Tristan Walker, MBA ’10,“Values Are Universal”
The founder and CEO of Walker & Company shares lessons from the most challenging, and most rewarding, years of his career.
“For me, the thing that stood out was my difference. I wasn’t chasing the thing that others were chasing. I was chasing the things that lived with my values.”
In this View From The Top interview, Tristan Walker MBA ’10, founder and CEO of Walker & Company, sits down with James Yan, MBA ’23, to talk about his journey from Stanford GSB to entrepreneur. Walker shares a story from day he’ll never forget: when he found a cafe, and sat down to write down his values. From that day forward, Walker says, he built his business and life accordingly.
In 2018, Walker merged his brand with Procter & Gamble, becoming the first Black CEO under the P&G umbrella in the company’s 180-year history. He is also the founder and board chairman of CODE2040, a program that matches high performing Black and Latino undergraduate and graduate coders and software engineering students with Silicon Valley start-ups for summer internships.
Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund.
During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.
Tristan Walker: For me, the thing that stood out was my difference. I wasn’t chasing the thing that others were chasing. I was chasing the things that lived with my values. The wonderful thing about values is that they’re infinite. I can’t keep courage to myself; I can’t keep inspiration to myself. I can’t keep loyalty to myself. Those are things that can be infinitely shared.
James Yan: Welcome to View From The Top, the podcast. That was Tristan Walker, founder and CEO of Walker & Company, now part of Procter and Gamble. Tristan visited Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of View From the Top, a speaker series where students, like me, sit down to interview business leaders from around the world. I’m James Yan, an MBA student of the class of 2023. I had the great pleasure of talking to Tristan about the value of persistence and how to build a personal brand. You’re listening to View From The Top, the podcast.
Tristan Walker: This view is way more intimidating.
James Yan: Tristan, a very warm welcome back to Stanford GSB. It’s a great pleasure and honor to have you.
Tristan Walker: Thanks for having me.
James Yan: As I was researching your fascinating story for this interview, Tristan, I was most impressed by the refreshing candor of the mission you set for yourself when you were just a young boy. Back then, the ambition you had was not to change lives, change organizations, change the world, but rather something more pragmatic, which was, in your words, “to become as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible.”
Tristan Walker: That’s right. That’s right. Well done, well done.
James Yan: Could you share with us how your upbringing shaped that ambition of yours?
Tristan Walker: Yeah. Glad to be here. We were broke. And as you said, I realize I had one goal in life: [to have to] get as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible. The story that I share, I had three outlets for that. The first was to be an actor or an athlete. Didn’t work. The second way was to work on Wall Street, which I had the great fortune to do — and I’ll tell you how I got there in a second — but it didn’t work. And then ultimately, I realize that there was this third one called entrepreneurship and kind of is working.
Look, my ambition was quite humble. Right? I realize I was a victim of bad circumstance, I was a victim of bad situation, the victim of bad culture, and realized that I had something in me to create good circumstance, good culture, a lot of which I learned from here at Stanford.
I had the good fortune when I was in high school to go to one of the top high schools in the country, a boarding school, on full ride. It’s called The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut. And it was the first time I got to see how the other half lived. I went to school with Rockefellers and Fords.
I think the most transformative point of that experience for me is that I recognized the value of name. Right? Just like we had Rockefellers and Fords, what does Walker represent for people? What are the values that come with that name that I want to purport. Right? And that experience was really formative for every single thing that I’ve done from then to date and has carried with me ever since.
I still want to get as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible; that has not changed. But there are some things that came along with that — i.e., firmness around values — that really do matter to me and explain the majority of my story.
James Yan: And tell us about your path to Wall Street.
Tristan Walker: Oh, Jesus. This idea of desire, right? I think it’s also important to talk a little bit about why I wanted to get as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible. Right? You think about desire as this straight line, this thing between what we think we want versus the thing that we desire, but desire doesn’t really work that way. It tends to work through a model of influence. Right? I want that thing. I want the money, I want the trip, I want all that stuff because these models of influence, these celebrities, these Wall Streeters in the nice suits made me want to desire that thing.
I realized very quickly when I wanted to be an actor and athlete, didn’t work out for me because I was also good at math, and I realized that that conversion rate wasn’t going to work as effectively as I wanted it to. But I did see those models of influence on television — wearing the nice suits, working on Wall Street — and they had the money. And I was very much a New England baby. I didn’t know anything about Silicon Valley. I didn’t know anything west of New York. So, I gravitated toward where the money was, and it was that.
I worked at Lehman Brothers and J.P. Morgan. Did that for about two years, and I was miserable. Yeah, I talked about being the victim of bad culture; I was that. I got laid off. This was 2008. I got laid off in January of 2008. Fun fact that I’ve never talked about to this day. I don’t even think I told Derrick that. The day I got laid off, this was about 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning in January. I got on the phone, and I was expecting to get this story from my manager.
