Sarah Harden: Being the CEO of Change


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Sarah Harden is the CEO of Hello Sunshine, a company founded by actor Reese Witherspoon that's dedicated to showcasing women-focused stories across all types of media. Its goal? To change the narrative for women through story.

Since its start in 2016, Hello Sunshine has produced films and TV series such as "Wild," "Big Little Lies," "Little Fires Everywhere," "The Morning Show" and "Daisy Jones and the Six."

Harden recently joined Coffey for a conversation about leadership, women-centered business opportunities and plans for Hello Sunshine’s next 15 years.


Building a Career by Moving With the Industry

Harden, whose career path includes a variety of roles as a media executive and entrepreneur at startups, NewsCorp and Otter Media, said the through line for her whole career has been the intersection of technology and entertainment.

“Throughout my career I’ve always been looking ahead to see where the entertainment business is going and how we can meet consumers where they’re going,” Harden said.

She noted the major shift in the entertainment industry in recent years, from selling films and TV to distributors, to today's direct-to-consumer model with the rise of content streaming.

“At Hello Sunshine, we think it’s not enough to make content, we have to take responsibility in a very crowded media landscape for audiences showing up,” Harden said.


Leading the Entertainment Business to a Better Place

Witherspoon recognized the business opportunity in a “huge white space” that the marketplace lacked: movies and TV shows centered on women’s stories, Harden said.

She saw this as a chance to start a company that could make a positive impact on the industry.

“There was a disconnect and a blind spot because the gatekeepers were all white cisgender men,” Harden said. “Reese is motivated to leave this business better than where she found it.”

The success of Hello Sunshine’s productions have proven that women-centered stories are big business.

“What I’m proud of most as we’ve built our company over the past five or six years is that we’ve had notable success, so we’ve been able to change the accepted wisdom and to elevate more diverse storytellers,” Harden said. “We hold the weight and responsibility of that; it’s not just about Hello Sunshine. There are other companies out there telling diverse stories. We hope to make it easier and to pave the way for others.”


Changing the Industry From the Top Down

Harden’s position at Hello Sunshine puts her at the forefront of a changing industry. Since the first days of the company, she and Witherspoon have prioritized creating the conditions and culture of a company where they would want to work.

“We talk a lot about our values and our strategy,” Harden said.

The company sets high standards for its leadership team and employees while transparently discussing what works and what doesn’t.

“You set tone and culture every day,” Harden said. “You can set it intentionally or unintentionally. A lot of companies start talking about culture when things go wrong, but with Reese we talked about how to get it right from the beginning.”

This includes hiring the right people and making inclusivity the heart of the company's operations.

“Our mission is to change the narrative for women through representation,” Harden said. “Our inside has to match our outside.”


Creating an Ecosystem of Inclusive Content

Now that Hello Sunshine is beginning the second half of its first decade, the company still has more work to do to elevate the diversity of the protagonists in its content, the diversity of lived experiences and otherized voices, Harden said.

The company started with scripted movies and series and now offers unscripted content, such as "The Home Edit" and "Fair Play." Young adult content and female-centered horror and science fiction are also planned.

“We constantly think about whether something is the best use of our company’s capital and resources,” Harden said.

Reese's Book Club continues to be an essential component as its featured books are a consistent source of inspiration for content produced by Hello Sunshine. Witherspoon is known for extending storytelling from books to film and TV, and she is a deep reader who personally picks every book, Harden said.

“Reese wanted direct communication with consumers,” Harden said. “She picks books she’s interested in reading, not just one she thinks we’ll adapt.”

The book club intentionally looks for debut authors and diverse authors to exemplify the Hello Sunshine mission.

“It’s part of the curatorial nature of our brand,” Harden said.

Hello Sunshine will host its first “Shine Away” gathering in the fall. It is a new experiential platform with digital and in-person content, panel discussions and performances.

In 2021, Hello Sunshine was acquired by Candle Media, which is backed by private equity firm Blackstone Inc., at a $900 million valuation. That transaction puts Hello Sunshine in a position to finance its own movies and series if they think it makes sense, Harden said.

“It’s nice to be part of this bigger ecosystem within Candle Media,” Harden said.

She appreciates collaborating with the Candle Media leadership team and the CEOs of the other brands within Candle, such as Moonbug, a children’s programming brand, and Exile, which creates content for Spanish speakers with a global focus.

Listen to the rest of the conversation between Sarah Harden and Kelly Coffey by clicking on the full podcast above.

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This podcast is for general information and education only and is provided as a courtesy to the clients and friends of City National Bank. It is compiled from data and sources believed to be reliable, however City National Bank does not warrant that it is accurate or complete. Opinions expressed and estimates given are those of the speaker as of the date of the podcast with no obligation to update or notify of inaccuracy or change.