Fifteen Minutes chatted with Marne Levine, the Chief Operating Officer of Instagram, after she spoke to 1,800 undergraduate women at Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business’ Intercollegiate Business Convention on Saturday.
FM: You gave a commencement speech at Miami University in May. How did you prepare to present to such a large group of people?
ML: I felt so honored to be asked. When you are asked to go back to your alma mater and give advice, too—it’s something that I took really seriously, and [I] wanted to think through what the best possible advice was that I could give. So I thought a lot about it, and... I decided to focus on the rookie advantage. I just think that when you’re coming out of school, you might think, “I don’t have many skills. I don’t have much experience yet.” But the truth... is that you bring common sense, you bring a fresh perspective, you bring fresh eyes, you bring problem-solving skills and critical reasoning that you develop in college. And you can apply all of those things to whatever situation you’re faced with. The last thing that I really wanted to get across is that so many people come at things with fresh perspectives... but the last step to being an MVP rookie is to take action and really do something about it.
FM: Would you say that you still approach life from this “rookie” vantage point?
ML: I love that! Yes, I think so. I really do. My favorite question is “Why?” I think it can be really helpful—I also think it can be annoying to people at times, I’ll admit that. But I really do try to understand why are we approaching it this way, does it makes sense, is this the right answer, why is it the right answer, are there other paths to getting there, could those be better. It pushes people to think and moves the conversation forward. It also helps me understand it more deeply. It’s a question I ask a lot at work, at home, [and] with my children.
FM: Can you explain the “Be the nerd” Instagram campaign?
ML: Mark Zuckerberg had done a post, and somebody had written in the comments section: “I hope someday my daughter marries a nerd like you.”... Mark responded within seconds and said, “I hope one day your daughter is the nerd.” There is a woman who works at Instagram... and she was so inspired by this that she decided that she would start an Instagram account that was called “Be the nerd” and then she would talk to different women who could inspire people and bring out their inner nerd. I just thought it’s fantastic that she took the initiative to do this—I thought it would inspire people to get excited about embracing that nerdy side of [themselves], because it’s a great thing.
FM: What’s your favorite Instagram innovation?
ML: Instagram Stories. I am really excited about it. I think Instagram is such a great platform: It’s so creative; it’s so visual; it’s an incredible way to experience the world through images, whether photo or video. I also think that our community is incredible, in the sense that it’s such a passionate community connecting around shared interests. But what we found is that people were sharing their highlights... like that really amazing sunset, or that great-looking latte. And those are great things that I love seeing on Instagram—they inspire me; they excite me; I delight in them; it’s great. But the human experience is about so much more than that. There are polished moments, and then there are really raw moments. It’s not that the polished moments are inauthentic—I think polished moments can be completely authentic.
FM: What’s your favorite Instagram filter?
ML: I have a bunch. I think Ludwig might be my favorite. I can’t really exactly say why, but that’s the one I probably use most often.
FM: In what ways does your job at Instagram differ from your time at the White House as the Chief of Staff of the National Economic Council and Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy?
ML: I think the difference is that I worked a ton in the White House, and I work a ton at Instagram too, but I have more flexibility [at Instagram]. When I was at the White House, you’re sort of chained to the building. The technology wasn’t as good then. It’s gotten better, but still, there are meetings that are happening, and you have to be there, and there is certain protocol. Whereas [at] Instagram... I just have more flexibility. So I can get home. I try to be as present with my kids as possible. There’s still the volume of work, but it’s just more flexible, which is a really great thing about it.
FM: What is the best or most rewarding part of your job at Instagram?
ML: One thing that’s pretty incredible is getting to travel around the world... and getting to meet people who have taken a passion or an idea and turned it into a business... [via] Instagram. I was recently in Australia, and I met this woman named Samantha Hobb... She was looking for a rocking chair that she could put in [her baby’s] room, and she wasn’t finding the kind of rocking chair that she wanted, so she designed one herself. She took a scrap piece of paper and designed it, and she took a photo of it and put it on Instagram... Someone saw it whom she didn’t know and asked where they could get one. And before she knew it, she had sold out of her first production because so many people had started inquiring about this. Her story is fantastic, but it’s not totally unique. I’m just meeting so many people, particularly women, who have this passion or idea and have turned it into a business… and what I’ve learned through a lot of these experiences is that business is personal. I’ve just heard so many stories from different parts of the world, from this country, and that I would say is one of the big highlights of the job.