The latest conversation in the MIT Leadership Center’s iLead speaker series featured Ruth Sommers, SF ’01, the COO of online specialty jewelry retailer Blue Nile. In her Feb. 15 talk, Sommers offered four leadership lessons from more than 25 years as an executive in the retail industry.
Keep an open mind. Sommers described her career in retail as an “incredible journey,” but it’s a career that began almost by accident — she had an interview for an accounting job the same day as the interview for her first retail job.
Years later, she was leading product sourcing and development for Victoria’s Secret (part of L Brands) and working in Andover, Massachusetts. Her boss wanted her to go to Hong Kong, and what was supposed to be a six month assignment turned into five years in Asia, complete with a stint in Sri Lanka managing Victoria’s Secret’s joint ventures in that country.
“Agreeing to go to Hong Kong changed my whole view of life,” Sommers said. “Being open to things you might not have put in your roadmap ... is a key to a successful career, and a successful life.” This openness can trigger curiosity about people and experiences you otherwise would know nothing about, she added.
Match people to roles that complement their strengths. After her time in Asia, Sommers returned to Massachusetts as an MIT Sloan Fellow. After completing the program, she took the helm at Victoria’s Secret Direct. At the time, it was losing money, but the company was soon profitable.
“That was the best cross-functional team I ever worked on. We all understood what it took,” she said. “It was one of those great case studies where the product, the supply chain, marketing, and execution all played a huge role. The amount of time and energy and expertise hired was mind-boggling.”
For Sommers, building an effective team means determining people’s strengths and placing them in roles that complement those strengths. It also means aligning their personal development plans for what the company plans are for that employee — and not beating around the bush if an employee is not the right fit. “People are smart. They’ll figure it out. Take care of it quickly,” Sommers said.
'Cultivate resilience.' Following Victoria’s Secret Direct, Sommers left L Brands and returned to Asia to manage Ann Taylor’s overseas offices. After 14 months, she returned to the United States to become the chief sourcing and production officer at American Eagle Outfitters.
Shortly afterward, her husband became ill and died suddenly. “I was in a position I had never signed up for — being a single mom [of two daughters], being a widow,” Sommers said. “But I had to go on. I had to continue.”
Sommers said she learned a critical lesson during this time of adversity: “Cultivate resilience in your life, for your own family, yourself, and everyone around you,” she said. “The single biggest thing is to focus on yourself and prioritize things that matter to you. When you identify what self-care means for you … you can realize that you’re in a moment in time, that this shall pass.”
Get the right job, not the top job. After American Eagle, Sommers co-founded NOI Solutions, which focused on helping specialty retailers develop production in Asia. Sommers walked away in part because she and her business partner had different opinions on how to grow the company — and because, amid all the work it takes to start a company, she lost sight of what she liked.
“I’m not a startup person. I like something juicy to jump into,” she said. “If startups aren’t for you, don’t do that. There’s plenty of great stuff to do out there.”
Along those lines, Sommers’ next role was not as a CEO but as COO for jewelry retailer David Yurman. She had been intent on a CEO role for quite some time, but she realized the COO role — which encompasses business lines ranging from product development to IT to fulfillment — is a better fit for her: “I love to do a lot of things. I enjoy that variability.”