70 - Winnie Park, Forever 21

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This is a podcast episode titled, 70 - Winnie Park, Forever 21. The summary for this episode is: <p>In our 70th episode of Earned, we sit down with Winnie Park, CEO of Gen Z retailer Forever 21. We start by discussing the resurgence of retail and in-store shopping, and how the industry has changed since the start of the pandemic. Winnie unpacks the evolution of Forever 21’s omnichannel strategy, and emphasizes the importance of meeting the customer where they’re at. We dive into the retailer’s approach to influencer marketing, and Winnie shares why Forever 21 prioritizes co-creation. Conor asks Winnie what it takes to run hundreds of physical retail locations, and Winnie explains why store associates are crucial because they’re closest to the boss—the customer. Next, we hear Winnie’s perspective on the “Glass Cliff” phenomenon, and she shares why she believes women make some of the best CEOs, particularly in tough times. To close the show, Winnie reveals her greatest learnings from her mentors, and why she now loves mentoring other professionals, before sharing the advantages of being part of the SPARC Group community.</p><p><br></p><p>In this episode, you will learn:</p><ol><li>How the retail industry has evolved and bounced back since the start of the pandemic</li><li>The importance of a balanced omnichannel strategy and meeting the customer where they're at </li><li>Why women make some of the best CEOs in tough times</li></ol><p><br></p><p><strong>Key Takeaways</strong></p><p>[01:08] The resurgence of retail and in-store shopping</p><p>[09:43] The evolution of Forever 21's omnichannel strategy</p><p>[17:34] Forever 21’s approach to influencer marketing</p><p>[23:40] The keys to successfully running physical retail locations</p><p>[27:49] Winnie's perspective on the "Glass Cliff" phenomenon</p><p><br></p><p><strong>Resources:</strong></p><ul><li><a href="https://www.forever21.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Forever21</a></li><li>Forever21 on TikTok - <a href="https://www.tiktok.com/@forever21" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">@forever21</a></li><li>Forever21 on Instagram - <a href="https://www.instagram.com/forever21/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">@forever21</a></li><li><a href="https://www.sparkgroup.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">The Spark Group</a>&nbsp;</li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Connect with the Guest:</strong></p><ul><li>Winnie’s LinkedIn - <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/winnie-park?trk=people-guest_people_search-card" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">@winnie-park</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Connect with Conor Begley &amp; CreatorIQ:</strong></p><ul><li>Conor’s LinkedIn -<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/conormbegley/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @conormbegley</a></li><li>CreatorIQ LinkedIn -<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/company/creatoriq/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creatoriq</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Follow us on social:</strong></p><ul><li>CreatorIQ YouTube -<a href="https://www.youtube.com/@TribeDynamics" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @TribeDynamics</a></li><li>CreatorIQ Instagram -<a href="https://www.instagram.com/creatoriq/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creatoriq</a></li><li>CreatorIQ TikTok -<a href="https://www.tiktok.com/@creator.iq" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creator.iq</a></li><li>CreatorIQ Twitter -<a href="https://twitter.com/CreatorIQ" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @CreatorIQ</a></li></ul>
Winnie’s views on retail making a comeback
01:47 MIN
The pandemic’s effects on retail
03:21 MIN
Winnie’s opinion on retail’s omni channel presence
04:39 MIN
Forever 21’s plan to use influencers to promote their retail
03:10 MIN
Keys for a stable retail environment
03:49 MIN
Winnie’s prediction for demand in the dynamic retail world
06:36 MIN
Winnie’s food weakness
00:59 MIN

Conor Begley: I just met Winnie today, but I think we're going to be friends now. That's part of the reason I love this podcast. And you guys will love it, she's one of the most experienced retail executives in the world and she has a lot to learn from. Remember, if you enjoy the episode today, be a friend, tell a friend. That's the best way you can help. Thanks guys.

Speaker 2: Explore the minds and marketing strategies behind today's winning brands and businesses. Tap into the power of the creator economy with Earned by CreatorIQ. Here's Conor Begley.

Conor Begley: Hi everyone, welcome to Earned. Today, I've got the CEO of Forever 21, Winnie Park on the show. Welcome to the show, Winnie.

Winnie Park: Thank you so much, Conor. I'm excited to be here

Conor Begley: And I am excited to have you. Let me brag about you for a second. So to go way back in Winnie's background, undergrad at Princeton, MBA at Northwestern, then went to McKinsey& Company to Levi's, Levi's to the Duty- free store where you were the EVP there of marketing, which that's a 4, 000 plus person company, then CEO at Paper Source in your first CEO role, now a CEO at Forever 21 and hold board roles at both Express and Dollar Tree. So that's a lot of experience to draw from, I'm excited.

Winnie Park: Ans I hope I can part some words of wisdom or at least be super authentic in terms of what I share with you.

