Executive Q & A: Sally Jewell, President and CEO of REI

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

EXERCISE: I always start the day with a workout. When things get busy, I have to get outside. On [a recent] Saturday, with my husband and dog, I climbed Grand Prospect [on Rattlesnake Mountain]. It feels so nice to get a little mud on your feet, a little mist in your face.

YOUTH: My father was a doctor who came over from England in 1959 when I was 3 to take a teaching fellowship at the UW Medical School. My father asked what people did here. They said, “You join REI, you buy a tent and you go camping.” So that’s what we did. Our first trip was to Mount Rainier National Park.

EDUCATION: It was a different era for women when I graduated from high school in 1973. My college [aptitude] test showed high scores in mechanical reasoning and spatial ability, but my recommended professions were nursing and teaching—the same as all my female friends. At UW, I was going to be a dental hygienist, but my roommate said, “You’re smart enough to be a dentist,” so I did pre-dental. When I started dating Warren, now my husband, his engineering homework looked a lot more fun than mine, so I transferred to engineering. Turns out I’m a natural engineer in terms of how my brain is wired.

CAREER: In engineering school, I worked for General Electric for a total of 18 months over a period of three years. It was a good time for engineers. I had 15 offers for jobs coming out of school and ended up working for Mobil. I came back in 1981 to work for Rainier Bank as an oil and gas expert because I loved Seattle. Oil and gas isn’t found in the most pleasant places in the world and, being a woman, there were things I had to put up with that would be considered illegal now, and it just became tiresome. I also wanted to raise my children around grandparents.

REI: When I began as COO, our growth was stagnating. We invested in the internet, but we underinvested in our retail stores, the core of the business. We were good at colder climates but not so good at southern climates. We developed great, innovative products, but I felt we had an enormous opportunity to analyze our member data better to understand what our customers wanted. We’ve since relocated a lot of our stores to more convenient places where people could find us. Now we’re learning how to reach younger customers. We’re also seeking racial and geographic diversity.

NEW CUSTOMERS: We love it when an outdoor product becomes a hot thing for people who otherwise wouldn’t be coming in our door. We’ve been quite successful in selling jogging strollers after mommy blogs said, “This is the best jogging stroller and REI is the best place to get it.” That probably brought families in that wouldn’t otherwise have been there. Once you walk into an REI, it’s hard not to get a touch of inspiration about going out and playing in the great outdoors.

GETTING PEOPLE OUTDOORS: Studies show children are spending more time in front of a screen. Children have an affinity for playing outdoors, but it’s up to us as adults to help facilitate that. What are the critical points of entry to introduce someone to outdoor activity? College is one point. School groups, YMCAs, and Boys and Girls Clubs are others. We had a store catch on fire a year ago in Eugene, Oregon. A lot of the merchandize was smoke damaged but serviceable. Our insurance carrier agreed to allow us to donate it all to YMCAs in the L.A. area to help get kids there into the outdoors.

CHALLENGES: You don’t want people to use your stores just as showrooms [and then buy online]. How do you compete with that? You have to think about the value you add when someone shops at REI. There are benefits to being a member. Our stores are staffed by incredible colleagues who know the products. And we have to look at how we are doing in terms of price, service, breadth of assortment and convenience relative to our competitors if we want to be in business for the long term.

TAXES: One thing that’s frustrating is to be providing employment in a state and then be penalized with a 5 to 10 percent sales tax that the online retailer is not collecting but that the consumer still owes. The state of Washington estimates there’s about $438 million a year in uncollected sales taxes from out-of-state direct purchases.

DESIGN: In a world where product is ubiquitous, REI apparel is unique. We have invested in our own designs continuously over the time I have been here. We have a top tent designer. We have taken more design in house to make sure we have a compelling value proposition. If you take the top brands in the industry, we want REI products to represent equivalent quality for a lower price or a better product for the same price.

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: Community service has been very important to me for decades. Whether it’s board work or volunteer work, you learn to lead through influence and not through power. I try to help share that ethos with my colleagues here. In a job like mine, you have a title that commands a certain amount of power, but when you are on a nonprofit board or you are volunteering, your title doesn’t really mean anything other than perhaps your ability to have influence.

INITIATIVE FOR GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT: The initiative was launched after 9/11. As we looked at the attacks on the United States, we thought, “Why does the world hate us?” We saw an opportunity to bring a business voice to the issues of global poverty, the idea that you are never going to solve global poverty if you don’t create economic opportunity in those communities. I was the first chair of the board. We’ve become a pretty effective national organization with people like George Mitchell, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell involved. I’ve met with CEOs of African companies with sales of more than $100 million. One company produced retroviral drugs in Uganda while another had a seed and vegetable oil business in Zimbabwe. One of our group, the CEO of Cummins Engines, is investing $75 million in Africa. He wouldn’t have done that without those relationships. We would like to go beyond Africa to Latin America and South Asia.

