Driving Disruption: Li Haslett Chen Of HOWL On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industries

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Transparency. This is key on both sides of the marketplace — whether it’s putting shopping data back in the hands of creators and editors, or giving marketers benchmarks on pay and incrementality. Transparency is the foundation for an equitable system.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Li Haslett Chen

Li Haslett Chen is the Founder and CEO of Howl, a new marketplace where fan communities profit from creator and brand collaborations. Prior to Howl, Li founded Narrativ, one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies and Forbes AI 50. Haslett Chen has been recognized as a Technology Pioneer by The World Economic Forum, a Fashion Disruptor by The Financial Times, and one of Ad Age’s 40-Under-40. In 2022, Li was named as an independent director and board member of Warner Brothers Discovery. She has a Bachelor of Arts, Magna Cum Laude, from Columbia University and loves cyberpunk.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I grew up in China in the 90s during Deng’s reform and open era. Our economy was in rapid ascendancy and my life improved almost every day — I remember getting an air conditioner unit, a washing machine, and the pure joy of eating Haagen Dazs for the first time.

As a result, I’m a big believer that systems widen access and foster positive change. I also have an appreciation and joy for the small, behind the scenes work that needs to be done right in order for big things to succeed.

All of this led me to launch Narrativ in 2017. Our goal was to build commerce infrastructure that served consumers, not monopolies. We’ve been called disruptors — and I’m really proud of our work. In 2022, I launched Howl to rethink social commerce.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Until now, social commerce has been built and designed for technology giants. This is a $250B market that’s primed to double by 2027.

Howl puts social commerce back in the hands of creators and brands. We believe their experience deserves to be equitable, inclusive, and lucrative — that creators deserve to feel recognition, purpose, and laughter as they work.

Howl’s mission is to make social commerce a team sport for creators and brands. We center their experience in our marketplace by incentivizing pay transparency, ambassador programs, access to gate kept economies like retail media, and high growth tooling. To date, brands have generated over $1B in GMV and creators have earned over $100M on Howl.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

For me, the most challenging and rewarding aspect of leadership has been around scaling how we work. When we live in a world of “move fast and break things, “ it can be hard to choose “Wow.” This is about shifting the definition of speed.

At Howl, “Wow” means being customer driven and building product thoughtfully through the marriage of form and function. “Wow” means we’re never subordinating the felt experience to the function. We have to believe that beauty (ease, power, yumminess) makes things easier, it’s not an accessory. In the moment it can feel like you’re sacrificing speed. But over time, trust in “Wow” is the difference between excellent and mediocre.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

Historically, disruption has been “move fast and break things.” It’s the governing theory of “techno-darwinism” that has been the roman empire of silicon valley for the past 3 decades.

Disruption loves high growth, high margin, highly defensible businesses — there are conferences and essays penned in its honor. Disruption justifies upheaval. I’d like to see disruption itself evolve in the next decade to center sustainability and ecosystem health, not just high growth.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

Disruption is not something I am focused on as a founder. As a woman and person of color, disruption comes naturally — I come from a different perspective and experience than most tech founders.

I’m often reminded that software is biased — who is doing the building will inevitably impact who you’re building for. Howl is a social commerce platform and our “disruption” comes in how we center creators and brands.

We see creators as a high growth category of entrepreneurs who need real tools. We also believe that the best part of work is working with other people — and that winning cultures are centered around purpose, recognition, and laughter. The marriage of this experience first mentality with pay transparency and incrementality focused campaigns results in a diverse and lucrative marketplace.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

One major lesson I’ve learned in growing Howl is the importance of building a customer-centric culture. Vision and mission go nowhere without the right culture.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

Resistance isn’t a bad thing. Friction can be a powerful motivator for change. I’ve received pushback that has significantly improved our product and strategy. I’ve also received feedback that was completely misaligned to our values and mission. My advice to founders is to understand the difference and move forward accordingly! Trust your intuition.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”?

1. Attribution, Attribution, Attribution. Educating creators and marketers on how the right attribution models and technologies is the name of the game. This is how hundreds of billions of dollars end up in the right hands. As of January, creators on Howl have been paid over $100 million by brands.

2. Access. We’re unlocking retail media for creators, the fastest growing segment of advertising that’s traditionally been gatekept from creators.

2. Transparency. This is key on both sides of the marketplace — whether it’s putting shopping data back in the hands of creators and editors, or giving marketers benchmarks on pay and incrementality. Transparency is the foundation for an equitable system.

4. Inclusivity. A lot of creator platforms tout their exclusivity as a badge. Howl is built for high growth creators of all sizes and categories — our tools are built for those with a growth mindset, not just the 1%.

5. Community. At the heart of the creator economy is community. We believe that human connection, purpose, and recognition are critical to the ongoing success of creators and marketers on Howl.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

Real disruption happens at a systems level. On a personal front, I’ve become a student of body mechanisms, nervous system health, and the lessons our physical bodies can offer us as an analogy for complex, high functioning systems.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

If AI is the springboard for an abundance era, it scares me that there’s already a huge gender gap in AI. Who gets to participate in abundance?

From development, to adoption, to the disproportionate risks that AI poses toward women, this is a growing problem. It’s evident that more women need to participate in the development of all technology, especially AI.

At Howl, we look to build an inclusive environment for all employees — our team is both majority female and bipoc. This is not entirely surprising given our leadership team is also majority female and bipoc — we are a mission led team that aims to close the gender gap in technology.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It’s now been well documented that creators of color earn $.65 cents to $1.00 of their white counterparts, and half as many female creators earn a full time wage as their male counterparts. This pay gap is systemic and not discussed.

The creator economy is a new industry — it’s booming, but it also lacks clear labor protection laws and protocols. I’d like to see labor protection laws extended to creators.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow @planet.howl on Instagram or https://www.linkedin.com/in/lihaslettchen/ on Linkedin

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.