This veteran storyteller helps bring sizzle to media, fashion and marketing, and is so tech-savvy she co-founded Tech NYC. Now she’s focused on women’s entrepreneurship and understanding how tech is changing the lives of our kids.
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
Juliet Scott-Croxford:Thank you, I’m excited to be joined onstage by the brilliant Desiree Gruber.
Desiree Gruber:Are we the last panel or there’s one after?
Scott-Croxford:There’s one after.
Gruber:Okay, bringing you in—you’re in the home stretch, guys.
Scott-Croxford:Desiree is founder and CEO of Full Picture, an award-winning television producer, cofounder of the “Project Runway,” which is now in its seventeenth season. She’s also set up a venture fund called DGNL and is an advocate, a very active advocate for developing and supporting female talent and entrepreneurs and C suite executives.
Scott-Croxford:So I’m going to jump right in. You launched Full Picture in 1999, when the process for telling stories and connecting with audiences was fairly linear.
Scott-Croxford:So now all bets are off. There are so many different formats. What advice would you give to people that are launching a new brand or wanting to tell stories and connect with an audience?
Gruber:I think obviously we know it’s changing on a daily basis. So in 1999, you had to go through a third party to get endorsement for your brands and your story and you hoped they would tell your story the way you could see it and sometimes they wouldn’t. So today you get to tell your story direct and you hope that it’s sticky with your fans. I think that sometimes people are so quick to tell their story direct because they’re like, “Oh, I have a microphone, I have a megaphone, let me use it,” that they don’t run it by anybody and it’s unfiltered, it’s not exactly what you want to say sometimes.
So I say to all our clients and your friends, put it down in writing, think about it, open it back again, look at it. We deserve—your audience deserves that extra editing. So just because you don’t have to edit now, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. I still think that people should spend some time thinking about it and making it a little bit more connected and honed and shaped than they might think just sending it out completely unfiltered. Obviously, the medium is very important, so if you’re on Snapchat and your fans resonate with Snapchat and you, then you can go as unfiltered as you want and they want to see you, pimples and all.
But a lot of people, they’re looking at your content—and we’re talking about television being time shifted backstage and how difficult that is for the networks today to tell stories when it’s time shifted. So it used to be like we knew at a certain time of night, content is going to be right for a certain audience. But now that audience isn’t looking at TV at that time of day, so they’re looking at a different time of day. So what happens, you’re putting out your content and you feel like, “I’m feeling this right now, it’s morning,” so you’re like, “Morning glory, hallelujah,” and that person is looking at it at like 2:00 a.m. and they’re like, “This jerk.”
So it doesn’t come through exactly when you want it to come through in any medium anymore, so it’s really important to think about it and think about, “Would I want to see this later?” and feel like it’s a little bit more honed if that’s the audience you’re looking for.
Scott-Croxford:And talking about technology, what do you think—what technology and digital platforms do you think has disrupted content the most and has kind of driven the most growth?
Gruber:Yeah. Well, social media is number one. So there’s hundreds of millions of content creators now. Everybody is a content creator competing against Spielberg. So if you think about it, Spielberg and the networks, they’re putting out their best content, spending hundreds of millions of dollars working to entertain you and then you get home, it’s been a long day and—we were talking about this backstage. Your sister sends you a post from Ireland, she’s shearing her sheep today in the field and you’re like, “Oh, this is amazing, the sheep have been sheared.” And so you look at it and then you say, “Oh, I’ve got to show my husband when he gets home,” and then you show your son for a little bit. So that’s ten minutes of time you just stole from Spielberg. So you’re competing against Spielberg if you can make content that’s connected to your audience.
So what does it mean? I wish I knew what it meant. I don’t have an answer so I’m as interested as the rest of us in what’s going to happen. But it’s a new day.
Scott-Croxford:And so we were talking about the role of the influencer and how brands need to reposition themselves, and the Kardashians. Talk a little bit about where you see the sort of influencer phenomenon going.