EDUCATION: As a regent at the University of Washington, I’ve seen the university do some amazing things in a difficult environment. It has prioritized cuts in administration first and has worked hard to make sure that access is high regardless of socioeconomic background. Twenty-five percent of our students pay no tuition. The state wants us to create more graduates in high-demand fields like engineering and computer science, but that’s hard when the budget keeps getting cut. One possibility is to charge higher tuition in fields like engineering where you have high potential for earnings and it costs more to educate you.

ENVIRONMENT: Last year, we made $4.2 million in direct donations to nonprofits. We’ve facilitated over 3 million hours of volunteer work on public lands. And that’s not just picking up garbage. That’s swinging a Pulaski and an ax and building trails.

Have no Fear [and other helpful suggestions from successful women.]

Have no Fear [and other helpful suggestions from successful women.]

How these enterprising women defied the odds and achieved success.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
Adriane Brown is comfortable being uncomfortable. Roxie Schescke gains more by letting go. Megan Meade doesn’t believe asking for help is a shortcoming.
 
These women have used those life lessons in their trajectories to the top of a competitive business world in which women have been characterized as being “everywhere and nowhere.” It’s a male-dominated environment that to this day still preserves a glaring gender gap, widespread discrimination and a lack of diversity.
 
Brown, Schescke and Meade belong to a growing sisterhood of successful businesswomen who combine creativity and courage to lead fast-growing, multimillion-dollar companies. They are confident, fearless women who ignore the naysayers; ambitious, resourceful women who refuse to take no for an answer; imaginative, innovative women who view the world through a different lens; tenacious, independent women who turn conflicts and rejections into opportunities.
 
These women break down barriers and define what it means to be leaders in business — and in their communities. They pave the way to the future by mentoring other women and girls.
What most distinguishes them from their male counterparts is a different outlook, an inclusive company culture and a naturally collaborative style. “We are less competitive in our DNA,” says Jeanne Knutzen, founder, owner and CEO of Pace Staffing Network in Bellevue. “Don’t get me wrong. We are very competitive, but we have the mindset of ‘win, win,’ not ‘we win and somebody else loses.’ I’m more competitive for my customers. When they are winning, I’m winning.”
 
Knutzen started her recruiting, staffing and managed services company in 1975 when double standards were blatantly out in the open. She and her husband had identical balance sheets when they sought bank loans for their separate businesses. He was given carte blanche and she got a few hundred dollars that had to be paid back in 90 days. Today, her company brings in $15 million to $35 million a year. 
 
Paula Begoun, whose Seattle skin-care-products company Paula’s Choice has earned her the reputation as the Cosmetics Cop, says she found success through a combination of honesty, integrity, hard work and fun. “Work needs to be 50 percent work and 50 percent fun,” she says. “If that gets out of balance, something is wrong with your company’s culture.”
 
Knutzen and begoun are in fine company, even if they remain a distinct minority. Right now, women business owners account for about a quarter of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But women are starting businesses at one and a half times the national average — about 1,288 a day — according to a 2015 State of Women-Owned Businesses report commissioned by American Express.
 
Last year, there were nearly 9.5 million woman-owned firms in the United States — 36 percent of all businesses in the country — and they generated about $1.5 trillion in revenues and employed 8 million people, according to the report. Between 1997 and 2015, when the number of businesses nationwide increased by 51 percent, the report says the number of woman-owned firms increased by 74 percent.
 
“We are seeing greater interest in the entrepreneurial ambitions of women, and these key factors are collaborating to open doors, increase access, and empower and enable women to succeed,” says Carla Harris, chair of the National Women’s Business Council in a 2015 report on women’s entrepreneurship. Harris predicts the number of woman-owned and woman-led businesses will more than double during the next five years.
That’s not to say it’s an easy road. Schescke, the owner of Indian Eyes in Pasco, endured years of prejudice and discrimination after leaving her Lakota reservation to live in an all-white community with a foster family in Nebraska, and later as a minority businesswoman working in the male-dominated construction-services industry.
 
Today, her “cradle-to-grave” logistics and facility support company is a prime contractor to the U.S. Department of Energy and holds a top government security clearance. Her firm was called in to provide “life-support services” when Pope Francis visited the United States last year and she was “boots down” as one of the first responders to the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “We were right in the middle of it — snake pits and all,” she says of the project, which lasted six years.
 
Schescke relies on her Lakota values and attributes much of her success to building a good team and delegating responsibility instead of trying to do it all herself. “That means letting go and then having the resources to support growth,” she says.
 
For Lee Rhodes, a cancer diagnosis led her to create Glassybaby. When she was going through treatment, she dropped a tea light into a rough-hewn glass vessel and found great comfort in the color and light. She was then inspired to sell her own hand-blown votives. Since 2001, Glassybaby has been a Seattle success story — in spite of critics who question its single-product orientation — and has donated nearly $5 million to more than 300 nonprofits.
 
