CEO, Commerce Cloud, Salesforce
Salesforce Commerce Cloud CEO Jeff Barnett caught the retail bug at age 11, when he and his friends worked at the corner store on summer vacation. “Retail is so tangible,” he says. “You can explain to anybody what we do, because every day, we are all consumers.” As a 30-year software industry veteran and longtime leader, Barnett works hard at listening and taking feedback, and he pays attention to other executives. One of his early bosses advised him against approaching a supervisor with a problem; rather, he counseled, bring the solution.
Barnett says his wife of 30 years inspires him daily. “I'm Type A, always trying to live a few steps ahead, and she slows me down.” At Salesforce Cloud Commerce, formerly Demandware, Barnett is motivated by embarking on journeys with his customers. “I'm excited by the amazing things our customers are doing around this technology platform we built,” he says, “and the careers we’re transforming.”
Co-CEO, TechStyle Fashion Group
At an age before most kids have their own wallet, TechStyle Fashion Group co-founder and co-CEO Adam Goldenberg was creating his first company. He started a pre-internet online bulletin board that would later become gaming website Gamer’s Alliance, and eventually sold to former MySpace parent company Intermix. At age 19, Goldenberg was named COO, the youngest in the history of public companies. “I've been inspired by technology for a long time — first on the content side and now on the ecommerce side,” says Goldenberg, who considers Jeff Bezos a role model.
TechStyle’s mission, to reimagine everything about the fashion industry, still energizes Goldenberg daily. He oversees the company’s data, marketing, margins and internal systems. It’s the technology that’s most exciting, he says, allowing the company to personalize and deliver exactly what the customer wants; today, the group has more than 4.5 million active members and has shipped 65 million products. “It’s like bringing a new brand to life. We can’t do it overnight, but we march toward it every day.”
It didn’t take Vroom CEO Paul Hennessy long to learn that as a pioneer, you encounter interesting firsts along the way. For instance, when your business is shipping cars to customers’ homes, it’s important to understand the trucks transporting a dozen vehicles often don’t fit down residential streets, let alone driveways.
“We’re delivering something that’s never been done before,” says Hennessy, who joined the company in 2016. Having begun his career selling electronic typewriters at Computerland and then holding executive positions at Priceline.com, Hennessy now merges retail and ecommerce. Vroom sold more than $1 billion in cars in 2016 and ships to all 50 states.
Hennessy says working with talented people on tough problems motivates him daily and has led him to notable technological advances at Vroom. “We’re living in an unbelievable time, where technology is not only enabling but transforming products for customers,” he says. “Data replaces opinions, and key performance indicators replace hunches.” He stresses the importance of experimentation to ensure the right delivery of your product, through the right channels, as defined by customers. If customers want to be able to call on the phone or walk into a store, he says, “You better be able to do that.”
An entrepreneur, angel investor and contrarian, Jeff Kearl is the co-founder, CEO and chairman of Stance, a California-based lifestyle apparel brand best known for its artsy, eye-catching, sometimes wacky socks. “We break a lot of rules at Stance,” says Kearl, who has invested in 70 start-ups and serves on the board of Skullcandy, Needle and Julep. “Things that the industry said we shouldn't do—be a dual-gender brand, offer performance and lifestyle brands side by side and have too much kids product--we’ve done it all.” Kearl is inspired by the smart, positive people who fill his workplace. The company doesn’t have office hours or vacation, and the office has a basketball court, chef and personal trainers. Stance, founded in 2009, has seven stores and makes the official sock for NBA and MLB players. Kearl thinks of socks as Stance’s “hero product,” like Under Armour’s first layer compression or lululemon’s yoga plants. He followed socks with women’s underwear, and in 2018, the company will launch t-shirts. “Have the courage to be differentiated in some way,” he advises those entering the industry. “That’s how you have a long life in retail.”
President and CEO, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc.