Gruber:Yeah. Well, I love the rise of the influencer because it’s a place where women win. So 75% of influencers are women because we’re more connected to other women, we’re cheerleading with other women, we’re hearing their stories. It’s a different way for us to form connections and build mentors. So the stats show that men get mentored at work and women get mentored at home and out of the office.So the Internet and social media has been a great place for women to find other mentors and like-minded women and to tell stories. And you could say like just an Instagram post, like she had an Instagram post today and five girlfriends said, “Bravo, congratulations.” But to her it’s not just an Instagram post. That’s her coaching network, her get it done, and her—the people who are keeping her on track to say like, “Hey, I told everybody today I’m going to get this done and I want to check back in with these people, my network here, and show them that I did.” So it’s different than having a boss mentor you when you have your friends and women out in the field mentoring you.
So we also have a lot of women who are not in the traditional workplace, so it’s a place for them to convene and connect on topics that they care about, children, health, taking care of things that are not traditionally what you would think about would be money-earning positions but can be money-earning positions today. So there’s a whole new market for women in the second shift to be able to earn money for their family and do things that would not traditionally be known as a career path.
So if you think about how long has Marie Kondo been out, she’s a very new phenomenon. Do you know who Marie Kondo is, the Japanese woman who talks about how—she only speaks Japanese. She has a hit TV show on Netflix and it’s about giving away possessions in your house and organizing. So you take this and you go, “Do I love this bottle? Does it bring me joy?” and if it doesn’t, you let it go. So she now has a network and you can sign up on her site and you can go through the course and become an official Marie Kondo organizer and go out in your neighborhood and position yourself as that. That’s a huge shift from what it would have been, and that’s the Internet and that’s social media and that’s the ability to connect directly with your fans. It would have never happened—five years ago that would have been hard to do, that Marie Kondo could come up out of nowhere, have a book, get a show, and have thousands of women selling her philosophy and making money for themselves in their hometown markets. It’s an incredible shift in how things are going to happen.
That’s why I think it’s so hard for me to say—I think anybody who says, “I can predict the future,” we don’t know right now. We don’t know. There’s people in labs cooking up things that are above my paygrade right now.
Scott-Croxford:So women also represent 83% of consumer spending in the US, which is bigger than China and India combined. Yet, the World Economic Forum has come out and said it’s going to take more than 200 years to close the gender pay gap. And I think it’s 2.5% of all VC funding is going to women, 0.2% is the slice that is going to women of color. So despite those big stats, why—and I know this is a topic that you’re passionate about. How do we accelerate progress and why are those numbers so abysmal?
Gruber:Well, the system is hacked against us. So it’s hacked against anybody who hasn’t been at the top of the system for a long time. So whoever owns the system rigs the system, many times unbeknownst to themselves, the way they see the world. So it’s not made for time shifting work, so if a woman’s got kids and she does want to be there at pick up or drop off, that’s not wholly understood in the workplace today. Even at places like Walmart, they’re struggling with how do they keep women in the workforce there. If the shift—if your shift actually shifts, then you call out sick because you’ve got to pick up your kids. You’re the caregiver, you’ve got to be there at 3:00. So they’re working to see if they can get AI to help them. It’s one of the most interesting ways that I see AI being used today is to help women with work and allow them the time to be there and then to be out when they need to be a caregiver to their families which is, for many women, the basis of how they represent themselves and who they are in the world. What was the question?
Scott-Croxford:So how do we—
Gruber:I’m so—this topic kills me.
Scott-Croxford:I know. And I want to point out that diversity and inclusion is a big topic and gender is by no means the only element of diversity, but how do we accelerate progress?
