Women Who Rock: Net-a-Porter’s Sarah Rutson On Starting At The Bottom

Sarah Rutson, VP of global buying at Net-a-Porter, shares five leadership lessons:

On what she learned early on: “When I started 30 years ago, the women I worked with were unmarried, had no families: They were married to the job. I saw that the job would only get you so far. I had a couple thoughts then. One, I didn’t want to sacrifice my whole life for my career. My mother was one of the first working women and didn’t compromise and had a career and a family. Second, the women I first worked with kept other women down. They promoted men and were really hanging on by their fingernails to the career they had. I knew that I was never going to be like that and I was going to be a better leader and set an example for other women. I was going to be a supporter of talent, and if younger women and other women had that talent, even better.”

Why it’s valuable to start at the bottom: “I worked my way up every rung of the ladder. It’s important and powerful to go from the bottom up: It comes with a wealth of experience. I see women now try to skip levels, but then they’re going to miss a great deal and are kidding themselves a bit. It makes you a more powerful leader. I interview people, and they tell me they want to be me in five years, but it took me 30 to get where I am. If you really want it, then love it and enjoy learning each step and know it’ll make you a better leader. I can say you’re being a better leader when you’re able to say to colleagues: ‘I get it. I’ve been there.'”

Learning from female role models: “My mom was one of the first career women in the 1950s. I am so lucky for [Net-a-Porter founder] Natalie [Massenet] and [President] Alison [Loehnis]. Natalie and Alison are cut from an entrepreneurial cloth and have the spirit of ‘go for it.’ They want you to try it. I went for a good 20 years without a real female mentor in the business. The last 10 years is when I’ve seen more women in higher positions. I wasn’t brought up in that. I never worked anywhere where there was the ‘tokenism’ of ‘we have to have a woman in a position.'”

Pour energy into your personal life, too: “You should live a full life, personally and professionally. Your personal needs should never be swept under the carpet. You know, women have the babies, so I tell my team not to feel like they can’t talk about it. We talk about it often. You do the best you can [at balancing]. You don’t do it perfectly all the time, but you try.”

Don’t focus on gender: “Focus on being the best and being fair. Gender, to me, is a non-issue. Why salary inequality goes on today is still a bit bizarre to me, but it’s more important as a woman that you stand up and ask for what you want. I want people to have a voice, and don’t be apologetic. This is my career, and I worked as hard as I could to get here. Sometimes there are busts along the way, but that’s for anyone. Those setbacks happen. Challenge yourself. Make it happen and right rather than grumble.”

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