Standup CFO for Fast-Moving Service

NAME: Elaine Paul
TITLE: Chief Financial Officer, Strategy & Business Development

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Paul focused on mergers and acquisitions during 25 years at Disney, including the firm’s $800 million transaction to acquire India multimedia conglomerate UTV and make it private, establishing Disney’s position in India.

QUOTABLE: “Learning never ceases. I learn something new every day, in my job and my life. When one is in a dynamic, quickly changing space — and that’s where Hulu sits, [in] the white hot center — that’s a great environment in which to learn.”

After 25 years in corporate strategy at entertainment giant The Walt Disney Co., Elaine Paul had achieved the traditional hallmarks of success for a senior vice president: the corner office and the choice spot in the parking garage, “right there by the elevator.”

Then she went to Hulu, where she got a standup desk, a yoga ball as a chair, no walls and a staff of millennials called Hulugans.

“There are no entitlements, there is no parking space, there is no office,” Paul said. “My first three months people asked, ‘How’s the change?’ I’d say, ‘It’s Mars and Venus, that’s how big it is.’ ” Paul, Hulu’s new CFO, quickly adopted a personal mantra: “Evolve or die.”

In fact, evolution was too slow for what needed to happen, she said. “It was a revolution in how I needed to adapt my management style, my leadership style and my appreciation for a new media/tech/millennial company.”

Buying Into Different Corporate Culture
For one thing, she soon learned that her team wasn’t gunning for that choice parking spot.

When Paul came to Disney from Harvard Business School, “there was a very specific path one took: You wanted to please your boss and get the next promotion.” Hulu’s young team worked just as hard, but “what’s important to them is an intrinsic sense of knowing the impact and importance and context of their individual work, and a buy-in and belief in the culture of Hulu and that Hulu is doing the right thing for its employees and in the world.”

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Her companywide leadership role also meant being an “evangelist” for Hulu to the entire company — “from hourly workers to Ph.D.s in rocket science” — and explaining the vision of “what Hulu is all about, what’s our North Star, and what role we are playing in this super rapidly changing media ecosystem.” In other words, she’s “not just Elaine the CFO with the numbers. I’m proud that I think I’ve achieved that.”

Since Paul arrived, Hulu has won exclusive subscription streaming rights to Empire, The Golden Girls, Seinfeld and more, increased its subscriber base to 17 million, won awards for The Handmaid’s Tale, and developed a successful live-streaming platform. Paul established a strategic analytics group to exploit Hulu’s wealth of user data to the advantage of its business, from maximizing engagement of viewers, to pricing, to managing churn among subscribers. Acquisitions have included the Video Genome Project, which provides technology to improve recommendations for viewers.

On completion of its 21st Century Fox asset acquisition, Disney will own 60% of Hulu. Paul had worked for Disney corporate strategy almost since she graduated from Stanford, with a break to earn her MBA. She worked for now- CEO Robert Iger during his stint as head of Walt Disney International, and was mentored by Meg Whitman, later of eBay and Hewlett-Packard. Paul was involved in Disney’s initial investment into Hulu in 2009.

Then, Hulu was seen as a complementary platform for ABC network programming, “to start getting us a footprint into where consumer eyeballs and ad dollars were starting to migrate.” But by the time Paul threw her hat into the ring to be Hulu’s CFO, streaming and direct-to-consumer distribution were “driving every media company’s strategy.”

When Mike Hopkins became Hulu CEO in 2013, his first move was to bring Paul from Disney, calling her “one of the most tenacious, disciplined and passionate executives I’ve ever worked with.” Randy Freer, who came in as Hulu CEO in October following Hopkins’ departure for Sony Pictures Television, called Paul “incredibly intelligent, smart and curious,” and “a student of the business.”

“One of the things that I think is terrific — but also hard on her — is that she’s prolific,” Freer added. “Her ability to lead a group and get things done — while others may not be able to keep up, she just plows through it. That’s one of the things that on one level is awesome and on another level keeps her up too many nights.”

Leadership With Energy
A former marathoner, Paul definitely has the energy. “Thank God, I pretty much was born with it,” she said. “Supplemented with some serious lattes.” She is married to another CFO and Disney alum, Darren Seidel of Entertainment Partners, and they have three children: Will, age 14; Lauren, age 12; and Addie, age 9.

Four years after Paul’s arrival at Hulu, some of those young Hulugans are now marrying and becoming parents.

“I’m really enjoying that, and talking to them, [saying] don’t be intimidated about coming back” to work, she said. The keys for a working mother, she tells them, are a good boss, a good partner, and good childcare.

“Fortunately I’ve had all three all the way along,” she said. “The extreme organization that it requires to manage a household and children, I honestly think helps in the workplace. I think it sets a great example for the kids, and a necessary example for the kids. Stay in it, as long as you’re passionate about it.”