Gruber:How do I accelerate progress, yes, sorry. So I think that it’s imperative on all of us to, if you care, to take action every day. So I work with Time’s Up and so one of the things we wrote for Time’s Up is the +1/x3 initiative. So the idea is to bring women out in the workforce, bring women into rooms where they’re not normally invited, so accelerate somebody’s progress by allowing them to come into a meeting that would normally not be a place that they would be seen. Bringing a woman to an event with you as your plus one that night instead of somebody that you normally bring and then asking her, “Who is that you need to know?” and offering to times three her network, what would be three introductions that you could make that would actually accelerate her career. And a lot of times it’s so simple to do this because if they’re—you’re talking to somebody who’s not on your level in the office, you’re trying to bring them up, it’s an easy intro for you. They’re not asking to get to know the CEO of another corporation. They’re usually asking to know somebody on the sales team or somebody that would be on their level. So for you to make three introductions to somebody is an easy task for you and it actually ends up giving you more because you’re so joyous that you’re able to do something and feel like, “Hey, I impacted the system today.”
So we’ve been talking to corporations about instituting this and doing +1 mixers where women are invited out into the space. You can’t hire who you don’t know. It just doesn’t happen. So men keep saying, “How can we get more women onboard?” Well, it’s very hard to just bring in somebody you don’t know at all and say, “I’m going to hire them.” It’s usually a network, like, “Oh, I’ve heard about this person,” “Oh, I saw them here,” and then you bring them into your orbit.
So if we’re not out in the orbit, we’re not going to get called on. So the quickest route of action right now is to bring people into the room where it happens. And then one of the things I do is I ask them after, “Do you have any questions? Was there something in that meeting that didn’t make sense to you?” And there is so much jargon today and acronyms, the APL, the RTC, the OTT, and all these things and people—I’ll come out of the room and go, “Do you have any questions?” And then they go, “What is this? What is a CAC?” And I’m like, “Oh, it’s a customer acquisition.” And you know, it’s a simple thing that we throw around because it’s a jargon in our industry but it’s not jargon—it’s something they hadn’t heard and they didn’t know. And so those kinds of demystifying things and asking somebody, like, “If you have two questions, ask me now,” it’s really helpful.
Scott-Croxford:Yes. Going back to content and brands—and I am going to open it out to the audience shortly. What brands do you look at that are doing this well, that are responding to different formats, that are responding to the multigenerational aspect, that are responding to the kind of live digital format? Who do you look at and kind of go, “They always get it right.”
Gruber:Yeah. Yeah. I look at really what brand’s influencers love and why are they loving them, so why are they talking about them. And I equate brand loyalty to a race car driver that, you know, when they get out of the car, they have those patches on their sleeve. And so your fans are basically race car drivers so you want them walking around with your patch on their sleeve. So if you’re Starbucks, you want them wearing Starbucks. If you’re a SmartWater—I’m a JUST water person. I’m very proud of this packaging so I carry it around. It’s a statement of myself when I carry this bottle. So you want people to be loyal. Obviously you want them to use your product, but you want them to be loud.
So for me, the brands that allow you to be loud, Starbucks. It’s the things that’s a daily habit. It’s something that people are going to every day and it shows your cool factor. Somebody else might be a Dunkin’ Donuts person. So Dunkin’ Donuts—didn’t they just rebrand, they’re not Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s called Dunkin’s Coffee now, Dunkin’ Coffee. It’s really a coffee shop. It’s not a donut shop. You buy donuts once a week on Saturday morning but you’re buying coffee three times a day. So Dunkin’ Donuts is now Dunkin’ Coffee. So it’s those brands that people interact with in a daily basis and connect with and there’s a little charm that you’re allowed to add your own personality to it. So when you go to Starbucks and the barista writes your name wrong—I had a friend the other day and her name’s Jane, J-A-N-E, and she’s her whole life felt like she’s been a Plain Jane. And that day she told the barista “Jane,” and he spelled it, J-A-Y-N-E, and she was like, “Look at this!” She’s like, “I’m a millennial.” And on Instagram, it got 50 comments. We’re all laughing because we know her whole life she’s been Plain Jane and that day she was Jane with a Y.
