Former Chanel CEO speaks about career

Maureen Chiquet, left, speaks with Linda Pizzuti Henry about her book and career at an event in Blackman Auditorium Monday night. / Photo by Riley Robinson
Maureen Chiquet, left, speaks with Linda Pizzuti Henry about her book and career at an event in Blackman Auditorium Monday night. / Photo by Riley Robinson

By Julia Preszler, campus news editor

Maureen Chiquet, a former global CEO of Chanel spoke about her personal success and the importance of changes in businesses in the modern era in her speech kicking off Homecoming Week 2017.

Hundreds of students gathered in Blackman Auditorium Monday evening for the talk, which was inspired by Chiquet’s recently published book, “Beyond the Label,” and moderated by Linda Pizzuti Henry, the managing director of The Boston Globe. Chiquet discussed her career, balancing career and family and leadership skills.

“What I started to think about was how do you begin to shift leadership behaviors,” Chiquet said. “How do you begin to acquire tools to handle and sort of culturally, handle all of this change.”

Diane MacGillivray, the senior vice president of university advancement, introduced the speakers by saying homecoming at Northeastern is not confined to the official homecoming week.

“For me, what homecoming actually means is wherever, whenever and however members of our community come together to share their stories,” MacGillivray said.

Chiquet began by describing how she entered the field of marketing with an internship at the L’Oréal office in France, despite majoring in literature at Yale University and never attending business school.

“I knew how to spell marketing, but I did not know much else about marketing at that point,” Chiquet said. “It turned out that this studying of stories, looking at images, understanding how images and words work together to create emotion, was good background for my marketing career.”

The internship turned into a job. Three years later, Chiquet moved to San Francisco with her husband, whom she met in France. Neither of them had jobs to go to, but they were attracted to the culture and were looking for adventure.

When Chiquet was walking down the street one day, she saw an Annie Leibovitz photograph of jazz musician Miles Davis wearing a Gap T-Shirt. She was inspired by the image and decided to apply to work at Gap. She was hired as an assistant for the socks and belts department. Chiquet worked her way up in the company and was an instrumental member on the team that founded Old Navy as a cheaper alternative to Gap in the early 1990s.

Chiquet began to work at Chanel in 2003 and became CEO of the company in 2007, at the same time that the internet and social media were beginning to change the retail market.

“We had started to understand that our premise, which was all about rarity and exclusivity was going to be in jeopardy by this big thing about the internet and social media,” she said.

Henry chimed in, saying that the internet affected companies in the luxury industry, such as Chanel, in a unique way.

“I work in a newspaper so I know a little bit about disruption, but I hadn’t thought about it in terms of what it meant to the luxury market,” Henry said. “I knew there was digital retail, but specifically, there were a lot of forces that were completely new and foreign to Chanel that were the opposite of exclusivity.”

Chiquet said the company had to become more culturally literate to account for globalization and the increase of foreign visitors to American and European storefronts, as well as more transparent in their business practices to accommodate their millennial employees who wanted to be more involved in the business. As CEO, she implemented a new leadership style to help the company make these changes.

“How can you shift your leaders so that the mindset can actually go into the 21st century in a new way?” she said. “What people call command-and-control leadership wouldn’t work anymore — not in this new, interconnected world.”

Chiquet and Henry also discussed navigating difficulties and failures in one’s career and dispensed advice to students who are about to enter the workplace.

“You get so many rejections, especially for kids who are in college,” Henry said. “I can remember in our dorm, we had a wall of rejection letters and that’s okay. It’s okay if it’s not the right fit.”

Chiquet said while she was pregnant with her first child, she was working extremely hard at Gap and began to lose amniotic fluid as a result of her busy work schedule. Her doctor told her she would have to slow down because of the loss.

“It’s a lesson in self-care,” she said. “You can’t just run yourself ragged for your career, and it really was something that I hadn’t considered. I almost thought my body wasn’t a part of the me that could keep going. It was a scary moment.”

Chiquet worked full-time while her husband stayed home to take care of their children. She said she missed many of the small moments in her children’s lives, such as losing teeth and soccer games, but she was also able to coach her daughter through college and job applications because of her career.

“I wasn’t a perfect mom,” she said. “I don’t think anyone here can claim they were a perfect parent or a perfect anything. I did the best that I could.”

Henry, another working mom, said her four-year-old son asked why she worked.

“It was a hard question, and I explained as well as I could to a 4-year-old, and I said it was something I had to do, just like he has to go to school. My hours just aren’t as good as his are,” she said, to laughs from the crowd.

Chiquet said though she has missed out on some things at home, she does not regret her work life because she has enjoyed her career.

“I feel like no matter what job you’re in, it’s finding within that job something you can get excited about,” she said. “Think about what it is that you can find in that job what interests you.”

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