CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard Business School may famously churn out investment bankers and management consultants, yet many grad students attending the 13th annual Dynamic Women in Business Conference last month came to calculate what an MBA is worth to the fashion and beauty industries.

“It’s hard to imagine after graduating from Harvard Business School that you would accept a job on the selling floor, but that is the heart of the industry,” maternity designer Liz Lange emphasized, addressing a packed room at a retail careers panel discussion, one of a series of industry-focused sessions. “I started my business by waiting on every single customer, learning what she wants, needs and likes. I can’t imagine people effectively moving up the chain [of command] without that experience.”

The one-day conference drew roughly 600 women — mostly B-school students and recent alums, but also a smattering of students from other area schools — to network and learn from industry veterans.

Ann Moore, chairman and chief executive officer of Time Inc., gave a morning keynote address that balanced career advice with insights on how women have brought a new dynamic to American business, one of the conference’s themes. Afternoon panel discussions ranged from careers in health care to real estate, but two of the best-attended panels of the day were retail and marketing, delivered to standing-room-only crowds of nearly 200 students.

One student, who had driven several hours down from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business to attend, said she came to evaluate the trade-off between two summer internship opportunities — one at Shiseido and the other at Limited Brands. Would the faster-paced apparel industry allow her to do more, sooner, she wondered? Or would the marketing skills she’d learn in beauty ultimately be more valuable and a surer path to better compensation?

Another grad student said she was getting her MBA in order to secure financing and more solidly structure the beauty business she plans to launch after graduating.

Along with Lange, the retail panel included Lisa Capozzi, vice president of merchandising and planning at Louis Vuitton North America; Michelle Mandel, Talbots executive vice president of stores; Kikka Hanazawa, Theory’s chief strategy officer, and Pauline Brown, vice president of corporate strategy and new business development for Estée Lauder.Brown encouraged students with finance backgrounds to look for development positions, which, she pointed out, would give them a start in fashion or beauty while being lucrative enough to allow them to begin paying back loans.

Citing her own experience, Brown joined Lauder in 1997, just after it went public, on the eve of the spate of acquisitions that would take the company to the 19 brands it owns today.

“I’m always on the lookout for what’s the 20th, what’s the 21st,” she said. To succeed in the fashion business, she added, one needs a crucial mixture of “left and right brain. You have to read the bottom line to put together a P&L [profit and loss] report. On the other hand, you have to have good taste and understand how to create the theater of the [brand] experience.”

Mandel, who emphasized that Talbots is recruiting, said the litmus test for anyone entering retail should be “loving to sell. Selling isn’t a dirty word. In retail you’re constantly selling — your brand to your customers, your vision to your associates, your business as an opportunity to investors.”

Although most questions focused on how to break into the industry, students were attuned to the forces reshaping the industry. In a long-winded question that might have made a dissertation thesis, one attendee asked Lange about the risks and rewards of putting one’s brand into the mass channel.

“I was simultaneously in negotiation with Saks to do shop-in-shops and with Target for the license,” she recalled of the deal-making process. “A Saks executive told me ‘It’s them or us.’ And it was a no-brainer to me. Target felt like the future.”

She described her relationship as a “classic licensing arrangement” and said she’s often amazed at Target’s sourcing resources.

“I’ll give them an $80-a-yard fabric I like and the next day I have 10 samples back,” Lange said. “And I hate to admit it, but sometimes it’s awfully hard to tell the difference.” She conceded a few aesthetic drawbacks of mass presentation and joked about fiddling with her section whenever she’s in a Target store.“Sometimes you go in with your heart in your mouth — there are 100 hangers pushed together and shopping carts everywhere,” she said. “But the end of the week, to see the selling reports, the volume they move is staggering.”

Sometimes, Lange added, “I wonder what we’re all doing in the high end.”

Asked to consider what Lange’s comments portend for luxury brands, Louis Vuitton’s Capozzi acknowledged, “No one does it better than Target. There is an instant gratification there.” But, she added, true luxury defines itself by “selling the experience on top of the product — if you’re doing it right.”

At a lively marketing panel earlier in the day, panelists each chose a seismic trend they see reshaping purchasing habits.

For Reebok classics vice president Jan Sharkansky, a key force is the psychological compression of the generational age gap. “With women waiting longer to have children, the numerical age gap is larger than ever, but these women are closer than ever in terms of trends, music, aspirations,” she said. “We’re seeing the Boomers age down with the growing sophistication of tweens.”

Reebok is using that insight as the centerpiece of its thrust to expand its entire women’s platform.

“That’s what we’re going after and don’t tell Nike,” Sharkansky quipped.

Cheryl Howard, vice president of marketing for Gillette’s personal care businesses, picked radio frequency identification as her top trend.

“This is a huge change in the way we are going to be able to understand and track consumers,” she said. “Eventually, we will be putting a digital chip into every single product in the world. We will know how and when and where each item is sold.”

In the meantime, Howard couldn’t resist resorting to old-fashioned consumer polling, asking for a show of hands to see how many audience members were using the Venus razor for women.

Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder of marketing consulting firm Mavens & Moguls and a Procter & Gamble veteran who worked to develop Cover Girl’s first ethnic makeup line, picked the “thumb drive,” a portable hard drive about the size of a stick of gum that executives can plug into any laptop in a hotel or conference room.Hearing Arnof-Fenn’s choice, Howard laughed and pulled her own thumb drive, dangling from her key ring, from her purse.

Arnof-Fenn said she’s also keeping an eye on two other trends — the growth of social networking Web sites, such as LinkedIn, and increasing consumer anger and activism over how and where companies advertise to them.

“Over 50 percent of households signed up for the Do Not Call list, before it was even legal,” she noted.

Sharkansky said all brands should be carefully monitoring consumers’ feelings about advertising, no matter what channel they’re using.

“Listen, TiVo means they don’t ever have to watch another ad, ever,” she said. “Your messages shouldn’t be about intrusion or interruption. It’s about authenticity and value to the consumer. How are you going to help their lives?”

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