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Alumni in Action

Badger Executive Talk: Kurt Kober’s Passion Is Helping Connect People and Purpose

By Jane Burns

February 21, 2022

Kurt Kober (MBA ’07) likes to use the word “magic” when describing a moment that things come together in an organization. But there’s really no trick to how Kober has achieved success; it’s been understanding the key elements to make it work, connecting people to the mission, and then putting in the hard work required.

Kober is vice president of global retail and e-commerce at The Honest Company, a mission-driven consumer goods company that specializes in baby and beauty products. His is a varied career that even includes a run for Wisconsin lieutenant governor, but at the heart of it has been a leadership model based in solid communications and empathy.

“What I’ve found is that democratizing decision-making and empowering the members of the team is richer than anything I’ve experienced in my life,” says Kober, who splits his time between Los Angeles, where his company is based, and his hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Kober shared his thoughts on leadership and his career journey during a recent Badger Executive Talk, a virtual speaker series featuring executives from the UW–Madison alumni community. Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business, led the conversation and fielded questions from alumni.

Kober’s journey is somewhat unique, moving from a well-known company to a growing startup with a political campaign in the middle. After earning his MBA in 2007, he worked at Clorox for 10 years. As he rose in the company, his commitment to his community and Wisconsin remained steadfast and he ran for lieutenant governor in 2017 with an emphasis on education and the economy. He lost in the primary but gained a further understanding of leadership, one in which he sees people not as part of a process but as citizens with their own lives, passions, and interests.

At The Honest Company, Kober is inspired by the opportunity to market to a new kind of consumer—one who is value-driven and searching for a company or products with a greater purpose beyond the brand.

It’s a topic that has been on Kober’s mind for a long time. While pursuing his MBA, Kober took a class called Systems Thinking in Sustainable Business.

“I remember thinking it looked great but it would be a lot of work,” Kober says. “The professor said, ‘It is a lot of work, but it’s worth it.’”

With Dean Sambamurthy, Kober talked about the importance of brand purpose, a better leadership model, and issues affecting the workplace today.

What do you stand for? Eighty percent of consumers today say they are looking for the purpose of any brand or product they buy, Kober says. What does it mean for them, their family, or the world? The Honest Company’s brand is about inspiring consumers to love living consciously and make choices accordingly. That can’t just be a slogan, Kober says. “What you say on the outside better be consistent with what you do inside,” he says. “There aren’t two worlds. It’s all the same.”

Political insights. Kober’s run for office provided valuable experience that has informed his leadership style. He learned how to better connect with people not as part of a process but as citizens who have their own lives, passions, and interests. “It connected the IQ part of my life and experiences back to the EQ [emotional quotient] I have as a person, the feelings and emotions that are part of you,” he says.

Lean heavy vs. lead heavy. An early job in Kober’s career was a family company where decisions rested with one top individual. Leaning in with a team is much harder, he says, but can be more effective. “It’s as much about listening and understanding where people are coming from and then triangulating that with what we need to get done as a company and how we’ll get it done.”

Purpose can be a perk. As a mission-driven organization, The Honest Company has some built-in advantages in a competitive environment for attracting and retaining talent, Kober says. If team members are connected to the mission in their everyday work, it’s a powerful draw. Combine that with flexibility and understanding what is most important to people and a company can draw and retain top talent, Kober says. “It’s that magic combination for every person that you engage with rather than this stamped out version that’s the same for everyone. The old playbook is evolving really quickly.”

The next Badger Executive Talk on April 12 will feature Dorri McWhorter (BBA ’95), president and CEO of YMCA Metropolitan Chicago. The Alumni Events page features more information about the talks and links to view past conversations.