Cheryl Sullivan, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at Revionics
Building a career at the intersection of retail and technology poses unique challenges and opportunities, especially for women looking to advance into executive ranks. Retail is at a historically challenging crossroads with the rise of Amazon, the proliferation of multi-national discounters, savvy shoppers comparing 24/7 across all channels and relentless pressure on margins even as costs continue to rise. Retailers who succeed in this volatile environment are doing so because they are aggressively innovating, on the technology front as well as in other parts of the business such as promoting diversity throughout their organizations.
These are exciting times in the retail and technology world as new opportunities arise for women. As someone who’s developed a healthy career in retail technology, what follows are lessons learned from my journey along with some ideas about how the industry can advance further, especially when it comes to women in senior leadership roles.
The Freedom of Fearlessness
Growing up with four very active and competitive brothers and two sisters, I was a rough-and-tumble kid active in all kinds of sports. So perhaps it’s not surprising that my first career was in the military. I enlisted in the U.S. Navy at a time when many men did not accept women in the service and there were rules against women serving on ships. Unlike my male counterparts, to be accepted as a peer I needed to prove that I was qualified to be there. I needed to work twice as hard to demonstrate my value to them and to the military. The challenge became even greater as I was promoted in rank and was placed in a position where I outranked men, requiring me to direct and lead those who challenged my right to exist in their world. This was an instrumental time in my career development as I learned the fundamental skills of being a leader, such as leading by example and earning respect.
My military journey was in the special intelligence arena, which was a great fit for my interest in combining big-picture perspectives with close attention to detail, data, and facts. As I moved up the ranks in the cryptology field, I was exposed to advanced technologies not widely used in the civilian world. I was attracted to the techie aspects of the role from the start – which turned out to be a key building block for my post-military career.
Although it is somewhat less so today, at the time I first entered the tech arena, it was very much a man’s world with something of an “old boys club” mentality. I’ve never had the mindset, then or now, that my gender should stop me from succeeding at anything I set out to do. But I knew – and accepted – I would have to work twice as hard to prove my value and worth to earn my place at the table much as I had done in the military. “Fear” isn’t really in my vocabulary, so I never shied away from going for what I wanted with everything I had.
Whether in the tech world or the military, fearlessness is your friend and grit is a prerequisite for success. If you’re willing to take on new challenges or go where others have hesitated before, you can meet with very rewarding successes.
The Technology Trajectory
After the Navy, I joined FHP, a prominent HMO, where my love for technology continued to grow. So much so, that despite the fact I did not own a computer, I spent many long evenings after putting my kids to bed on a self-study course to teach myself to program. I would then arrive early and stay late at work to have access to a computer to test out what I had learned.
FHP, like many non-tech organizations, preferred to outsource many technical initiatives rather than trying to build expertise in-house. So, when we needed a new application that would enable us to manage and report on hospital utilization, the company sought proposals from technology vendors. I set out to write the application myself and spent evenings coding a solution. Before outside firms submitted their proposals, I surprised my colleagues with a solution.
At first, no one would consider it. How could a non-technical, relatively new team member design anything that was usable – let alone useful? But I convinced first my boss then other colleagues to try it, and they, in turn, became champions for the cause. As we overcame the initial skepticism, my solution was cautiously deployed in a trial usage. It ultimately proved so successful that it was rolled out to multiple states. Soon I was promoted to a position within our IT team and helped to build additional solutions that improved efficiency and were delivered far more cost-effectively than if we’d outsourced the function.
The takeaway here is to be constantly learning and fearless when it comes to doing the unexpected. Don’t take “no” for an answer when met with resistance. When you run across that professional challenge that you are passionate about, invest in yourself to successfully take on that opportunity, even if it means thinking outside the box and doing the impossible. Professionally you are your own brand, and no single employer will ever be able to develop your brand as fully as you can. It requires investing your own time and resources to develop new skills, but the investment ultimately pays off – and often in unexpected ways.
Ready for Retail
When developments in my personal life took me to Chicago, I landed at Nielsen as a senior technical consultant implementing price, promotion, and space management solutions for both retailers and consumer packaged goods companies. I found the business side of retail fascinating, particularly category management. Here I took the opportunity to work very closely with The Partnering Group, who were the founders of the category management 7-step process, and became an expert myself. By this point, retail and CPG had set their hooks deep in my professional psyche and I began to gravitate towards the business vs. technical side.