Conor Begley: Totally. So let's talk retail. I was at the Business of Fashion Voices Summit, so I'm talking to different retailers, brands, et cetera, and the word of the day was, retail's back, retail's back in a real meaningful way. And obviously for you, and across all your companies, we added up the numbers, 70,000 employees and 10, 000 doors in your history, so you're going to know it pretty well. Is that what you are seeing in terms of retail? Are you seeing it surge back in a meaningful way? And how does that interplay with, obviously, everybody's invested in digital really heavily over the last couple years.

Winnie Park: Absolutely. I think retail is back, and I have seen it go up and go down. And coming out of the pandemic, the thing that was really compelling is the fact that I think it just reminded customers and consumers that they actually like the physical act of shopping in retail stores. And there's something about the touch and feel aspect of shopping in stores and the pleasure that it can give you that you are reminded of when you're denied that piece of it. And then rediscovering that it's actually pretty relevant. It's a relevant way to actually spend your time. It's a relevant way to connect with a visceral experience, which is touching and feeling product. I remember missing simple things, like when you wear a mask, not being able to smell a candle. So there's something about that that really does bring you a small pleasure in life that I think people really got back into. I also think being with a brand that really caters to Gen Z, Gen Z actually like to be in physical environments and to shop. They like to try things on. They're very knowledgeable about the touch and feel of product, quality, fabrications. And so I think all of that really lends itself well to being in a physical space and experience it again.

Conor Begley: Yeah, the analogy I always really liked, or the discussion was, the two big things that happened in the pandemic, biggest changes in terms of human behavior were work from home and then you're doing all your shopping online. So it's online shopping and working from home remotely. And I think working remotely has stuck, or at least partially remotely has stuck for a lot of organizations. And it's, I'm in my house all day, the last thing I want to do is sit at my desk and shop online. I want to take my kids, get out of the house, go do something physical and shopping is one of those things. And so it's got to be fun to have that really kind of surge back.

Winnie Park: I totally agree with you. I think that we all felt so pent up. And a lot of folks are back with a hybrid schedule, you still have that ability to have a little more flex time than they used to. What we're actually seeing is that people are actually coming back like the pre- pandemic on the weekends. And so this is becoming a little bit of entertainment, and I think retail in its best form is a bit of entertainment. It is bringing your kids out to do something, to see something. And I think again, that that piece is all about simple pleasures and so the ability to actually put something down and interact with the physical world and physical people almost feels like a treat.

Conor Begley: And I actually hadn't thought about it from a Gen Z perspective, but they were also doing remote classes for a couple of years.

Winnie Park: Absolutely. My daughter started her high school freshman year during the pandemic. And so this whole phenomenon of kids literally rolling on a bed and logging on, and they had never used Zoom before, and it really halted any type of social development in a weird way.

Conor Begley: Yeah, totally.

Winnie Park: And so everyone just looked forward to those moments where they could actually convene. And again, there's something about that old school notion of going to a mall to convene that feels new school.

Conor Begley: We actually haven't talked about the pandemic in a bit, so I want to talk about that a little bit more because the other thing that happened is, go back to 2020, that is a very unique time in history in terms of the disruption that occurred to business models. And obviously you were the CEO of a retail led brand. You were on the board of very large retailers. Those are tough times. There's reductions in forest, there's all these kinds of things. What were your learnings coming out of that? Because obviously that had to shape you quite a bit as a leader, I'd imagine so.

Winnie Park: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was a super tough time, and I think some of the things that I learned on that journey is to focus on what you can control, really difficult to do. And I would say that that begins and ends with you. You can control yourself as a leader in how you show up. And so for me, I really double down on the practice of conscious leadership, which is something that I practice like yoga. I'm not great at yoga and I'm still learning on the consciousness front, but the thought process behind conscious leadership is locate yourself. Are you above the line or are you below the line? And are you getting engaged in drama in a way that you shouldn't? Is your ego being triggered? And I would say during the pandemic, I feel like it was a lot of CEOs talked about it as managing, it's like being a wartime CEO, inaudible in general. And so being conscious of how much you influence and impact the troops is so critical. How you show up on every single Zoom, how you deal with adversity. And honestly, in many cases, you definitely want to panic and you can't. And so that's one of the key lessons I learned. The second thing is you got to make decisions swiftly. I do think that in those moments... And you know what, in the normal cadence of retail business you have a little more time to think and plan. When all those plans go out the window, you have to be in a mode where you're making decisions and you are actually literally leading from the front. We didn't have time for analysis paralysis, it was from one day to the next, " Oh, we have to close all of our stores. What are we going to do with the associates? How do we ensure that they can get by? How do we really get into the mode of communicating in an appropriate fashion?" So making decisions quickly and swiftly and balancing the analytical piece with the gut instinct of what's right was critical. And I would say the last piece that I learned is overcommunicate. And this is something that I think, as I always say, that when you start your career, you are valued for what you can do, at the second stage as a manager, you're really valued for what you know because you've done it so often. At the last stage of your career, it's about the who you are. And the who you are during a crisis like the pandemic, people lean on that in communicating constantly, communicating about the state of the state. When do we go back to the office? When do we go back to stores? What are the implications of this? And it became a critical way for me to keep people together. It was really around let's communicate constantly, even if the news is tough.