As CEO of 1-800-FLOWERS.COM Inc., Chris McCann is charged with fulfilling the company’s mission of delivering smiles. “To me, it doesn’t get any better than that,” he says. McCann ended up in the floral business by accident, foregoing law school to work in his brother Jim’s flower shop in the ‘80s. Since then, he has helped build the company into one of the nation’s leading omnichannel gift retailers and embrace emerging technologies and social trends; 1-800-FLOWERS.COM launched a chat bot over Facebook messenger, ordering over Amazon’s Alexa and the first-ever online gift concierge, powered by IBM Watson.
“I was captivated by the industry early on, and it’s been an amazing journey from storefront to telephone ordering to ecommerce, mobile commerce and now conversational commerce and artificial intelligence.” These days, McCann is “obsessed” with the technological advances taking place in retail and encourages his team to take risks that can help the company grow. When he advises those entering the industry, he reminds them to build relationships first, and business second. “Not only with the customer,” he says, “but with your employees.”
Founder and CEO, Glossier
A few years ago, beauty company Glossier founder and CEO Emily Weiss watched some of the company’s staff hand out roses to subway commuters, just for fun. “I loved seeing how such a simple, in-person interaction could make someone’s day,” says Weiss, a former fashion assistant. “Ultimately, we want everything we do, on or offline, to feel just as personal and special.” Weiss created Glossier in 2014 after discovering that traditional beauty companies weren’t adapting to changes in consumer behavior. She wanted to democratize the beauty space. “I wanted women to be the expert of their own routines,” she says.
Weiss, who believes a great leader can cultivate a sense of community in every aspect of their business, aims to prioritize her attention based on goals, not seniority: An intern and executive are both valuable to the company, she says. Glossier currently has 130 employees and more than $34 million in venture capital funding. In the office, Weiss tries to stop by the Showroom at least once a day, where she runs into customers and beauty editors. “I always leave feeling inspired and motivated by the people I meet there.”
Isabelle and Katherine Adams
Co-CEOs, Paper For Water
In 2011, sisters Katherine and Isabelle Adams, then 5 and 8, learned that millions of people don’t have access to clean drinking water, and that girls their age have to haul water instead of going to school. They decided to raise $500 selling handmade origami ornaments and use that money to help fund a well in Ethiopia. Today, Paper For Water has raised more than $1 million for 150 water projects in 14 countries and has caught the eye of retailers; the origami creations will be sold in Neiman Marcus stores this holiday season. “We’ve been able to do so much that regular kids wouldn’t have the opportunity to do,” says Isabelle, 14.
Based in Dallas, Paper For Water has become a family affair: The girls and their parents work full-time, although none have taken salaries; 100 percent of profits go to drill wells. In 2017, they took an eight-month trip around the world — the girls say their parents and all the volunteers inspire them, but there’s nothing quite like visiting the wells, Isabelle says. “We meet the kids and see their smiling faces.”
Co-Founder, CEO and Creative Director, &pizza
When Michael Lastoria began conceptualizing &pizza, which rolled out in Washington, D.C., in 2012, “People looked at us like we had three heads,” he says. “They couldn’t imagine a pizza shop with no color and no food photography.” More than 20 locations later, the brand’s sophistication and detail are among its defining characteristics.
Lastoria began his first company at age 22, six weeks out of college. He co-founded a marketing and media services agency, which was sold to a private equity group in 2006, and creative agency JWALK, which was sold to Shiseido in 2017. He says the difference between product A and B often has more to do with presentation and branding than the product itself. At &pizza, where being “fearlessly weird” is embraced and the “&” represents diversity and inclusion, “We’re not reading about the trends,” he says. “We’re creating them.”
Founder, CEO and Designer, Bourbon and Boweties
Not long after Carley Ochs founded Bourbon and Boweties, she began to understand the power of a woman’s wrist. In August 2012, she made 36 bangles with stones she’d brought home from China and — on a whim — sold them all to a boutique in Charleston. The store promptly placed another order. By Thanksgiving, the jewelry was in dozens of stores, and the following year the company topped $1 million in sales. “It was wildfire, all word of mouth,” Ochs says. “Just women sharing with friends.” Today, Bourbon and Boweties bracelets, assembled by hundreds of men and women in her Florida community, can be found in stores nationwide including Nordstrom.
