As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ilana Fischer, CEO of Whisps Snacks, the cheese crisps snack company that’s on a mission to bring premium, quality cheese to people nationwide. With a deep love of cheese, Fischer oversees the entire direction of the company with a particular focus on innovation and growing the company’s brand reputation.
Fischer quickly progressed to CEO after leading the development, launch, and management of Whisps as the first Executive Vice President of Innovation and Strategy at Schuman Cheese (Whisps former parent company). Under her leadership, Whisps became a nationally distributed snack in just one year.
Prior to joining Schuman, Fischer was a Case Team Leader at Bain & Company’s New York office, where she led projects for Private Equity, Financial Services, Media and Energy clients. She also led new product development for a Boston-based education start-up.
While pursuing her business career, Fischer pursued her personal passion for cheese by working behind a local Whole Foods cheese counter and even interned at the famed Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York City. She received an M.A. and MBA from New York University, where she was a Dean’s Scholar and MacCracken Fellow, and graduated magna cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University.
Originally from Connecticut, Fischer now lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Sure. I grew up in a small town in Connecticut called New London. My dad was very involved in the community, so my childhood was spent at community events, and we always had lots of people in our house. I loved being surrounded by people and decided to go to college in New York City — I wanted to stay in the crowd, I suppose.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I have loved cheese for as long as I can remember. My grandfather used to joke that I would have to marry a Wisconsin dairy farmer to support my habit, because I would go to his house and eat all of his Italian Parmesan. My family used to give me cheese as birthday presents, and we had a huge wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano at my wedding. I named my dog after my favorite cheesemaker and worked in cheese shops on weekends. Cheese was just always my weird side passion, until one day it became my full time job!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
There are so many things I have done professionally that I just cringe to think about today. When Whisps first became an independent company, we had only a few people on the team. Even though we were hiring like crazy, I signed us up for a tiny office. The bigger offices felt like “counting chickens before they’d hatched,” and I was reluctant to sign a lease for something I didn’t need right then. Well, in the first 6 months we moved offices four times, creating a great deal of unnecessary work for the team. We finally got into a big office that felt right for us and, of course, we have been working remotely since March 2020. Go figure.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people who have provided help, guidance and inspiration to me along the way. At Schuman, I worked very closely with someone named Lize Willers. Lize was a chef, a designer, a marketer, a food innovator, and an unofficial food scientist. She was the person who I leaned on every single step of the way as we developed Whisps and all of our other delicious products. Besides her expertise, what was so inspiring about Lize was how adaptable she was, how quickly she could pivot, and how positive she remained even when we were on the 30th iteration of a concept. Her pure passion, her non-stop hard work and never-give-up-attitude, and her ability to be flexible while also holding firm on what mattered most were incredibly inspiring to me. She showed me how to fight for what mattered while keeping things moving forward, a skill that I use every day.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
One of the most challenging things about starting something new is the feeling that everyone knows more than you do about your work. Everyone has had more experience, they know “how it’s done,” and they are often dismissive of your ideas. I learned quickly that those attitudes tended to come from the people who weren’t on board for trying something new. At the same time, they were right — I didn’t know what I was doing and I was pushing for things to be different than they had always been in the past.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There were two things that really worked for me. The first was always remembering that, at least in my industry, we’re not rocket scientists or brain surgeons. I needed to learn to trust my gut on things that seemed reasonable, even if people were arguing against that. The second was that I surrounded myself with people who were both experienced and inspired by change. This allowed me to actually have the impact that I wanted to have, because I had the expertise on the team to make it possible and real.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
In short: I didn’t give up, even though there were many times that I wanted to! I did, however, try very hard to shed the parts of my role that were draining and that other people were better at than me. For example, I am terrible at building excel models, but I am passionate about using data to make business decisions. Everywhere I go, I make sure to have a strong team of quantitative analysts alongside me. I know I need this type of information to do my job well, and I also know that I can’t personally deliver it at the level I need.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Whisps are pure cheese crisps, and at first glance, it seems pretty easy to make them: we grate the cheese, bake it, and out come Whisps. But we are maniacal about quality, so the process of making Whisps was actually quite complex to develop. For example, we launched with Parmesan Whisps, and they became so popular that we decided to make another flavor. It took very little time to decide that our next flavor should be cheddar — the most popular cheese snack flavor in the country. We didn’t make cheddar ourselves, so we bought lots of different types of cheddar and brought them to the plant to test them out: aged, young, sharp, mild, domestic, imported, regular and low fat. We tried them all, we blended them, we adjusted the oven temperatures, and nothing worked. Cheese crisps came out of the ovens but they simply didn’t taste as good as we expected them to: they were either bland or oily, and none of them were craveable. So rather than launch with a product we weren’t proud of, we had our master cheesemaker custom make a cheddar cheese just for Whisps. It took another year or so to get that right, meaning we were slower to market than we wanted to be, but I love those cheddar Whisps so much and I am so proud that we made the decision to wait. And we still stand firm that we won’t launch anything unless we can’t stop eating it ourselves.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