Conor Begley: Well, both tough and unexpected. Different states have different plans. Different countries have different plans. Plans change. There's lack of visibility. There isn't constant communication from other parties. It just sounds like a really wild and difficult time.

Winnie Park: It did feel like wartime because you couldn't fully anticipate what the enemy was going to do, and the enemy was a virus. And so regulatory was changing constantly and just the more basic things like human fear and what would happen and what triggers human fear and the sense of safety. So it was a tough time. And I would say that I was lucky enough to have a group of peers, a group of CEOs who got together almost weekly to support each other and compare notes. And we went from the real tactical, what are you guys going to do about rents at X, Y, Z? To really much more of the strategic in terms of, what does this say about business models in the future? And we all saw our e- com businesses just absolutely rise to the top and questions around, will that continue afterwards? And what's the right balance as you look at your omnichannel model.

Conor Begley: I think a mistake that you're seeing a lot of the tech companies go through right now, which is, and you've seen it with Google and Facebook and these others, where they're going through layoffs. But I think the reality is that they went through very large hiring sprees during the pandemic. They hired like this e- com trend was going to continue at the pace that it did and it didn't. And so yes, they laid off 10,000, but they also hired 70,000. So it was just so tough to predict. I'm actually curious then, so you went through this, where it kind of this balanced digital physical retail model, then it's, everything has to be digital, and now it's like, oh wait, let's get back to this more kind of balanced model. How did those two interact in the best way possible, this digital world and this physical world? Because people are going into the store and using their phone to look up products while they're in the store or they're watching a TikTok video at home that inspires them to go and shop. How do you think about that kind of omnichannel experience in its most effective form?

Winnie Park: Well, I think that the old definition of omnichannel with simple things like buy online and pick up in store. It was how can we make it super convenient, honestly to be competitive with a customer first organizations like Amazon that could deliver like that. And I think the definition has really evolved. And for me, omnichannel has always been around the customer and meeting them where they are. So the brilliance of Amazon is actually, when you boil it down, it comes down to convenience, that's really what they offer. And it's convenience to search. It's convenience of getting the product quickly, et cetera. And time is one of those big enemies of any customer. I would say that what we have evolved to from that point to where we are today from a omnichannel perspective is it's not just time, it's about relevance. And here is where I think we need to lean in to really meet customers where they are. Why is TikTok such an effective vehicle for getting people to engage with the brand or product? Because you are actually meeting them where they are. TikTok is a form of entertainment. There was a recent study that said that it's the first time that, honestly, that everything shifted in terms of content, what we consume and what is actually created not by big media companies, but by individuals, inaudible more and more of our mind space because it's a form of entertainment. And so meeting a customer where they are is, how do you entertain them? How do you entertain them via social media and TikTok? How do you become part of the Metaverse? Our youngest customers are on Roblox, and Forever 21 made a conscious effort to actually be a part of Roblox. We don't actually monetize are engagements there, but we get to be part of Shop City and engage with them where they are. Now, that engagement and that form of entertainment via this device, then how do you connect the dots back to, what they want to engage with you on both online and in stores? How do you make that journey as seamless as possible? With Rihanna in the Super Bowl, I'm seeing red everywhere. Well, if that's the case, and then on TikTok, a lot of craters are talking about the color red, and then how do you actually ensure that that's what shows up in app, what shows up online? How do you make sure that the experience in store prioritizes that? So that kind of 360 experience in meeting customers where they are, that's how Omnichannel has changed, I believe. And I think, it's so interesting because in the old days it was inconvenient to drive to the store, and today we see it as a small luxury. So for me, I look at our stores and our footprints as, how do we engage, not just how do we exchange or have a place where we just do commerce, I exchange these goods for your cash. I'd much rather they walk in and spend time and dwell. And for us, we are trying to evolve ourselves from being a pure retailer to an actual brand. And the brand lifestyle that we're about is for fashion fanatics, and they don't see fashion as just something you put on, it's actually a form of self- expression. So how to create that experience both in store, in app and online, so that we're really showing how people use fashion to self- express. I always call it the yellow thread because our color is yellow, but how do you weave that yellow thread between social, app, online, all the way through to stores, and make it authentic and meet customers where they are instead of shoving content down their face.