Inspired by the strong Southern women in her life, Ochs has always enjoyed fashion. As a teen, she shopped at Goodwill and tailored her grandmother’s hand-me-downs. If she had to pick another job, she’d mentor underserved youth. “All the kids who are told they won’t amount to anything,” she says, “I want to tell them, ‘You will.’”
Kate Ross LeBlanc
Co-Founder and CEO, Saje Natural Wellness
Growing up in her mother’s fabric store in small-town Ontario, Kate Ross LeBlanc developed a deep appreciation of retail. “I love the immediacy and transparency of it,” says the co-founder and CEO of Vancouver-based Saje Natural Wellness. “There’s no question about the sales cycle or whether you’re winning or losing. It’s all on display.”
Saje, founded in 1992, grew out of a desire to heal through natural, plant-based alternatives to pharmaceuticals. Ross LeBlanc’s husband and co-founder, Jean-Pierre LeBlanc, had experienced chronic pain after a car accident. He used his background in chemistry to blend what became a kick-starter to his wellness — as well as the company’s first essential oil remedies. In 2017, the company exceeded its goal of 50 Canadian stores, and U.S. expansion is well underway. Growth, a personal value of Ross LeBlanc’s, has become an integral part of the company culture. “Feedback is the breakfast of champions,” Ross LeBlanc says. “It’s not always easy to hear, but we can’t grow without it.”
Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale
Owner and Philanthropist, Gallery Furniture
Jim “Mack” McIngvale opened Gallery Furniture in Houston 37 years ago. Today — with three locations and 500 employees — he still gets fired up to go into work every morning and interact with customers. Inspired by the work ethics of his father, an insurance salesman, McIngvale calls himself a hard-charger boss. “Late to bed, early rise, work like hell and advertise.”
To compete with less expensive products online, Gallery creates compelling experiences with an indoor playground, exotic animals, ice cream and fresh-baked cookies. These days, McIngvale is best known for his philanthropy: His annual Christmas giveaway — a 30-year tradition — furnishes hundreds of households and he has fed over 25,000 during Thanksgiving over the past several years, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“We’re a community cheerleader here,” he says. When thousands of people were forced out of their homes after Hurricane Harvey, he opened his stores and offered beds and sofas to 200 displaced residents. “We didn’t check to see who they were, we just opened the doors and gave them a place to sleep and shower,” he says. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Brittany Merrill Underwood
Founder and CEO, Akola Project
In 2004, when Brittany Underwood was 19, she went to Uganda and met a woman named Sarah. “She had sacrificed everything to take hungry kids into her home, where they all slept on the floor,” Underwood says. “That shook me out of my complacency.” Thus, the inspiration for Akola Project, a community-owned jewelry business that empowers women around the world, was born. “We offer a living wage to these women,” Underwood says, “but also provide training centers, wells and robust social services.”
Since the beginning, 100 percent of the revenues have been reinvested in the mission; in five years, Underwood expects to reach $10 million in annual sales. She thinks Akola, a top-selling brand at Neiman Marcus, is the first full-impact brand and nonprofit to retail in the luxury space. “You can use retail to drive meaningful change,” she says. “Retail is finally waking up to the fact that it can focus not only on not doing harm, but it can do good. We’re so lucky to be at the cusp of that.”
Karin M. Norington-Reaves
CEO, Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership
Karin Norington-Reaves hadn’t been intimately involved with retail since she was in college, working at a high-end Chicago grocery store where she occasionally rang up Oprah’s purchases. But today, retail is front and center for Norington-Reaves, CEO of Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. The organization, a leader in developing sector-specific programs to help people find jobs and advance their careers, received a $10.9 million grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation to provide education and employment services for retail workers.
