How a Rising Crop of Minority Women Execs Are Reshaping Retail — By Being Themselves

The 10-year anniversary of The Workshop at Macy’s — a development program designed to nurture and support minority- and women- owned businesses — is still more than a year away.  But Shawn Outler is already anticipating a record turnout of women of color — likely to trump the more than 2,500 applicants the program got this year.

“The workshop is my baby,” said Outler, who became Macy’s chief diversity officer in October. “It’s a first-of-its-kind program. It’s about broadening the diversity of our supplier base and expanding the uniqueness of what we offer to our customers — and nurturing diverse talent in our industry. It’s good business. It’s building a pipeline.”

To date, the program, created by Outler, has helped more than 125 minority women- owned companies, including vegan shoe brand Loly in the Sky and plus-sized women’s label Eleven60 — both of which are sold at Macy’s. (The Workshop has also recently expanded to include veteran- and LGBTQ-owned businesses as classifications.)

When Outler was promoted last year, she had already racked up a decade of achievements in merchandising and mentorship.

Since joining Macy’s in 2006, she’s held executive roles in buying, food services and product development, and she also led the company’s multicultural business advancement initiative.

Outside of work, Outler is co-president of BRAG, a nonprofit organization that educates and prepares professionals, entrepreneurs and students of color for executive leadership in retail and fashion.

Outler’s path to landing in the top diversity and inclusion post differs from those of her peers at other firms — most of whom come to the role from human resources and legal backgrounds.

But like many of the minority women ascending through the ranks of retail, she is uniquely qualified to steer her company through changing diversity tides and an increasingly critical mandate for inclusion at all companies.

Bridging the Gap

In the nearly six decades since the Equal Pay Act, much of the focus on diversity throughout corporate America has centered on removing workplace barriers for all women.

And there have been some strides: The current U.S. Congress is the most diverse in the country’s history, and several companies — particularly in retail and fashion — have managed to approach gender parity on their boards and in upper management.

Caleres Inc. and DSW Inc., for example, have accomplished gender parity on their boards. Meanwhile, California last fall passed landmark legislation that will require all publicly traded companies headquartered in the state to have at least one female director on their boards by the end of 2019.

Still, there’s a long way to go. And experts suggest that if overcoming the obstacles impeding the professional advancement of all women is tough, those hardships are often compounded for racial and ethnic minorities.

According to the 2018 Women in the Workplace Report by McKinsey & Co., only about 1 in 5 C-suite leaders are women, and only 1 in 25 are women of color. What’s more, women of color and lesbian women are more likely to face discrimination in their everyday lives as well as in the workplace, the study found.

Nevertheless, there are several viable paths to moving the needle. Research has shown that elevating minority women — like Outler — within an organization and encouraging them to mentor others are effective tools for recruitment, retention and creating new pipelines into a company.

Put another way: Many minority women have shared certain defining life experiences, and often, they just get it.

Case in point: In the year since Lydia Park Luis became CEO of sandal brand Jack Rogers, she has overhauled 70% of the company’s workforce and injected it with an array of diversity.

Jack Rogers, Lydia Park
Jack Rogers CEO Lydia Park Luis.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Jack Rogers

“We’re only going to be stronger if we hire people who are different than we are and create a forum that we can listen to each other and share that in a business environment,” Park Luis said. “It’s critical that as leaders, we challenge ourselves to hire people who have a different perspective or come from different backgrounds because they represent and are our customers.”

Similarly, Melissa Gonzalez, founder and CEO of The Lionesque Group — an experiential retail strategy firm that has executed buzzy pop-up shops for brands like Puma, Reebok and M.Gemi — said she has prided herself in creating a company comprising 90% women, and primarily Latina team members, almost since its inception.

“As we have evolved and grown, we have become more diverse internally — both on gender and race — and it’s a healthy representation of the clients we serve and the consumers we design for,” she said. “We support women by empowering them — to have a voice and creative freedom — not because they are women but because they are talented.”

Lionesque Group, Melissa Gonzalez
Lionesque Group founder and CEO Melissa Gonzalez.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Lionesque Group

Finding the Secret Weapon

For minority women, a key challenge is often reconciling the need to be viewed as, first and foremost, qualified executives — rather than minority or female ones — with their desire to boldly proclaim their diversity and inspire others who look like them.

With 15 years at Nike under her belt, Brandis Russell’s ascension to the post of VP of global footwear at Converse last year could easily be attributed to the deep product acumen she gained as she took on responsibilities and functions across the brand. But insiders at the Swoosh have said that what’s missing from the executive’s résumé is the sheer number of employees she’s inspired and mentored along the way. (Converse is a subsidiary of Nike Inc.)

“Diversity was always in my mind, but it wasn’t until I got further in my career that I understood how to leverage the experience I had to support and help others think about their career path and journeys,” Russell said.

The only daughter of a retired army officer father and a retired schoolteacher mother, Russell said she has always been “wired to work [hard]” and “give 150%” to her endeavors. In the early years of her career, the executive said she was never fixated on the barriers or stigmas some may have associated with her race or previous professional ranks.

Converse, Brandis Russell
Converse VP of global footwear Brandis Russell.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike

“Every person — regardless of their role or title — is working on a body of work [through which] their expertise, experience, passion and enthusiasm have the ability to help lead, shift and shape the organization,” Russell said. “I never paid attention to what title I had. I took whatever vision and passion I had and presented it to people in ranks above me with fearlessness.”

