Steve Madden’s Formidable Female Trio On Saying Yes + Embracing Change

Every day in June, FN is showcasing female leaders across the industry for our Women in Power series.

What do Steve Madden’s three leading ladies have in common? A whole lot of passion and determination.

Amelia Newton Varela, president of Steven Madden Ltd., Liz Rodbell, group president of retail, accessories and licensing, and Karla Frieders, chief merchandising officer, all shared insight on supporting the next generation and climbing the ladder. 

“Early on in my career, I was fortunate to work alongside some of the most imaginative and hardworking people in the industry,” said Newton Varela. “Steve was among those who pushed me to home in on my skills, expand my thinking and be relentless in my pursuits. As the company grew and my role grew along with it, many people were looking to me to step up.”

The executive said as she climbed the ladder, she was partly terrified but believed in the brand and vision of the company. “I felt I had no other choice but to rise to the occasion,” she recalled. “I soon learned that Steve and others had been training me all along for the opportunities that came my way.  All I had to do was be willing to say yes.”

Frieders also talked about the pros and cons of taking every opportunity along the way. “I canceled plans, changed vacations, worked through holidays — you name it, I rearranged it. But by saying yes, I got exactly what I wanted. I used those learning opportunities to push myself forward, and I’m better for it,” she said. “The worst decision I made was also saying yes to everything. Seeking out each available opportunity is a crucial part of success, but so is having boundaries.”

Sometimes shifting focus is the key to capitalizing on the right opportunities. Rodbell said her new chapter at Steve Madden marks a significant tipping point in her career. “It holds [fresh] opportunities and challenges,” said the executive, who was formerly president of Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor.

The three executives are all well established, and they shared some words of wisdom for how the next generation of women should position themselves for success.

Newton Varela said technology is dramatically reshaping business fundamentals — and future leaders must embrace swift change. “The biggest challenge for the next generation of leaders in general, not just women, is developing and sustaining teams that are responsive to a rapidly changing technological world. Today’s consumer knows they can go online and get what they need in no time, from a variety of sources,” she said. “Future leaders need to set up and train teams that not only use technology to assess the needs of consumers but are responsive in creative ways that are both cost effective and at the speed of light. They can’t be afraid to fail forward and try something new as well as use strategies that may seem antiquated but are still relevant and necessary.” 

Rodbell said she is consistently looking to support [future leaders]. “My style is inclusive and accessible. I like to problem-solve,” she said.

One example? Rodbell likes to host roundtable meetings with team members of all levels to identify issues and build solutions together. “I love to mentor women to help them meet their goals. Many of these mentor/mentee relationships last for years,” she said. “I also believe in sponsorship, truly advocating for a person, advising them and platforming them for future opportunities.”

Whether execs are rising stars or well established, Frieders said it is critical for them to advocate for themselves, particularly when it comes to their salaries.

“Unfortunately, the pay gap is still very real for women,” Frieders said. “I encourage them to know their worth, research their line of work, and assess whether their pay is in line based on what they find. It is also so important to understand that you can’t put a price on experience. While that’s rarely ever black and white, if you go above and beyond in this industry, you absolutely will be rewarded.”

Newton Varela said that if women don’t exercise their voices early in their careers, “they often fade into the backdrop.”

“I make it a point to create platforms where they can share their ideas and opinions openly. I also push them to continue to learn about the industry and to develop the skills they need to take their career to the next level and think outside the box,” she said.

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