“We’re helping change the narrative about what it means to be employed in the retail sector,” Norington-Reaves says. “That you can move beyond cashier and build a career.” Norington-Reaves, a recognized thought leader and former litigator for the U.S. Department of Justice, has raised nearly $50 million during her time at the Partnership. The organization has a staff of 70 and places about 10,000 job-seekers annually. “It’s a remarkably rewarding job,” she says.
President and CEO, Soles4Souls
Buddy Teaster is a relative newcomer to retail, joining nonprofit social enterprise Soles4Souls as president and CEO in 2012. In the process of rebuilding the board, expanding partnerships and disrupting the poverty cycle through the organization's mission — to create sustainable jobs and provide relief through the distribution of shoes and clothing around the world — he’s been blown away by the power and generosity of the industry. “For all the dog-eat-dog stories,” he says, “we work with so many people who want to give back.” Since 2006, Souls4Souls has distributed over 30 million pairs of shoes across the United States and in 127 countries.
A nonprofit veteran and ultramarathon runner, Teaster leads with transparency and vulnerability. “That means sometimes saying, ‘I have no idea what we’re going to do, but we’ll figure it out together,’” he says. “It’s been understood for a long time that the not-for-profit world can learn a lot from the for-profit world, but I think the reverse is true now too. There’s something becoming more valuable in blending those two worlds, and that’s where the magic is.”
Founder, Chairman and CEO, Chobani LLC
When Hamdi Ulukaya started Chobani in 2007, he’d never run a company before and didn’t have a plan. But he saw one thing that could be fixed easily: The factory walls needed a paint job. “So I bought some paint, and me and our first five employees got to work,” says Ulukaya, the company’s chairman and CEO. “It was the first and best decision I ever made. There’s something magical in the movement. Don’t sit around waiting; act.” From the Greek yogurt company’s beginning, Ulukaya has made philanthropy a priority, especially in the area of income and wealth inequality. Having hired hundreds of refugees who once struggled to find work, Ulukaya found a way to not only address a business challenge, but to also help a group of people in need. At Chobani, where he has implemented forward-thinking policies and an innovative profit-sharing program, he is known to dismiss titles and stress that every single person matters.
“Build a culture in which everyone is appreciated and respected, and everyone feels comfortable being authentic,” he says. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”
Managing Director, Equity Research, Consumer Discretionary / Retailing, J.P. Morgan
Matthew Boss, a managing director and senior analyst at J.P. Morgan covering the department stores, specialty softlines and apparel/footwear sectors, has taken an unorthodox journey to become one of the country’s top retail analysts. Following the path less traveled, he made the transition from public accounting at Ernst & Young to equity research at J.P. Morgan in 2005, subsequently spending three years as an investor on the buy-side before returning to the sell-side in 2011. “My goal is not only to be a thought leader in the retail sector, but to become part of the industry and help shape the future of the space,” he says. “I want to be able to accurately differentiate between the long-term winners and losers, but also to add value through thematic research and relationships.” Boss was drawn to retail because of the unique way it combines tangible real-time consumer trends with finance and equity research, and he says the industry is more exciting now than ever, given the intersection of technology and retail. “The sector,” he says, “has never been more fast-paced.”
Amanda Curtis and Gemma Sole
Co-Founders, Nineteenth Amendment
Gemma Sole was working in startups but wanted a way to help creative entrepreneurs. Amanda Curtis had grown up around fashion but realized the industry had changed. The two met at Startup Institute, and the intersection of their worlds yielded Nineteenth Amendment — a pioneering, on-demand, made-in-the-USA, direct-to-consumer retailing and manufacturing platform.
“When we met, we were learning about 'lean' methodologies, and it was apparent that technology was playing a critical role in the future of retail,” says Curtis, whose aunt was a bridal company executive. “We began implementing startup concepts like MVPs (minimum viable products) in the fashion industry,” Sole says. They launched New York-based Nineteenth Amendment in 2014 and say they are inspired daily by their designers, noting that data is important, but it starts with authentic creativity. Sole says the best career advice she’s learned was from Curtis: “Just ask.”