We recently had Tal Ben-Shahar come and talk to the company about finding happiness at work. He talked about making sure that you find moments in your work that feel like a “calling” as often as possible. We are not saving lives, as they say, but there are still moments where we feel like we are really in the right place for us, and that we are doing important and meaningful work. So while I wish I could say that I have mastered work-life balance, or that I have perfected the art of compartmentalizing, I can’t. What I can say is that I find my job incredibly fulfilling, so that when there are days or weeks that are challenging, I can lean on the stores of energy I have built up with the team and through the role before that.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m not sure that I’ve done enough of that, to be honest! I will say that I am committed to making ethics-driven business decisions, to doing right by the team, to acknowledging problems when they arise and trying to solve them, and to recognize and speak out against injustices. In my tiny little corner of the world, I hope that is having a positive impact.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s a people job, first. Much (most) of my time is spent thinking about and working with the team, our board, and our customers. Keeping people motivated, making sure that they are recognized for great work and given opportunities to grow, and helping people work through interpersonal challenges is a big part of my job every day. And when I back-burner that part of my job, things don’t work as well. As much as it might seem like the people work is “secondary” to the business, I haven’t found anything more directly correlated with our success.
- It’s not as powerful as it seems. I think there is a misperception that being a CEO is about telling people what you want them to do, and then sitting back as they do it. That is so far from reality! I may think that I have a brilliant business plan, but I know that it won’t get any traction if the people who are charged with executing it, or who I’m trying to sell it to, don’t buy into it. I spend a lot of time trying to influence people, trying to clear roadblocks, and ultimately negotiating with people to get things done.
- It’s a lonely job. The only people who care as much about your job as you either work for you or are your board members, meaning that every time you need to vent, you are navigating a tricky power dynamic. I have recently begun to cultivate a network of other CEOs in the food and beverage industry to help me work through challenging situations. They are in the same position as me, but not on my team in any way, making it a safe way to get honest feedback and to ask questions.
- The right thing isn’t always obvious. It’s very easy to sit back and criticize company leaders that make bad decisions (and they usually deserve the criticism). But to be honest, it’s not always as crystal clear in the moment what the right thing is. Sometimes it’s clear, and those times are quite easy to navigate. But there are a lot of times when it’s murky. Is the team member who is struggling not a fit for the company, or should we invest more in training and coaching? How far should we push in contract negotiations before we are being unreasonable? Is it right to ask the team to work late to close a big sales month? These questions are perhaps more mundane than some of the “bigger” ethical dilemmas you hear about in the news, but they come up all the time.
- (Almost) any decision is better than no decision. It’s tempting to be “right” when making decisions, particularly when all eyes are on you. But the desire to be right can slow down decisions: let’s just wait for that extra bit of data, that analysis, those sales results. The problem is that at some point you have to make a call, and every moment you spend not making a decision is a moment of inaction, and leaves the team feeling unmoored. Sometimes you need the time, but much of the time, you have to make an educated guess to maintain momentum. And I often make the “wrong” decision, but I try really hard to be decisive.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I think every day that I am in this role, I become more humble about it. I have a team of people working alongside me who have so much experience and I am mindful that they are often the subject matter experts on the topic at hand. My job is less about knowing things, and more about making sure that the people on the team who know a lot are empowered to use that knowledge for the company.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I do think that experience is the key to unlocking these types of lessons. There are lots of books and articles about leadership, and frankly there are lots of paths that work. There is no one right way to be a leader, so you really can’t “figure it out” in theory. It has to be practiced. And similarly, if you ever think you’ve “figured it out,” that’s probably a bad sign, because there are simply so many opportunities to get better that you should never feel like it’s done.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I really liked the push in 2020 to “normalize” saying things like “I didn’t realize or know that, thanks for letting me know, I will change.” I think that the more we admit that we are all learning and that we are all making mistakes all the time, and the more we listen to other people who tell us about their lived experiences and try to incorporate what they tell us into our own behaviors, the better we will become. I believe that openness and willingness to change would have a big impact on the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They should follow @whispssnacks on Instagram and Facebook, and can follow me and the rest of the Whisperer team on LinkedIn!