And so the context is the medium that is served to me. So I know Jane and when I see that come through like that, it’s on Instagram, it’s a place that we’re connected, that we’re cheerleading her. So all these things come together in that moment, and Starbucks was a great brand place for us to have fun and then Starbucks had to be okay with the fact that we took their brand and put it in a different context. And they have no idea what that means when they see that Jayne, it doesn’t mean anything to them. But their brand was a part of my community and my language. So I think when brands allow themselves to be that connected to you and your story, that’s when they get the biggest lift.
Scott-Croxford:Including “Game of Thrones.”
Scott-Croxford:Questions from the audience?
Gruber:David, I know you have a question.
Kirkpatrick:There’s somebody who has got a better question than me. She’s got her hand up.
Ighodaro:Hi, my name is Esosa Ighodaro. I have a company called Nexar and run an organization called Black Women Talk Tech. And I was just curious about kind of what—how are you using technology to kind of fuel your business and are you actually partnering with any startups to kind of, you know, solve problems that you’re trying to solve?
Gruber:We use technology as it’s—I’m not tech first. I’m not a tech-enabled business, so I’m really in the people business, I’m in people and helping them tell their stories and connecting with other people. So technology is—I use it in that it’s in my hand, in my phone, in the social networks. We are looking for great female-founded businesses that talk about diversity, so we are absolutely culture scouts on a daily basis and trying to find like-minded people that we can bring into the fray and help us break the patterns.
One of the things I’ve challenged my company right now is to talk about pattern breaking energy, like what are we doing every day to break the pattern of the way we did it a week ago. Because you don’t need to do the things you did a week ago. We can do something new because that’s—things are bubbling up on a daily basis.
For me, though, we talked about this before, I think it’s an interesting point is that how much of my personal data do I want to give to these sites and apps as they’re coming up and bubbling into the ether. So I feel like I’ve already let my data out with, you know, Google, with Gmail, with all these things. So sometimes now when I get new apps and new services, I’m a little hesitant to be the first mover because I’m like, “Oh God,” because when I get to that page, I’m in, I’m like, “Oh, this sounds good,” and then it says like your date of birth, your home address, your cellphone. I’m like, “Too much, abandon the cart, I’m not going to do it,” and then I let other people sort of source it around me and feel like they get into it and then if I feel like, “Okay, it’s really getting some lift,” then I’m willing to go in and put all my info in there. Because there is a lot of—there’s a barrier now to get into new apps and new things with the amount of info, unless it’s got Facebook connectivity into it. But otherwise, there’s a lot of info for me to give as a company on the front end for us to do that. But I’m happy to talk after. I’d love to hear about it.
Scott-Croxford:And the barrier that you feel and kind of put up with sharing data, how different is that or not to the barrier that your son feels, for example? So when he’s gaming—
Gruber:Yeah, so I have a 10-year-old. He feels no barrier. If the content is good enough, he will give any data. He has no—that’s his—he is looking for, you know, the ring. He wants to grab it. So if there’s something there, if it’s in Fortnite and he’s going to win a berry or something, he will play a little game in between, he’ll move the cupcakes around to get it. So we’re trying to impress upon him that he thinks he’s gaming with another 10-year-old in Miami but he’s actually gaming possibly with—you know, we don’t know. So it’s very complicated. I think we all grapple with this the same way. I don’t have a magic bullet or a way to answer that. It’s just been—you know, I think it’s the day and age. I’m sure when I was little, my parents—I rode my bike to school and they were like, “Don’t talk to strangers.” If somebody rolls down their window, like, “Ride faster.” So it’s the same kind of thing, you’ve got to hope that there’s some little self-guiding mechanism in there that can help him stay safe but it’s definitely the Wild West, I realize that.
Fung:Mei Lin Fung, IEEE and People Centered Internet. You know, we have ingredients labeled on our food and I wonder, with 83% of purchasing power in the hands of women, do you think that purchasing decisions would go differently if we actually labeled the board composition and the senior leadership composition of the companies we are making purchases from?