And I get on the phone with the person who calls my phone, and it’s this number that I didn’t know telling me this story. High anxiety. I’m like, what’s going on here? And this gentleman on the phone is like, “Wait, wait, wait. Tristan, this is Derrick Bolton from Stanford University. You are admitted to Stanford Business School.” Right? It was fascinating even a couple hours after that, then my manager laid me off, also said, “We’re going to give you a bonus,” because it was around bonus season, “and we’re going to give you nine months of severance.” Right?
So, you talk about this idea of having faith and just being thankful. That was a real, wonderful, informative moment for me. But Wall Street just didn’t work. They had the wrong person in the wrong situation at the wrong time, and I’m very, very grateful to have been ejected from that industry.
James Yan: Indeed, great timing. And speaking of Stanford —
Tristan Walker: Yeah, it was wonderful timing.
James Yan: — GSB, this is where you got your first taste of entrepreneurship. As a second year MBA student, you were working pretty much full time for a promising new startup at the time called Foursquare. The story of how you landed that opportunity with Foursquare offers us a lesson in persistence. Tell us how you got that job.
Tristan Walker: Yeah, so in between my first and second year of business school, and this was around the time when Stanford and the GSB was starting its new curriculum, which is particularly challenging. We had a rule that you couldn’t do anything extracurricular at Stanford during your first quarter or two. I didn’t listen and I did it anyway.
So, the first year, I actually joined this company called Twitter at the time. There were about 20 people at the company — we had fewer than a million users at the time — and I saw the way they were changing communication. I got really excited about it. So much so, a lot of my GSB classmates were like, “What is this shit? Nobody cares about this thing. You’re crazy to even desire it.” But I knew that I had to be a part of that action. And that was really my first foray into what Silicon Valley could be.
In between my first and second year of business school, I worked for Boston Consulting Group. Did that for about half the summer because I wanted to do this Twitter thing for the second half of the summer. And Stanford gave me some grace to do that. There was a little bit of drama in the beginning, but they gave me some grace to do that. And at that time, I heard about this company called Foursquare.
So, in the same way that Twitter helped me really think about the changing landscape of communication, Foursquare helped me really think about my connection to place in a way that got me really excited. Foursquare had 2 employees at the time. We had like 8,000 users. And I was just genuinely and authentically excited about what they were building.
The story goes: I found the founders’ emails on the Internet, Dennis and Naveen. Emailed them 8 times. The eighth time, Dennis gets back to me. He says, “You know what, I just may take you up on some of this. Are you [up in] New York?” I was in LA at the time working for BCG.
And I looked over to my wife and I said, “Wow, how am I going to reply to this? I just emailed this guy like 8 times, and finally he gets back to me.” I replied back. I said, “Yes, I’ll be in New York tomorrow.” I booked my flight that night, flew out the following morning, hung out with him for a week, and a month later I was running business development for the company and that completely changed my life.
James Yan: Wow.
Tristan Walker: Completely changed my life. I showed up at the door. He wasn’t thinking I was going to come. I showed at the door, opened the door, and there’s a look of just like surprise, like who is this dude? And I sat down and got to work. And it completely changed everything for me and I’m most grateful for that.
James Yan: You said you sent 8 emails, correct, to the founder of Foursquare before you got a reply. For all of us hustlers out there, in your professional opinion, how many follow-up emails are we permitted to send before we cross the line?
Tristan Walker: It probably was going to be my last one. Right? And it’s, again, a testament to faith. I think authenticity matters in this. There’s no set and hard rule. I knew I had to be a part of that movement. Right? My life has been really about movement work. Right? Only doing the things that adhere to the personal values that I had. And Foursquare was movement work. Twitter was movement work. Now looking in hindsight, people are like, “Yeah, of course Twitter.” Right? But it wasn’t that obvious back then.
And I think especially in the GSB context, I talked a little bit about the classes that we had previously. You’ll find that a lot of business school classmates chase sameness, at the same jobs, for the same roles. Right? And little do we realize that that sameness creates conflict because you’re chasing these finite resources, and that conflict leads to violence. Right?
For me, I think the thing that stood out was my difference. I was not chasing the thing that other people were chasing. I was chasing the things that lived with my values. And the wonderful thing about values is that they’re infinite. I can’t keep courage to myself. I can’t keep inspiration to myself. I can’t keep loyalty to myself. Those are things that could be infinitely shared. Right? So, I try to gravitate all of the things that I choose to do to be in line with the values that I have.
So, one lesson to be had here is send as many emails as you want as long as you’re authentically committed to following through what you’re saying in those emails. And that is a missing link that I think a lot of folks don’t understand.
James Yan: Wonderful. After a three-year stint at Foursquare, you join Andreessen Horowitz in 2012 as an entrepreneur in residence tasked with brainstorming big ideas for a future business. So, how did you eventually settle on the idea of shaving products for people of color?
Tristan Walker: Yeah. I was there for — The jig was you have six to nine months to figure out the company you want to start. Right? It’s crazy. I got paid to do that. It’s like absurd. It’s the best job I ever had.
