MBA Alumni

Lauren Cooks Levitan

MBA ’92
CFO, Faire
Lauren Cooks Levitan
Lauren Cooks Levitan
Knowing that you can empower these hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs is very gratifying.
February 28, 2024

Lauren Cooks Levitan had just graduated from Stanford GSB with her MBA and was ready to begin a career in consumer retail. Eventually, she would rise to executive positions at multiple companies, but her first move was highly unorthodox for a newly minted MBA: she took a minimum-wage job working on the sales floor at Crate & Barrel.

“While still at the GSB, I was introduced to someone named Phil Schlein, the former CEO of Macy’s West, who at the time was a venture capitalist on Sand Hill Road,” Levitan recalls. “He became a very generous mentor and resource for me because he knew my aspirations to build a career in retail. He said you need to prove to people in retail that you’re really prepared to learn from the ground floor. He said, ‘I think you should go work in a store.’ And so I did.”

It was a decision emblematic of Levitan’s combination of practical thinking and strategic intuition. During a career that has included stints on Wall Street and Main Street, her direction has always been informed by a passion for meeting consumer needs. Today, she is chief financial officer at Faire, an online wholesale marketplace that supplies products to small businesses and provides virtual storefronts for brands. For example, a mom-and-pop store on the hunt for unique Halloween decorations will be pleased to find a life-size hanging skeleton for sale on Faire, and the little shop on the corner that wants to offer holiday puzzles its customers won’t find at Walmart has a go-to. Meanwhile, the brands selling those products prosper by finding a community of retailers looking for just the right thing.

“Knowing that you can empower these hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs is very gratifying,” Levitan says.

What were your earliest influences career-wise?

When I was in middle school, a big shopping center opened in my hometown called Northbrook Court, and people were very excited about it. I remember I would walk through, and I would see a store and think to myself, “Well, that’s not going to work. No one’s going to shop there.” The prices are too high, or the product is wrong. And normally, I was right. A year later, that thing would be gone. I had this inner voice that was always critiquing and commenting, and it was only years later that I realized everybody didn’t have that voice.

You studied political science at Duke but ended up on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs right out of college. And you were there at a rather tumultuous time.

I got there right before the 1987 crash. I loved the action and the activity, but what I also loved was that we were coming out of a recession, and the first set of deals were consumer deals. The consumer usually has to pull the economy out of a recession. These were projects that were very much in my wheelhouse and matched up with that kind of consumer instinct that I had. Just serendipity.

You arrived at the GSB with a very specific aim in mind, right?

At Goldman Sachs, I had the good fortune to work on a bunch of equity transactions for retailers — Williams-Sonoma and Tiffany and Safeway and Staples. But I decided I was much more interested in working inside those companies, so I spent my whole time at Stanford looking at consumer retail and restaurant businesses. Whenever there was any opportunity to do a project or work with a company, that’s what I gravitated to.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to deploy your business school training in a retail store. What did that experience at Crate & Barrel teach you?

What I learned from it was that the immediacy of the feedback from the consumer is something that you should never lose sight of. I really tried to reflect on that and infuse that customer input in everything I did and everything my teams did. As you get more and more senior, you’re farther removed from the consumer, and ultimately, that’s the only vote that counts.

“I like to build things. I like to be part of a team that is pushing towards something together. ”

I spent time in the stores with Crate and Barrel, and then I joined a company called Gymboree. I was the merchandise manager for the little boys’ business, and my manager left a week after I got there. So all of a sudden, here I was, this brand new person in this role I was supposed to be learning. And so while they were looking for her replacement, I was figuring it out and basically doing the job. Eventually, they just gave me the job — a battlefield promotion.

But then it was back to Wall Street.

As much as I’d said I was never going back to Wall Street, I wanted to be in a company. I was eager to put together the operational skills that I built in the stores with the more strategic skillset I had built at the GSB and with the access to capital markets that I’d built earlier in my career on Wall Street.

You were there at the cusp of the technology revolution. How did that fit with your interest in consumer-facing businesses?

I went to my boss, and I said, “There’s this thing that I think is happening at the intersection of consumer and technology, and I think there’s going to be some public companies emerge over the next couple of years. And because we’re such a technology-driven firm, we should really go after this.”

The entrepreneurs we worked with didn’t want to be thought of as retail or consumer businesses because they’d have lower valuations. They wanted that technology valuation, but they also wanted people who understood their business and could help guide a conversation related to it. I ended up spending 13 years back on Wall Street and saw the transformation of e-commerce.

You’ve had many successes, but what’s an example of a failure you experienced, and what did you learn from it?

I like to build things. I like to be part of a team that is pushing towards something together. That’s the part of this work I enjoy most, so after 13 years on the sell side, I thought, ‘I should just devote 100% of my time to helping build companies.’ I partnered with somebody who had a deep background in private equity, and she and I set off to raise a fund and build a portfolio of companies in consumer and in retail.

We did this in the middle of the market crash in 2008, so that was not the best timing, and we weren’t successful. I mean, we did a couple of deals; some were successful, some were not. But we weren’t successful in really getting a firm off the ground. But any time we did make an investment, I tended to go inside the company and do a lot of the work that a CFO does, even if we had somebody in place. I was getting back involved in the operation of companies. That’s always where my heart has been.

Speaking of CFO, you were in that role at Fanatics, which must’ve been fun for a self-described “sports nut.”

It was like a duck taking to water, I just loved being around sports all the time. But I was managing a team in Jacksonville, Florida, and I was in Northern California. I spent about a week every month there, and I always felt like it wasn’t as successful for them or for me for me to be 3000 miles away. I learned a ton in that job, but when Faire came knocking, it was a really great opportunity to marry a lot of things.

What is it about Faire’s mission that inspires you?

We say our mission is to empower entrepreneurs to chase their dreams. We are a two-sided marketplace. On the demand side are hundreds of thousands of independent retailers, and on the supply side are about 100,000 independent brands. These are all people who wanted to have their own business, and they’ve typically been disadvantaged relative to much larger retailers and brands. So we’re building technology tools that level the playing field.

How does the work you’re doing now align with your interest in supporting women in business?

I had a hypothesis that Faire would over-index to female and underrepresented minority ownership, and that turned out to be true. The day I learned that was the day that I knew I was going to accept the job because not only was I impressed by the overall mission of the business, but I got to marry my personal and my professional passion for the first time in my career. Our business model is helping to level the playing field, and it is disproportionately helping to level the playing field for women. That’s very special to me.

What values are important to you in choosing a place to work?

It’s changed over time, but what’s important now is two things. The impact that I believe I can have on the organization — that’s one big plank. The other plank is what the community, the culture, and the mission of the business is. Faire is the first company I have worked for that is a mission-driven organization. I regret that it’s taken me this long in my career to get to a mission-driven organization, but I can’t imagine ever taking on a role now if that wasn’t the case.

Photos by Nancy Rothstein

Lauren Cooks Levitan
Lauren Cooks Levitan
MBA ’92
CFO, Faire
Mill Valley, California, USA
MBA, Stanford GSB
BA, Duke University
Professional Experience
CFO, Fanatics
Managing Director, Cowen and Company
Managing Director, Robertson Stephens
Current Profile