Ever wonder what it’s like to walk a day in someone else’s shoes (or spend a day in someone else’s job, as the case may be)? Us too! In our “Women at work” series, we’re talking to some of the most accomplished women we know about how they got to where they are in their careers, what advice they’d give their younger selves, and any tips & tricks they’ve picked up along the way.
Name: Jen Hayes Lee
Job Title: Director of Digital Initiatives, Saks Fifth Avenue; Formerly Co-Founder, WorkShop Style
Education credentials: B.A. from Emory University/MBA from NYU Stern
Leslie Feingerts: What does a typical day look like for you?
Jen Hayes Lee: I work with cross-functional teams at Saks Fifth Avenue and Hudson’s Bay Company to ensure we deliver a seamless experience for our clients no matter how they shop with our brand. My team develops strategies to bring product enhancements and operational efficiencies to our digital properties. My group is also responsible for launching and managing those programs, so a typical day includes managing a variety of programs, outlining objectives, developing timelines and reporting out results based on the current stage of each initiative. It’s incredibly exciting to work on a team that’s tasked with challenging the status quo and driving innovation through technology.
LF: You were one of the co-founders of WorkShop Style. Can you describe the evolution of the business?
JHL: WorkShop Style was born out of a business school project. My co-founder and I both came from fashion-adjacent backgrounds and we were passionate about finding the white space in women’s e-commerce. We wanted to develop a business concept around millennial women and we wanted to contribute to the evolving workplace dress code and help young women break out of the boring black suit routine — so that’s where we started.
Ultimately, we decided to discontinue the business after a few seasons because product sourcing became a major challenge and we acknowledged that manufacturing our own clothing was the next logical step in order to bring the business forward. After carefully evaluating that opportunity and the direction we wanted to take our careers, it made sense to re-enter the workforce and sharpen our skills at a world-class company. However, I can confidently say that everything I learned while running a startup has been incredibly valuable and has formed the foundation of what I bring to my current role at Saks. In fact, working as an entrepreneur has made me a more agile, valuable team member. It makes you a warrior.
LF: What do you think are the most important attributes in being an entrepreneur?
JHL: Having curiosity about what you don’t know and developing an appetite to always push yourself to learn more definitely helps you keep the momentum going as an entrepreneur. Being fearless and accepting that you aren’t always going to be right are also critical lessons you learn as an entrepreneur. You have to know how to take a few licks and keep going. When you create something from scratch and put it out into the world, people are going to have opinions and feedback. You have to take the judgment, the victories and the opportunities to make improvements, and then you have to continue to evolve. You can’t have trepidation about hearing what the world has to say — you have to listen and then make your product stronger.
LF: What role has your gender or racial identity played in your career to date?
JHL: My identity has played a huge role in who I am and the responsibility I feel to be a positive role model. When anyone sees me, they see a black woman and I’m incredibly proud to be that — even if I’m the only one in the room. As a woman of color, I am always aware of how we are portrayed in mainstream media. For example, if I was casting a photo-shoot for WorkShop Style, I made sure to represent the spectrum of women so that all young women knew they had a place in a product and brand that I championed.
In both professional and academic settings, it has also been important for me to contribute to conversations and efforts that support other young professionals of color — whether formally through programming or informally through mentoring. I choose not to act as if the world is colorblind, because it’s not. Instead, I choose to celebrate diversity and everything that makes us unique, shapes our experiences and informs our thought process. Embracing diversity opens up the world and allows companies to build all-star teams with well-rounded and forward-thinking perspectives. I’m also a proud native of New Orleans and I’d like to think that my Southern charm shines through!
LF: How do you define success and how do you measure it?
JHL: For me, success is all about self-defined personal and professional satisfaction. If I’m satisfied with how I’ve balanced my family life, career progression, and the small elements that make me happy, whether it’s traveling or going to a spinning class, then I feel like I’ve been successful. It’s all about balance.
LF: How do you achieve that balance?
JHL: You have to be honest with yourself and the people around you. For example, if I need to leave work early to bring my son to a doctor’s appointment, then I have to accept that it’s ok to make adjustments and be open with my boss about what I need to make my life work that week. Working parents (dads too!) often feel guilt or shame about asking for those things, but ultimately, it’s going to make you a better performer at work if you feel like every aspect of your life is running on all cylinders.
LF: Can you share the best professional advice that someone has given you along the way?
JHL: I once had a manager tell me to “take pride in every single element of what you put out into the world,” no matter how big or how small it is. My manager said “whether it’s a year-end presentation or an email, you have to take pride in it because once something is out there, it is an extension of you forever.” I take that to heart every time I press send or deliver a presentation – no matter how big or small the audience.
LF: Who has inspired you in your life and why?
JHL: I grew up in a home with a single mom who worked hard, achieved the utmost success as a doctor in her field, knew how to have fun and always put me first. She had work-life balance down to a tee! She not only demanded the respect of those around her, but she earned it with her actions. No matter what she was doing, whether sitting in a parent-teacher conference or running a mental health program for the homeless, she took a lot of pride in devoting her full energy to every moment. Although she is not with me today, I think of her daily. By always keeping her on my shoulder, I truly believe she’s helped guide me down the right path.
A few more quick questions:
How would the people on your team describe you: They would describe me as direct (a straight shooter), creative, and supportive. They might also expose me for loving a good reality show on Bravo TV.
Someone might be surprised to learn: I can’t sleep in a bed unless it’s made and I can’t get dressed in anything if it’s not hanging first.
Favorite book you’ve read in the last year: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Favorite quote: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” -Oscar Wilde
Favorite life hack: Do velvet hangers count as a life hack?
Favorite health hack: Beyond typical working out and eating clean, I love to walk. I live in New York City and I will chose walking over taking a subway any day.
Favorite app: Texture
Most noteworthy place you’ve traveled: Morocco