As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Robin Kovitz, CEO of Baskits Inc.
Robin Kovitz is the President & CEO of Baskits Inc., one of Canada’s fastest growing companies. Baskits designs, manufacturers and delivers unique and luxurious gifts across Canada and the US. With over 50,000 customers from around the world, Baskits makes the art of gifting easy, and most importantly, heartfelt. Prior to acquiring Baskits in 2014, Robin worked in private equity on the buyouts of mid-sized companies and as a Summer Consultant at the Boston Consulting Group where she led a part of a large-scale cost reduction project at a Canadian bank. Robin began her career in Mergers and Acquisitions investment banking at CIBC World Markets and was recognized with the Chairman’s Award in 2005. As a sought-after speaker and commentator on “Entrepreneurship through Acquisition” and the topics of Digital Retail and “Mompreneurship,” Robin frequently serves as a guest lecturer at both the Yale School of Management and Harvard Business School.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thanks so much for having me!
Here’s my “backstory”:
I grew up in western Canada with a family business and had the privilege of watching my father and grandfather treat their employees as family. My father genuinely cared about the people he had the privilege of leading and in return, I believe they genuinely cared about him too. The team had a sense of purpose beyond themselves. They felt happy and safe. They shared their gifts with the company for the benefit of us all. The outcome was magical. Through this, I came to believe that business has the opportunity to become the most powerful positive influence on our society.
While growing up, I worked for our family’s business in the evenings, weekends and over the summers. My favourite times were walking the plant floor with my father and watching his interactions with the team. When I graduated from high school, I was ready to join our family business full time, but my father inspired me to move to the “big city” (Toronto) to gain a financial education. My father felt his weakness in business was his lack of financial education and hoped I would learn from his mistake. Fast forward a few years, I was thriving at Queen’s, one of Canada’s top business schools, graduating with honours and landed a coveted role in investment banking.
By all accounts and measures I was “successful”. During my first M&A assignment, I commuted to a small city in eastern Canada for six months to help our client (a large American company) purchase a smaller Canadian company. The rationale for purchase was all the money they would save by closing down the factory. During my time on the ground, I became close with the team and was often invited to their homes for dinner after work. I remember feeling sick to my stomach knowing that they would soon all be losing their jobs. I couldn’t imagine how devastating it would be for that small town whose main employer was this acquisition “target”.
This feeling was contrasted with the conversations at the table on Bay Street (Canada’s Wall Street) where I was tasked with calculating the millions of dollars that would be saved by firing hundreds of people and how this would positively impact the acquirer’s share price. I also refined my analytical skills when asked to try to support the competition bureau that consumers would not be negatively impacted by rising prices as a by-product of the disproportionate market share this transaction would create.
A few times, I mentioned my concerns to my “boss” and was quickly told not to say anything and that it was typical of the “weaker sex” (women) to have misplaced sympathy.
Eager to finish my time as a financial analyst and move on, I was lucky to be admitted into the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Harvard Business School for my MBA. In my admissions essay, I wrote about being the only woman at the table, how client meetings were often held at Gentlemen’s clubs and how, in my dreams, business could be a vehicle for societal change.
At the Harvard Business School, I was exposed to “private equity” guys from top firms from around the world. I was intrigued by how they thought operationally like my father and grandfather but also financially like the investment bankers I had worked with. I left the Harvard Business School determined to work in private equity.
I returned to Canada where my husband was a lawyer, landing one of very few coveted spots in private equity and was financially very successful. However, I was again faced with discomfort and feeling as though I didn’t fit in. I often cared more about the people and disagreed with the decisions that were being made solely on a financial basis. Pregnant with my first child, I was encouraged to hide my pregnancy so that it would not negatively impact my career and bonus.
This really made me think about my life and what I wanted. I decided to branch out on my own and buy a business. I spent four years meeting with business owners searching for a company with growth potential where I could focus on people and build an industry leader. I dreamed of building a business where women would not be scared and forced to hide their pregnancies from “management” but rather would want me (their leader) to be among the first people they would tell so that we could celebrate together. A place where people felt safe knowing such a thing would not jeopardize their careers.