Conor Begley: That sounds like a difficult problem, because again, like you said, historically, you had a lot more time to plan in retail, you planned seasons out. And now it's like, " Well, everything in the store has to be red." Not that that's what you're doing, but that's how fast you have to operate.

Winnie Park: Absolutely. It is instantaneous. And for me, I think that's part of what's so fun about this. Honestly, it's great to be with Forever 21 because we're still super fast at how we deliver fashion, and so trend is critically important. So I would say the superpower for anyone at Forever 21 should be, lean into cultural zeitgeist and trend. And today it's not just something that walks down the runway, it can be music, it can be art, it can be film, it could be honestly the Super Bowl. And how do you lean into that cultural zeitgeist and what's happening? It's great for anyone who is interested in almost being an ethnographer and really understood culture.

Conor Begley: Yeah, we interviewed the CEO of an agency called Movers + Shakers, they're the fastest growing agency in the country according to Adweek. And they very much focus on TikTok, and they're 150 people now, I think. I think he said they had, I think it was 12 or 15 people that were literally basically cultural ethnographers. They were there to study culture, know what was happening today. It was literally their job to just be on TikTok, be on these channels to know what was happening.

Winnie Park: And you know what, I think... This is where I really lean on my daughter, because, truthfully, she has more time than me and-

Conor Begley: Yeah-

Winnie Park: She's never known anything more than social, honestly and she's known nothing more than this device. The phone has been her best friend from the time she was very young, so be it Snapchat, she is on Twitter just a tiny little bit, Facebook is just not relevant for her, but man, TikTok has gone from being a source of entertainment to honestly, now we're making food off of TikTok and they don't really share a recipe, but we try. But there's something to that notion of the youngest generation, they have lived in a social universe and that is where culture's happening for them and where they express. And so I have a lot of respect for the fact that this company has decided we need to be on there and we need cultural ethnographers really capturing what's happening. I was just remarking to someone, I said, " In the old days with market research, you needed the sample size that was big enough and statistically relevant." Today, I think the segment of one is really relevant. Because of social media, everyone's kind of onto the same things. So if you have your segment of one and you can lean in on your kid and say, " Hey, what are you watching? What's happening?" It works. It totally-

Conor Begley: Totally, totally. Well, let's talk about social. I have one more question about retail, but let's talk about social while we're on that topic. So I think when we look at our rankings in terms of fast fashion, influencers are dominating the category. And I know you guys are more than just fast fashion, but I'm kind of putting you in that bucket for a minute. I mean, if you look at Fashion Nova, Shein, Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing, as well as, I mean I think even H& M and Zara have really stepped up their game in the last couple of years. I mean these are brands that are outperforming Nike in terms of coverage. So what is the plan to accelerate influencers, creators as part of the core growth for Forever 21?

Winnie Park: That I would argue is the beginning of the end of what great marketing looks like for us. And when I joined, we launched a concerted strategy around influencers that basically, for me, anything we do, number one, we need to tap influencers who are authentically part of the brand. They love the brand, they get the brand. And it's not about pay per your performance, it's really around do we have a genuine connection, because I think that's what shines. The second piece is, let's have a pantheon of influencers at multiple levels, micro all the way up to the biggest names. And again, they need to authentically connect to what story we want to engage on. It's not just stuff, we're not just trying to sell stuff. For instance, we're launching our festival collection and we're always a resource for, what are you going to wear on Friday night when you go out, what are you going to wear when you go to Lollapalooza? We are that resource. And so festival has always been part of our offering, but now we're calling it out and we're going to activate festival with influencers on multiple levels, folks who are in music, folks who actually run festivals all the way through to just culturally relevant moments like Y2K and tapping an influencer who for us feels both retro and forward- looking Gen Z and blends the two on the Y2K front. But we want to really honestly engage and co- create with our influencers, not just pay to have them sit in front of the camera with us or to do something on social. So that becomes the harder part of this is, number one, figuring out who we want to tap and then secondly, how do we co- create, go that next step. Now, the piece that I really love is that, again, I'm going to go back to the Metaverse and co- creation, we entered that as really just a way for us to engage with young customers and be where they are already and where they're engaging. But it is amazing the creativity and the creations that come out of Shop City. And we had a creator create a Forever beanie that has sold a million units in the Metaverse, and we decided if it's selling a million units, maybe people want a twin with it, let's offer the in real life version of it, which we just launched.

Conor Begley: That is fascinating. I love that.

Winnie Park: Isn't that fascinating? And we have a group of creators who are like, " Let's personalize the Forever beanie and create our own version of the beanie that goes with our avatars." And I was just looking at some of the creations, it's amazing. And for me that becomes true influence, is how do you do something truly together as opposed to, it's... My daughter will be the first to tell me, " That's a sponsored ad. That person got a sponsor."

Conor Begley: You can tell.

