“You’re never entirely sure where your life is going to take you,” Christie Hefner said.
Despite her goal to attend Yale University for graduate school, Hefner agreed to begin working at Playboy.
Christie Hefner delivered a public lecture in Newhouse on Wednesday about her insights gained from more than 30 years working with the company her father, Hugh Hefner, founded in 1953.
Standing in front of a packed Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium, Hefner recounted how she began working for the company. A child of divorce, she grew up with her mother in Illinois, away from her father who lived in Los Angeles. After graduating summa cum laude from Brandeis University in 1974, Hefner said her father suggested she take some time to learn about the family business.
If Hefner had stuck to her plan when she was 22, she’d have gone to graduate school and ended up in politics – preferably working in the Senate or Supreme Court.
Instead, the daughter of the world’s most infamous man-about-town decided to go into the media industry, helping to transform Playboy the magazine into Playboy the brand.
“If today I made everyone write on a piece of paper what you’ll be doing in 10 years, less than 10 percent of you would be right,” she said.
It was a statement that echoed her personal experience. Though her stint with Playboy was supposed to be temporary, Hefner was still there seven years later.
And in 1982, when Playboy Enterprises was facing tough financial times and plummeting stocks, she decided to intervene, although she had no formal business training.
“I came up with this idea that I could step in as president and turn the company around,” she said. “The obvious question I had was ‘What the f--- was I thinking?’”
She quickly realized how much she had yet to learn, but ultimately discovered her lack of an MBA didn’t diminish her business sense.
“There’s something to be said for trying to buck the conventional wisdom,” Hefner said.
Bucking conventions is something she had done a lot during her time with Playboy Enterprises – most notably when she later earned the title of CEO and kept it for 20 years, only recently stepping down from the company in January.
Holding that position made her the longest-serving female CEO of a public company, she told the audience. And those 20 years far eclipse the average 5-year tenure of most CEOs.
Though Hefner’s status as a successful businesswoman is impressive, she is also often viewed as a curiosity: a liberal feminist who was in charge of a company that profits off men’s fantasies about females.
“For some people, this is a paradox,” said former Newhouse dean David Rubin when he introduced Hefner at the start of the evening. “If this is a paradox to you, you might want to ask about it.”
Despite some defaced and torn-down advertisements of Hefner’s visit to campus and rumors of a protest, only one person chose to bring up a topic of controversy in the Q&A portion of the event.
“My own view is that I think the photos in the magazine are beautiful,” said Hefner, in response to a female student who asked how Hefner addresses those who criticize the magazine and company for what some believe to be anti-feminist ideals.
“I think there’s something a little off about the idea of women needing to choose between their sexuality and being taken seriously. I don’t buy that.”
Not much of the night, however, focused on Playboy Enterprises’ eroticism or potential conflicts with feminist ideals. Instead, the majority of Hefner’s lecture and the questions that followed were aimed at the business side of the company.
While Hefner offered advice – be a leader who listens, promote diversity, and understand successful branding – she also noted she doesn’t miss her former job at all.
“You are worrying every minute of every day about everybody,” she said about being CEO.
“I found it stunningly easy to walk away.”