More than two decades of calling the shots from various luxury brands’ C-suites has more than prepared Pauline Brown for her new role at Harvard University’s Business School.
After exiting LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in late October as chairman of its North American arm, Brown has been busy designing a new course for second-year MBA students called “The Business of Aesthetics.” With her home and her children enrolled in school in New York, she said she preferred to work “half-time” rather than full-time on the Cambridge, Mass., campus.
In a phone interview Monday, Brown — who also served as managing director at The Carlyle Group and has had posts at The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. and Avon Inc. — said her HBS class will consider aesthetics beyond the business of fashion or luxury.
“When I talk about aesthetics, visual design is a piece of it, but it really doesn’t even capture most of it. It’s really about how those companies appeal to all of the various senses, whether it’s restaurants that are coming up with interesting approaches to taste, sounds, environment,” she said. “Obviously, even in luxury, I think there’s more and more attention on store design and store development, and navigation. It’s kind of connected to emotions, and kind of connected to experience. But more than that, it’s really elevating the human condition.”
Her first day at the head of the class of 100 students is set for next month but Brown has already started advising some students independently with their projects. One thing she felt very strongly about in designing the course was that even though she is employed by HBS and the majority of the seats will go to HBS students, Design Aesthetics will also be offered to students at Harvard’s other graduate schools. To that end, about 20 students will hail from Harvard’s graduate design school and one is an applied engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is very focused on wearable technology, she said.
In this next phase of her life, Brown is more interested and motivated to be “a thought leader than an operational leader.”
“I just think there’s an absence in the sectors that I’ve been in of people who are really thinking about it with insight and an innovative mind-set. It’s very hard when you’re in the trenches to bring that kind of insight and reflection to your work. So this is a rare opportunity to step back to reflect on that which I’ve learned and observed, without having the burden to run a business day-in and day-out, and to give my knowledge,” Brown said. “But at the end of the day — this is probably my deepest, darkest secret — I think of myself as more of a student than a teacher, and it’s really a unique opportunity for me in that classroom setting to learn without the burden of having to drive a business and to be able to think more about the future and the purpose of what we do.
“In an environment where consumers do not need more stuff, they’re actually, if anything, disdainful of waste. They’re saturated with options. With the homogenization of retail, and I mean that not necessarily in a negative way, the fact is that everything is so accessible now,” Brown said. “Really the only players that are standing above the fray and are continuing to gain market share, or grow, are those that appeal to consumers well beyond their functional needs.”
At work on a personal writing project, Brown remains a board member of the Henry Crown Fellowship Program at the Aspen Institute and is still on the board at The New School’s Parsons School of Design. A Wharton Business School graduate, Brown said, “My feeling is, with all due respect to Harvard, if at the end of 2016, all that I’ve done is learn and give within the Harvard classroom, I will not feel particularly successful. I feel like this deserves a broader audience…Some companies have asked about [my] doing tutorials or being part of a speaker series at those companies to the extent that some of these lessons are relevant to them or where they want to go. I’ll find other platforms to extend the conversation outside of Harvard. What I do outside of Harvard would not be competing with what I do there. It would be leveraging it.”
As for any plans to return to the corner office, Brown said, “At this point, I love my freedom and I love being in the world of ideas with young people who are full of promise. Let’s just say it would be a very special situation that would persuade me to switch gears.”