Six years ago, I acquired Baskits Inc., a gift basket company on a negative trajectory. It was a very difficult first few years turning the business around and finding my voice and style as a young, first-time CEO. The Harvard Business School wrote a case on my journey as apparently, this is an unusual career path for a woman. As a result, I am passionate about returning to campus to tell my story and encourage other women to give it a shot. I am really lucky to be building an incredible team that was just recognized by the Globe and Mail as one of the fastest growing companies in Canada. I just wanted to add that I definitely don’t have all of the answers — I have made so many mistakes and am still finding my way as a young leader. It’s recovering brilliantly that counts!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments for me was being named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award Winner in 2017. When I started my career many years ago, I used to look up to the women on that list so much and I dreamed of one day being in their shoes. Now when I look at my 10 year old daughter and her social media / TikTok role models, I can only hope that our generation of women business leaders will be inspiring to the next generation. It’s tough to compete with the Kardashians!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The first gift basket I designed myself ended up not selling very well — success for us at Baskits is selling more than 1,000 units per year of a single design. I think some of my colleagues thought that it was funny that my design flopped, but I didn’t! It was a beautiful gift, but customers just weren’t interested. From that experience I learned how many different considerations have to go into a successful gift basket — it is much more complicated and nuanced to design a successful gift basket than meets the eye.
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 about that?
There are so many people who have helped me along the way and had a profound impact on me and my trajectory to this point, particularly my parents and husband who have been my biggest cheerleaders, confidants, and support systems. However, a less obvious supporter would be Professors Royce Yudkoff and Rick Ruback from Harvard and A.J. Wasserstein from Yale who are a constant source of information, experience, encouragement, and support. They are generous to invite me to speak in their classes each year and share my experiences with their amazing students. I continue to learn so much and get so invigorated by these incredible interactions.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Spending time with my kids ( 7 and 10 years old) is a great way to decompress and put things in perspective. They are funny and so much fun. I try to drive them to school every day to start my day off right. Also, there are certain elements of our business that I especially enjoy, usually the more creative aspects, whether it be gift basket design or even product development for our in-house brands. I will often retreat into these areas whenever I need to catch a breath or de-stress in anticipation of a big moment or decision.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
A truly diverse team (diverse in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, you name it, I want all of it on my team) will come to the table with different voices from different perspectives. These voices prevent group-think and give a much more well-rounded approach to any issue, which in turn allows an organization to make the best possible decision. My grandfather used to always say that, “if you have two people at the table with the same opinion than you only need one of them” and this is something that has really stuck with me.
As a woman in business, I have experienced the feeling of being marginalized, overlooked or devalued because of the way I look and act, so I am especially sensitive to these issues. I try to always keep the diversity of my team in the front of my mind, particularly whenever we are making a team change, and I am proud of various voices around our table.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
A good start in the business world would be creating more diverse boards of directors. This is an issue that has gained notoriety in recent years, however, the actual change seems to have lagged the stated desire for change. Another topic which is quickly gaining mainstream recognition is unconscious bias. We unconsciously choose to hire or promote people who are like us, instead of people who are different but may be more qualified. We must take steps to educate the business community about this phenomenon and then put processes in place to reduce the chances of this bias from influencing decision making.
Something I am working on right now at Baskits is trying to combat this is imagery in our media portrayal. We are trying to be more thoughtful and intentional about showing diverse people in our marketing and ads and have a goal of also one day showcasing people of all ability levels. We’re inspired by the work that our friends at Motion Ball have done over the years for the Special Olympics.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think there is a difference between an executive and a CEO. An executive typically works for a large organization and is adept at stakeholder management. I would be absolutely terrible at that job!
A CEO / business owner has to be more hands-on, jack of all trades, lead problem-solver. Each day I drive to work wondering what is going to happen and I have the privilege of dealing with some of the strangest and most interesting situations.
When it comes down to it, the most important part of my job is taking care of my team. My job is to create a safe and productive environment for them to share their gifts and realize their full potential. My team takes care of our customers which in turn creates our financial success. So many businesses today focus relentlessly on profit at the expense of their people. I think this is a mistake. Magical things happen when you get the right people in a room and create a shared vision of a purpose greater than themselves.
In addition, as CEO, I have two fundamental roles. One is the oversight of all elements of the business, holding our various departments accountable and ensuring our goals are being accomplished. The second job is long term planning — not necessarily worrying about how we are doing today but planning for months and years into the future and then setting us on the path to meet those future goals.
I find balancing those two jobs can be difficult. It is easy to get lost “reacting” to the day-to-day operations and as a result overlook the proactive, long-term, planning element of my mandate. I find myself sometimes in a never-ending struggle to carve out the necessary time for the latter.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I can imagine every CEO approaches their position differently, but I don’t think people fully understand how all-encompassing and challenging the role of CEO can be. I am literally on-call 24/7/365. I have to understand every aspect of our business (legal, financial, design, production, sales, IT, HR, logistics, procurement, etc.) and ultimately the success or failure of the company, along with the jobs of our employees, stops with me. This is a responsibility I take very seriously. If I make a mistake, people could lose their income and not be able to eat — that is serious.