I spent seven months there wasting their time. I spent seven months wasting their time. Here’s what I mean by that. I was chasing the thing that I felt would make them proud to support me with. It’s very, like, business school thing. I see a business model that needs disruption. Let me go do it and show how smart I am. Right?
So, I was chasing things that I had no business doing. I remember I had one idea to change the way we thought about trucking in this country. I don’t know shit about trucking. I’ve never been at a truck stop to speak with truckers. Right? But I had this idea. Commerce moves on trucks, and it should be more efficient. And that’s when Uber was getting started. Right? Like, oh, this is smart.
And I remember going down all these VC shops on Sand Hill Road. There’s this Andreessen Horowitz entrepreneur in residence. And I thought I’d just walk in and own the place. Right? And a lot of these VC would say, “Great idea, go after it.” And when I’d show up at Andreessen Horowitz, they say, “No, this is a terrible idea.” Right? And I’d come up with another idea, and I’d go down Sand Hill Road and they’d say, “Go after it.” And Andreessen Horowitz would say, “No, it’s a terrible idea.”
And I think the lesson that I learned. The first idea that Andreessen Horowitz said, “That’s a great idea,” was the one that they felt that I was uniquely positioned to do. And it was a real great lesson for me where I recognize that each of us in this room has something that we are uniquely positioned to do, that we are singularly the best person in the world to try to solve that was based on your own lived experience. It was the first idea, at least as I think about Walker & Company — talk about how I got to that — Andreessen Horowitz said, “Great,” and everybody else said, “No.”
And it was the first time in my life I started hearing no. And I knew that there was an opportunity in that. Right? Usually what looks like good ideas are bad ideas, usually looks like bad ideas are good ideas. The problem with good ideas is that too many people try to do them. Sameness. Right? And it wasn’t until I came up with this bad idea, difference that the breakthrough happened.
Now shaving. I’ve spent the majority of my life shaving with products that we were relegated to having to use that didn’t work for me, and I just got fed up. I actually came into this idea authentically, not as like a business model. I was actually somewhat embarrassed. I was like do I want to be building the thing for Black folks as the Black guy in Silicon Valley and doing the obvious thing?
And it wasn’t until I embraced that difference that really things started to take off for me. I’m just being straight up and honest about it. But it really started with this, hey, I needed a better way to shave. And every single way I encountered facial hair removal sucked. Down to the experience of walking into these retail aisles, seeing dirty boxes with dudes with Jheri curls on the box and the packaging. Right? It didn’t really reflect the culture that I respected so much.
And I felt when I talked about this idea of unique difference, not only did I have authentically the problem that I was trying to solve for myself. I was one of the few Black folks in Silicon Valley at a major venture capital firm that really liked the idea. So, in 2013, I felt like I was the best person in the world to start this company. I would not say that in 2023, but in 2013 I was. And the rest is history.
James Yan: Well, the idea you articulated just now sounds like a no brainer. After all, when you think about it, people of color need shaving products, too.
Tristan Walker: Go figure.
James Yan: Established brands like Gillette and others have been around for many, many years. In the case of Gillette, I believe over a century. Why is it that they haven’t already exploited the market opportunity you wisely identified?
Tristan Walker: Yeah. I mean, capitalism’s a cool game. Some of it is about incentives. Our technology is built on hundred-year-old technology. Right? We just encourage people to shave with single blade razors.
This is how when I really — I had one interesting experience around the time that I was at Andreessen Horowitz. I was shaving. [So] unsatisfied. I walked into an Art of Shaving store — I don’t even know if it’s still here — at Stanford shopping mall right down the street. I walked into the store. I said, “Hey, I’ve had to deal with this issue related to razor bumps and that stuff my entire life. What should I use?”
And The Art of Shaving is owned [by] Procter & Gamble. Right? And they have all the incentive in the world to take me to those three, four, five, six blade, multi-blade razors with the nice handle on it where they can get their margin and that sort of thing. And I did this at this store. I also did it at one in DC. They never took me to any of those products. They always took me to use these off brand, single blade, double-edged safety razors.
So, I tried it. Woke up the following day, and it was the first experience in my life where I didn’t have razor bumps on my face, and I knew that there was a breakthrough. I said, “Why is this the case?” Right?
Yeah, I started to learn a little bit more about the history of shaving, and I learned everything started about a hundred years ago with the single blade, double-edged safety razor. It cuts the hair level with the skin, not beneath your skin. So, if you have curly hair, it’s just going to grow into your skin. So, really effective for that. It’s one clean cut, so no pulling or tugging. Obvious stuff. Right?
You think about starting that in the year 1900, 20 years later, you lose the patent for it. Right? Then you make a two-blade razor. And 2 years later, you lose the patent for it. Then you make a three-blade razor. 20 years after that, you lose the patient for it. Then you make a four-blade razor. But the thing that they had started with was the most efficacious thing for anyone to use. So, why would they ever be incentivized to go make that again where they can’t maintain and secure their margin?
