In Conversation with Barbara Cook, CEO of Lovers
Describe your career and current role in a few words?
I am the CEO of Lovers, the female founded & led adult wellness retailer & brand. I’ve continued the path of making people feel good about themselves in various ways, from leading coveted fashion brands as former President of Hudson Jeans and CEO of the startup accessories business Miansai, to reignite the 40-year-old Lovers brand that caters to every individual looking to reach their greatest pleasure potential. I was previously the CEO of Undercover Colors, a biotech company that was bridging over into the consumer space by creating a drink test that identifies the most commonly used date rape drugs in over 100 beverages, a mission that I passionately believe in as the crime of Drug Facilitated date rapes and other associated crimes has been on the rise. I’ve been a senior executive at several of the world’s largest brands with revenues ranging from $3B to $10M, including Gap, T-Mobile and Starbucks.
What attracted you to your current role?
While the adult wellness industry has made some innovations, it has a way to go in terms of de-stigmatization and relevancy. It also has some runway ahead towards embracing inclusivity. I am excited to be a part of making those changes in the industry and pushing forward Lovers values of:
INCLUSIVITY: We welcome, serve, and celebrate people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and socio-economic statuses as both employees and consumers.
WELL-BEING: We believe that, for most people, experiencing pleasure plays an essential role in overall health and well-being.
SEX POSITIVITY: We promote a sex-positive culture. We support people and causes that advance body and sex positivity.
RESPECT: We hold as universal truth that respect and consent are essential to every sexual experience.
EMPOWERMENT: We believe in personal empowerment as an essential component to personal growth.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in your career and what you learned from it?
I have a menu of those options! I think really because I view all situations as learning opportunities. I once published a bonus scheme to a large retail population which turned out to be fundamentally flawed in its design and offered payouts that (had everyone made their optimal threshold) would have been prohibitive. Of course the program had gone through the finance dept. for scrutiny but at the end of the day it was my responsibility. I had no choice but to pull it back. I was being advised by everyone to blame it somehow on technology, but I believe that it’s not what happens to you it’s the way you deal with it. So I was completely honest with the team and apologized profusely and fully accepted my responsibility. The team was so appreciative of being treated respectfully by me being straightforward that they all pitched in and delivered anyway.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
Lovers lacked a streamlined and purposeful brand voice and identity. Lovers’ rebrand launched with a marketing campaign and digital rebirth, “LOVERS IS,” to reintroduce the brand to customers in a direct and intentional way. LOVERS IS features inclusive imagery of couples and individuals to showcase that you don’t need to be partnered to find or enjoy sexual pleasure and promotes the brand’s values of inclusivity, well-being, positivity, and respect (i.e. LOVERS IS LOVE, LOVERS IS CONNECTION, LOVERS IS SEX POSITIVE, and LOVERS IS HONESTY). I’m proud of the Lovers team for this great accomplishment.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
We closed our stores in March and started reopening them at the end of May, and felt the same pain that everyone in retail began to experience. There was no time to plan since mandates were being implemented with such short notice. Our ability to manage such massive changes was tested during these times, and we prevailed. The open line of communication was crucial during this transition and benefited us greatly. Lovers’ e-commerce sales performance took off in March 2020. This upswing could be due to the fact that more people were stuck at home shopping online.
What’s next for your company? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
This year is the 40th Anniversary of Lovers and we are going to celebrate all year long through A Conversation About Pleasure. Pleasure is our birthright. It needs to be reframed and reclaimed and self-defined – Lovers will support consumers on this deeply personal journey. We will speak to a spectrum of pleasure topics through our marketing and product assortment as well as from our brand values – Inclusivity, Well Being, Sex Positivity, Respect, and Empowerment.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
Learning how to work in this new world and figuring out how to practically make it work. It is important for people to feel connected, but some people are not comfortable sharing parts of their personal lives and way of living (through Zoom calls). We had to understand that not everyone feels comfortable turning their cameras on and to accept that.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
That there is a solution to everything. If everyone focuses on doing only what they can do; mistakes, issues, concerns can all be overcome.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
With every interaction I have, big or small, I am responsible for how I make someone feel. Consistently I am drawn to this quote by Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think back to this quote to remind myself of the weight that my actions carry. Although it’s tough to get right all the time, I am always trying to be cognizant of how my actions impact others. Communication and timing is everything. My communication style is very authentic and open. I believe it is important to hear even the things that we are uncomfortable hearing because it will actually make us do better.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I am a godmother of 32 godchildren and have 7 god dogs. Family is very important to me and it’s great that women have made strides in the workplace and are able to balance parenthood and career for the most part. When I started my career, I was back in the office 2 days after I gave birth because it wasn’t seen as acceptable for women to take time off for personal reasons. Encouraging work life balance is important, and it’s one of the ways we are making Lovers an employer of choice and creating a warm and inclusive culture for everyone. We’ve also streamlined our employee performance appraisal process and have created greater internal transparency and more seamless communication throughout the organization.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
Surround yourself with people that are better than you, so you learn and grow more quickly. Your business can shine that way. Let people who have great ideas feel comfortable bringing those ideas to the table. Surround yourself with great talent, and admit to never having everything before – somebody in your network or on your team has likely done it before. In my opinion, to be a great leader, you don’t have to have all the answers. The real trick is finding people who do have the answers. The false pressure to have all the answers all of the time may cause you to make more mistakes down the line.
Know your business internally and externally. To be effective you have to constantly be X-raying your business and its strengths and weaknesses so you can course correct. Pay attention to what the competition is doing – it’s a catalyst for success. I’m at my desk at 5 AM daily scanning what’s happening in the sexual wellness industry and in the world. By the time your workday kicks off you may not have time to scan and X-ray your business and its competition.
Know when good enough isn’t, and pivot if needed. Sometimes you can paralyze yourself with information – “analysis paralysis” – where you can’t actually make a decision. Sometimes you have to say, “This isn’t perfect but I’ll go with it.” Sometimes though, the decision isn’t really perfect, and you need to change course. It’s a much greater strength, in my opinion to remain flexible, than to stick the course just because it was the original idea.
What does being an Intraprenista mean to you?
I see it as a big responsibility to be an ambassador for women now and for the future. In some senses you could argue that it is the embodiment of freedom to be able to live a life where you can grow and empower those around you. But it should never be taken for granted and the role model aspect should always be respected.