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Flywheel CEO, former Nike exec on what she learned from getting fired twice in her 20s

Before becoming the CEO of Flywheel Sports and holding top executive roles at Nike and Gatorade, Sarah Robb O'Hagan was fired back-to-back in her 20s, first from Virgin and then from Atari Interactive.

"I fully deserved it," she admitted at the iCONIC Tour conference in New York City on Wednesday. "I was so arrogant, so cocky."

On top of losing two consecutive jobs, her visa expired and "I had three months to figure out how to stay in this country," said the New Zealand native. "I was basically a train wreck."

O'Hagan ended up getting a call from a headhunter at Nike and, after a nine-month interview process, got her foot in the door at the billion-dollar company. "The same person that was a total train wreck — suddenly I find myself in the exact right environment for me and my specialties," O'Hagan said. "I went from zero to suddenly my career takes off and I'm on the leadership track."

Sarah Robb O'Hagan
David A. Grogan | CNBC
Sarah Robb O'Hagan

After working her way up at Nike, she became the president of Gatorade in 2008, where she was credited with turning around the $5 billion brand. She then went on to become president of Equinox in 2012. She launched her own start-up, Extreme YOU, in 2016.

And these big professional wins may not have happened without her early failures. Getting fired is an experience that has "stayed with me forever," said O'Hagan. "What I took from it is, you are so much better in any environment to just man up and say what you don't know — get that elephant out on the table — than to pretend."

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Whether you get fired or your business tanks, "I do believe as individuals, experiencing the extremes of the good and the bad — the failures and the successes — helps you really hone in on what is extreme you, or where are you at your very best," said O'Hagan.

So rather than trying to avoid failure, lean into it, she advised: "Make failure your fuel."