Jan Sharkansky-Singer’s rise from PR novice (Chanel) to beauty editor (YM) to global communications director (Calvin Klein) to corporate vice president of global apparel (Nike) to her current position as chief executive officer of Spanx (phew), is actually less circuitous than it sounds. Here, Singer sits down with her longtime friend and veteran beauty journalist Martha McCully to chart her journey and share what she’s learned along the way.
Martha McCully: How did you get your start?
Jan Singer: My very, very first job in New York was secretary to [real estate scion] Marty Raynes. I made copies of leases and one belonged to someone at Chanel. When I was laid off, I decided I would just call over there to say the lease was in good hands. The man who answered was very nice, so I asked if there was anyone at Chanel I could talk to? He gave me Marilyn Marino’s name in HR. After we hung up, I called back to ask the receptionist the name of the man I was speaking with. “Arie Kopelman,” she said. “He’s the president.”
MM: That’s not luck, that’s kismet. Where did that lead you?
JS: I made myself head of customer service at Chanel, I made up my own department. Susan Duffy was my first real boss there; she gave me such an opportunity. And then I got a call from Bonnie Fuller and went to YM as beauty editor.
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MM: Wasn’t Rachel Zoe a fashion intern while you were there?
JS: I cannot confirm or deny that. There was a girl named Rachel Rosenzweig, that’s all I know.
MM: Then on to Calvin Klein, Prada, Reebok, Nike—that’s quite a list of brands. What were your major takeaways?
JS: At Calvin Klein I learned to roll out an image globally with CK One, Eternity and Escape. At Prada, the lesson was in innovating around art; we launched Prada Beauty. At Reebok I learned about the leader I wanted to be.
MM: What did you learn during your 10 years at Nike?
JS: A relentless focus on the consumer. There is a respect at Nike, for the consumer, the athlete and your colleagues. Nike values leadership. After three years in various leadership roles, they asked me to run footwear—all innovation, merchandising, development, sourcing and manufacturing. We went from $6.5 billion to $10 billion. Then I led the apparel reset and grew it to a $7 billion business. The whole experience was exhilarating.
MM: How did your background prepare you for your current role?
JS: To me it was a natural progression. I’m supremely curious about everything; knowing how things work and how it all stitches together is really important to me. As ceo, I see the full value chain. In my mind it’s what I always did. I was never just making doughnuts.
MM: You do ask a lot of questions!
JS: I was a psychology major and consumers are an anthropological study in human behavior. I really love understanding what makes people tick, what makes brands tick.
MM: What do you see happening with the consumer today?
JS: Transparency. Women have permission to just be who they are. Look at Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham and Jennifer Lawrence. Look at Céline using Joan Didion in its advertising. There’s an authenticity to it. There’s nothing more authentic than Sara [Blakely, founder of Spanx] going into department stores showing laminated before photos of her cellulite and after photos of herself wearing her product. She made it OK to have an authentic conversation. That transparency builds trust, the consumer really trusts us with her body and that’s amazing.
MM: How should brands interact with this consumer?
JS: The consumer has a voice now. I used to work for brands that pushed out a vision. But in a more commercial landscape, the consumer gets a vote. When you combine vision with a vote, you get to a really powerful place. Great companies know how to balance that voice and vote. Brands that aren’t paying attention to that are in big trouble.
MM: How is that relevant to beauty today?
JS: There has to be a consumer benefit that she can see or feel immediately. A beauty company can no longer say, “Use this and in 10 days you will feel better.” And much the same way nobody’s skin is the same, nobody’s body is the same. We have to provide choices.
MM: Who are your mentors?
JS: The people who have been authentic, who act with integrity, develop talent and deliver results without leaving dead bodies in their wake. Jean Zimmerman from Chanel was out in front very early on and yet made space and continues to make space for others. Mindy Grossman [ceo of HSN Inc.] plays high in this way—helping others network, develop skills and find support. At Nike, [chief operating officer] Eric Sprunk and [former brand president] Charlie Denson are unbelievable leaders and coaches. I also find incredible art, science, culture and community when I spend time with [J. Crew ceo] Mickey Drexler. He connects people, gives advice, listens and laughs along with you. These are people who live very full lives and are not afraid to share.
MM: How would you describe your management style?
JS: I’m working pretty fast right now, I have a bias for action. I like to work smart. I have a husband and twin seven-year-olds, so let’s be efficient with our time. When we’re not working, we should be home.