*EDITED, PHOTOS TK*
As Lululemon’s chief product officer, Choe is used to making executive-level decisions at the activewear firm. During her tenure Lululemon’s assortment has grown to include golf and tennis apparel, hiking gear, workout hijabs, mushroom bags, Team Canada gear and more. In March, Choe helped launch Lululemon’s first sneakers, with women in mind.
“They’ve all been resonating really well with our guests,” Choe said during the “Shaping the Next Gen” panel discussion at Fairchild Media Group’s Women In Power event. Choe was sporting head-to-toe Lululemon, including the soon-to-be-released “Strongfeel” sneakers, as she talked about the company’s success, how Lululemon develops new products and what’s in the pipeline. (Women’s “to-and-from” the gym apparel and a fine-nylon capsule are some of the upcoming collections.)
“We’re pretty good in our strategy process where we do anticipate what potential downsides could look like. And then what would be the leverage that we need to pull that would offset the potential downsides,” Choe said. “What we learned about the industry is that most performance footwear really starts off with a men’s foot in mind and then it gets adapted for a woman’s foot. And we saw that there was an unmet need in the marketplace.”
She also uses her influence to help mentor others along the way.
“Lululemon happens to be a fairly young culture. It’s been really cool to work with so many of these up-and-comers and to be able to let them know my door is open,” Choe said. “I try to create as safe a place as possible, rather than having this intense conversation about and starting off with career goals and things like that. I first want to get to know them as a human. And it’s really that connection where you find out you both love French bull dogs, or your favorite place to visit is Paris, or something like that. Being able to have that personal connection, relatability, sort of levels the playing field and allows you to have pretty honest conversations in terms of mentorships.
“It doesn’t have to be a formal mentorship; I just find that providing space for those [who] are starting their career, being able to offer advice that they might need has been a key way for me to engage with the next generation,” she added. “We have a lot of off-site [meet-ups] to make sure we spend time on connections and fun. And I have given myself a second title of ‘chief celebration officer,’ because I think it’s really important to have those moments of celebration.”
Those celebrations could include exercising together or participating in sporting events. It’s not uncommon in Lululemon’s culture for members of the senior-leadership team to workout alongside newbies.
Part of her desire to mentor more junior team members stems from her own experiences, working her way up through the ranks and around the retail industry. (Her résumé includes stints at Levi’s, Gap Inc. and Urban Outfitters.) But developing an expertise in product wasn’t always easy.
“I wish someone [had] told me and encouraged me to be courageous,” Choe explained. “I think you have to stand up for yourself in this business, especially as a woman. I think people sometimes think less of you or expect a little less of you. I certainly think it’s important that you stand up for yourself because not everyone is going to be an advocate for you. I also think it’s really important that you learn from your mistakes. To be able to shake it off and not have it undermine your confidence.
“There’s definitely been leaders and managers [who] I’ve worked for who like to lead through intimidation. And I just never had the courage to stand up for myself,” she continued. “And there’s definitely those moments that I regret. And I would say, based on that, be strong; stand up for yourself. Ask for the feedback. Don’t let mistakes tear down your confidence.”
One mentor she did note, however, was Richard Hayne, president and chief executive officer at Urban Outfitters Inc.
“I personally think Dick Hayne is one of the most underrated retail executives,” Choe said. “What I learned from Dick was just the obsession with consumer behavior..”