Mindy Grossman and Michael Clinton speak at ashion Group luncheon

NEW YORK — Culture, storytelling, innovation and managing Millennials were the hot topics Wednesday in a conversation between Mindy Grossman, chief executive officer of HSN Inc. and Michael Clinton, president/publishing director of Hearst Magazines.

The conversation at The Stella Room at Le Cirque was part of The Fashion Group International’s “Tastemaker” series.

The discussion touched on the personal (Clinton and Grossman are friends and have lived in the same Manhattan apartment building for decades); Grossman’s upbringing (she was adopted and was the first in her family to go to college); what kind of advice she gives young people about their careers; the state of HSN today having just come off a difficult quarter, and the multiple challenges facing the industry. Clinton noted that Grossman has the “disruptive gene” and at HSN is sitting on the vortex of three major disruptive moments: Media, Technology and Retail.

Grossman said there are three things she lives by when she decides to pursue something: Is she passionate about it, is it purposeful and does it have an impact? She said she took a huge risk when she left her position at Nike to join HSN in 2006 (HSN has had seven ceos in the previous 10 years), and Clinton asked her how she teaches risk-taking to people who are risk-averse.

“It’s less about teaching risk, but it’s more about instilling self-confidence and self-awareness,” she said. The aim is to create a culture that allows people to take calculated risks. “You have to make it clear there’s a difference between risk and suicide,” she said. She also tries to foster the idea of failing fast. “If something’s not working, don’t keep trying to cover it up,” she said.

Grossman, who has frequently appeared on Forbes’ list of the 100 most powerful women in the world and was cited in Fortune’s Top People in Business, is also a believer in building a culture of collaboration, so people feel comfortable being able to do things that are not so structured “so other people will support them and have their back.” People have to be very cognizant and careful when they join an organization that the company’s values align with their values. “I totally agree with the fact that culture trumps strategy,” she said. She added that she was lucky to work for companies such as Nike, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, “whose cultures, I am convinced, is what have allowed them to be continually successful.”

Clinton asked Grossman how she motivates Millennials, especially when companies such as Google, Facebook and Airbnb have “amazing cultures” that are inclusive and are offering such things as free lunch, free snacks and open bars. He noted that more traditional companies have a harder time competing with that.

“My whole philosophy is I’m going to have an impact, not because I’m trying to make myself successful, but that I’m committed to making other people successful. If I do that I will get fulfillment. If I build relationships with meaning, it will bring me more joy,” she said.

The ceo said she’s been fortunate that she’s never felt in her career that being a woman has held her back. Unfortunately, she said, the workforce has a serious lack of diversity, citing such statistics as there are only 54 female ceos in the Fortune 1000 companies, and only 19 percent of female board members of public companies are women. “People have to start insisting that there be a sea change,” she said. “Young women coming into the workforce bring a new dynamic, and there are a lot more female entrepreneurs,” she said.

Clinton asked Grossman about the disruption she’s facing in the industry because of smartphones and other mobile devices.

“To start, I think we live in a perpetual state of disruption,” said Grossman. When she joined HSN one of the big rationales was believing that the future was having a one-to-one direct relationship with customers, and that technology, as opposed to disrupting the business, was going to enable the business to be able to deepen the relationship. She had spent so much time overseas with Nike, and saw mobile exploding with Japan even before they were talking about it here. The idea of having a content network was very exciting to her. She said the first wave was to make HSN editorial programmed commerce, the second wave was the explosion of mobile and devices and the change from a TV-centric business to mobile first. Then came the recession in 2008 and 2009 and HSN went public in 2008.

“Fast-forward [to] today, and there’s more disruption than you’ve ever seen,” she said. Today she’s asked about psychographics, demographics, changing behaviors and globalization, and so one has to re-think where you’re putting your investments, she said. “Customers want to be recognized as individuals and if you can’t do that they’re going to go somewhere else. They’re also comparing you to their last experience,” she said. If they had a Uber experience and you’re the next one, they’re comparing you to Uber, she said. “They’re not comparing me to a retailer.”

“Content is the most important thing today — relevant, digestible, engaging, visual content,” said Grossman. If one subscribes to the fact that the ‘buy’ button is going to be everywhere, it doesn’t mean people are going to buy, she said. “You have to put the content in front of them,” she said. “In today’s environment, where the slings and arrows are coming at you every five minutes, whether it be competition, or what unfortunately recently happened in the world, you have to keep the organization focused, but have got to be so nimble, agile and flexible to be able to pivot,” she said.

Grossman said she’ll frequently engage celebrities in different ways, such as the way HSN works with Joy Mangano, an entrepreneur known for inventions such as the self-wringing Miracle Mop and Huggable Hangers, who appears regularly on HSN.

She said what she has to think about is what’s going to give people a reason to come to HSN, and that 70 percent of all the products they sell on HSN are exclusives. “We’re curating, we personalize and have a one-on-one relationship. We’re creating content first. We’re bringing solutions, ideas, entertainment and education to life in many different ways. We have to have a value proposition that’s beyond just the price of a product,” she said.

“The future is going to have to be platform-agnostic and audience-centric, and you’re going to have to get your content out to them,” Grossman said, noting HSN will also be transacting on social sites and other media channels.

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