What does it take to succeed in building a brand to scale?


Katherine Rice, GingerBread Capital’s resident expert on how to build and scale brands has been there and done that—a lot.

In this exclusive GingerBreadCap Q&A, Katherine shares some great tips for founders. She also has some sage advice for women seeking board positions, why companies need more women on their boards, and how mentoring and investing in women founders can change the way business is done, for the better.

[pictured, at top: Katherine Rice with Goodles’ Senior Director of Sales Christine Elders at Expo West 2024.]


Q. You’ve spent much of your career helping consumer product startups to scale and major brands like Williams Sonoma to expand their footprint. What two or three key ingredients do founders need to build a successful brand?

KR: I would say, first: You need to hold fast to your vision. It’s easy to get lost, especially for startups with small teams that are eager to move fast. Your vision is your true north, to keep you and your team focused, inspired, and marching in the same direction.

Second, fail forward fast. Take risks. You will make mistakes, and that’s where the learning happens. But don’t dwell on them. Learn from them, and move forward.

Finally: Seek out smart people. We’re all smarter when we surround ourselves with great people. If you can’t afford to hire them full time, then look for great advisors, mentors and board members.

Q. What are some of the tangible ingredients that are essential to scaling a brand?

KR: The most important thing a consumer business can do is to protect its brand. Aim for great and don’t compromise on your product or service, which is the essence of your brand. Everything you do should enhance the brand. Building a brand includes what you choose not to do. Don’t say yes to an opportunity just to get to the next sales milestone. For example, in deciding where to put your brand, don’t place it in places your customers wouldn’t expect to find you. And, while collaborations can be great, make sure they are with like brands so that your brand isn’t lifting another’s while compromising your own.

Q. Why is the “where” of a brand as important as the “why” of it?

KR: When I ran the gift card business at Williams Sonoma, I took it into different channels, including grocery stores. But we didn’t expand our reach into other places like extreme discount stores, because our customers wouldn’t expect to find a high-end specialty brand there. And while you might be able to purchase a gift card in a Safeway, you wouldn’t find any Williams Sonoma-branded food products there. Those were exclusive to our channels. And that exclusivity was a key component of our brand.

A brand also has to stand for something. An important part of any brand is its ethos. Today’s consumers, especially younger ones, want to know what your brand is doing for the environment, for advancing equality, for giving back to society in some way.

Q. What is trending in the consumer products category? What markets do you predict tomorrow’s successful startups will be targeting?

KR: The key to the success of any brand–and this may sound obvious–is that it serves a real need, and solves a real-world problem. There is a lot of room for winners.  I am tracking home furnishing closely as the category has been in a tear, along with clean beauty, healthy food and food cultivation, pets, fitness and women’s health.  I really like products and services with an emphasis on zero-waste and closed-loop lifecycles. These, in fact, describe many of the companies in the GingerBread Capital portfolio.

Q. What was your career path as an operator and now, as an investor in women founders? Are you fulfilling a childhood dream?

KR: Well, once I realized I wasn’t going to be a tennis pro, anyway! [Ed. note: Katherine was a high school tennis champ and captain of her team.] It’s interesting, I was a communications major at Vanderbilt University and thought I would build a career in media. I was inspired by my father who worked in finance and pursued a job on Wall Street, as a financial analyst after college and later as a management consultant. I loved building and scaling businesses and set off to be an operator, spending over a decade at Williams Sonoma and working with consumer businesses to grow. Now, back in finance I feel I have brought it all together by supporting founders and helping scale businesses. I feel lucky to get to do what I love while supporting women founders.

Q. You got your start in investment banking with Kidder, Peabody before going back to graduate school for your MBA at Stanford. A lot of women we know who have built careers in finance have followed a similar path [including GBC Founder/CEO Linnea Roberts and Partner Ita Ekpoudom]. Why was it important for you to get an MBA?

KR: When I first went into investment banking, I was not prepared! It was a rude awakening,  coming from a communications background, to dive into this male-dominated, high-paced, highly quantitative role. I learned a ton on the job. I also realized I liked banking. It was a challenging environment that I thrived on. And I did want to be an owner/operator. I realized an MBA would allow me to learn about strategy, and how to run a business, and that I would meet incredible people and broaden my network. I chose Stanford for its entrepreneurial focus and collaborative environment, and I liked that it was away from the East Coast grind (and the cold weather!).

Q. How has the investment banking industry changed for women since you first started your career?

KR: In the early 1990s, there were not many women in investment banking. Being a woman I felt I had to work harder to compensate. There were even fewer women at the top, which people would always attribute to women’s desire to have a family. But men want families, too and you never heard that about men. Women continue to leave investment banking because they don’t have enough role models. My analyst class was around 20% women, today that’s more like 50%. Women have more access, but it’s still hard to retain women. That’s why it’s so important for any woman in a leadership role to mentor other women.

Q. How do you personally mentor women?

KR: First, I keep in touch with people I’ve worked with through the years, especially during my time at Bain & Company and Williams Sonoma. I’ve also advised students in entrepreneurship classes at my alma mater, the Stanford Graduate School of Business. And through my current position as partner at GingerBread Capital, I am an advisor to our portfolio company founders, and especially those in the consumer products space.

It’s a no-brainer to have a board that reflects and understands your customers. But adding one woman isn’t enough. I have seen the conversation change dramatically when three or more board members are women.

Q. You serve on several company boards. How did you get appointed to those positions, and what advice would you give to other women who are seeking to join boards?

KR: I’ve always believed that boards should be reflective of the customer the business is serving. I joined my first board about 20 years ago, and I was the only female despite the business targeting a female demographic! I’ve been on a handful of boards since then and they have all come from my network. I have seen more women added to boards, but it still surprises me that many consumer businesses, including women’s apparel, have few women on their boards. And that’s their customer!  And that’s their customer! It’s a no-brainer to have a board that reflects and understands your customers. But adding one woman isn’t enough. I have seen the conversation change dramatically when three or more board members are women.

Q. So how can women successfully navigate these male-dominated domains?

KR: So much in business relies on your network. If you want to be on a board, tell everyone you know. Attend networking events and business functions that put you in touch with decision makers, and share your superpower! People get on boards because they know the industry, the customer, or they have a skill set. If you’re an expert in digital transformation, for instance, then find a board that needs that. Accept that the process takes time, and that it’s a big decision, especially for VC-backed or private equity companies where there might be just one or two independent director positions available.

Q. What resources can you suggest that can jump-start the process for women seeking board positions?

KR: A good place to start is connecting with Him for Her, an organization which promotes diversity on for-profit boards. You should also check with your alma mater [whether or not you have an MBA]. My alma mater Stanford, for instance, has a Women on Boards Initiative for alumnae. And, talk to your friends in venture capital and private equity for board roles with portfolio companies. It’s also important to note that now is a great time for women seeking board positions. Recruiters are increasingly focused on DEI goals.

Q. Why is it important to you to support women and diverse founders?

KR: I’ve been a long-time advocate for leveling the playing field for women, in business, in sports, in politics. I have a college-age daughter and I want her to live in a world where people are treated equally. Creating more women role models for girls, whether that’s in the boardroom, or on the field, or by investing in their businesses, is key.

I believe we, as women, are setting the stage and that we now have the momentum to change the world for the better. The more we increase awareness, and co-invest in women with other women, the quicker we will achieve that vision.