So, it was a good lesson for me around innovators dilemma type stuff. Right? And we’re able to package that in a bow because we knew how to speak to the consumer that we were targeting because I was representative of that same consumer.
So, why weren’t they able to do it? I think there’s a little bit of that. But also, if you’re a brand manager at any of these companies, and you’re making $80 billion a year in revenue, and you’re going to chase any new innovation, you’re going to want to see a realization of a billion dollars of return in the first couple years.
So, you’re going to get some brand manager who says, “Okay. Let’s [look at] Black men shaving in the United States.” Right? It’s a $200 million industry. So, that same brand manager is going to say, “Well, even if we captured a hundred percent of that market share, it’s not big enough.” And I realize that perhaps that person asked the wrong question. Because the reason the market is so small is because you make things that don’t work for it.
And until you can start to articulate that reason why and actually have a new different product for it — I thought about market expansion as opposed to just value capture. So, those two things I think caught a lot of the competition on their back foot was why we were able to innovative so quickly.
James Yan: Notwithstanding the intense conviction you so clearly displayed, when it came to raising money, venture capital firms were not exactly enthused by your idea initially. Many of us in the audience may have pitched or plan to pitch VCs. How did your first pitch event go?
Tristan Walker: I hate raising money. I think every single mistake that I’ve ever made as an entrepreneur is a result of my having raised money. I think that there is an incredible incentive mismatch behind the muddied interest in what you want to create. Yeah, I wanted to create something that was going to be around a hundred years from now, but VCs need their return in 10 years. Right? So, it creates this weird situation.
So, for me, I had to adapt and shift my pitch in a way that didn’t make sense for the long term outcome for the business, but put me in a position to just raise that money. Right? So, we were pitching this, “Well, we’re going to be a direct-to-consumer brand that celebrates culture, and there’s technology.” Right? But ultimately, we’re a consumer package goods company.
And I remember I talked a little bit about walking down those consumer retail aisles and getting packaging that looked dirty and the guy with the Jheri curl and all that other stuff. Folks would laugh. Right? And then my first slide would be that package, and they would all shut up. Right? And I think that is indicative of the difficulty that I had because folks had their assumptions for what it was like to shop as a Black person as a non-Black person. And they couldn’t rid themselves of those assumptions as I was pitching.
So, you’re pitching to venture capitalists who don’t understand, pitching to a lot of venture capitalists who don’t want to understand, and that’s where the difficulty came in. And you ask enough people, you get a couple who will give you some money. But when I compare our situation versus other competitors in the space that focus on the mass market, the amount that we raised and the amount of support that we got pales in comparison.
James Yan: Now in the face of this pushback you described from investors, how were you able to maintain the confidence that your idea is the right one; the problem lies with these investors who just don’t have the right context or who don’t understand the market or the product?
Tristan Walker: Yeah, there was nothing they could tell me because I felt like I was the best person in the world to solve that thing. I lived the problem. Right? I don’t need to convince you. I’ve already convinced myself, and I’m going to make my life a little bit better. And I think that’s something that’s carried with me ever since.
Now I also want to say, I’m up here speaking for View From The Top a person of incredible privilege. Right? Yeah, I raised some $39 million dollars. But look, I mean, I went to one of the top boarding schools in the country on full ride. I’m a Stanford GSB person. Right? I was an entrepreneur in residence at Andreessen Horowitz. So, my situation was a hell of a lot easier than some others. So, I want to acknowledge and respect the privilege that I received there.
But it’s hard. It is hard. But there was no convincing that I wasn’t solving a problem that was not only important to me. Right? When I show up in offices with razor bumps on my face for an interview, the sapping of confidence in my ability to convert into getting the job that I want. That if you were in the military and have to shave every single day. There’s actually studies that talk about how your performance is impacted by the pain that comes from the razor bumps that are on your face. Right?
So, I had a story that was wholly authentic. And it was my goal at that point to find other folks that actually felt what I felt. And look, I mean, while this is a problem that 80 percent of Black men and women have, 30 percent of everyone else has it. Eventually I found some people who had it.
James Yan: Yeah, and you were able to find some other folks including high profile investors, people like Carmelo Anthony, John Legend, Magic Johnson. How did you market yourself and your brand to these big-name investors given your limited public profile at the time?
Tristan Walker: Yeah. I mean, the interesting thing about those folks is they shop at the same places I do. There’s no special health and beauty store for NBA players who can’t find solutions for their shaving needs. They’ve had the same experience their entire lives. And they have someone who looks like them that respects and understands the culture and speaks the language and knows what he’s talking about and might be a good steward for my capital, and they gave it to me.
And that’s why I say, at that point, they weren’t hearing stories like that from anybody else from someone that reflected that same diversity authentically. So, I was able to convert those folks a hell of a lot better than I was able to convert other folks. But now we’re in a position where there are so many folks that do the sorts of things that I do that they’re spreading their capital to support folks like me back in 2013. But it was a real easy pitch then. And frankly, those were some of the easier pitches that lasted five minutes because they got it right away and I didn’t have to explain it.
