That COVID would accelerate e-commerce adoption 10 years in the span of just a few months. Everything we had been telling our seller community and building our platform for suddenly just…happened. The circumstances were not those anyone would have wanted, but our complete readiness for this shift to e-commerce has been a bright point in a complicated year.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cristina Miller. Cristina is the Chief Commercial Officer at 1stDibs, a global marketplace connecting buyers who are passionate about design and fine art with dealers who sell these rare and desirable items. In this role, Cristina oversees supply-related initiatives, such as new category growth, and leads seller-facing functions, including sales, account management and support for the company’s 2,500 dealers in the Americas.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My parents raised me with an intense appreciation for education, the arts, and entrepreneurship. I grew up in D.C. surrounded by people working in policy and politics, including my dad, who is an economist. My mom immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua and is an entrepreneur and an artist; she has started several small businesses, including a non-profit called the Latino Student Fund, which is now a national scholarship organization for Latinx students. I’ve combined influences from both of my parents throughout my career to align with companies that engage and support sellers and entrepreneurs, particularly those that help small businesses transition to the Internet.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The transition of 1stDibs from an online listings platform to an eCommerce marketplace, which took place from about 2013 to 2016, was a forward-thinking business decision that involved an enormous communication effort with our seller and buyer communities. We saw that even the design industry would eventually shift to online — as has been the case with so many other industries — and the need to innovate and provide the best one-click purchasing experience for our customers was critical to growth and success for not only our business but also the thousands of businesses that our platform supports. But the transition required much education, especially on the seller side, as eCommerce was a very new way of doing business for many of our partners and not always their preferred channel (especially 5–6 years ago). We knew it was the right decision, even if we were a little ahead of the times; and now in 2020 — with quarantine forcing many businesses to close their shops and focus entirely on an eCommerce-based selling strategy — we feel fortunate to have a robust eCommerce platform that we’ve been refining for many years now. We are well-prepared for the large growth in demand we’re seeing today, and we’ve been able to support our seller community during these incredibly challenging times by equipping them with a trusted channel for conducting online business, and a large, global audience of buyers who are making online purchases at rates like never before.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The art and antiques industry has an intense learning curve. My background is in business and eCommerce. On my first day at 1stDibs, I was handed an art history textbook and was told that I would, “need to learn this.” How many companies give you an actual textbook — “required reading” — for your job? I had just had my first child, and I remember being at home, trying to stay awake at night with my baby in one arm and this textbook in the other to get up to speed. I felt like there was an expectation that I essentially earn an art history degree in three months. The truth is, I never made it through that whole book, but I did end up learning quite a bit of the material, thanks to my talented and knowledgeable co-workers and our amazing sellers, who still keep me up on my design knowledge today.
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?
David Rosenblatt, CEO of 1stDibs, is my current boss but also a longtime mentor. I was introduced to him by an ex-CEO of Etsy. We met for a coffee and discovered we had grown up blocks away from each other in Washington, D.C. and had a number of other things in common. Soon after, I joined a startup that David had co-founded, and while I was there, David accepted the CEO job at 1stDibs, which was a fairly obscure company at the time since it catered mostly to interior designers. I knew all about 1stDibs, though, and I loved it as a source for one-of-a-kind design items. I never imagined I would work there. David was really helpful to me in thinking through some other career situations over the years, and one day when we were catching up, we started discussing the possibility of me working at 1stDibs. He had assembled a really impressive team, and I was excited to join them. I was also eight months pregnant when I was formally offered the job, which I think says a lot about David and about 1stDibs.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Breathing techniques and mindfulness really help me stay focused and relieve stress. As a business leader, there are times when I have to explain tough decisions to partners, employees or other stakeholders. During the transition to an eCommerce business model, I spent hours meeting with our seller community in small groups across the U.S. and Europe and was constantly challenged by people who felt threatened by the change or disagreed with it. There was a lack of trust and a lot of anger at times. I firmly believed the changes were imperative for long term success, both for our business and for those of our partners, but that didn’t make those meetings easier. These breathing techniques really grounded me during that time and kept me going — the physiological changes that you can create just with breath are real, empowering and can help a person take back control of a difficult situation.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
There are so many reasons why diversity is critical for businesses, but to distill them into two key buckets: First, creating an equitable environment is the right thing to do from a human and moral perspective. Second, it’s been repeatedly proven that teams with more diverse representation achieve better business results. Point one is enough for me, but it also makes perfect sense that companies thrive when their employees have a safe, equitable and representative work environment. At 1stDibs, our executive team has gender and racial diversity, and we are interested in further diversifying our teams, especially to increase representation of BIPOC employees.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Education is a critical first step. I’m Latinx, and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer I became aware of gaps and assumptions in my own understanding of the experience of Black Americans and how that was showing up for me. I took some steps to get educated and I am still on that path — trainings, reading books and articles, listening to podcasts. I am trying to put into action what I have learned in order to foster anti-racist and inclusive spaces.