“A lot of people wait for permission to do something different,” Sole says. “We believe if you execute well, you'll succeed.”
Managing Partner, Leonard Green & Partners
When Jonathan Sokoloff joined Los Angeles-based private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners in 1990, he began a nearly three-decade run of forming retail partnerships. “Our job is to follow where the consumer is spending,” says Sokoloff, one of two managing partners and a former investment banker at Drexel Burnham. Leonard Green has a storied retail investment history, including Thrifty PayLess in the early ‘90s, which was sold to Rite Aid; Petco in 2000, which the firm held for 16 years; and Whole Foods Market, of which the firm became the largest shareholder. Sokoloff currently serves on the board of many of the firm’s portfolio companies, including J.Crew, Jo-Ann Stores and The Container Store.
“We’re very proud of some of the market-leading retailers we’ve been associated with,” says Sokoloff, who is known to court a management team for years before locking arms. “Get out there and meet everyone, be curious and place bets. That’s our secret sauce.” Despite what Sokoloff calls a dramatic shift in retail, the firm perseveres. “Our business has evolved with the times,” he says. “It’s still very consumer-focused and multi-location-focused, but it’s focused more on services than stuff.”
Global Head of Consumer and Retail Investment Banking, Goldman Sachs
Rob Sweeney, global head of Goldman Sachs’ Consumer and Retail Group in the Investment Banking Division, says he loves retail because it’s tangible, dynamic and experiential. “You live it every day, multiple times per day,” he says, “and every day produces winners and losers.” Anyone can perform due diligence on a retailer based on their own firsthand experience, he says. “Consumers can pretty quickly make a judgment as to how good an investment may be. Does the brand have the right viral buzz? Does it have the hallmarks of a compelling company?”
Before he joined Goldman 20 years ago, Sweeney served as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. At Goldman, his first IPO was Carter’s, followed by retail giants such as Under Armour, lululemon, J.Crew, Dollar General and Five Below. Sweeney, who was named partner in 2008, says the future of retail remains unknown. “Predictions that retail is ‘dead’ have been proven and will prove wrong,” he says. “What we can always count on are disruptors and disrupted. I enjoy advising companies on both sides of that divide.”
Contributing Retail Writer, Forbes.com
Barbara Thau, who writes the “Minding the Stores” retail column on Forbes.com, is a sucker for store openings and holiday previews. But the articles that inspire her delve into the essence of brands. “I like stories about the invisible force of a brand — that we feel but don’t see,” says Thau, who has been covering retail for 22 years. “Target, for example, conjures up something in our minds because of our interaction with the brand, so when Target loses its design mojo, we feel it.”
Thau enjoys translating what she sees behind the scenes for a business audience. She says technology is only interesting as it relates to social, economic and lifestyle trends and how that connects to the shopper. “It’s important to remember more than 90 percent of retail still happens in stores,” she says. “I pay attention to technology that adds never-before convenience and/or enhancement to the shopping experience. The bells and whistles alone don’t interest me.”
The Power Players
Executive Vice President, Commerce Platforms, QVC, Inc.
When Mary Campbell, executive vice president of commerce platforms for QVC, has some downtime, she steps away from the office and goes shopping. “I'm a passionate shopper,” she says. Campbell joined the global multiplatform retailer in 1991 and has held various positions at QVC. Under her leadership of commerce platforms, QVC launched Beauty iQ, QVC on Facebook Live, re-launched QVC2 and achieved its largest-ever ecommerce and mobile penetration and television reach.
Campbell began working in retail in high school, at a small department store in Connecticut. Now she’s responsible for translating the QVC brand across TV, web, mobile, tablet and social media to drive customer engagement and sales. “I think I'm pretty lucky,” Campbell says. “I love retail because it’s fast and evolving. I enjoy the challenge of advancing the experience for the customer — she’s passionate and loyal and inspiring. You want to meet her needs, anticipate her wants and inspire her.”