Gruber:I do. I do. I think that we definitely need to figure out a system to help us understand that. I have been approached, as somebody with a venture fund, I’ve met some women who have come to me and they have companies and catalogs that have curated women-only products and they have not gained velocity yet. So there are moments of people pushing that out there. I think at the end of the day, as I just said, I’m willing to give up my data if the product is good enough. So I don’t know that a customer will say, “Hey, this product is not as good as this one or not as cheap”—price is a big thing—that they would do it. I would do it but I’m not your Average Joe customer.
Fung:So we’ve got a problem because the digital home today looks like a mancave. It is not supporting the elderly, the children, and so on.
Fung:So I think we need to vote with our wallets.
Gruber:I agree with you 100% and I’m all ears if we can figure out a solution to this. I would love, love, love to spend my money behind female entrepreneurs. I invest in them.
Audience 1:What opportunities do you see between the intersection of content programming, interactivity, and commerce or consumer revenue?
Gruber:It’s the most exciting thing that’s happening in content today. So since I’ve been in the content business, we’ve talked about how can you sell direct from your show, what’s going to happen? I remember when “Friends” came out and “Project Runway” was on Bravo, which is part of the NBC Universal family, and they’re like, “Oh, we’re going to do something on ‘Friends’ where you’re going to be able to buy everything from the show,” you know, the “Friends” apartment, you’re going to be able to buy the lampshade, this and that. It has not come to be yet. They are still—I read an article just this week saying they’re going to do it again, that NBC Universal has the technology. They’ve been saying it for 15 years.
The problem is the pipeline between filming content and how to buy. So if this chair, if this piece doesn’t go up for eight weeks and this chair is no longer available, you can’t buy it. So that’s what happens in the content world. That’s where the lag is just too heavy for people to handle. The manufacturers don’t want to keep product and inventory waiting for the show to come out. So that’s where—even the fashion on shows is pretty much gone by the time the show comes to air.
Now, the Internet and Instagram, that’s a perfect, you know, stomping ground for this to happen and I think that I would absolutely, when I’m in flow state and I’m there on my Instagram and I’m so hyped up about something, I will hit buy and I would love it if it came through. So that’s what we’re seeing right now and then it’s up to the brands to be able to do that. So Kylie Jenner is one of our clients. She is 100% equipped to do that. She’s Gen Z, she was raised like this. This is how she consumes products and this is how her fans want to consume it.
I used to want to go to the mall, mill around, get a bag, come home with some bags. I felt like, “Oh, I have something, I did something.” So today, one of the things that we are finding—this is a lot of points in one question here—is that the packaging—so packaging and sustainability. The packaging is not great. So you send somebody a lip gloss and it has—you know, it comes in a box, it comes with bubble wrap and then it comes with a little paper packaging around it, a box. The kids want that unwrapping process because for them, that is the experience. And we’ve talked about can we get rid of these, packaging that you don’t need, but they actually want it. For them, the unboxing is part of the experience of buying the product. So if you take away that—so there’s so many—it’s such a balance, you know what I mean? I wish it was like just a straight shot and we could say, “Hey, these are women-founded products, buy them now, they’re the best.” It’s not black and white in anything. And in commerce, it’s certainly not black and white.
And then you get the product home, you were so engaged when you hit, buy and you get it and you’re like, “Eh, it’s not what I want.” So that’s why they still have to surprise and delight you. When you receive the package, it has to be good and you hope that that person is in the same mindset that they were when they bought it, that they keep the goods and then you have—that’s the magic bullet for any brand. And once you have something in somebody’s hands and they keep it and they’re carrying your brand, that’s what I said, that’s the patch on the sleeve. Then I have your brand in my purse. I put the lipstick in my purse, I come out the next day, I’m showing my friends, “Oh, look, I got the lip gloss.” That’s when your fans are loyal but they’re loud. So that’s the holy grail.
Scott-Croxford:And the drop has now replaced the mall.
Gruber:Yes, isn’t it? The drop has replaced the mall.
Scott-Croxford:And, Desiree, we’re out of time, sadly. Thank you so much.
Gruber:Yes, thank you guys. Thank you. That was fun.