Miller Brewing Company attracted me with a role in their new category management department. This in turn gave me the opportunity to lead their assortment and space management department, delivering category business and space management plans for both retailers and CPG. Here I began to refine my leadership skills and deepen my knowledge of the value of analytics in CPG and retail.
Being presented with an offer to combine my retail and CPG business knowledge with technical skills, I accepted a position of VP of Category Management with Intactix. I was asked to take on the responsibility of expanding their space management business into EIA (Efficient Item Assortment) and category business planning. It was my first experience reporting directly to a CEO. It wasn’t until after I arrived that I realized the CEO assumed this would be possible with one part-time developer. Adding salt to the wound was learning there was no category management or assortment domain expertise in-house.
There I was, with a major initiative, no development resources, and no internal domain expertise available to help me. It was at this moment that I learned how important it was to think outside the box. Not willing to accept defeat, and after convincing the CEO of the magnitude of the opportunity, I secured the funding that allowed me to hire a third-party development firm. I then set out to establish a retail industry focus group which consisted of some of the most prominent retail and CPG companies such as Supervalu, P&G, Quaker, Nestle, GE, Anheuser-Busch and Kellogg’s. I leveraged the focus group to determine the product requirements and validate designs. After the initial debut and positive customer response, we brought the products in-house and a hired a full development team dedicated to the initiative. The success of the solution brought with it industry-wide attention and Intactix was acquired shortly afterward. These solutions still exist in the market although they have evolved.
The lesson from this experience, whether someone is a woman or a man, is that a dead end isn’t always a dead end, but rather a unique opportunity to creatively think outside the box. Believe in yourself and view setbacks and obstacles as an opportunity to achieve unprecedented success. Ensure you have a solid business plan and are able to communicate it clearly at the executive level. Strategic visions mean nothing if you can’t operationalize and execute against them.
Path to the C-Suite
Having seen firsthand how a strategic approach to product development can create significant business value, I left Intactix and co-founded my own company as CEO with two other partners. We had a clear idea of what we wanted to accomplish, and we set aggressive milestones, secured funding and had a strong following. Within a year we were acquired by i2 Technologies, where I became VP of Category Management. As my expertise and experience in retail deepened, I took on a variety of executive-level product management, marketing and strategy positions in companies addressing a wide range of retail and CPG challenges, including Spectra Marketing, Oracle, and ems. Today at Revionics I am Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, part of an executive team leading exciting growth and innovation at a company known for applying leading-edge machine learning science in a SaaS delivery model to deliver game-changing price, promotion and markdown optimization for retailers. I was lucky to be brought in 6-1/2 years ago by a CEO who recognizes both the value women bring to a technology company and the value of placing people in leadership positions, not because of gender but based upon their ability to do the job and a track record of proven results.
The Outlook for Progress
Relative to when I began my career in retail technology, we see far more women in positions of respect and authority. Thankfully the number of times I look around and realize I’m the only woman in the room is growing less and less frequent. That said, it’s disheartening to see how lopsided the figures still are when it comes to women in industry leadership positions, and it defies rational thinking.
There are many reasons why retail – and any other competitive businesses – would want to have more diversity in leadership positions, and most compelling is the very clear business case. Research has shown unequivocally that diversity in the executive suite and on the Board helps bring innovative thinking to the table that is almost certainly more reflective of your full customer base. Fresh minds contribute fresh perspectives on issues, and fresh perspectives keep your organization sharp and competitive. Research again proves that companies with diverse perspectives and leadership better compete in the market and deliver more successful business results.
Women also often have strong problem-solving skills – they generally take a more collaborative, inclusive approach that can lead to better outcomes. From a recruitment standpoint, which is critical in today’s tight labor market, having C-level women sends a positive message about an organization’s culture: that it is open to diversity and supports women and other historically under-represented groups in the workplace, and that in turn helps to attract and retain top talent.
We are gradually seeing more women moving into C-level positions, but organizations need to continue to consciously make sure they foster a culture that rewards innovation and accomplishment, and that does not grow stagnant “because we’ve always done it this way.” On the whole, I’m excited to say that the outlook for women is more positive today in the retail IT industry than at any other time in my career. I’ve had tremendously rewarding and challenging experiences, and I look forward to many more ahead. Like anyone else, I’ve taken my share of hard knocks, but maybe one of the most important lessons I can impart is to remember that failures are just stepping-stones to success. Don’t let them discourage or define you, but rather give you key insights that can propel you forward.