I think a myth about CEOs is that they don’t actually “do” anything. It’s easy when you’re a cog in a wheel to look up and resent that the CEO doesn’t appear to be “doing”. However, the CEOs job is not to do but rather to facilitate. It took me a while to figure this out as a young female and first time CEO. If the CEO is running around trying to “do” too much, they’re not able to focus on their main role which is creating a safe environment for their team to flourish.
I became a CEO because I was good at doing and I thought being a good “doer” would enable me to be a good CEO. For awhile, I was stuck trying to do everything in the company. It took me a long time to realize that becoming a successful CEO requires a completely different set of skills. Less “doing” more inspiring and facilitating others to do. A big part of my role is walking around, talking to people, understanding their issues, creating a values-driven culture and ensuring morale is strong and that my team have the tools they need to be successful.
I am responsible for nothing AND everything. I have to be ready to jump into the weeds in any given area at any time, but the goal is to not have to, if that makes any sense.
I’m a firm believer that success boils down to having a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that anything is possible if they try and their potential is limitless. These people tend to be optimists who are not afraid of trying new things. I think having a growth mindset undoubtedly increases your likelihood of success. In fact, it’s now one of the main things that I look for when I’m interviewing. Check out Carrol Dweck’s book on the psychology of success.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think that one of the biggest challenges also happens to be one of the biggest advantages: women executives are constantly under-estimated. It’s funny sometimes. You have to laugh.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be as long as I worked hard for it. My grandmother was a pioneer, serving on corporate boards in the 1970s when it wasn’t common for women to be included in the boardroom in Corporate Canada.
I have never let the fact that I am a woman slow me down or impede me in any way. If anything, I really do believe that it can be an advantage. People tell me things they shouldn’t because they see me as their sister or daughter rather than a CEO!
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I left my career in investment banking and private equity in 2011 to be able to work from home (waaaay before it was “covid-cool”) and to hopefully have more time with my kids.
While I have a lot more flexibility in my schedule, I would say the demands on my time are greater and more pressing as a CEO as compared to when I worked for someone else. I really didn’t expect that and am still frankly trying to figure it out and do the best I can.
Fortunately, I have an incredibly supportive husband who left his career in corporate law to join and help Baskits as our General Counsel but also be in what we call, the #1 parent position. Ie: the parent who drops everything and picks the kids up from school without notice when required. It’s worked really well for our family and Baskits frankly is the lucky beneficiary.
Oh and I also love not having to spend time on contracts and leases like I did when I first started out. He takes care of the boring stuff!
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Great question…I think Executives need to be adept at managing stakeholders, very careful about how to position things and strategic about the timing of when they do so.
Whereas, I think it takes vision and grit to be a successful CEO. A CEO needs to get back up when knocked down (which they will be over and over again) and to keep going. They also need to be able to convince their team to follow them, to unite everyone with a common vision or goal, a purpose greater than themselves.
Both roles, however, require excellent communication skills. This is definitely a weakness of mine that I am working on with a coach. I am surprised it isn’t more focused on in school!
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
My advice to other women is to “own it” and not get stuck on this. Focus on generating exceptional results and the rest will follow.
It’s true, women leaders can be treated differently as compared to male leaders in many instances in the business world, and often in harmful or disadvantageous ways. Unfortunately, as a result I believe that women leaders sometimes must work even harder and apply themselves even more strategically to overcome many of these obstacles.
While I would warn women leaders of that reality, I also believe that women leaders can use their status in some key advantageous ways. Lean into being underestimated and surprise competitors, look out for circumstances where adversaries have their guard down from not taking you as seriously as they should, embrace camaraderie and teamwork with your network of fellow women leaders who are experiencing the same issues as you. These can be powerful tools for women leaders that shouldn’t be overlooked.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have a fundamental belief that business is one of the greatest tools available to make the world a better place and it’s at the core of what drives us every day. We are in the business of spreading happiness and helping people connect. There is nothing better than receiving an unexpected delivery and how special and appreciated it makes you feel.
I absolutely love that about our business. When I am having a bad day, I will read our card messages to remind myself of how much good there is in the world. Our customers at Baskits are the kindest and most generous and thoughtful people in the world!
Each year, we donate thousands of gifts to charities all across the country. Our product lends well to fundraising for these important organizations and it’s our privilege to help where we can.
We’re also really proud of our partnership with Good Foot Delivery, who do an incredible job providing meaningful employment for the neuro-diverse community. The neuro-diverse community is composed of many wonderful people who have Downs Syndrome or Autism for example and this population faces a number of hurdles to finding meaningful employment.
