Here at C&C, we're fortunate enough to chat with women at the top of their careers all of the time. Our most recent interview features Lori Greeley, CEO of Serena & Lily, who's killing it in the design space at the moment.
You've likely seen Serena & Lily designs and stores that offer a breezy California approach to potential customers. But what does it take to take a brand forward and be at the head of one of today's most popular lifestyle destinations? That's where Lori's expertise comes in.
Just like a lot of us, she ended up switching her major and dove head-first into an industry where more women should, in fact, be at the top. We chatted about switching your career path, being a female CEO, diversity in the workplace, and so much more.
Create & Cultivate: Where did you go to college and what did you study?
Lori Greeley: Bucknell University where I studied Psychology (after realizing that Biology/Pre-Med was clearly not my calling).
You’ve spent your career in the fashion and retailing businesses, and have taken some really big brands to the next level. Did you always want to work in corporate retail or was your journey unexpected?
I did not have a grand plan to work in retail. I think like many of my peers, it was an obvious contingency plan. I had worked in stores or as a waitress all through high school and college and always had an interest in fashion (I have vivid memories of favorite outfits from age 3). After graduating with a liberal arts degree, career options were obviously pretty uncertain. I ended up being recruited into an executive training program at a regional department store and my career in retail began. I quickly discovered that being a department store merchant was uninteresting to me. The role was much more focused on negotiating good deals than having a strong influence over the product offering or customer experience. I was uninspired in this environment even though I had moved quickly through the training program. Fortunately, I was recommended to a store business in Ohio by a very nice woman in the market which ultimately lead to my long career at Victoria’s Secret. I joined VS only a few years after it had been acquired by Les Wexner of Limited Brands and stayed on that journey for 20 years, playing several roles from associate buyer to CEO. At VS my role evolved from retailer to a focus on brand building where we embraced the concept of “a brand is a story well told.” To deliver on this concept it’s important to understand your customer as a best friend. Knowing your customer informs decisions from product design to pricing, to brand voice. To wrap this question up, it was a journey, not a plan. A combination of being competitive and unafraid of taking risks has made my journey a successful one.
You also serve on the Board of Directors for other businesses. Do you feel that more women are being welcomed into those positions or is there still work to get done?
I’m lucky to serve on boards that are very gender balanced. I am also fortunate to serve with men and women with diverse work experience, age, and ethnicity. There has been progress made in the last few years to recruit more women to boards, but we’re a long way from parity. Honestly, the only way the pace of the progress will improve is with a strong commitment to change led by chairmen and male directors. The positive impact to business results has been documented for years with indisputable facts, and yet the change is slow.
"There has been progress made in the last few years to recruit more women to boards, but we’re a long way from parity."
What is the best part about being a female CEO?
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s unique about being a female CEO (since I’ve never been a male CEO). What I love about the position is that you’re able to create an environment where people can be at their best. I believe in encouraging people to take risks and step out of their comfort zone. Some of the people I’ve had the most pleasure of working with were not considered obvious future leaders early in their careers. I love scouting talent and seeing people develop into high impact players and being able to recognize that contribution with life-changing promotions.
What is the most challenging part about being a female CEO?
There has been much written about the topic of work-life balance, especially when it comes to juggling motherhood and a career. I am fortunate enough to be married to a wonderful man who was willing to pursue a career with a more flexible work day than mine and who was always happy to share the responsibilities of parenting with me. Admittedly, if I had to do it over, I would have been more present for my daughter’s school events earlier in life (simply because they grow up so fast). Thankfully, this helped me to discover that modeling a healthy work-life balance as a CEO by being transparent about leaving the office to attend a tennis match or a concert made my team feel more comfortable leaving the office for important personal commitments. Technology has also made it so much easier to flex between work and home responsibilities.
"Every role has the opportunity to contribute to the business’s success in very tangible ways."
What’s the best thing about working at Serena and Lily?
At the risk of sounding sappy, I love so many things about leading the next chapter of the Serena & Lily brand. I spent my career prior to S&L in lingerie, but my passion was always home. I also love the beach so an interior design brand that’s inspired by coastal living is a dream come true. My husband and I were born and raised in the northeast so having the opportunity to live in Marin and explore Northern California has also been really inspiring. And last, but certainly not least, are my colleagues at S&L. We are a very small team and we all wear many hats. This creates an environment where every role has the opportunity to contribute to the business’s success in very tangible ways.
At our Create & Cultivate conferences, we meet so many young women who want to work their way up the corporate ladder. Is there any advice you can give to young women to help them remain confident in the workforce and have their voices heard?
This is such a good question. I believe strongly in having a lean organization that allows for young women to have meaty roles early in their careers. Who you work for also really matters - if you don’t aspire to have your boss’s role in the future or you don’t admire their leadership style, don’t waste too much time on their team. That said, you can learn a lot from poor leadership. Some of the things that shaped my leadership style most were experiences where my boss behaved in a manner that I vowed never to mimic. Ultimately, I would advise women to not wait to be invited to speak up. Ask questions you truly do not know the answers to, not just the ones where you are simply hoping to showcase your brilliance. When in a meeting - soak it up and remain mentally engaged even if you’re not in a position to speak or actively participate. Use these opportunities to build muscle by “testing” yourself in the early years before you’re the one in the position of accountability.
What is one thing you wish you knew in your 20s that you now know today?
I honestly like the way I “played” my 20’s. In hindsight, I might have had loftier career aspirations earlier, but the truth is that I was never shy about putting my opinions on the table and challenging the status quo. When possible, perform at the next level before being recognized with a formal promotion.
How do you stay inspired to continuously lead a team and brand successfully?
Customer feedback, beautiful products, colleague relationships (surrounding yourself with people who give you energy), and one of the great things about being a retailer is the daily report card you get from your customers in the form of sales.
Is there any exciting Serena and Lily news that you can share with us today?
We are very excited to continue to introduce new people to our brand through our catalogs, digital advertising, social media and the opening of more design shops in inspiring neighborhoods across the country. The design shops will offer guests the chance to work one-on-one with expert design advisors to explore styling options and bring their vision to life. As you may know, we opened our newest design shop in Lincoln Park earlier this year and are looking forward to the addition of beautiful new locations in Pacific Palisades and Dallas. Our collection also continues to expand to encourage more creativity in our customers with the depth of our new assortment. We have some exciting new bedding collections and are introducing an entirely new nursery collection in a few weeks… the first major introduction in over 10 years. We designed the collection to be sophisticated with the same quality and design details that we include in all our products for the home.
Don't forget to stop by the Serena & Lily Lake Michigan-inspired experience at Create & Cultivate Chicago!