James Yan: So, now that you’ve secured a financial cushion from these investors, you could then focus on scaling your business, including getting your products onto the shelves of retailers like Target and Walmart. What new skills did you have to develop as a transition from founder to operator?
Tristan Walker: That’s a good question. I’ve had to reflect on this quite a bit because there’s a lot of entrepreneurs who could come to my office and ask me for advice. They say, “I want to start a company. How can I raise money” and all that stuff. And I always ask them a question in return, and I say, “All right. Oh, you want to start a company, but do you want to run it?” And no one has ever had an answer to that question immediately.
90 percent of my job is just people stuff. I don’t focus on any product stuff anymore. And I’d learned, at least in my role, is that I get to go through something that 99 percent of the world does not. I’ve gotten to go through layoffs, terminations, raising up rounds, raising down rounds, being very close to running out of money, lawsuits and all that. And I relish in it in a quasi-sadistic way, but in actually having gone through it, now it makes me wise on the other side.
The thing that I hated most was getting advice from VCs who never did anything, getting advice from operators who didn’t do the thing that I’m asking for advice for. But now having gone through it, now I can actually say that there is a difference between being a founder and an operator. Ben Horowitz prepared me for this. He said, “Being a CEO sucks. It is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Being a CEO sucks. It is the worst job I’ve ever had, but I can’t see myself doing anything else. There’s something, I think, powerful and inspiring about having gone through all that stuff that makes me a better father, that makes me a better brother, it makes me a better manager, it makes me a better friend. Right? Because I’ve had to live that difficulty. So, that’s how I try to articulate it to people that might not understand it. I try to prepare them for how much it sucks so that they’ll be ready to show up when their people need them.
James Yan: Right. And I would imagine running a business, as you alluded to, comes with its fair share of disappointments. What were some of the major setbacks you faced and how did you overcome them?
Tristan Walker: I’ll start in 2018. 2018 was the worst year of my life, frankly, or started, really, in that way and ended wonderfully. On December 12th of 2018, we announced or acquisition by Procter & Gamble, which was a great and wonderful moment.
Look, I sit on this stage and folks are like, “Wow, that’s probably a pretty successful guy.” Right? But ultimately, that was a year when we were close to running out of money. If we didn’t get that acquisition, we probably wouldn’t be around three months after that. Right? We couldn’t raise any money. We had to do a down round. I had to do a reduction in force. God, it was 2018. I was around 35 or so, 34, something like that.
I got shingles. Right? For folks of you who are not familiar with it, if you’ve had chicken pox before, the only reason you would ever get shingles is because of stress, something. And it was the first time when I heard that diagnosis, I realized that there was a difference between what I felt and what was actually happening to me. Right? I started therapy around that time.
I did therapy for about six months by the time we sold the company. And my therapist was like, “Tristan, when you started here, you didn’t do a layoff, you didn’t have the down round, you were not speaking to any of these companies for potential acquisition, you didn’t know that you were going to have your second kid, you didn’t move or think about moving to Atlanta.” These are all happening all at the same time. Right?
That was a terrible, terrible, terrible moment, but it really taught me about how much faith actually matters. Right? And if you stick to the guns, stick to the values, know that you’ve been here before and have values that’ll guide your decision making moving forward, it’ll end up in an okay place. And fortunately, it did for us. But I was well prepared by that time, knowing that stuff sucks. It sucks. But you can get to the other side quite nicely.
James Yan: When you sold your company in 2018 to Procter & Gamble for an undisclosed but presumably large sum of money — you don’t have to tell us how much, it’s okay, although if you’d like to, you’re welcome to — when you sold your company to P&G, you became the first Black CEO of a P&G subsidiary. What does that milestone mean to you?
Tristan Walker: It’s meaningful. I’ve shared the story quite a bit, and it was a story of when I first saw our products show up in Target stores. So, if you heard this before, I apologize that I’m repeating it, but it really does matter.
We started selling our products in Target stores in 2016. We started our distribution in February of that year. We were really busy at the time. We were launching new products. So, I couldn’t see what our products looked like when we started there. So, about April or May of that year, I said, “Let me go to Target and see what’s up. Make sure that they’ve put our stuff on shelves in the right way.”
And I took my oldest at the time — he was two; his name’s Avery — and we went to the Target in Mountain View, California. And so, I put him in the cart and we turn into the aisle. And we get about a quarter of the aisle down, and my son points behind me and he says, “Dada.” Right? And one of our boxes was turned around, and I was on the box. So, he saw me and was like, “Dada.”
And there’s two things that I thought about in that moment, knowing that he wasn’t going to realize it as a two-year-old, but over time ultimately he will. Number one is Dad is on the box. Particularly coming from a culture that is appreciated for its consumer influence, we’re less respected for our ability to produce. And here’s my son, a Black two-year-old who can look at that and say, “My dad made that,” and I can be respected as much as a producer as I am as a consumer. And second, we weren’t in this ethnic beauty aisle with the packaging at the bottom and having it be dirty and all that stuff. It matters. We were above Gillette.
