PEN Profile: Beth Kaplan
We established the Primary Expert Network - a select group of NYC Tech’s leading operators and functional experts - to help us support our portfolio companies through the inevitable challenges of the startup lifecycle. The PEN is such an impressive bunch that we created the PEN Profile Series to introduce them to the community at large, and to provide insights into how these influencers think and lead today’s most exciting startups.
Beth Kaplan is an integral member of the Primary Expert Network. Having held executive-level roles at leading CPG companies and specialty retailers, including Procter & Gamble, Rite Aid, Bath and Body Works and General Nutrition Corporation, Beth transitioned over to the tech world in 2013 and assumed the role of President & COO of Rent the Runway. She’s as impressive in person as she is on paper, and has proven herself to be an expert in business strategy, brand marketing and product, all of which contributes to a stunning understanding of the customer experience. Now a managing member of venture fund Axcel Partners, Beth has become a viable force in the NYC Tech community, and she’s an invaluable resource within the Primary Expert Network.
Hometown: Omaha, NE
What brought me to New York: Networks and relationships matter a lot. I had been working for big consumer brands for almost 30 years, and I’d never had the chance to work in New York. When I was working at Bath & Body Works in 2004, I was introduced to Bain Capital Ventures originally to invest and sit on the board of Minute Clinic. Six years later, after they had made a seed investment in Rent the Runway, they contacted me thinking I could be helpful to that business. I had already been a RtR customer at that point, so I was very excited to get involved. I got to know the founders, and we stayed in touch and became friends. Jenn Hyman called me after they raised their Series C, and asked if I was interested in becoming the team. I loved the business, I loved how hard it was and I loved the team. And I finally had my chance to work in NY!
What I love about the NYC Tech scene right now: The NYC Tech community is so credible and vibrant. No one makes apologies for it anymore. It’s changed so dramatically in just the past five years - in terms of how much money is being invested in NYC-based startups, the incredible success stories and the sheer amount of talent. It is no longer the ugly stepsister!
Favorite business meal/drinks location:Westville. It may not be the trendiest of places, but I love it because they know my name! That feels pretty special in NYC.
Hidden talent: I’m a competitive ballroom dancer. I compete all over the country with a professional partner. I’ve met the most amazing people that I would never meet in my typical orbit. It’s so good for my head because when I’m dancing, I go into my “dance bubble” and shut out the rest of the world.
Biggest challenge I overcame at Rent the Runway: Prior to RtR, I had run big and small businesses, but I really didn’t know anything about tech. I didn’t fully understand the world of software engineers and product. Luckily, I worked with great people who helped me understand how it all worked. RtR was also a huge culture shift for me. I had worked in organizations that were much more top-down, so I learned more about young talent who wanted to have much more control over what they did day-to-day and how they did it.
What I’m best at: My strengths lie in strategy, brand marketing and product. All of those center around understanding the consumer and the consumer experience, their aspirations and motivation. Those are my roots, having come from the CPG world.
Proudest accomplishment: For me, the best legacy throughout my career has been being able to hire and attract great people. I often get notes or emails from people who used to work for me who say that, while they didn’t love working for me every minute, they realize now how much they learned and grew. I even had a former employee write a book and dedicate a chapter to me as one of his best bosses! l I love seeing the growth and success of the people I hired and trained.
How I keep my team engaged: I have come to learn that keeping a team engaged is really about making sure they understand the bigger picture of what the company needs to accomplish, and then filtering that bigger picture down to personal goal-setting. People stay engaged by having really tangible goals that they understand and believe in, and that they’ve helped to create. Great leaders don’t know all the answers, but they know the right questions to ask, and they know how to pull the right people around them to make sure that, as a team, that the answer is found.
My key mentor: My mentor was the chairman of GNC when I was there, and he’s now an operating partner at a large private equity fund. He was an amazing mentor when I worked for him, and he remains my mentor today because he was so brutally honest with me. He told me when I screwed up, but I knew he always had my back. I totally trust him and, to this day, he helps to ground me.
Other than mine, NYC tech company I most admire: Care/of is a pre-launch company that I’m currently working with. It has a fabulous young team, and it’s disrupting the health and wellness nutritional supplement market in a way that will really make a difference in people’s lives.