Fran Hauser meets a lot of powerful women. As an angel investor, she’s poured money into 20 companies — 18 of which have female founders. One of her biggest projects is The Wing, a rapidly growing coworking space for women, founded by high-profile Millennials Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan. She also provided funding to help build actress Zooey Deschanel’s lifestyle site, HelloGiggles. Previously, Hauser was president of digital for Time, Inc. There, she collaborated with the founders of now-popular site Rent the Runway before the company formally launched.
Later, a number of impressive females had technical queries about managing cash flow, attracting capital, and marketing effectively. But their biggest question for her was more personal. “How can you be so nice,” they asked, “while being so successful?” In fact, so many people asked, she wrote a book about it, The Myth of the Nice Girl, which was released last April.
Hauser says that over the past several decades, a stereotype has developed about what a successful leader looks like. “You think of somebody who is demanding and tough and competitive and smart,” she says. “But you don’t think of someone who is kind.” Look at Anna Wintour, who is portrayed as tough and clever but certainly not compassionate, or Hillary Clinton, who had to battle others publicly to gain influence.
But Hauser knew she rose to the top in a different way, by being empathetic and collaborative, and “having enough confidence to know there are enough opportunities to go around.” It’s been her mission to help other women know they can do the same.
Hauser had to be a team player early on. She and her parents moved to Mount Kisco from Italy when she was 2 years old. As the eldest of four children, she helped her parents start businesses, her father as a mason and her mother as a seamstress. She remembers how in second grade all the other children were focused on playing and doing their homework, while she was taking customer orders and filing invoices.
Her family moved to Mount Kisco from a tiny seaside village in Calabria named Solano Superiore (current population: 582). Her large extended family in Mount Kisco has now grown to include roughly 1,000 people. She still supports the Mount Kisco restaurants her cousins own: Village Social, a hip bistro, and equally trendy Exit Four food hall. Her favorite memories growing up are of having large meals altogether.
While higher education wasn’t a family priority, Hauser asked her parents to let her attend Pace University in Pleasantville. She finished her bachelor’s degree and MBA in just four years, forming connections she has maintained to this day. Her favorite professor, Barbara Farrell, who taught accounting, remains a mentor. “I always loved her no-excuses attitude and the way she made everything so relatable,” says Hauser.
After accounting gigs at Pricewaterhouse-Coopers and Ernst & Young, she joined Coca-Cola, where she became director of finance for the New York Division at age 27. She asked her boss why others with more experience and better résumés didn’t get the job, to which he replied: “You develop great relationships with people. You have a team who would follow you anywhere.” She remembers negotiating a big deal with an outside partner (one that her colleagues had tried to close previously but failed) by putting herself in their shoes. “I was really empathetic to what they needed to get out of it,” she explains.
A random call from a recruiter led to a job at Moviefone, a company that allowed people to call and get show times and buy tickets for any movie theater. It was a risky move: The company was trying to move to an all-Internet presence, and no one knew if it would work. Hauser decided to take the job, however, because they promised she could migrate away from finance and master all aspects of the business. Moviefone ended up being acquired by AOL, which then merged with Time Warner. The result was that Hauser found herself working for Time Inc., the conglomerate’s magazine arm.
From 2004 to 2014 she held high-level roles at Time Inc. She ran the team that launched People.com, a standalone business separate from the print magazine that was racking up a billion page views per month (and 30 million unique visitors). Under her leadership, the site covered everything from Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s dramatic breakup to the death of Michael Jackson. It became one of the 10 most profitable businesses within Time Inc. By the end of her tenure, Hauser was president of digital and running strategy for all of Time’s entertainment and fashion brands.
She started meeting with tech companies to find ways to collaborate. “Remember FourSquare?” Hauser says. “We were trying to work with them. We wanted to get our content on Flipboard in a way that we could still make a profit.” She found herself drawn to female founders at places like Rent the Runway; she naturally extended her network to them and offered her wisdom. “One day, I woke up and said, ‘I’m giving so much free advice to founders, what if I get some skin in the game, by investing in them?’” What started as a side hustle turned into a full-time business four years ago.
Her most successful investments have been in Meditation Studio and HelloGiggles, which was acquired by Time Inc. after three years. “It usually takes five or seven years for an exit like this to happen,” notes Hauser. She also learned valuable lessons about working with women. “There’s been a few times I’ve worked with best friends who started companies together,” she says. “Everything is great until it is not.”
Becoming an investor gave her time to finally write her book. It had been in the back of her mind for more than a decade, but she finally did it after writing a blog post for Forbes, titled “Nice Women Finish First When They Ask the Right Questions.” She received so many emails, phone calls, and LinkedIn messages from women who had read it, she knew there was a need for her book. “They all told me they were in a bind, that if they were too nice, they were a pushover,” she says. “But if they were tough, they were perceived as a bitch.”
Her timing couldn’t have been better. It was right before the 2016 presidential election, when “Nasty Girl” items and goods bearing Michelle Obama’s signature quote, “When they go low, we go high,” were trending. Her book ended up going to auction, with publishers vying over which would get the rights. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt won.)
Since the book’s April release, Hauser has given more than 100 talks. “It’s been incredible,” she says. “People tell me about their real-life scenarios. There are definitely tears.” To celebrate the book’s release, Hauser’s parents threw a party at their Mount Kisco home; more than 80 cousins showed up.
Face time with family is really important to Hauser, which is one of the things she appreciates about her career as an investor: It allows her to spend more time with family in her beloved Bedford home. She and her husband bought the house 20 years ago, after falling in love with it on a casual drive through the village. “You know when you see something, and you just love it, and it has to be yours?” she says. The house is a French Provincial with cream stucco and a red roof. It has the look of a castle and is located on a hill, up a long, steep driveway.
When she was working in the city, the home was just a pied-à-terre. Now, Hauser gets to live there full-time with her husband and two sons. “I just love nesting,” she says. “I love being in the house with the boys and playing a board game or having the kids play outside on the trampoline or swim in the pool.”
It’s a perfect testament to her book, which describes how to love and grow your career while remaining the person you want to be. As Hauser says, “You can do both.”
Alyson Krueger is a freelance journalist based in NYC. She writes regularly for the New York Times, Robb Report, and New York Magazine, among other publications.