I think it’s important to challenge the status quo, no matter your age or experience level. It’s important to be proactive when you identify something that can be shifted or adjusted for the better. I found it really impactful when 1stDibs employees spoke up about diversity this past summer and suggested ways to create a more inclusive workspace. Employees formed anti-racism groups, support groups, informal communities, and they pushed the executive team and the business to do more and do better. And it was not always comfortable for many of the people and groups involved, including the executive team. But it moved us forward. We created and publicly committed to a five-part plan to increase diversity, equity and inclusion that ranges from anti-racism training for employees to financial donations to broadening our seller base to include more BIPOC businesses, to more intentionally elevating the works of historically under-represented artists and makers in our marketing.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think what everyone knows is that you have to be in charge of the operations of the business, but the other side of the coin is that you also have to constantly think about the bigger picture — the larger financial picture, threats and opportunities for the business, confidential matters and people topics Our executive team spends a great deal of time thinking about our biggest asset — our people. From there, we have to determine what should be conveyed to the larger team, and what should be insulated from them so they can focus on their day-to-day. This can be more challenging during difficult times, like the start of COVID-19. You have to be protective, and build the conditions in which your team can thrive.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is that we always know what to do! I think people would be surprised at some of the discussions that happen at the executive level. If something goes wrong or doesn’t go as planned, we immediately hear the question: why has the exec team not dealt with this? But we have to go through a process to get the right answers. It’s that process — including the team you’re on, and how you get to that answer, balancing all of the different stakeholder viewpoints — that gets at the heart of how the executive role operates.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Unconscious bias is the toughest one. It comes in many forms. It might be in a group setting, where men are trying to impress other men, and it’s harder for women to be heard. It’s when someone repeats your idea and makes it sound like it was theirs — it’s hard to tell if it was intentional, so it’s hard to call out. Or, maybe you were interrupted or passed over for your feedback — did the man (or woman) who did that realize it…? COVID has exacerbated a lot of the assumptions or biases that people have. Having control over how much to talk about or reveal about your family is something women have relied on to be seen as equals to men. Now, suddenly, a female executive’s kids are interrupting her on Zoom, and there are a lot of responses to that across the spectrum. I read recently that women have tended to work at the kitchen table during COVID, where they can pitch in with school or childcare, whereas men have more often worked in a separate office or room in the house.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I started at 1stDibs, I was incredibly excited about the opportunity, the industry, and the executive team. I knew the job would change and evolve over time, especially since the industry was transforming — a change we were leading as we facilitated the online transition of the antiques furniture business. What I anticipated going into the role, and how it actually played out, might be slightly different, but I always anticipated change and progress. This constant evolution is something I still love most about my job today. It’s what keeps things exciting.
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? Can you explain what you mean?
In my opinion, the traits that make a good executive include an ability to inspire and lead people, a big appetite to keep learning, a willingness to communicate (including hard conversations), and a healthy dose of humility. That’s the only way you’re able to learn from your mistakes, pivot your energy, and re-focus on the path. I also think resilience is really important. Some days and stretches of time are really, really hard, especially when you have to be so present at work when there are other things going in your life or the world. There have been times, like when my kids were little and not really sleeping, that I wasn’t sure I could make it out the door in the morning, but, of course, I just had to. The sense of responsibility to the business, my team, our partners — that has actually helped get me through hard times. The excitement and satisfaction of accomplishing a goal that a team of people has set out to tackle is electrifying to me. I am not sure that’s a necessity for everyone to be an executive, but it has certainly been helpful for me.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
My biggest piece of advice is to remember there are multiple ways to achieve anything. There isn’t just one right way. There are so many people to learn from, at various levels. Keep in mind that some days are going to be great, and some days are going to be hard. But take it day by day, and learn from your hard days. Again, communication and humility are key to learning and growing from your mistakes. Continue putting one foot in front of the other, and just keep moving forward.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It’s so important to me to pass it forward — to empower other people and support the communities that inspire us. I love that my role allows me to connect people with resources to grow their businesses, and provide exposure to audiences that are passionate about the same things they are. I try to live out my values with everyone in my life — my kids, at work — whether it’s through volunteering, mentoring, or supporting small businesses like the ones my mom started.
There are so many decisions we make in a day, both big and small. Each one is an opportunity to do better or to make a change. Maybe it’s buying food that is ethically sourced. Maybe it’s responding with empathy and thoughtfulness to a work challenge. Lately, for me, it’s how I’m answering my kids’ questions about hard topics like the election. No matter how high you climb the corporate ladder, it’s always important to respond to the little things with grace and kindness.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- That many of our seller partners would become so much a part of my life. They are a bit like an extended family, with all the great and less great things that come with that! Many have become friends, and I am grateful for these relationships. I wouldn’t have guessed that.
- Related to point one, that I would share my cell phone number with so many of our sellers! I thought it was important to be accessible, especially during the business model change, and I still do. I try to make sure I talk with sellers every week, personally. But, had I known I would do that, I might have gotten a “work” cell phone!
- That “Gio” in “Gio Ponti” is pronounced like “Joe”. It took me years to figure that out and I still cringe thinking about all the times I said, “Geeeeoh.”
- That the amazing 1stDibs team would get us through all these big business transitions successfully and we’d emerge as a better and stronger business and team afterwards. There were some stressful periods there! Though, I guess it was the challenge and the belief in the end goal that motivated us so much.
- That COVID would accelerate e-commerce adoption 10 years in the span of just a few months. Everything we had been telling our seller community and building our platform for suddenly just… happened. The circumstances were not those anyone would have wanted, but our complete readiness for this shift to e-commerce has been a bright point in a complicated year.
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 think every one of us has influence and agency in life. Leadership roles may shine a spotlight on individual influence, but I am a big believer in grassroots-style movements. My movement would focus on improving education in this country, because empowering children and young adults with the right tools to succeed has a multiplier effect on society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Assume best intentions.” It is my rule for myself and my team! I find that it can shift all communications and interactions between people and teams in order to immediately facilitate being action-oriented and actually getting stuff done.
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
I would love to meet Stacey Abrams. She’s inspiring on so many levels, and she has an incredible ability to execute. She represents the kind of leader I strive to be — positive, action-oriented, focused on creating a better process. She has empowered millions of people through voting and brought hope and awareness to historically underrepresented communities in a way that I think will serve as a model for other movements.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.