association for Law and Business as part of its annual Symposium Week, spoke about how the 56-year-old company — under increasing pressure from competitors — has evolved with the times by emphasizing wellness along with weight loss. The company, based in New Jersey, has about 3.9 million subscribers, who pay for products and services that include meals, a diet-planning app, and workshops.

In a discussion with Elizabeth Ferrie, co-president of the student group, Grossman, 61, detailed her early life, her path to success — and the many obstacles she and other women face in male-dominated industries.

In an interview after the event, Grossman said a key point she wanted to make was the importance of being flexible. “In today’s world, you have to be agile, you have to be innovative,” she said.

The talk, and a question-and-answer session that followed, served as the keynote event for a weeklong series focused on the intersection between law and business.

By her senior year of college, Grossman said, she knew that to get ahead she had to take chances. And did she. Grossman called off her wedding engagement, decided not to go to law school as planned, and moved from Washington, D.C., to New York “to figure it out.”

“I realized that not taking a risk is often more dangerous than taking a very strategic, thoughtful risk,” she said.

From there, Grossman climbed up the ranks of several menswear and fashion companies before eventually becoming president and CEO of Polo Jeans Co.

Grossman went on to serve as global vice president at Nike Inc. for over five years before heading to holding company IAC in 2006. Grossman took HSN Inc., an IAC holding known predominately for its television shopping offerings, public and steered it through the worst of 2008’s global recession.

At WW these days, Grossman has plenty of reasons not to become complacent. The company’s stock tanked by more than 30 percent late last month following unimpressive fourth-quarter earnings, downsized expectations for 2019, and concerns that competitors — especially those touting the so-called keto diet — are cutting into the company’s business.

In a statement following the earnings report, Grossman said, “While we are disappointed with our start to 2019, we are confident that our strategy to focus on providing holistic wellness solutions leveraging our best-in-class weight management program is the right path to support long-term sustainable growth.” She promised that Oprah Winfrey — who has about an 8 percent stake in the company — “will play a central role in our upcoming TV and digital marketing campaign for spring.”

But at Harvard, there was little talk of the company’s troubles, outside of a reference Grossman made to the company’s rocky start to the year. Instead, the focus was on Grossman’s life and career.

Ferrie, a third-year Harvard law student, noted that Grossman is one of only 51 Fortune 1,000 CEOs who are female, and as one of the organization’s few female presidents, she was interested in speaking to one.

“Her message and her purpose really resonated with us,” she said.

For first-year law student Genevieve Antono, seeing Grossman Thursday marked something of a milestone. “I haven’t met one” before, Antono said, meaning a woman CEO. “She was my first. . . . I feel energized.”

Other speakers during the week included Blackstone Group’s Vik Sawhney, Flour Bakery founder and owner Joanne Chang, and Nasdaq’s Edward Knight.

Max Reyes can be reached at max.reyes@globe.com . Follow him on Twitter @MaxJReyes .

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