James "JC" Curleigh
President, Levi's Brand
The son of a Canadian Air Force General, James ‘JC’ Curleigh learned the “Plan B” lesson at a young age. “My dad would say, ‘Don’t have a Plan B. Have two Plan A’s,’” Curleigh says. “’Keep your options open and don’t compromise.’” Curleigh has considered that tactic often since being named president of the Levi’s brand in 2012, and the once-struggling company’s story now is that of a comeback. “If you go to work with the intention of re-earning that iconic status every day, it’s amazing what can happen over five years,” he says.
When Curleigh was in high school and college, he and his brothers ran a specialty sports store in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an exhilarating experience that catapulted the brothers to global brand-building leadership positions; Curleigh previously led at KEEN Footwear, Salomon Sports North America and M&M Mars. Inspired by his father, Curleigh has learned important lessons about leadership. “As leaders, we can’t always guarantee success,” he says, “but we are expected to create a compelling vision, set the conditions for success, then lead with confidence.”
President and CEO, The Children's Place, Inc.
The Children’s Place President and CEO Jane Elfers began her career in retail after college in the Bamberger’s training program and has never looked back. “I love the complexity and fast pace of retail” she says, “and the ability to control your own destiny”. As CEO of The Children’s Place, Elfers has transformed the company from a sleepy brick and mortar children’s clothing store to a digital first leader in specialty retail through strong design and merchandising coupled with strategic ‘self-help’ initiatives. Since joining in 2010, the stock price has increased fivefold under her leadership!
She has one speed – win speed – and believes that grit is the most important trait of a retail leader. The best career advice she ever received was “Never stop asking questions”. And so, when Jane advises the next generation of talent interested in building a career in retail, she asks “Do you have grit? Are you super competitive? Tenacious? Focused? Smart? Collaborative? Driven?” “If they answered yes to all of these,” she says “they might just like a career in retail.”
Executive Vice President, CVS Health and President, CVS Pharmacy
Although she describes herself as a math geek at heart, CVS Health Executive Vice President and CVS Pharmacy President Helena Foulkes says she loves retail for its “amazing combination of data and science married with real intuition for whatever it is that makes a consumer click.” She loves looking at data, “but retail also requires you to get in the shoes of the customer.”
Before she joined CVS more than 20 years ago, Foulkes worked in investment banking at Goldman Sachs and in the finance department at Tiffany’s. At CVS, where she has played an integral role in growing the company into the largest pharmacy health care provider in the country, Foulkes loves being an entrepreneur and building new programs, such as the ExtraCare reward program (with 60 million active members) and being part of the leadership team that decided to stop selling tobacco in 2014 and recently decided to offer next-day pharmacy delivery. She says she’s inspired daily by the pharmacists on the front line at CVS’s nearly 10,000 pharmacies and the roughly 5 million people who walk in every day. “I try really hard,” she says, “to instill a sense of leading with heart.”
CEO, New York & Company
Nobody ever expected Greg Scott to become a CEO. But the man now at the helm of New York & Company is a natural. “I have a keen interest in all aspects of the business,” says Scott, who has turned the company into an omnichannel leader. “I think I’m successful as a leader because there’s nothing I ask people to do that I wouldn’t do myself.”
In college, Scott managed of a UCLA bookstore, where he discovered he genuinely loved stocking shelves. His trajectory included Macy’s, Henri Bendel, Ann Taylor and bebe, where he held his first CEO position. In 2010, he joined New York & Co. and reinvented the retailer for the new millennium: It now has a $250 million digital business and a more flexible, agile store fleet. Online sales now represent 25 percent of total sales, up from 7 percent five years ago. Scott considers himself a tough boss, but doesn't want to be seen as a robot. “The more people see you exposed, the more they want to join you on the journey.”