Lastly, I would say that we are working really hard to convert our company away from traditional management — which is using people as resources to help generate profit for the company — to believing that the purpose of our company is to enhance the lives of the people our company touches and that starts with our employees and customers. I learned this from my mentor, Bob Chapman. Check out his book, Everybody Matters!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Change is hard to effect. No matter of its perceived importance or simplicity, making a change to one’s business or a person’s day to day job is always a challenge. Unforeseen knock-on effects, training issues, technical difficulties, etc. It takes time, dedication and careful planning. I learned I can be a bull in a china shop and that I have to be careful!
- People are everything. Until you are running a company, you never fully realize (i) the importance of people and how they are truly the lifeblood of a company and (ii) the complexity of people matters or how personal they are in practice. Each team member is special and cares and compassion and ensuring these matters are handled appropriately is a time consuming and emotionally taxing job.
- Nothing is ever easy. Regardless of how things appear on paper, or how you think some task will go smoothly or how you have all details squared away, there are always, always issues and problems and obstacles that you never would have expected. It always pays to build contingencies into your budgets and timelines as a result.
- Personal health should be a priority. As an owner / operator of a business, it is so easy to get swept up in the infinite issues before you at all times, and not take the necessary steps and time to eat properly and get regular exercise and sleep. This is something I still struggle with and am working on.
- Rely on your team. There is an African proverb I admire which says, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together”. I’m sure that, like me, many young business leaders struggle with relinquishing control and relying on others. This can be a big problem that can get out of hand quickly, creating major log jams, inefficiencies and debilitating stress. If you want to go far, you need to build an exceptional team and then lean on that team as much as possible so that the leader can focus on critical big picture items.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be to change the way we look at and are treated at work. How many of us dread Mondays and hate our jobs? I just find this so sad and wonder if there could be a better way. Why can’t I have fun at work and feel appreciated?
Research is clear on a few things: 1) the vast majority of people do not feel appreciated for the work that they do and that; 2) a person’s direct supervisor at work has a greater impact on their health and wellbeing than their primary care physician. We’re so quick to try to separate our personal and professional lives, but especially now with covid, we are seeing how truly intertwined they are. More people have heart attacks on Mondays than any other day of the week. The way a person feels when they leave work affects their marriage, the way they raise their children and interact with their friends and so on. If the majority of us are leaving work every day not feeling valued, then we’re not treating our spouses, children and friends the way we should be.
I studied at Harvard Business School, where I learned about and came to admire great leaders like my father who are intentional about using their platform as a business leader to build a better world.
In particular, I came to admire Bob Chapman who has pioneered this methodology and given it a name, “truly human leadership”. Mr. Chapman believes that “Everybody Matters” and he espouses the value of focusing on people, purpose AND performance over product and profits. His message is really about caring. Caring for the phenomenal people we have the privilege of leading. And ‘caring’ is a profoundly meaningful word, just like ‘raising children.’ It doesn’t mean being nice. It means making sure that they’re safe, that they get a chance to discover their gifts, that they get a chance to be appreciated for their gifts, and they share with you a vision so that they realize their potential.
So much of business today is about “management”, which Mr. Chapman describes as the manipulation of people for profit at all costs. In the military, we recognize leaders who sacrifice themselves for others. Yet, in business today, we seem to be recognizing leaders who sacrifice others for themselves or the bottom line. My fear and for my children is that as a society, we are self-destructing due our relentless focus on profit at all costs.
I think there is a better way and Mr. Chapman has proven that ‘Truly Human Leadership’ has the potential to generate exceptional economic returns. Bob Chapman has build a $2 billion dollar business by putting his team first. He has acquired hundreds of businesses and has generated a 15 percent compound growth in revenue and shareholder value since 1987. These results speak for themself.
My dream is to be intentional about using my platform as a business leader to build a better world, like Mr. Chapman has. I plan to do this by ensuring how our people feel is one of the key metrics we focus and are measured on.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Oh wow, I have so many. If I had to just pick one, I would say, inspired by my 95 year old grandmother who I love and respect so much is, “just look up”. She used to always tell me, “not to look down, not to look backwards, but rather just to look up just to keep going”. I remind myself and use this simple mantra when things get tough. It’s so easy to dwell on the negative and let it fester. When I find myself going there mentally, I try to stop it by using his mantra as a way to break free and move forward. It’s all about forcing yourself to have a positive, growth mindset. Check out Simon Sinek’s book, “the Infinite Mindset”. It’s a great read.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Sara Blakely (Spanx) is an incredible inspiration for me. From the company she built, to her amazing philanthropy, to her approach to family and her general attitude to life and having fun/not taking things too seriously, I couldn’t ask for a better role model. It would be an absolute dream to have a zoom call with her and be able to ask her 101 questions!