And when I think about the meaning of being first Black CEO in 180-year history. When we were acquired, we were taken to the boardroom of Procter & Gamble. I love the company. And in their boardroom is like this mahogany walled office, and there’s a painting of every single P&G CEO since the beginning of time. And there are like 15 paintings. Right? It’s a profound impact being in that room. Like wow, these are excellent people that worked for an excellent organization that has sustained itself excellent for a long period of time.
And there’s a picture of me under Procter & Gamble; they’re right next to each other. And I think the juxtaposition of that was really meaningful and powerful. Because now we’re in a position to scale Avery’s story to the world. Right? Now he can produce. Who’s going to be that first painting that looks markedly different from every single other one that’s on the wall? And that is a story that I think our acquisition makes possible. And I’m only hopeful that we see more of that over time. But that’s what it means to me, and it really started with that innocent Target story.
James Yan: I have a final question for you, Tristan, before we turn it over to the audience. You are the protagonist of a GSB case study called The Extroverted Introvert. What does it mean to be an extroverted introvert, and how has that disposition helped you personally and professionally?
Tristan Walker: That’s a great question. I am an introvert that recognized that my job requires my extroversion. I’m just not naturally a sociable dude. And I find that it takes a lot of energy for me to show up, but it’s a part of my job. Right? So, I understand that and respect it and know that I have to do that excellently as well.
The way I’ve been able to cope with that, though, is I’ve curated my life in a way that is very deliberate. Around the time I started my company, I went to Starbucks in El Camino Real down here, right down the street, you veer right, and I spent 45 minutes writing down my personal values. And they were as follows: courage, inspiration, respect, judgment, wellness, and loyalty. I define them.
At that moment I said, “I’m going to make every decision, I’m going to hire people, I am only going to have a set of friends that share those values.” Right? You find that there are few people that have ever done that, and they find themselves wasting a lot of time and expending more energy than they need to.
So, I think I’ve done a good job curating my life around those folks who share those values which minimizes my requirement to have to be someone I’m not and be around people that give me permission to continue to be myself knowing that I have that introversion about me. But I’ll do this in delight because I have to do it excellently and I have a job. But I think a bit of my power or my superpower has been knowing who I am and curating my life around not having to be who I’m not.
James Yan: And would you say there are certain personal attributes or qualities that are more conducive to success?
Tristan Walker: I don’t think so. I think it’s consistency. Just be consistent about the things that you value. I was telling one the classes that I was teaching at. I was like, “Man, where I came from, if you’re loyal, you could die,” you know what I mean? That’s stuff that has carried with me every single time.
So, if I’ve ever had a colleague who moves on and does something else, like, “Tristan was a loyal dude,” that stuff matters to me. I want folks to know that I did things courageously. Right? When you’re with me or when you leave, like he was a courageous dude. And I think consistency really is the thing that matters most.
James Yan: Consistency, I love it. thank you, Tristan, for sharing with us your wisdom today. Would you like to take a few questions from the audience?
Tristan Walker: Sure. Please.
James Yan: Okay.
Tristan Walker: I won’t bite. I won’t bite.
Samuel: Hi. I am Samuel.
Tristan Walker: What’s your name?
Samuel: Samuel, Samuel.
Tristan Walker: Cool.
Samuel: Second year MBA. My question is, do you believe in a future of more diverse brands or in a future of a diversity of brands crafted to single groups?
Tristan Walker: I believe in a future where people will choose to gravitate towards brands, people, entities that share their values. I think we’re in a bit of a cool renaissance right now where only Bevel, Walker & Company, can exist because we make space for people to reclaim their own values again.
I don’t think the world needs more brands. It needs more authenticity and consistency. Right? We have enough brands. There’s like a million brands that you can go to, but what about you establishes that connection? People will buy Gillette; that’s fine. Right? There are enough people who buy Bevel, too. And I think the trick will come for founders to not chase the greed versus finding your tribe and going in.
So, I think the future is founders who care about the tribes that they want to build and sticking with it, because that’s a big enough opportunity. Does that answer the question? Cool. They got her working out.
Tristan Walker: Hi.
Alexa: I’m Alexa. We met earlier when you were in my Paths to Power class. And you had mentioned that you ask one question in interviews. You ask people what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever been through. So, I wanted to turn that back to you.
Tristan Walker: Oh yeah. That’s a good question. So, I shared that I usually ask one question during my interviews. Usually by the time that folks come to me, the team has really vetted can the person do the job. Right? So, I tend to ask that question because I think it gets at the heart of values very quickly. Right? And I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of folks, and I’ve only had one person tell me something work related. Which is a bit interesting because you think that folks would try to say, “All right. Let me prove that I’m smart.”