Winnie Park: Yeah, and it's just genuine, it's not authentic. So that becomes the step that's a little harder is, how do you make it genuine and authentic, and how do you really create something together?

Conor Begley: Well, I think that's what actually encourages people to participate as well, when they feel seen or heard. It's like, " Oh wow, I created this beanie on Roblox, now they're launching it." And it's like, " Holy shit, I affected the world. I made a change. And they heard me and they saw me." And I think it's just such a special experience and it builds on itself.

Winnie Park: Exactly, a million people have bought this beanie in the Metaverse. I mean, that is crazy. It's like, well then we should create it. We should make the real life version. That's the funnest part of what's next, I think in terms of creators is in the'90s and the 2000s brands could tell you how to look and feel. And you said something really critical, Conor, you said it's about being seen. And I do think that more than ever, and especially with Gen Z, they want to be seen and heard, and that is where the world is headed. And again, going back to Forever 21, we see ourselves as being that place where you get to self- express. We don't tell you what you are or how to look, but we give you all the tools to self- express. And I would say that again, with my daughter in her generation, she wakes up Y2K fashion, she might have a goth moment in the middle of the day, and then at the end of the day, she might go full on country, but that's so refreshing, she's not going to have a brand tell her, you need to look this way, which I think is kind of remarkable.

Conor Begley: Yeah, no, it's fascinating. We're right by a middle school. We share a fence with a middle school, and so I see pre- teens frequently, or early teens, and I'm like, " I mean, I guess I don't get it anymore. I am clearly not part of this tribe. I am not part of this group."

Winnie Park: And you know what? They're a tribe of one, and they're proud of it. Because I would say when I grew up you would see kids who kind of dressed alike and there were all these cliques. And today they're like, " Yeah, I'm vibing on purple, so it's going to be head to toe, including my hair." And that's great, and tomorrow it might be green.

Conor Begley: I want to go back to retail just for a second and then we'll be done with retail after that because I think that you are just such a wealth of knowledge there. Thinking outside of the omnichannel, digital integration co- creation process, just nuts and bolts, running a hundred stores, a thousand stores, what does it take to run those? What are the core... Because I just don't know, I've never run that and I'm really curious because you have. What do you think are the keys to actually doing that really, really well, and we'll say in a relatively stable environment, assuming we're not in the middle of the pandemic?

Winnie Park: In every organization that I've been with, I would say I'm a firm believer in inverting the pyramid where the CO is not at the top, the customer's at the top and the CO's at the bottom. Anyone closest to the customer is closer to our boss, which is the customer.

Conor Begley: There's the Walmart quote where he says, " There's only one boss and it's a customer and he can fire everybody from the CEO on down."

Winnie Park: Absolutely, that is the truest thing. And with that, if you invert the pyramid, your store and your fleet and your associates are closer to the boss than you are. And so I think the first principle of retail is, number one, is really listen to the associates. They are closer to what's happening. They understand for us, getting product feedback from the associates in terms of, what are customers looking at? What feedback are they giving you, even from fit, to styling, et cetera, what do they need more of? Getting that feedback and listening in a very concerted way as to how you can react is very important. The second piece of that is, make sure you make life easy for them. I started my life in retail as a sales associate on the floor at Banana Republic on Nassau Street, which was one of two retailers for apparel at Princeton. And I was still in college, and I was in there all the time because I'm a fashion nut. And the manager said to me, " Do you want to come work here? I'll give you a discount." I was like, "Yeah, let's do that." But I was scared to death, Conor, my first day of work. And I was like, " Oh my gosh, people are asking me for things. I have to know the product." And I almost felt like an actor on the stage, I was a representative of this brand. And they put me in the front as a greeter, I remember, and thinking, " Oh gosh, how do I make my greeting compelling?" But all an associate is asked to do, which is interact with the customer, serve the customer, make sure there's product on the floor, clean up dressing rooms, ring, do inventory in the back, there's a lot. And so for me it is the best retailers understand what the associates need and how do you make life easy for them because their most critical job is actually engaging with the customer. And if you can't make that easy, then you have failed. The other piece around retail that I think is critically important is connectivity at all levels. So for us, because we're a fashion trend brand, we need to deliver relevant fashion trends every two weeks, which means that we need to change out product and the way we look and feel every two weeks. Online, it's easy. It's much more dynamic. Offline, you have got to physically move product from place to place. You've got to dress mannequins, you've got to do all sorts of things. And so that communication up and down and really, really good guidance from corporate back to the stores is critical. And so I always say retail is like playing a team sport, it is probably one of the biggest team sports. And I keep telling my teams, this is not a relay race where you get to pass off the baton. We're actually all in it together. Think of football. We are on the field together and every player on the field has a role. And communication with those players as they're running a play, critical. And so for me, that becomes the keys to the kingdom in terms of really, really good execution. Know who's boss, the customer, make sure the associates, make sure their lives are easy and their jobs are easy as possible, and make sure that the communication flows up and down. And be in service of the field and the fleet.

