WASHINGTON — Ivanka Trump, Ulta Beauty’s chief executive officer Mary Dillon and women executives and leaders from a broad swath of the private and public sector discussed the importance of brand authenticity, defining a company’s purpose and other internal and external challenges facing their companies during Fortune’s three-day “The Most Powerful Women” summit here.
The conference, held at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, brought together 450 executives from 32 states and 17 countries, according to Fortune.
First Lady Michelle Obama and other high-profile women in government, including Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch all participated in the conference.
Over the three days, Trump, Dillon and executives from Wal-Mart and IBM to Lockheed Martin and GM outlined their strategies for success, as well as the challenges that have forced them to recalibrate at times.
Trump, executive vice president of development and acquisitions at The Trump Organization and founder and ceo of Ivanka Trump Collection, on Wednesday discussed how she has balanced her demanding professional life with her family (it was revealed that she is five months pregnant with her third child) at a time when her father, billionaire developer Donald Trump, is running for president, creating waves along the way.
She said there are similarities between the fashion and real estate worlds, both of which she straddles in her dual roles. She said the key to success is centered around “brand building” and “authenticity.”
Trump said she never envisioned launching a brand of her own, but ultimately launched her namesake line, starting first with a fine jewelry collection and then rolling out footwear and handbags.
“When I launched the jewelry line…I realized most luxury jewelers were only speaking to the men,” Trump said. “But there’s a whole generation of women who are self-purchasers, who wanted to spend that bonus that they earned. They weren’t just waiting for their anniversaries…but they were purchasing for themselves. And nobody was talking to them.”
Trump indicated that was where she found a voice for her fine jewelry line and brand.
“The success of that emboldened me and I entered categories such as footwear and handbags, which are more accessibly priced and geared toward the Millenial audience,” she said. “But really I wanted to create a solution-oriented product for this next generation of working women who are working hard.”
Trump said her fame through the TV reality show “The Apprentice” has allowed her to help change the narrative of what she said is a persistent “caricature” of professional woman who are often labeled as a “working woman,” which connotes a certain stereotype.
Her father, meanwhile, has been embroiled in a war of words on the campaign trail with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly over a question she asked him at the first Republican presidential about derogatory comments he has made in the past about women. Pattie Sellers, assistant managing editor at Fortune, asked Trump if she has given her father any advice about the dustup with Kelly or whether he’s even willing to listen to her advice.
“That was very sensationalized, very much sort of for television, what transpired both during the debate and following it,” she said. “Truthfully, it didn’t interest me much.”
She acknowledged that having a father running for president is “complicated,” but she went on to defend him, saying that he is ahead in the polls because he resonates with voters and that she has reached the highest level as a female executive in the Trump organization.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if he didn’t deeply believe in opportunities for women,” she said. “He’s known for action and he is also unguarded in his opinions. He says what he’s thinking. Whether you disagree or you agree, I think people appreciate the candor of his dialogue, that accessibility and his willingness to talk about really complicated issues in a way other people are not so willing to talk about.”
In a separate conversation and interview, Dillon of Ulta said she is working to carry out an ambitious plan outlined when she joined the beauty company in July 2013. The five-year plan included opening 500 new stores by 2019, increasing e-commerce sales to account for 10 percent of total sales and reaching comp-store sales growth of 5 to 7 percent a year, as stated by Leigh Gallagher, assistant managing editor at Fortune, who interviewed Dillon.
“The company is 25 years old, but in some ways I feel like we’re just getting started,” Dillon said. “We’re just playing offense. We’re opening up 100 stores a year. I think [we’re] setting the right investor expectations and delivery against that and offering just a great experience.”
Dillon said Ulta currently has 850 stores in the U.S. and has a target of opening 1,200 stores and “probably more.”
“We’re testing small-format stores,” she said. “We have a couple of stores in very small markets that are half our size and they are doing quite well. We continue to drive small-store growth. Hopefully, we may be down the road looking at city centers, which is a different real estate proposition.”
Ulta has 25,000 employees, a majority of whom are women and 10,000 of whom are under the age of 25. The company promoted 1,200 women into management jobs in the past two years, she said.
“For me, at this stage in my career, to be able to provide opportunities for women and really build a career [for them] is something that is really exciting,” Dillon said.
In a panel discussion titled “Linking Purpose to Profits,” Judith McKenna, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Wal-Mart U.S., said the company constantly focuses on bringing the message of Wal-Mart’s mission to its 1.2 million employees in 4,500 U.S. stores.
Asked how executives use purpose to drive profits, McKenna said it often boils down to communicating with store managers.
“What struck me since moving to the U.S. business — I actually worked at Wal-Mart U.K. originally — is that when you are at the scale of that business, you have to have a common purpose and everybody has to understand it and the business decisions that you make have to be made against it,” she said. “It has to be an integral part of the strategy. Actually, that is only way that you can get 1.2 million people something that they can engage the business on,”
McKenna said she middle manager layer is the hardest to achieve. To that end, she has gone on a listening tour of sorts in which, over four days, she visited 10 cities and 700 stores, talking to groups of 40 to 60 store managers.
“If anybody saw Wal-Mart’s Q2 results, you’ll know here is situation where we’ve made some significant investment into our stores and our people, and we are staying true to the course and people see that you are going to do that, which is really important,” McKenna added. “We invested very significantly in the opening wage rate into stores, but it was part of a broader agenda, which Doug McMillon [Wal-Mart’s ceo] is absolutely passionate about.”