But folks really will get to the heart of everything. They talk about divorce. They’ve talked about deaths in family. I have folks cry on the other side of the table. And one thing that I do after they articulate the story, I try and recite it back to them in line with the values that we have, and then we have a really wonderful conversation. Then they tell me, “Nobody’s ever asked me that question before.” Right? It’s a bit cathartic.
But I usually give them my answer first to make them a little bit more comfortable, and I say, for me, it was getting married. I’ve been married and blessed 17 years. I love my wife. Derrick who’s here has met her since the very beginning. And especially the first 2 years of marriage for me, because it was a process of my relieving myself of my ego. And I didn’t know — It was the first time in my life I had to start thinking about things for two people instead of one. And that tension is rich because it forced us to really think about the values that were going to be foundational and allow us to sustain ourselves over that time.
17 years. I got married really, really early. But we set that foundation so that now our sons, we have shared language to articulate to our sons why courage matters, why loyalty matters, why practicing good judgment matters, why having faith matters. So, it was a real good transformative moment of difficulty for me.
And the reason I bring that up because it’s so personal, but it actually closes the distance between me and the other person in a way that I think has proven productive and shows that person why these values actually do matter to me. Nobody ever did that to me, so I thank you for that. I appreciate that. My wife’s going to see that on YouTube and be like, “Oh [shoot].” I love you.
Audience Member: Hi, Tristan. My question is about the time in 2018 when you mentioned that you went through some of the hardest time in your life. And there was a lot of pressure because the company also is low on cash and everything that was going through with your personal life as well. I’m curious about how did the acquisition, how did that come about? Because at the same time you were thinking about this is your baby, this is your brand that you’ve created, and you want it to go to a company that would take it and make it better, and not be in the pressure of just selling it off because it’s not working out. So, what went through at that time?
James Yan: Yeah, it’s a great question. My acquisition process is an interesting one because I think a lot of folks think about it as like big company comes in, takes small company. Right? But we had agency in that discussion. We weren’t only speaking to Procter & Gamble. We were speaking to quite a few folks. Right?
So, for me, it was like if we were going to do this, and at that point we made the decision, there’s some terms that were going to be important. Right? I still wanted to build something that was around a hundred years from now. I never said that I wanted to own it in perpetuity. Right? I just wanted to build something that was still going to be sustainable and support the community that I cared a lot about. So, that was important.
Number one, does it have a pathway to sustenance over the very long term? Two, the best way to prove it is to show me that you’ve done it yourself. And you think about 180 years of that kind of sustainability, that, at least Procter & Gamble anyway, showed me that they can do it if they wanted to.
Third, autonomy. I wanted to make sure that we were still going to have the ability to offer our point of view in the way that was scalable. So, that required setting up a system that enforces that autonomy. I think I have a P&G email address, but I wouldn’t even know how to use it. Right? We’re a completely separate entity. We can’t even take advantage of their health insurance if we wanted to; we had to create our own. Right? So, there’s a system that really enforced that autonomy for me.
And then lastly, let me just wrap this in a bow to really talk about on December 12th when we announced the acquisition, something that happened to me that I think made me a better leader on the other side now. It was the first time that I realized what freedom was. Right? And for me, I define freedom as not owing anybody anything. And it was the first time in my life I felt that. I didn’t owe investors anything. I didn’t owe P&G anything. Right?
So, it put me in a position where now I can actually have the agency to show up in a way that the opportunity deserved. And it was important that whoever we were merging with, getting acquired by, respected it. In every step of the way, P&G showed a respect for it, and they still do, and it’s the only reason I still continue to be around.
Audience Member: Thank you. Thanks for coming, Tristan.
Tristan Walker: Where’s that coming from? Oh.
Audience Member: Sorry, I was having trouble standing.
Tristan Walker: No problem.
Audience Member: So, thank you. [Unintelligible], MBA2. So, I was wondering. At the GSB, a lot of us want to be founders, but it often feels pretty daunting if you haven’t done it before. So, I was wondering. How did you convince others to believe in you as a founder, maybe including becoming an EIR at Andreessen?
Tristan Walker: Yeah. I mean, first I got to go back to the privilege thing. Only reason Andreessen Horowitz gave me the opportunity is because [a] board at Foursquare, and I told them what I wanted to do, and they said that there’s an opportunity. Right? So, some of it is access and information. Right?
But I’ll be honest. I still find myself having to prove that Walker & Company matters to people. Right? That’s just what founders are going to have to do. I shared a little bit about the quality around what makes you good, and it’s consistency. But I’d add something there. I think the best founders, entrepreneurs, whatever you want to call, have stamina. And you just have to have the stamina to know that you’re going to get a lot of people that just say, “Your idea is crap,” or “You can’t do it.”
The only reason I got to where I did, and most of the reason why I was able to raise the money that I was able to, is because I was in a position of privilege that allowed me to. I couldn’t fathom how difficult this would be. And if I ever started another company again, I would not raise in the way that I did, I would not try to secure money from the types of investors that I did, because I know how hard it is and I know how destructive it can be for certain types of companies who are not ready for it.