Conor Begley: I love that, and I think... I mean, you inaudible get down to just simple things, how much product should there be of each type of product every two weeks? How do you predict demand in a world that's as dynamic as the one we live in today from a social media and other perspective?

Winnie Park: And that is one of the tougher parts of retail is the predictability of demand because the inventory then that gets caught, in our case, in 420 plus locations. And so there's so much more science, I should say, to what we do today than there ever was in the past.

Conor Begley: I want to kind of transition to leadership a little bit, and I think one of the phenomenons, I think you're in a particularly interesting position to kind of comment on, this phenomenon of the glass cliff, which at least the way it's described is that organizations that are struggling are much more likely to hire women into CEO positions. And what this does functionally is it makes it much more difficult on women because it's much harder to take a company that's having a tough time and turn it around than it is to have a company and keep it going. And I think particularly given what you've gone through the last couple of years, there's been disruptions, there's bankruptcies or worries about bankruptcies, all this kind of stuff. I'd love to hear your perspective on that. And then I think secondarily, I know that you take mentorship pretty seriously, and supporting other women pretty seriously, so what do you think are the ways that we can help get more women into these leadership roles?

Winnie Park: Yes. So Conor, I've never heard of the glass cliff, and so I really appreciate you bringing that to my attention and the phenomenon. And I would say that there is believability to it from one perspective, which is I think women CEOs make great candidates for leaders in tough times because I think they are incredibly resilient and patient. I also think they're willing to take risks. And when you flip the paradigm and actually say, let's get a woman in there because she's the only one who will take the job, is one way to look at the situation. The other way to look at the situation is, you know what, the one who's raising their hand to say let me do this, is the woman. Because there is greater, I would say, reserves of resilience, grit, patience and risk taking. Maybe the other gender is less likely to take those types of risks. That's the way that you might want to flip the paradigm and think about it. My personal experience as I walked into my first CO role for a company that was flying and the pandemic really had a major hit on us and we had to make the decision along with our private equity backers as well as our creditors to file for Chapter 11 protection. And that was a concerted decision to ensure that the brand would survive and to restructure the debt that often comes with private equity. But it was interesting because I was not in a position of taking a turnaround, I was in a position of pandemic and then having to find a path forward. And I would say that that happened to my gender as well as the other gender during that period, and it wasn't easy. But it is interesting because that's not the situation I found myself in, but I can see how women would rise to the occasion of, I'm going to take the risk, I'm going to take this turnaround and I think I can make it happen. So secondarily on the question of mentoring, I have been so lucky and I've been blessed to have had great mentors who are both female and male. And I think the key to mentorship is actually to be open to it. And good mentorship in my past has been telling me the stuff I don't want to hear. There was a point in my career where I really valued being perfect, I thought that was my way to be successful, and I really didn't want to look like anything but perfect. And for my mentor to tell me, here's some things you may want to work on, including you're always perfect, and thus your colleagues who are at the same level of you, the president, the stores, your visions, don't actually want to work with you. You don't show your humanity, your weakness, your vulnerability, and sometimes those things, and just the simple act of saying, I don't know, I need help, makes people rush in and want to make you successful. And so I've gotten really tough advice, but at first I resisted it to be honest because I'm like, " Oh no, I'm perfect." And then I was like, " inaudible perfect, this is so silly. Why am I holding onto this for dear life?" He's telling me I can be successful and be imperfect, that should free me. And then I really started leaning into it and asking for feedback all the time. But real good mentors hit you at the gut and you have to be ready for that. They're not there to be your cheer squad and tell you how great you are. And so I would say signing up to be mentored, you have to really get vulnerable and be open to that, if it's going to be of value to you. And I would say seeking mentorship is finding people that you find are, sometimes it's someone you look up to. Oftentimes for me it's someone that not only do I look up to, but I know will give me sound advice and be objective. And it's not part of the cheer squad, but as part of the, here's some things you need to work on and able to really provide great feedback. For me, on the flip side, mentoring is critical to, I would say, my kind of leadership platform. And my mantra with my teams is, I really don't need another manager in the house, I need leaders. We need heat seeking missiles, I don't need to program longitude and latitude for great people, they should be seeking the heat and going after things. So how do we develop that? How do we develop that skill? Great mentorship. And like I said, oftentimes you get great training at work by doing the job on the job. You go from the, I'm being rewarded for what I can do to what I know. It's the who you are that needs the greatest mentorship. It's the softer skills, it's the leadership skills, which is cultivating followership, being compelling, the art of influence, but also letting go and letting go means not only do you drive accountability, accountability on the flip side is did that work? How'd you do? Did we make the numbers? What's the learning there? How are we going to course correct? And it's the coach/ player relationship that's so critical.

