For Theresa Watts, diversity is about seeing people, not just counting them.
The senior vice president of human resources, diversity, equity and inclusion at True Religion joined the company in June 2020 when the country was at peak discontent: pandemic-weary as deaths continued to rise, and newly embroiled in a battle for racial equity that resurfaced in a big way after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police.
Her task? Right a ship that was already rocking, as that June marked merely months after the brand’s second bankruptcy filing in less than three years.
And admittedly, she said — as was the case with many, many companies in the country — things hadn’t been ideal when it came to diversity at the Los Angeles-based jeans company.
The first order of business was actually joining the team, which had grown tense and disconnected amid trials both at work and in the world.
“I had to go in and get their buy-in and let them know that regardless of my title, regardless of my background, I am concerned,” Watts told WWD. “Then, once I got the employees together, working side by side and saying ‘Hey, let’s heal together.’ Then it was, ‘How do we heal? What are some of the bigger issues that we face together?’ And, unfortunately, [some] of the biggest issues were issues with DEI, with diversity and all the upheavals that happened in the news and things like that, so that kind of joined us.”
With Watts’ leadership and guidance, the company got to work on what it wasn’t doing well. Today, though the focus has been on building in change and inclusion rather than collecting people of color, True Religion’s overall population is 80 percent diverse and, according to Watts, “that diversity has increased by 25 percent each year since 2019.”
It’s a reality Watts owes in no small part to chief executive officer Michael Buckley’s approach with his own leadership team.
“He handpicked our senior leadership team, and this is one of the most diverse leadership teams that I’ve ever worked on — seriously — in my life, and I’ve worked for Fortune 500 companies, I’ve worked for big, small companies, private, public,” she said. “It’s OK to say, ‘Hey listen, our team isn’t representative of Latinas, isn’t representative of Asian Americans, we don’t have enough women.’ It’s OK to say that and it’s OK to say I need more women on my team so I’m going to go to where the women are with these qualifications, and that’s what he did.” And he did the same for all groups where he felt True Religion was underrepresented, Watts said.
“He needed African Americans on the team so he went to where African Americans were. He needed an Asian American on his team so he went and he handpicked Asian Americans on his team. And I applaud him for that, air kisses to him all the time for that because honestly that’s a brave move, a lot of people wouldn’t do that,” Watts said. “So it started there. Now, with our leadership team, you can’t talk to people about representing something that you’re not representative of, so when they see us they’re like ‘OK, maybe Michael Buckley and the senior leadership team, maybe they do mean business because they are a hodgepodge of religions and ethnicities and genders on that team.’ It gave them an opportunity to see that we meant business.”
Now, 60 percent of the company’s senior leadership team is diverse, according to Watts, and 35 percent are women.
But what really drives Watts are the less tangible factors of doing diversity work.
A lot of times, she said, companies just want to “spout out the numbers, ‘Oh the data, we did this and we did that,’ but they don’t have any real examples and for me, it was a lot of the things that just aren’t tangible. And it does make me emotional sometimes to talk about it because sometimes you don’t know if you’re having impact.
Recently, however, following Watts bringing in a guest speaker from the LGBTQ community, an event that trailed the company’s first Juneteenth celebration, she had a chance to understand that impact.
One employee told her, she said, “’This is the best environment I’ve ever worked in.’ And I’m not going to lie, I did have to step back and hold back tears because [when it comes to] diversity, you have to fight so hard. And as an African American female, you have to fight constantly. I don’t care how good your CEO is, how supportive the team is, DEI is something that makes people uncomfortable and nervous. So when you see that it does [impact people positively], it touches you. I don’t know, it makes me happy to work here. It makes me know that I’m doing something good.”
And the biggest contributor to doing good, she added, has been listening. Something many companies — as much as “we’re listening and learning” ranked among the hackneyed phrases of 2020 amid the racial reckoning — still aren’t doing well.
“A lot of times leaders sit at the top and they make these decisions, you don’t include the voice of your employees. How can we make a decision that we expect to impact James and Jim and Kim and Kelly if you don’t know what James, Jim, Kim and Kelly want? So you have to ask them. And we do an excellent job of just going out into the field and saying, ‘Hey, what is it that you want?’ And if we can afford it and it’s feasible, we do it,” she said. And I can honestly tell you — and it’s more than just diversity surveys — everything that those employees asked us for [more time with senior leaders, more time to interact with one another, a bonus instead of a holiday party], we gave it to them. Every single thing.”
As True Religion celebrates its 20th birthday, Watts is proud not only of what the company has done to improve its state of affairs internally, but how it continues to reach out to the community.
A charity softball game, where True Religion competed against other fashion brands in L.A., which raised $7,000 for less privileged youth, was one recent example.
But among the newest things the denim brand is set to debut is its pathway paving program. The idea came after a round of interviews for a designer turned up zero Black candidates. To do their part to address the issue, True Religion will work with the Fashion Scholarship Fund to find students studying fashion at local community colleges — not the elite design schools too many companies still turn to for their talent pool. Students will apply to the program, a narrowed pool will do a project for the brand, and the winner will have an opportunity to intern at True Religion and take part in the Fashion Scholarship Fund award ceremony in New York City (on True Religion’s dime), amid other mentoring opportunities in between.
“We’re going to community colleges, to people who think, ‘I’m just going to go for two years because I couldn’t go to a four-year college or there’s no money for me, there’s no pathway for me to go there,’” Watts said. “We’re going to start there, in their second year in community college, they’re going to mentor with us one summer and then we’re going to follow them along all through their bachelor’s degree in fashion.”
Watts may be leading the DEI charge at True Religion, but she feels the brand itself is leading among its competitors and peers because of what she believes is the company’s keen ability to listen to its employees and to focus more on impact than data.
Offering an example, she said, “When I’m on [diversity-oriented] panels…with other people, they don’t have specific stories to share. They don’t lead with their heart, they’re always talking about the numbers and the data and how that’s going to help the sales. Yeah, it will. But the thing is though, if your employees aren’t happy, they’re not going out talking about the wonderful things that are going on. They’re not going out and telling their friends and family to apply. They’re not telling their mom, ‘I haven’t quit this job yet because I’m happy.’”
“When you start there and stop looking at the people so much as numbers, it all just kind of works together,” she said.