Brown, president and COO of Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, learned at a young age that it’s OK to be uncomfortable. When she was 8 years old growing up in Richmond, Virginia, she and her brother were the first African-American students to attend a formerly all-white school after the state began to end racial segregation. “At first, I was uncomfortable about the whole business of going to this new school,” Brown recalls. But she worked through the discomfort and discovered that people grow when they push themselves. “And it doesn’t feel so uncomfortable anymore,” she notes.
Brown is passionate about encouraging females to pursue education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and she supports STEM programs for girls of all ages.
 
A global study released this year by the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., concluded that companies whose executive ranks are at least 30 percent female generate as much as six percentage points more in profits than firms with less robust female representation. 
 
“If you’re a firm and you’re discriminating against potential female leaders, that means you’re essentially doing a bad job of picking the best leader for your firm,” the study concluded.
 
Megan Meade, president and CEO of The Pacific Financial Group, a Bellevue boutique investment firm,  jokes that “it’s taken 20 years to become an overnight success.” Meade began as a file clerk in the business her father started in 1984 from their basement. It was hard enough to be a woman in a male-dominated field, but climbing her way up the corporate ladder under the shadow of her father made it even more difficult. She admits she was fired three separate times but learned from those experiences and returned to the company each time wiser and more resilient.
 
“It’s an endurance test,” she says. “When I was younger, I thought I knew more than I really did. … It was embarrassing but I didn’t dwell on it.”
She learned the hard way the importance of listening to others before jumping to conclusions and that asking for help is not a bad thing.
 
Those lessons paid off. Today, Pacific Financial is the third-largest investment firm, ranked by number of investors, in the Puget Sound region, with more than 11,000 clients and nearly $1.5 billion in assets under management.
 
 
Robin Shapiro, founder of Seattle-based Health Perspectives Group (HPG), and Cheryl Lubbert, president and CEO, have married science and business to create a dynamic duo in the health care industry. They were inspired by the work they did at their former biotech company, Immunex, where Shapiro worked in communications and Lubbert in health care research and marketing.
 
What started out as a platform for patients to tell their stories has grown into four patient advocacy specialty firms under the HPG umbrella, with a total of $14 million in annual sales. In her spare time, Shapiro, who grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, volunteers on the board of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center within the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University.
 
“Both of us share a philosophy that we have the power to make our lives anything we want them to be,” says Lubbert, a microbiologist turned executive. “It’s about having a sense of fearlessness.’’ 
 
Her health care firm is not the only thing she has grown. She and her husband turned their Vashon Island pear and apple orchard into a thriving hard cider business called Nashi Orchards.
 
Tenacity and grit are the traits Rosanna Bowles says have steered her tableware design company, Rosanna, to success. She started her business in her 1920s Seattle bungalow when a 20-foot container filled with her first order of hand-painted Italian ceramics arrived. When she started to unpack the crates — with the help of a sympathetic delivery driver — she discovered wet wood shavings stuck to 10,000 dishes. Dismayed, yet undeterred, she recalls, “I just rolled up my sleeves and started washing them. It was like an I Love Lucy episode.”
 
In addition to her signature tableware, Bowles created commemorative pieces for Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to the United States and commemorative pieces for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
 
A trait these women share is that they are constantly reinventing themselves and their companies.
Lisa Hufford, founder and CEO of Simplicity Consulting in Kirkland, switched gears to start her own business. A former Microsoft sales director, she found her passion in consulting and helping companies build on-demand sales and marketing teams. Bolstered by high-profile tech clients, including Microsoft and Amazon, Hufford’s company has grown in the past 10 years to $42 million in revenues. It has about 250 employees and a database of more than 5,000 professionals.
 
She admits, however, that when it comes to work-life balance, there’s no magic solution. “Like most working parents,” she says, “you get good at juggling.”
 
Brown left a successful 30-year corporate career in the industrial sector for the world of inventions and intellectual property when she took on the COO role at Intellectual Ventures, where one of the most important core values is optimism. She was drawn to the private sector from a desire “to do something different, yet connected to the things I value.”
 
She was unafraid to leave respected, stable, 100-year-old companies to join a youthful, 10-year-old business that invests in inventions. “The opportunity to be a part of this early concept was something so promising and exciting that I just couldn’t resist,” she says.
 
Her advice to other women leading or working in companies of any size is “be fearless and surround yourself with a diverse group of people who complement your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.”
 
And she always comes back to that lesson she learned as a child: It’s OK to be uncomfortable.
 
“Women should embrace being comfortable while outside their comfort zone,” Brown says. “It’s in these times of discomfort that we can find who we are and what we are capable of achieving. … Fearlessness and the thrill of the challenge make new opportunities, great results and wonderful adventures possible.”