Findley offered a "Lessons from Leaders" presentation to a crowded LaRose Digital Theatre in the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business on Tuesday, Sept. 14.
Along with sharing her favorite offering from Blue Apron, the meal kit company she heads as president and CEO, Linda Findley ’95 on Wednesday offered a recipe for building a successful career and navigating challenges as a business leader.
That career has taken her from majoring in journalism and communications at Elon to success in the public relations and marketing world before she set her sights on tackling the challenges that come from having operational leadership of a company. In 2019, she met that goal when she was named president and CEO of Blue Apron following leadership roles at Etsy, Inc., Evernote Corp. and Alibaba.com.
She took the helm at a time when the company was seeking a turnaround and was in the process of refining its business model. Then the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was a period when Findley and Blue Apron doubled down on the company’s focus on quality and providing a safe and supportive environment for its employees rather than capitalizing on rising consumer demand for meal preparation kits at the expense of both.
“I have been able to experience and do things in this role that some people don’t see in 10 to 15 years of working,” Findley told the crowded room in LaRose Digital Theatre. “Not all of them were fun, but every time you experience one of those things, you learn something that gives you more confidence and gives you the ability to face whatever the next thing is going to be.”
During the hour-long program, Findley fielded questions from students in the audience, with Rob Moorman, the Frank S. Holt, Jr. Professor of Business Leadership and professor of organizational behavior, serving as moderator.
Part of the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business’s “Lessons from Leaders” series, her visit offered the audience an opportunity to learn about her approach to managing Blue Apron, how she has navigated personal and professional challenges and how she has mapped out her career path.
At Elon, Findley pushed herself to graduate early, and capitalized on the opportunity to take a diverse course load while also working multiple jobs. It was an approach she says has served her well as her roles and responsibilities have shifted throughout her career. Her work pursuing her degree in journalism prepared her well by advancing her communications and analytical skills, but Findley pointed to three religious studies courses she took with Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Pugh as having the most impact on her trajectory.
“Those completely changed my life because they taught me how to critically think,” Findley said. “Thinking about different cultures, societies and religions, and taking a balance of those types of classes completely changed my world.”
For 15 years, she worked in public relations and crisis communications before realizing that she wanted to move into the operational side of business. “I had this moment when I realized I wanted to stop trying to clean up the mess and I want to try to fix the problem and stop it from happening,” Findley said. “That was the moment when I said I want to eventually be a CEO.”
Along that path, Findley would take risks to achieve what she wanted. She left PR to move to Asia without a job, and then landed with the online shopping giant Alibaba.com when it was still little known in the United States. Her move to Etsy, the online marketplace focused on handmade and vintage products, came as many were questioning whether it could survive challenges by Amazon and other e-commerce giants. Although successful during her time at Etsy, she left the company to seek a CEO position, and chose Blue Apron from among four job offers.
“I took this one even though it was probably the most difficult because it was the deepest turnaround, but it was the one I cared the most about, and I think that matters,” Findley said. “I put my heart and soul into everything I do, and you can’t do that if you don’t really love what you’re doing.”
A cook since the age of five, Findley said her life and family have always revolved around food — sharing meals with others and deeply integrating the enjoyment of food into travel plans. It’s a passion that now has a professional element in her role heading Blue Apron. The company’s success as the meal kit space has become more crowded and as many have faced supply chain, sourcing and other issues stemming from the pandemic has been based on a commitment to quality ingredients and customer satisfaction, Findley said. When she started, customers had 17 meal choices and now enjoy 67.
“My intent was to change it into something where we could keep all the quality, keep everything that made Blue Apron special, keep the unique ingredients but make it easier and give a lot more variety,” Findley said. “And then the pandemic hit, and I had to make a choice. During that time, everyone in the space was just going after more customers.”
Findley said she chose to continue building a better product rather than just pursuing an increase in the volume of customers. While that meant not doing as well as competitors during the increased demand for meal kit services during the pandemic, Findley said, it was a path she believed would leave the company healthier emerging from the pandemic. And that’s just what happened, she said.
Findley serves on the boards for Ralph Lauren Corp., Styleseat, Inc., which is an online platform for beauty and wellness professionals, and Dress for Success, a nonprofit focused on empowering women. They are opportunities that allow her to learn from those different environments and bring those lessons back to Blue Apron as well as to share with these three organizations elements that have made Blue Apron so successful.
Findley has seen successful in a variety of corporate and business environments, and points back to skills she learned at Elon as assisting her through the years. “The liberal arts education does actually create a very rounded way of approaching the world,” Findley said. “I think that the ability to look at things from multiple angles came from here and has helped me immensely in my career.”
So what is Findley’s favorite Blue Apron meal? She was quick to point to the black bean flautas, which are a unique take on the Mexican dish thanks to the inclusion of smoked gouda cheese.
“It’s such a simple dish, but the flavor is so intense and so good that I just keep coming back to it again and again and again,” Findley said.