In our continuing series celebrating the 2015 Forty Over 40 honorees, Nan-Kirsten Forte is the Chief Product and Content Officer of LivingHealthy, a digital media company that creates and curates premium content to educate and empower health-conscious and wellness-oriented consumers so they can live healthier and fuller lives. The company is tapping into the growing enthusiasm Americans have not only for extending their lives but also for improving the quality of every year at every age.
Previously, she was the Chief Innovation Officer and EVP of Consumer Services of WebMD. She is driving the LivingHealthy content and user-engagement strategy and consumer experience for online, video, social and mobile. Forte built WebMD into one of the most trusted global brands, led its audience growth to over 100 million unique users per month, garnered the highest awards for journalism and launched a series of firsts: online health communities, a daily digital health newsroom, interactive symptom and condition assessments, and the celebrity-driven WebMD Magazine.
Forte was a part of the executive team that took WebMD public in 2005 and delivered double-digit growth for the following six years whereupon she decided to expand her passions beyond medical health into the larger lifestyle arena. Prior to WebMD, Forte launched the health category for iVillage, a series of retail exercise and health videos, books and publications for Time Life Medical, and led the program development and daily broadcast news operations of Medical News Network (MNN) for Whittle Communications.
Forte received her M.S. in Bio-Medical Communications from Long Island University School of Pharmacy and a Bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College. She played the center position on the National Lacrosse Team in addition to being a four-year, three-season Varsity scholar-athlete.
brandchannel: In your opinion, what is the biggest impact you feel you’ve made to date? Not necessarily in terms of size and metrics, but in terms of meaning.
Nan-Kirsten Forte: My greatest impact was bringing “trust, empathy, and caring” to a rather impersonal and distrusted medium at the time – the Internet and search engines. When one accepts a Webby award one has 5 words only that she/he can say when they accept. Mine, for WebMD, were the same each year and were from my heart: “You are Not Alone Anymore.”
bc: What’s your greatest challenge innovating for the health category?
NF: The greatest challenge is creating trusted brands and, in health, it’s a list of critical things that must be established with the consumer rather than simply an emotional connection. Timeliness, credibility, sources, transparency, policies, procedures, disclosures, data, privacy, and imagery all contribute to that one moment when the consumer decides he or she will trust you or not. At WebMD I got fortunate because it was easy to reach disenfranchised patients because that’s where they were – on the internet. Today what excites me even more is reaching young adults and the new and innovative ways they can be reached. These “mobile millennials” as I call them are consumed with health and wellness – of themselves and our environment – and for me that tsunami of shared values is an even bigger opportunity than WebMD!
bc: You were the only female executive at WebMD during your tenure, did that affect your leadership style? Were you more conscious of setting an example for the women at your company?
NF: Being the highest-ranking female executive at WebMD for 13 years and its sole female “voice” did not truly affect my personal leadership style. My style as a leader has everything to do with who I am as a human being. I had been a team player in sports during all of grade school and college. At times I was the captain. I held records for not just goal scoring but “assists.” I went to summer camp, had siblings, was an RA in college, and had truly worked my way up from the bottom. I had experienced my share of humility, rejection and mentorship along the way.
I was educated in both quantitative and qualitative sciences and arts. I am the child of a Doctor turned Psychiatrist and the grandchild of a Minister who was knighted for his heroic acts for humanity. Those things define me, not my age or my gender. The example I did set for WebMD was around motherhood and fatherhood and creating the right policies and support for new and working families. I was the only Executive Officer who did not have a “wife.” I think I worked and delivered beyond expectations because I always felt at a deficit – some of that was being the only woman – but I don’t know how much of that was gender related or just feeling inadequate in general which then drives me harder.
bc: Our culture is obsessed with doing things rapidly, but to innovate, you must really know how an established method works—patience is key. Do you think you would have been able to accomplish what you have today, ten years ago? Have you discovered any unexpected advantages that came with age?
NF: With age comes the realization that you must constantly be learning new things. That change is inevitable; that what worked yesterday will not necessarily work tomorrow. Today the expectations of revenue, profitability and audience numbers are higher than 10 years ago as both technology and new models have enabled this accelerated pace. Having 20 plus years of experience to draw from as well as the past 4 years since leaving WebMD to learn again without the trappings of success – and frankly being stuck in a box (older female exec – “she’s lost her filter… going through the “change”… a B-word) — has put me in a rare and unique position to be able to make both quantitative and qualitative decisions rather clearly. The most unexpected advantage that comes with age is having the chance to work with people of all ages and just having that split second intuition on who knows what time it is and who does not. I was always the youngest executive in the room and now I am practically the oldest! And I just love it as there is so much to learn and I am a great learner and so much I already know.
bc: What is a piece of advice you received from a female colleague over 40 and a piece of advice from a male colleague over 40? How did their opinions differ?
NF: My female colleagues over 40 always say the same thing: “Own your power.” And I have been working on that for decades. I also wrapped my head around Lean In when the book came out. When you lean in, however, and you are over 40, it’s more like a cartwheel in — and the people at that table want you to succeed because their own success is tied to that. At WebMD my male colleague’s advice was always the same: “Plan your next gig because someone else wants your job and it’s a man.” And so I did!