In honor of International Women’s Day, WWD and Berns Communications Group (BCG) are spotlighting 25 women who represent inspirational leaders in business. Beyond leading companies to success, these professionals are paving the way for future generations by inspiring younger women to become leaders in their own right.
This is the first year of the 25 Most Inspirational Women Leaders program, which selected the honorees based on a criteria that included career milestones, a record of thought leadership and overall industry influence.
Here, these 25 extraordinary women share their insights on the challenges facing women in business today and what it took to achieve their goals within the fashion, apparel and retail industry. In regard to the skills that helped them, there was consensus from the honorees around the importance of active listening, practicing empathy and embracing change.
Karen Katz, Former CEO of Neiman Marcus Group, Board Member, and Advisor, stressed the importance of empathy, and a low ego. “Treat every person you meet with decency and respect,” she said. “Learn how to be a good follower, because you can learn a lot about how to be a good leader. Allow some of your flaws to show-makes you more approachable and more authentic.”
Tracey T. Travis, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, The Estée Lauder Companies, said one of “the most important characteristics that you can have in a career is resilience. Whether you have a win or a setback, be sure to reflect on what you can learn from your experience and continue to move forward.”
Several of the honorees noted how the world has changed and continues to evolve in this post-pandemic period — requiring today’s business leaders to be agents of change. Phyllis Newhouse, CEO of ShoulderUp Technology Acquisition Corp., Founder & CEO of Xtreme Solutions, Inc., and Founder of ShoulderUp, CEO of Athena Technology Acquisition Corp., said aspiring leaders “must learn to be a leader of change, not just in terms of impact, but also having a ‘change’ mentality and being able to adapt and pivot quickly. The leader that you are today may be very different than who you need to be one year from now.”
For Sinéad Burke, Founder and CEO of Tilting the Lens, added that being vulnerable can help. “I don’t believe there is a recipe for success,” Burke said. “So much of the work in areas such as accessibility and equity are still evolving, and therefore our skill sets need to evolve, too. That said, vulnerability is important. Even when you are in a leadership position, it is important to acknowledge that ‘we don’t know, what we don’t know.’ Always be curious and hungry to learn!”
And don’t be afraid, noted Karin Tracy, Head of Industry, Fashion, Luxury and Retail at Meta. She said right now, “we may be in the most significant moment of transformation in retail history, and what we are building and creating together right now we’ll look back on and realize was the most exciting time in our careers. We are defining the future of retail, and I see amazing opportunities for women business leaders who lean into the change. The how and where we shop has changed forever, and a lot of this has been driven by technology.”
“Rather than fear it, embrace the opportunities technology presents across every area of your business from production to merchandising to the increased ability to have meaningful connections with your customers no matter where they shop (physically, digitally, and now virtually),” she added.
This is also a good time to take previous “soft leadership” skills such as active listening and empathy, and make it a priority. Deborah Lora Weinswig, CEO and Founder of Coresight Research, said empathy and flexibility are key to connecting and communicating with team members and employees. “Active listening is probably the most important,” she said. “Most people retain less than 50 percent of what is said in a conversation. If you can understand what people are telling you and can act upon it, you increase efficiency, decrease the potential for misunderstanding, and become the go-to person in an organization.”
When asked about the challenges and opportunities facing aspiring women executives, Christina Fontana, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Alibaba Group, said although “women are the key market driver in fashion and retail they are still underrepresented in leadership roles. A move toward more inclusive workspaces means making work, especially in retail, more compatible with the lives of mothers with stable and flexible schedules.” Fontana’s perspective circles back to the importance of empathy in leadership, which will help the C-suite understand what mothers are experiencing.
But despite the headwinds, Dana Telsey, CEO of Telsey Advisory Group, said there are more opportunities “available today than there were 20 years ago. Social media has expanded the reach of awareness for women, providing visibility to those with interest and substance. In fashion, apparel and retail, there are unique opportunities for cross generational mentorship given the speed at which consumer spending patterns and personalization tools are evolving. Becoming and remaining best in class at what you do allows you to grab and capture fantastic opportunities.”
Andrea Weiss, CEO & Founder, The O Alliance, echoed Telsey’s sentiment. “I am a ‘glass half full’ person, so I see the opportunities for women as having never been greater,” Weiss said. “So many barriers to entry have been crushed. But we are still not fully there. What remains is a more equitable access to capital to support women lead businesses.”
The 25 Most Inspirational Women Leaders of 2022
Nancy Berger, SVP/Publishing Director, Chief Revenue Officer at Hearst, Youth & Wellness Group
Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, Founder and CEO of BrainTrust
Elizabeth Buchanan, CCO at Rokt
Sinéad Burke, Founder and CEO of Tilting the Lens
Sandra Campos, CEO (former CEO at DVF), ShoulderUp Technology Acquisition Corp, Board Director, Advisor
Maxine Clark, Founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop
Christina Fontana, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Alibaba Group
Melissa Gonzalez, Principal, MG2 and CEO of The Lionesque Group
Mindy Grossman, President and CEO at WW International
Karen Katz, Former CEO at Neiman Marcus Group, Board Member, Advisor
Nicole Leinbach, Founder of RetailMinded.com and the Independent Retailer Conference
Marigay McKee, General Partner Fernbrook Capital LLC, Board Member Aston Martin Lagonda UK Ltd, Board Member at The Webster, Advisory Board Member at ESW
Phyllis Newhouse, CEO of ShoulderUp Technology Acquisition Corp., Founder and CEO of Xtreme Solutions, Inc., and Founder of ShoulderUp, CEO of Athena Technology Acquisition Corp.
Debra Perelman, President and CEO of Revlon
Deirdre Quinn, Co-Founder and CEO of Lafayette148
Dawn Robertson, CEO of OCM, On Campus Marketing, Chairman of the Board at Splitit
Neha Singh, CEO at Obsess
Gayle Tait, President of Trove
Dana Telsey, CEO at Telsey Advisory Group
Karin Tracy, Head of Industry, Fashion, Luxury and Retail at Meta
Tracey T. Travis, EVP and CFO at The Estée Lauder Companies
Jennifer Walsh, Founder of AIKR Lab & Institute
Deborah Lora Weinswig, CEO and Founder of Coresight Research
Andrea Weiss, Founder and CEO of The O Alliance
Stacey Widlitz, President at SW Retail Advisors and Co-Founder of The DealmakeHers