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Exclusive: Zola founder Shan-Lyn Ma appoints a co-CEO

June 16, 2022, 1:09 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! The FDA nears final approval on vaccines for young kids, women feel unprepared for menopause, and Zola adds a co-CEO. Have a great Thursday.

– Business partners. For almost a decade, Shan-Lyn Ma has single-handedly led the weddings platform Zola. (The longtime CEO’s cofounder, Nobu Nakaguchi, now serves as chief design officer.)

Ma is part of a generation of founders who are in this moment reevaluating whether they should continue to lead their businesses; Glossier for example, which is one year younger than Zola, recently announced that founder Emily Weiss is stepping down as CEO.

So for Ma, this feels like the right time to reexamine who heads the company—but not step away completely—with the corner office addition of longtime executive Rachel Jarrett, Fortune is the first to report.

Co-CEO arrangements can be tricky. Researchers have found that two competing executives on an org chart can lead to “destructive power dynamics” with each leader jockeying to be, or simply appear as, the foremost executive.

But if any company should be prepared to be dually run, it’s Zola. The wedding business, after all, is centered on partnership. “We spend a huge majority of our day thinking about couples … and how they’re looking to create a successful partnership,” says Ma. “You want to be inspired by your partner and feel like they’re helping you become better.”

Zola co-CEOs Shan-Lyn Ma and Rachel Jarrett.
Courtesy of Zola

Ma and Jarrett met when both worked at Gilt Groupe in the early 2010s. In 2016, Ma turned to Jarrett when she needed a seasoned operator to help run and scale Zola as it expanded its offerings to include registries, invitations, wedding venues, and vendor bookings. Zola has raised more than $150 million in venture funding since its 2013 founding, according to Pitchbook. Until now, Jarrett has served as president and COO rather than co-CEO, but both say they have already been running the business as equal partners in practice.

The pair say they have taken steps to avoid the common pitfalls of co-CEO arrangements. “We always align the two of us behind closed doors before we ever walk into a room together,” says Jarrett. “We’re never sending mixed messages to the company.”

That strategy was tested last month, when Zola suffered a cybersecurity attack that threatened customers’ finances. (Zola says all funds were restored to users.) The co-executives relied on “trust built up over 11 years working together” to separately handle pieces of the crisis, they say.

Ma currently oversees technology, finance, talent, and legal operations, while Jarrett runs marketing, product, and merchandising. And Ma is thrilled to have someone to carry some of the load. “Being a CEO can be a lonely job,” she says. “It can be particularly challenging when it feels like there aren’t a lot of people in the company you can talk to.” So are co-CEOs the new startup trend? “I’m surprised more people don’t do it,” she quips.

Emma Hinchliffe

Fortune Brainstorm Tech is coming up July 11-13 in Aspen, Colorado. Apply for an invitation to connect with fellow tech leaders including Hayden Brown, CEO of Upwork, Terri Burns, partner with GV (Google Ventures) and co-chair of Fortune Brainstorm Tech, Lisa Dyson, CEO of Air Protein, Lynn Martin, president of NYSE Group, Alison Rapaport Stillman, founding general partner with Serena Ventures, and more.

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