Mission-Driven CEOs Share on Modern Leadership and Advancing Equality
Welcome to The FQuestionnaire, where women in our community share perspectives on their life, career and how they advance equality in the industries they work in. Today, we’re putting a spotlight on dynamic duo Nicole Centeno and Elise Densborn, co-CEOs of Splendid Spoon, a ready-made food company on a mission to offer accessible, nutritious and delicious plant-based fare to everyday Americans. As co-CEOs, their connection story speaks to the power of community: Nicole founded Splendid Spoon in 2013, and before coming on as COO and then co-CEO, Elise was a proud customer of the product. Incredible, right? Here’s what the co-CEOs had to say about modern leadership, teamwork and rewriting the rules of the workplace.
The Female Quotient: What’s one example of how you and/or your organization is moving the equality needle — at work or in life?
Nicole Centeno: I try to lead by example and through the policies we set. I set an example for the team as a working mom by showing that family is a worthy and valuable investment rather than a conflict with career ambitions. I model healthy leadership and balance by publicly marking my calendar (and protecting my time off) when I am picking up my kids from school or spending time with them during typical working hours.
Elise Densborn: We support asynchronous work, meaning we prioritize Slack, offer recorded and virtual meetings and share written, transparent group updates. This allows teammates to stay in the loop and collaborate swiftly and effectively. We don’t want our team to feel that they have to stick to a rigid work schedule that doesn’t align with their most productive work times or personal needs.
FQ: What are the three most important character traits in modern leadership?
NC: Humility, emotional resilience and creativity.
ED: I agree with Nicole. Being in service to something greater than yourself makes the rest possible. Emotional fitness and creative muscles can be built and worked but the “why” has to be unwavering.
FQ: What’s the single biggest obstacle limiting women’s career growth today?
NC: You have to be a nonconformist to make progress on what’s right. Getting the rest and nourishment you need to take care of a pregnant body or a family member should be a right, not a privilege, but in today’s work culture, it feels like you are swimming against the tide. Society has gaslit us to feel crazy that we are tired, emotionally exhausted and still not getting as far as our male peers. Men, and especially white cis men, simply do not have the same pressures.
ED: The greatest obstacle has been balancing work and family operations and having the same level of support in both arenas. Another obstacle has been navigating the self-doubt (a.k.a, imposter syndrome) that is shaped by structures and behavioral norms that undervalue female leadership styles and strengths.
FQ: If you could rewrite one rule of the workplace, what would it be?
NC: The expectation to be productive at certain points in the day.
ED: I’d add to that: Rewriting what “productive” means, especially in the creative process.
FQ: What’s one career-related question you wish people would stop asking women?
NC: Honestly, I don’t mind any of the questions, but it’d be nice not to get the reaction: “Oh! I didn’t realize you were so big,” after answering, what size is your business? Patronizing reactions still sting.
ED: I don’t get a lot of questions. What I wish people would stop assuming is that my career is getting in the way of my personal life rather than being one element in my full life. The truth is, I have intentionally chosen to prioritize different things at different times in my life because of what gives me a sense of purpose. I don’t at all view a career being at odds with my relationship or family, and I go all-in no matter what type of community I am building.
FQ: What’s one strategy you have for boosting self-confidence during moments of doubt?
NC: I remind myself that doubt is normal — that it’s something my body does when it’s close to risk. It helps me to sit with the physical sensations of anxiety and doubt rather than acting from that moment. Doubt is just part of the process.
ED: I have this mantra, “If not you, then who?” My dad used to say it to me growing up, as I was facing fears or over-analyzing whether to take the leap at different junctures. It reminds me that everyone has doubts and everyone is just figuring it out. Also, with privilege comes responsibility — so don’t waste it.
FQ: Name a woman whose mentorship has had a positive impact on your career and life. What made their approach unique and memorable?
NC: Our independent board member Lisa Church, the former president of eMarketer, was a big mentor in my career. When I would come to her with a challenge she never gave advice, instead she would just ask: What do you think you need to do here? It instilled a sense of confidence and assuredness in me that allowed me to find the answers and be OK with unknown outcomes. The reminder that you are in charge and it’s your choice which way to go, always helped me to quiet the noise in my head.
ED: Nicole! She is so courageous and intentional. Her mentorship, especially when I first joined the team, really helped me evolve into a leader and an entrepreneur. She also helped me see myself more clearly and to show up as my full self at work and in life. Her approach to life and business building is nonconformist, but grounded. She taught me how to balance dreaming with doing, and she continuously inspires me to take leaps and prioritize creativity. There aren’t a lot of founders out there who demonstrate the courage and humility to invite a co-CEO partnership, and to do so with such thoughtfulness and respect.
FQ: What’s giving you optimism about equality and the future of work?
NC: Seeing the shift in our value systems. I believe the increased investment at the individual level to families and community activism has increased our empathy and capacity as a society to see that there are different ways to lead and build progress. This extends into how we build our products, services and team environments in business.