Similarly, Jessica Ramirez, a retail research analyst with Jane Hali & Associates, said she’s never viewed her Latina heritage as a setback to be overcome. Instead, she’s thrown herself into her work and often inadvertently finds opportunities to use her diversity as an asset.

“It’s a huge advantage: When people are trying to understand Hispanic consumers, I say, ‘I am that consumer,’” she explained. “Where I come from and how I was raised is [a huge part] of what I bring to retail and understanding customers. [Big chains] like Target and Walmart are targeting Hispanic consumers right now. I can discern when they’re doing a great job, and I can also tell which ones will not be successful based on their marketing and [whether] it really speaks to me.”

Jessica Ramirez, Jane Hali & Associates
Jane Hali & Associates retail research analyst Jessica Ramirez.
CREDIT: Amy Wilcox

Perhaps it’s not dissimilar to the situation of some working mothers who say they’ve found that despite the difficulties in juggling competing responsibilities, motherhood endows them with a distinct set of skills that add value to their careers.

In their book, “Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths through Work and Motherhood,” co-authors Danna Greenberg and Jamie Ladge have linked parenting to helping women learn new proficiencies or enhance existing ones such as efficiency and time management.

It’s an experience that’s not lost on Angela Dong, VP of Nike Inc. and GM for Nike Greater China.

“My role as both a female leader and a mother has given me more insights into what women need in terms of sports and how to get kids involved,” Dong said. “Along with my colleagues, we have made women’s sports a critical part of our business. Understanding and having an emotional connection to our female athletes is the basis of business growth.”

Nike China Global Vice President Angela Dong
Nike China global VP Angela Dong.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike

Giving It 150

According to Katrina Gay, national director of strategic partnerships at The National Alliance on Mental Illness, there’s another good reason women like Ramirez, Park Luis, Gonzalez, Dong, Outler and Russell are successful in their careers despite having racial or ethnic backgrounds that some may view as an obstacle.

“Women who have had challenges and have found a path to professional success have done so by not focusing on the barriers and challenges but on their goals,” Gay explained. “Through discipline and tenacity, along with a strong work ethic — some suggest a work ethic that has to be stronger than others’ — and a willingness to be life learners, women can and do manifest their dreams.”

Even so, Gay said that in her work — which has lately included an added emphasis on mental health in the creative industries — it is difficult to ignore the toll it can take on the women who find themselves constantly having to give 150% to their professional endeavors.

A 30-year design veteran with stints at Nike, Adidas and The North Face, Angela Medlin said she was confronted with that unexpected reality early on.

“Before entering my career in global active brands, I wasn’t aware of the stresses and responsibilities that come with being a woman of color in these coveted design positions,” Medlin explained. “What I soon realized was having talent was only one important part of what I would need to maintain. I had to learn to defend myself and my work in a skillful and tactful ways.”

Angela Medlin, FAAS
Founder of FAAS Angela Medlin
CREDIT: Courtesy of FAAS

Medlin said she eventually found herself going above and beyond in order “to prove my worth to the company.”

“I often had to ‘blur’ my hearing so that I was not thrown off of my game. But most of all, I had to get used to not having a supportive community of people who looked like me,” she added.

Candice Morgan, the head of inclusion and diversity at Pinterest, said she hasn’t experienced blatant opposition related to her race or gender in corporate environments, but she, too, had to develop her own tactics for ensuring her ideas were heard and respected as a woman of color.

“Often what happens is not overt resistance but a need to advocate for your ideas, assert your authority and stay persistent in seeing through your goals as an expert at the table,” Morgan said. “This is not just with respect to any one gender or ethnicity — when people are less used to working under or with leaders that look like you, you forge your own brand of leadership.”

Pinterest, Candice Morgan
Pinterest head of inclusion Candice Morgan
CREDIT: Courtesy of Pinterest

To that end, Morgan advised that it’s critical for women to trust their own judgment and find both professional and personal supporters that can help them along the way.

Medlin’s experience inspired her to create the Functional Apparel & Accessories Studio, or FAAS, a specialized apparel design program that supports and develops the next generation of minority talent through professional coaching and mentorship.

Similarly, Outler is just weeks into the launch of Mosaic, a leadership development program for top multicultural talent at Macy’s, Bloomingdales and Story. (Macy’s Inc. is the parent company of Bloomingdale’s and the newly acquired Story.)

Although the program’s creation preceded her role as CDO — it illustrates CEO Jeff Gennette’s larger push for expanding diversity of all kinds at the company — Outler has readily become a significant player in its execution. (While The Workshop’s focus is on external stakeholders, Mosaic aims to build up Macy’s internal team members of color.)

“One of our biggest challenges is twofold: We want to increase our representation at the leadership level; we also want to stem the attrition of our underrepresented groups at the director-manager level,” Outler said of Mosaic, which is uniquely designed to train both potential and current “people leaders” at Macy’s to “bring their authentic selves to work.”

In a retail climate that sees social responsibility and ethical accountability as cornerstones for successful business, perhaps it’s that authenticity that companies, and their minority staffers, are truly after.

“[Everyone] has to feel comfortable with their differences. It really is their strength,” said Park Luis. “It comes down to your personal and professional courage. When you do have that seat at the table, are you brave enough to speak up?”

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