Conor Begley: And letting them make mistakes, like you said. So being like, " Mm, probably not how I would do it, but that's okay, do it." And maybe either they'll be right, which is great, they're on the ground, they're looking at it day to day or they'll be wrong and they learn from it, but they know that they have your trust to try things that maybe wouldn't be the way that you do.

Winnie Park: Yes. My motto is, fail fast. Let's try it, let's fail fast and I'm also all about test and learn. So the tech industry does have that down, is this whole agile development, test and learn, test and learn. And so when you do fail, you don't do it at scale, But you do it in a way in which you're like, let's course correct, and then let's scale it to the next level. Mentorship is not easy. Honestly, leading and mentoring and coaching is my full- time job.

Conor Begley: Yeah. It's funny because I think at a personal level, I think I still haven't gotten to the point as an individual where that's actually where I get satisfaction, it's weird. I should, and I feel like I'm supposed to, but I still get a lot of satisfaction in the doing. Maybe I'll never be cut out for it, I don't know.

Winnie Park: No, that is a hard transition, Conor. I think it's a hard one for all of us, especially if you have succeeded in your career and you're good at something, then doing feels good. It feels really good. And so that's the other thing is you have to be kind of selfless and let go.

Conor Begley: Well, you have to get satisfaction from others' accomplishments, right?

Winnie Park: Well, you know what? When I first joined a board, that was the ultimate test because I was the sitting CEO when I joined the Express board, and I found the first meeting, I was literally sitting on my hands. I'm like, " Winnie, you are not an executive at this company. You're not part of the management team. You are not to tell them what to do or how to do it on that front." You are actually... Your boss are the shareholders. And so that mental switch... And I have a hard time, at my Dollar Street board meetings, there's nothing I love more than to talk about merchandising and operations and ask questions. And it's like, " Nope, pull back." Because the doing is fun, Conor, it is fun. That's that's why I love retail. I'm like, " Oh, let's talk about that." And I'm like, " No, Winnie, go back here."

Conor Begley: Yeah, I've gotten to be on the boards of our own companies, but I think the only independent role I had, maybe the first one I had was with Nest. It just sold for a couple hundred billion, which is great, the candles. So you mentioned candles, couldn't smell them during the pandemic. And it's a very different position to be in. So let's do one more question and then we'll do a fun end of show question. So you mentioned private equity there, and I think that's a part of the business that I think a lot of people don't have visibility into, which is that almost all of these companies of any size and scale have significant shareholders that are not involved in the business every day, whether it's private equity shareholders or it's public shareholders, but you have this other class of people that just don't get talked about a lot. And I think in the case of Forever 21, that's the SPARC Group, which again is another group that I don't think most people know about. I mean, every iconic brand of my youth, it's like Aeropostale, Reebok, Lucky Brand, you guys, dozens of others. What is their kind of thesis, because I think it's quite an interesting and unique approach. Yeah, talk to me about that then. How do you kind of interact with them?

Winnie Park: SPARC is a really interesting model. So SPARC's a private company and it's jointly owned by Jamie Salter of Authentic Brands Group, which it is a private company that has PE investors, as well as Simon Property Group and David Simon specifically who is the CEO and chair of the public company. And so SPARC is effectively just a private company that's independent. And the thesis behind SPARC is that while Authentic Brands owns the IP for all of the brands within SPARC, that SPARC actually operates the retail and the customer facing direct to consumer aspect as well as the wholesale operations of these brands. Honestly, it means in practice that we're all stewards of these brands. And that within SPARC, the way that I view SPARC is a little bit like my old company, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Group, okay? The single company entity is LVMH, but it's a portfolio of lots of different brands from Louis Vuitton to Celine to honestly, they own so many brands, Tiffany-

Conor Begley: Dior, Benefit-

Winnie Park: Dior.

Conor Begley: ...Sephora.

Winnie Park: You got it, you got it. So it's not so different from that in terms of how those brands interact with one another. At SPARC, there's a concerted effort to really leverage centers of excellence. So we have a center of excellence when it comes to technology to leverage best practices when it comes to things like digital marketing. And then beyond that, really it is the brand CEOs driving the individual mandates of the brands, because Forever 21 is one of those brands, Brooks Brothers is another. We're quite different. We serve very different customers and very different lifestyles. And so the brand CEOs really are the ultimate stewards of how that brand interacts with its customers, both in stores as well as online, and if there's a wholesale component, the wholesale piece as well. And then SPARC is kind of the way that creates this synergy between the brands, any synergy that can be shared, any best practice that can be shared. And it's the first time that I've been able to be part of something where... Because LVMH, each of those brands actually runs quite separately. SPARC actually, we do meet once a week as brand CEOs. And what's nice about that is you actually have a group of colleagues where you get to compare notes, Aeropostale, how was traffic, what are you seeing in terms of trend? What type of leverage could we get out of sharing a common CRM platform? So those are the types of things that we're able to share, which has been actually really nice. It's the first time I've had that because when I was with Paper Source, I had amazing private equity backers, but it was me and I didn't quite have that community that SPARC can offer.

