Whitman is a seasoned Silicon Valley mogul, with more than three decades of experience leading huge brands including Hewlett Packard and eBay. Since taking the top job at HP in 2011, she oversaw the split of the hardware giant into two separate companies.
Whitman, 61, announced last November that she was stepping down as CEO of one of those businesses, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, though will remain on its board of directors. Her last day is Feb. 1 and she will begin her new role on March 1, based in Los Angeles, headquarters for Katzenberg’s holding company, WndrCo.
When Whitman signaled she was leaving HP, Katzenberg approached her and she was immediately taken with what she saw as a big opportunity to seize on the momentum that mobile platforms were commanding as a consumer touchpoint. “I thought it was one of the most timely and disruptive of ideas that I’ve come across in my career, and I’ve looked at thousands of start-ups,” she told Variety.
Whitman is something of a surprise choice for the job because her name has been bandied about in recent years for high-profile positions in both the technology sector and politics. She was on the short list of candidates to take over the top spot at Uber as recently as late 2017 but opted out of the running.
But she said that she was interested in getting back to the kind of early-stage company that eBay was when she began a decade-long stint as its CEO in 1998. “In some ways this is a return to my start-up roots,” she said. “I took eBay from $4 million and 30 employees to $8 billion in revenues and 18,000 employees.”
Whitman is well-known in state and national politics as well, having worked on presidential campaigns for Mitt Romney and John McCain, and having run against Jerry Brown in 2010 for the governor of California, a race she ended up losing. Whitman has also been long-rumored to consider a run for president of the United States, but she stated emphatically that she is not currently seeking election for any political positions. “I won’t be running for public office again,” she said.
While she has been on the Republican side of politics throughout her career, she publicly distanced herself from Donald Trump during his presidential election bid and supported Hillary Clinton. Katzenberg himself is an active political fundraiser who has been linked to Democratic presidential candidates.
“Meg is one of the most accomplished and sought-after executives of our time. She has built and scaled some of the most important global companies today,” said Katzenberg in a statement. “To say I am thrilled that Meg will be at the helm would be an understatement. Her leadership, operational expertise, and deep understanding of technology and consumer behavior will be invaluable in creating the future of mobile entertainment.”
Katzenberg and Whitman first crossed paths in the early 1990s when both worked at Disney, where she worked in strategic planning for several years. They remained friends since then and their business interests have also intersected as well; she served on the board at DreamWorks Animation SKG and supplied that company with technology while at HP.
After leaving DWA, the studio he sold to Comcast’s NBCUniversal for $3.8 billion in 2016, Katzenberg sought to create a new kind of entertainment targeting 18- to 34-year-olds: short-form video series produced with budgets and production values you might expect from primetime TV, along with top-shelf creatives on both sides of the camera.
For example, imagine a drama akin to “Grey’s Anatomy” but shrunk to 10-minute episodes made for mobile consumption. Or a five-minute talk show, or a two-minute newscast — all with high-profile talent attached.
To realize his vision, Katzenberg has been pitching two different constituencies: myriad tech and telco giants he could partner with to bring the content to the masses and the biggest producers capable of supplying content. When he shared his vision exclusively with Variety last year, he was seeking $2 billion to fund the venture.
Tentatively dubbed “NewTV,” the venture is part of WndrCo, a holding company he announced in January 2017 with nearly $600 million in investment from a mix of 12 private investors. He leads a team of seven partners including longtime lieutenant Ann Daly and former Dropbox CFO Sujay Jaswa.
What exact shape this venture will take, and which entertainment or technology companies might be along for the ride as partners, is unknown. NewTV has been the subject of much industry chatter–and some skepticism–because it is has been largely enshrouded in mystery, its revolutionary ambitions, and of course, the Katzenberg pedigree.
Whitman declined to get into specifics beyond citing a detailed business plan that may have deviated to some degree from its inception but is still consistent with Katzenberg’s vision for the venture. “We’re deep in the process of fundraising right now so I can’t talk about it,” she said. “But we’re going to be recruiting the very best talent, and in a few more months we’ll have to more to say on this.”
While Whitman is essentially employee No. 1 for NewTV, she did divulge that she will be looking for a chief creative officer to join the firm. Her focus will leverage her expertise in marketing, distribution and operations. “I think Jeffrey and I have very complementary strengths,” said said.
Since announcing NewTV, Katzenberg has been busy making investments in several other companies as well. He’s taken a stake in TYT Network, one of the top online-video political news networks, as part of $20 million in funding led by growth equity firm 3L Capital with participation from Greycroft and e.ventures. WndrCo also made a small equity investment in digital-media startup Whistle Sports as part of a larger round of funding and in news startup Axios as part of a $20 million round of second-round funding from a range of investors.