Women in Business Q&A: Lizanne Falsetto, Founder, thinkThin

Women in Business Q&A: Lizanne Falsetto, Founder, thinkThin
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Lizanne Falsetto

In 2000, after a decade of world travel and a successful career modeling internationally, Lizanne launched thinkThin. A foodie and nutrition enthusiast, Lizanne created a better-for-you, high protein nutrition bar for active women on the go. As the Founder and CEO of thinkThin, she steered her company to become a national brand to its place today as a multi-million dollar, household name. In November 2015, Lizanne and TSG Consumer Partners LLC announced the sale of thinkThin to global performance nutrition and ingredients group Glanbia plc for $217 million.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Every step of my journey has helped me understand human nature, behavior, and leadership. As a young athlete, I learned how to be part of a team, and later, lead a team of my peers toward a common goal. As a world traveler, I experienced many different cultures, which helped me develop empathy and the ability to consider a variety of viewpoints - qualities I believe are imperative to solid leadership. The biggest life lessons have come from my experience as a single mother, raising and loving my two children and learning where professional success intersects with my personal life. Anyone's life experience can make them a skilled leader if they let it.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at thinkThin?
Well, my previous employers were Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani, which is not the most traditional or practical business training. But modeling did show me two things: opportunity in the market, and that success is self-fulfilling. Back then I travelled constantly, living and working all over the world, understanding global trends and innovation. Once I discovered the market opportunity for thinkThin, it was up to me to bring it to life. That's something else I learned form modeling - no one is trying to make it easier for you to make it.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at thinkThin?
Over the past 20 years there have been many, but I can say that one of the biggest challenges has been competing with other CPG companies and their exponentially expandingbudgets - 10, 100 even 1,000 times mine. Over time, those challenges become highlights. They led to my biggest accomplishment: selling thinkThin to Glanbia plc. Everyentrepreneur wants to see her "baby" succeed. My dream from the beginning was for thinkThin to go global and expand to every aisle of the grocery store. I put in the work with the idea that someday my grandchildren will be able to point to this product and say "my grandmother started that."

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
To start with what you know. When I used to travel for modeling, it was really hard to find good food that worked for my body - I do well on protein, which is satiating, andpoorly on gluten, which has always been an irritant to my system. So I developed a recipe and shared my homemade bars with friends, and soon through grassroots word of mouth the company was born. So, I say listen to your gut - what do YOU want to eat? Find your niche and speak to your audience.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
There are 5 integral lessons I would like to share:

Focus. Focus. Focus. When I was growing up, I loved basketball so much that I slept with my ball at night. That's the type of passion you'll need to be successful. It wasn't only passion that made me a good player, however, you have to translate passion into hours of practice to be skilledat something. When you focus your goals, you becomeresults-oriented and efficient. My focus helped me to work through challenges to grow and meet the total company goals, whether I had one employee or one hundred.

Break the rules. When I decided 20 years ago to add the words "gluten free" to the wrapper of my thinkThin bars, many well-meaning advisors advised me against it, saying that "it'll confuse people." I knew then that gluten is an allergen, and it didn't work with my system, so I followed my intuition and ignored their advice. With gluten-free products flooding today's market, I'm well positioned to fit in both the bar aisle and the gluten-free aisle! Remember - fear squashes passion.

Know how to say no. I used to think I had to snap up every opportunity that came along, which led to some wrongdecisions early in the life of my company. For instance, one time I was asked to come up with a pasta sauce. Revenue was all I heard, so I said yes. "Pasta sauce? Why not, I'm three-quarters Italian!" But in hindsight, I see that jumping from protein bar to pasta sauce didn't make sense for the growth of my company. I ended up shifting lots of time, energy, and focus away from where the company really needed to go. Learn when to say yes and when to say no. Saying no (gracefully) puts you in a power position.

Be healthy. Your health is incredibly important. As the driving force behind a start-up brand, you will be putting in long hours. Your mind will keep working, even when you are not. Eat right, drink plenty of water, and get enough sleep - those are givens. But being truly healthy is not just physical; you must hone your ability to quiet your mind. This is how you'll be able to better hear and heed what your body is telling you it needs, whether it is protein, rest, or even a glass of wine!

Keep a positive attitude. A positive mindset manifests a positive outcome. Years ago, when grocery shopping, I would stop the cart, staring at the shelves. My kids grew impatient, begging, "Come on, Mom!" But in those moments, deep in thought, was how thinkThin was created. I visualized it on the shelves long before we formally launched the product.

How do you maintain work/life balance?
A few glasses of wine at 11:00PM.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
That elusive 'work life balance.' We have to stop pretending that there's a perfect medium that will make you successful in the office and fulfilled everywhere else. Somehow we were set up with this impractical expectation that work makes space for life. The best we can do is love to work but be fully present for the moments that matter.

Some think it's a trade off between children and career. I'm raising two children as a working mom. When I told my 12 year-old, Aydan, that I'd sold the company, he stood stock-still for a good three minutes, until he finally found the words: "But Mommy, what are you going to do now?" All I could do was smile. He only ever knew me as the mom who ran her own business, and he couldn't imagine me doing anything else. I also smiled at my kids' incredible resilience. Starting my own business from the ground up meant practically raising them in the office and the warehouse. They didn't always get my undivided attention, which honestly was hard on all of us.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?
I never had a sustained mentor throughout my career, so I learned many things the hard way. As I have progressed in my own career, I've taken on a counseling role with other entrepreneurs - I truly believe that mentoring is a win-win situation. It helps the "mentee" become more proficient at their job, and the mentor gives back by sharing wisdom and resources, developing the well-rounded, knowledgeable professionals we all strive to be.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Mother Teresa, no question. She loved to serve humankind, and she devoted her life to caring for the poor and the sick. Melinda Gates is another person I whole-heartedly admire. Her work, foundation, philanthropy, and dedication to improving the world are monumental aspirations, with which I gladly align myself. Last, Andrea Jung. Jung has been the CEO of Avon for 12 years, making her the longest-serving woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She sits on the board at Apple and GE, but her most notable work is helming Avon's growth for over a decade.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
Selling my company at the end of 2015 was a momentous life event. For now, I am going to catch my breath, review the past 20 years of building thinkThin, and begin to visualize what's next. My goals are to support other entrepreneurs in all aspects of their businesses, foster a more supportive environment for women entrepreneurs and continue my philanthropic work.

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