Conor Begley: I mean, it's got to be a lot of shared learnings across those brands, because in a lot of ways you're going through I think, consistent experiences, right? Because a lot of these brands are brands that were once very prominent and now are going through a resurgence, And so that is a unique shared experience that you guys can all talk about.

Winnie Park: Absolutely. I also think the wild ride of retail is one that it's nice to have friends and companions and compadres. Like I said, during the pandemic, just having this group of CEOs that I got to talk to on a weekly basis was amazing. And they were public company CEOs, they were private, they were small, they were big, they were in multiple different types of retail sectors, just having them was huge. And so I always say that's one of the biggest benefits of being part of SPARC.

Conor Begley: Well, let's do one fun end to show question, because I think I've already used up all of my time. So you talked about not this image of perfection, not showing a lot of weaknesses. I'm curious, if you had a weakness for one type of food, what would it be? What's the thing that's hard? For me, I'd say warm chocolate chip cookies with a scoop of ice cream. I mean, that's the pinnacle for me.

Winnie Park: It's hard for me to choose one food, Conor, I'm inaudible. It is difficult. I grew up in the southeast in Tennessee, I'm inaudible Southern, and I'm Korean, so I love everything Korean. Now I live in the Midwest, which is the home of deep dish pizza, and I never met a pizza I didn't like. It's really hard for me to choose a food. But I have to say, I literally sometimes just sit and fantasize about ice cream, which is weird. But I love ice cream. I love eating it. I love how it's cold in my mouth. I think it's the perfect concentration of flavor, especially something like Jeni's Ice Cream, with really fresh ingredients. I'll never deny you a... Häagen- Dazs, forget about it. That is it. And it makes me happy, it makes me happy thinking about it, thus I cannot really have it around. I love it.

Conor Begley: So I've got a great ice cream story. So my wife's mother also loves ice cream, she's got a sweet tooth. And she's in very good shape, she runs marathons all the time, she's done an Iron Man, an overly healthy person. So one day when we were first started dating, we went to get some ice cream out of the fridge and it was chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. And I opened it up and I'm like, " What's going on?" It was all peeled, it was rolled up and it was only vanilla. And she had gone through and eaten every piece of cookie dough.

Winnie Park: Oh my gosh, that's just wrong.

Conor Begley: So wrong.

Winnie Park: And put it back, that is just wrong.

Conor Begley: And then put it back.

Winnie Park: That's bad ice cream etiquette.

Conor Begley: Terrible ice cream etiquette.

Winnie Park: That's bad ice cream etiquette.

Conor Begley: Too funny. Well, I really appreciate you taking out the time, Winnie. This was awesome, and-

Winnie Park: You're so much fun to talk to, Conor. I really enjoyed it. You're the best.

Speaker 2: Be a friend, tell a friend and subscribe. Earned by CreatorIQ, CreatorIQ is your all- in- one solution to grow, manage, scale, and measure Your influencer marketing program. Ready to unlock the power of the creator economy, get started with a demo today at creatoriq. com.


In our 70th episode of Earned, we sit down with Winnie Park, CEO of Gen Z retailer Forever 21. We start by discussing the resurgence of retail and in-store shopping, and how the industry has changed since the start of the pandemic. Winnie unpacks the evolution of Forever 21’s omnichannel strategy, and emphasizes the importance of meeting the customer where they’re at. We dive into the retailer’s approach to influencer marketing, and Winnie shares why Forever 21 prioritizes co-creation. Conor asks Winnie what it takes to run hundreds of physical retail locations, and Winnie explains why store associates are crucial because they’re closest to the boss—the customer. Next, we hear Winnie’s perspective on the “Glass Cliff” phenomenon, and she shares why she believes women make some of the best CEOs, particularly in tough times. To close the show, Winnie reveals her greatest learnings from her mentors, and why she now loves mentoring other professionals, before sharing the advantages of being part of the SPARC Group community.

In this episode, you will learn:

  1. How the retail industry has evolved and bounced back since the start of the pandemic
  2. The importance of a balanced omnichannel strategy and meeting the customer where they're at
  3. Why women make some of the best CEOs in tough times

Key Takeaways

[01:08] The resurgence of retail and in-store shopping

[09:43] The evolution of Forever 21's omnichannel strategy

[17:34] Forever 21’s approach to influencer marketing

[23:40] The keys to successfully running physical retail locations

[27:49] Winnie's perspective on the "Glass Cliff" phenomenon


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