So, some of this, once you realize that you want to be a founder, there are a lot of questions that require answers. Do you want to raise money? If so, why? Are you understanding around the tradeoff of what comes with raising money? Because you have to grow it and return it. Do you want to hire a lot of people and manage a lot of people? If so, why? And are you comfortable and understanding around what it means to hire and manage a lot of people? Right?
So, it’s just not enough to say you want to be a founder. But I think asking the second and third and fourth question around do you really want to run it. And I think that the more comfortable that you get with that, then the onus is on you because you made that decision for yourself that you can’t blame other people for. And I found myself blaming other people that I shouldn’t of because I wasn’t thoughtful enough in the beginning.
Audience Member: Hi, Tristan. My name is Maria, and I’m MBA2. I’ve been very inspired to hear your story how you became a leader in the CPG industry and have created such a groundbreaking product. I wanted to hear, at such a young age, what’s next on your career bucket list? How do you plan to leverage your current position in the future?
Tristan Walker: Yeah. Gosh, it’s kind of unbelievable I’m even on the stage right now. I love my job. I love what I do every day. I love the people that I get to do it with, and I love the tribe we’ve been able to build and the importance of why what we’ve built matters.
Yeah, I was sharing with a couple of the previous classes that I was helping teach that there are only three things that I’ve cared about that I think explains every single thing that I’ve done for my career.
The first is the demographic shift happening in this country, cultural influence of Black people, I think. I can’t see myself being in a position where I am not helping spread that gospel that we matter in ways that most people don’t understand. Second, technology’s impact on that. Right? If you can apply technology in the hands of curators of culture. Fundamental power of that asset is meaningful beyond belief. And then lastly, I love the development of great brands. Not just because they’re cool, but they can be a force for good in the world.
So, everything that I’ve done for Walker & Company, CODE2040 — I have the great fortune to sit on the boards of Foot Locker, Shake Shack, et cetera — can really be explained by the intersectionality of those three things. Whatever I do today, whatever I do tomorrow, will be the results of my situating myself in the middle of those kind of intersection points. I could do anything with that. Right? And I think about the application of those three things in every single industry, I think it’s inevitably accretive. I’m trying to not be vague but vague at the same time so I don’t get in trouble. But I can only see myself doing things that celebrate each of those three things.
James Yan: We have time for one more. Go ahead.
Andrew: Hi, my name’s Andrew. I’m curious.
Tristan Walker: Andrew, you said your name?
Andrew: Andrew, yeah. You managed to join two eventually very, very successful startups while at business school. I’m curious, how did you identify that these would be the next big thing? Did you have a feeling for that? And especially curious about Foursquare when you joined with two people, which is very impressive.
Tristan Walker: Yeah, yeah. I don’t start by trying to think about what’s going to be the next big thing. I just think about doing things that improve my life and lifestyle. Twitter improved my lifestyle. Foursquare improved my lifestyle. And I think it’s okay to be selfish about that stuff. Right? I can’t purport this being authentic and living your own values and then say, “Oh, I’m going to chase the next big thing.” Right? Because who knows if it’s going to be the next big thing? If you have enough authenticity, that tends to win itself out every single time.
So, for me, I just thought about the things that I was using, and it just happened to be those things. And more often than not, your classmates aren’t chasing those same things. Right? Because you were thoughtful about why you liked them in the first place. So, hopefully that answers the question. But I’m very selfish about doing things that I like, and you should be, too.
James Yan: Wonderful. Well, Tristan, before you leave, it is a View From The Top tradition to close each session with a number of rapid fire questions.
Tristan Walker: Okay.
James Yan: If you don’t mind, I’ve prepared some for you.
Tristan Walker: Cool.
James Yan: Okay. So, to start off, the Super Bowl’s coming up. Eagles or Chiefs?
Tristan Walker: I’m just worried about Rihanna. Eagles.
James Yan: Eagles. Okay, very good. What was your favorite class at the GSB?
Tristan Walker: Probably Jeff Pfeffer. Oh, is he still here? I actually didn’t take his class. Acting With Power with Deb Gruenfeld [was] my favorite class.
James Yan: Best piece of advice you’ve received?
Tristan Walker: Tyler Perry told me that the trials you go through and the blessings you receive are the exact same things. That stuck with me ever since.
James Yan: Okay. The next three are fill in the blank questions.
Tristan Walker: Okay.
James Yan: My friends would describe me as —
Tristan Walker: Ooh. Handsome. I think magnetic.
James Yan: Okay. My next one was actually my wife would describe me as —
Tristan Walker: Ooh, she’s going to see this, too. Thoughtful.
James Yan: Okay. And finally, I would describe myself as —
Tristan Walker: Consistent.
James Yan: Wonderful. You’re very humble, Tristan. Thank you very much. That’s all the time we have. It’s been a great pleasure.
James Yan: You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, James Yan, of the MBA Class of 2023. Lily Sloane composed our theme music and Michael Reilly and Jenny Luna produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website gsb.stanford.edu or wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us on social media @stanfordgsb.
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