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When Co-CEOs Actually Work

Jeanine Wells

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When Jenna Kerner and Jane Fisher met at Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s school of business, they immediately bonded over two common passions: challenging themselves and empowering others. They took those passions and combined them, deciding to brave the world of business together by starting a new company with the goal to help women everywhere. Thus, Harper Wilde was born. As co-founders and co-CEOs, Kerner and Fisher started the direct-to-consumer company to make bra shopping easier and less frustrating. Harper Wilde was founded to stand against oversexualization – creating bras marketed towards women’s needs, not towards men’s wants. Harper Wilde’s bras come without the extra embellishments and unnecessary features, in order to be a comfortable, functional and affordable choice for women.

Kerner and Fisher’s decision to be co-CEOs is an important part of Harper Wilde’s story. While some co-CEO stories end in negative competition or failed business, the two “Wilde Women”, as they call themselves, knew it would be important to empower each other, share responsibility, and balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses in order for the company to succeed.

“It’s certainly not for everyone,” says Kerner. “But in the instance where you have two founders who collaborate with each other and also challenge one another regularly, the value derived from that is unparalleled.”

A common problem amongst co-CEOs and business partners, many experts note, is finding a healthy way to challenge one another, without giving one person too much power or making the other person feel that they can’t get something done without the other’s approval. To do this, co-executives must decide fairly who will be in charge of certain decisions or projects and give themselves autonomy over these areas. Fisher and Kerner are good examples, as they say, they maintain a balance of power in their day-to-day operations by splitting up responsibility for different business functions; Jane oversees Harper Wilde’s manufacturing, supply chain, operations, and financing, while Jenna oversees Harper Wilde’s branding, marketing, and website.

Of the split, Kerner explains, “We clearly delineate who the owner [of that business function] is so that at the end of the day, one person can ensure it gets done.”

By splitting the workload and allowing each owner to oversee daily functions independently, Kerner and Fisher create a stable power environment at Harper Wilde. At the end of the day, they know they can rely on each other. Trust and accountability are essential for co-CEOs, however, it’s important to know when you need outside help as well.

“We openly give feedback to one another and ask questions about what we can improve,” Fisher says. “We [also] invest in culture and personal and professional development by working with advisors and coaches. For instance, we work with Julie Larson-Green, current CXO at Qualtics and former CXO at Microsoft, to plan team leadership training and coaching to ensure that we invest in personal growth for ourselves and our team.”

Thanks to outside support and resources, co-CEOs are not as uncommon as they used to be in business. Many startups have opted for co-CEOs, with results very similar to Harper Wilde’s. For example, Lauren Gores Ireland and Marianna Hewitt, of skincare company Summer Fridays, are two female co-CEOs who have found running a business together brings different visions one wouldn’t have seen without the other. Another example is vegan and paleo ice cream brand Snow Monkey, headed by Rachel Geicke and Mariana Ferreira, which started from a shared desire for healthy desserts. Many founders like these feel that having a partner can broaden an idea and add different perspectives to a company.

“You have an equal partner in the business who also feels the same responsibility and accountability to make decisions in the best interest of the company,” Kerner explains.

She notes that another benefit of having a partner in the same executive position as you is that you can support one another as equals when the going gets tough.

“Founding a company can be lonely, stressful, exhilarating along with a roller coaster of other emotions,” she says. “Having someone who feels all the highs and lows with you can maintain a sense of balance and perspective that doesn’t come as easily in single-founder or CEO companies.”  

While a co-operated company may not be for everyone, Kerner advises others to “understand what energizes you and your co-founder as well as what de-energizes you both” in order to find the best balance.

Lastly, she gives this sage advice: “Be open to changing this over time as workload, priorities, and team evolve.”

There are many challenging aspects of being a startup founder, and many roads that founders can take to find success. As co-CEOs, you must navigate those roads together or risk failure. For Harper Wilde’s Kerner and Fisher, they make sure to empower each other to accomplish their goals and create the best products for their company. Together, they founded Harper Wilde to empower all women – including each other.

Freelance writer covering music, travel, food, fashion and tech. And tacos.

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