CEO built her $96 million company with a simple 2-word lesson: It’s ‘the most powerful thing you can do’

Jennifer Hyman says she learned one of the most important lessons of her career as a 22-year-old intern.

It’s simple, the CEO of Rent the Runway — which has a market cap of $95.93 million, as of Wednesday morning — told students at a recent Stanford Graduate School of Business event: “Be likable.”

While interning at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Hyman came up with the idea for hosting honeymoon registries, where people could contribute funds toward couples’ post-wedding luxury vacations, she said. But pitching the company’s president wasn’t an easy sell: He didn’t say no, but didn’t immediately embrace the idea or give her resources to pursue it, either.

Instead, Hyman had to persuade her colleagues to help her build a website, a reservation system and, essentially, a new business. Having a good idea wasn’t enough to win those colleagues over, she said — she needed to be likable.

“I had to influence hundreds of people around the world in different divisions to help me,” Hyman, 42, said. “It was just an exercise for me, and [I realized] you don’t need to have authority to actually be a leader.”

The lesson proved valuable when Hyman came up with the idea for Rent the Runway six years later in 2008, she said. She and co-founder Jennifer Fleiss knew people would only sign up for their clothing rental service if they offered well-known designer brands, which meant reaching out to prominent designers.

The pair cold-emailed Diane von Furstenberg, and by luck, landed a meeting. Von Furstenberg initially scoffed at their idea, but Hyman wasn’t fazed, she said: Being likable meant being a good listener, and if she internalized von Furstenberg’s concerns, she could convince the designer of Rent the Runway’s merit.

As Hyman recounted, von Furstenberg worried that allowing her clothes to be rented for cheap would “cannibalize” her consumer base. The co-founders’ response: Rent the Runway wasn’t necessarily aimed at von Furstenberg’s customers, but at younger people who wouldn’t normally be able to afford DVF clothes.

In other words, they could help von Furstenberg grow her consumer base. Von Furstenberg was impressed by both the idea and the pair’s willingness to engage in dialogue, and eventually partnered with the brand, Hyman said.

Listening does make you more likable, research shows. People who hear someone out and ask questions to are perceived to be more responsive, a quality associated with “listening, understanding, validation and care,” a 2017 Harvard University study found.

Likability correlates with persuasiveness, too, according to a 2009 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “Participants’ warm and friendly behavior” reduced rejection and improved social outcomes, even if the other participant was “socially pessimistic,” the study’s authors noted.

That sounds like Hyman’s strategy — being warm, engaging and actively listening helped sell her ideas, as both an intern and a CEO. “Whenever you make someone else into the expert, that builds a relationship right away,” she said.

It still informs how she acts today, she added: “What you really need in order to kind of build something [is] influence. Influential leadership, especially when it’s positive, influential leadership is the most powerful thing you can do.”

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