…I think being humble and supportive are extremely undervalued qualities in executive roles. So much of the work involves collaborating and inspiring team members, and nobody performs well for sustained periods of time if they are led by fear or excessive pressure. It might be a recipe for success in the short term, but I don’t think it works for anyone in the long term.
As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julia Hunter, the CEO of Jenni Kayne. Julia has been with the company since 2014. Under her leadership, the brand’s focus has shifted to building what Forbes recently called “The Ultimate California Lifestyle Brand.” Staying true to Jenni’s signature west coast inspired style and leveraging the company’’s elevated branded digital content, Julia added a number of new product categories including home, baby and handbags and directed the company’s emphasis toward digital as well as its own branded product. She worked to refine the overall product strategy to focus on well-designed pieces across categories that are cohesive and relevant season after season, a Jenni Kayne uniform for a woman’s home and wardrobe. The company operates six retail stores based in California and New York and launched a new e-commerce and content experience on jennikayne.com in 2018. The company’s revenue is projected to more than double in 2019 and 95% of its sales are from direct channels. Prior to joining Jenni Kayne, Julia managed business and product strategy at a number of leading retail and fashion companies including J. Crew, Louis Vuitton, Elizabeth & James and Loeffler Randall. Julia began her career as a M&A technology investment banking analyst in San Francisco after graduating from UC San Diego with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for The Walking Company and Girls, Inc. Los Angeles and is a member of the Hollywood chapter of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my career in investment banking as a M&A analyst on the sell-side doing tech deals in San Francisco. I came from a family of academics (only person in my nuclear family without a PhD!) but had always been more interested in business. After studying economics at UCSD and then working in finance for a couple years after college, I realized I loved using the analytical and strategic thinking tools I had developed, but wanted to get into the consumer goods industry to focus on products that felt more relevant to my life. I made a big leap of faith and walked away from a major paycheck at 23, moving to New York and jumping into fashion with no concrete plan. I started working at a smaller leather goods brand called Loeffler Randall who had just won the CFDA and was experiencing a lot of growth. I was helping with any analytical project I could think of to better manage the business. From there, I started building my skill-set in retail, working at J. Crew and Elizabeth & James as well as consulting for a number of brands in NYC, but then moved back to LA for Jenni Kayne about 5 years ago and have been working to grow the company ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I had a fairly rocky start at the beginning of my time at Jenni Kayne. I was initially hired into a less senior position and had quite a bit of tension with executives running the company at the time. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on the opportunity for the company and the culture was very complicated, so I was on the verge of losing my job or quitting the company in my first six months. It was such an important lesson for me on taking ownership and strategic communication. I used to sit on the sidelines rather than speaking up and would then complain about people making what I perceived to be bad decisions. I learned through that experience that being a leader is about building a clear vision and path for your team and then collaborating together on its execution.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?
I love thinking big picture and connecting dots across teams, products and functions. It’s fun collaborating with different departments to develop a larger strategy with milestones and goals to achieve it, and then tracking and reacting to performance results as we execute. I also love having a different day every day, and I enjoy using different parts of my brain to think about product, analyze our financials or touch base with team members.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Being accountable for a number of different and sometimes competing priorities — like growing revenue and acquiring customers while maintaining a focus on profitability and cash flow. I don’t think any other position requires paying attention to and accountability for that many disparate areas.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
Probably my favorite aspect of my job is having the chance to watch our amazing team members take on new responsibilities and grow professionally and as leaders. We have an amazing group of (mostly!) women on our team and it’s so rewarding to see everything they have taken on and accomplished both individually and as a team.
What are the downsides of being a CEO?
It can be a bit lonely since there aren’t necessarily peers within the organization once you reach the executive level, so it’s harder to feel like there are people to vent to after a hard day. It’s also sometimes difficult to manage competing priorities or teams within the company — I like tackling that part of the job most of the time, but some issues take longer to address than you’d like and there isn’t always a right answer that works for all parties.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO. Can you explain what you mean?
I actually think a lot of the myths about being an executive are true — it’s easy to start to think your opinion is more valid as you become more senior. Power is complicated and I think executives tend to crave more as they gain it. You have to check yourself as your seniority increases to make sure you’re aware of your own blind spots and that you’re treating team members the way you would want to be treated. I try to stay on top of myself in those areas but pressure and stress certainly make it harder to self-manage for patience and kindness.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think men often more easily trust other men as leaders and decision makers than they do women, which perpetuates the problem of women not being equally represented at senior levels. It’s natural for people to be more comfortable working with people they are similar to, but I think it’s really important to fight against that urge and question it when it comes to hiring, especially at executive levels. We still have work to do in this regard at Jenni Kayne, but I think especially true in male dominated industries.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I expected that by this point I would be a more buttoned up, serious and professional version of myself than I was when I started my career. In some ways I am, but in a lot of ways I’m actually more casual and relaxed at work than I was when I was younger. I have gotten more comfortable knowing my own strengths and leading the team, and I’m also more personally committed outside of work with a baby and other responsibilities, so making time for being polished falls lower on the priority list than I thought it would when I got to this level.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
I think being humble and supportive are extremely undervalued qualities in executive roles. So much of the work involves collaborating and inspiring team members, and nobody performs well for sustained periods of time if they are led by fear or excessive pressure. It might be a recipe for success in the short term, but I don’t think it works for anyone in the long term.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Believe in yourself, and build allies by authentically advocating for other women you respect, whether they’re peers or team members who report into you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Chris Tate is one of my heroes and has been the kindest, most supportive and strategically helpful person that I’ve worked with in the industry. We have known each other for several years now and we actually only met by connecting on LinkedIn. Chris didn’t have anything to gain by spending time sharing his experience and advice with me, but he’s been a champion for me over the years and I’m so grateful to him for that. I think he’s brilliant and kind, and the type of leader I want to be.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
So far I think I have had an impact in small ways. I have made it a point to seriously consider compensation for everyone on our team, and despite the fact that our company is still relatively small, I believe we pay every team member well for their position regardless of level and I plan to continue to do that as we grow. I also try to mentor younger women on their careers and encourage them to be ambitious about taking on more responsibility as they grow in their roles. In the longer term, I really hope I can spend more of my time giving back in a more meaningful way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would want men who are fathers to have the experience of being the primary caregiver for their children during the workday all day every day for 3 to 6 months. I know there are men who do this already, but I think it would only benefit society and elevate the role of women in the world if everyone truly understood the challenges of being a working mom. Would love to see more men playing a larger role at home, since I think that would go a long way toward equalizing the professional playing field.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” When I feel overwhelmed or inadequate, it always helps to remind myself that every day is part of the path. I used to view my career as this “there,” where I was going to feel accomplished and successful one day down the road, but now I understand that feeling good along the way is the only thing that matters and it’s the only thing that’s real.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Warren Buffett seems to have the best head on his shoulders — I would love to sit down and learn all about how he thinks about life, from career to family to all his causes. He has such strong values and seems to act with integrity and kindness.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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About the author:
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrust Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com