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Leaning-in Interview Series #1 Sarah Young O’Donnell

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 September, 2013, 9:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 10:56am

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Young O'Donnell, as the first in a series of women in Asia who are successful and already living out the principles outlined in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. O'Donnell is the Chief Executive Officer of Seibu Hong Kong and Beauty Bazaar/Harvey Nichols China. I’d met her at a talk she gave at an event held by The Women's Foundation attended by leaders in the luxury industry, and her background and career trajectory are truly inspiring. I had a chance to sit down with O'Donnell and ask her 10 questions pertaining to how she has been able to navigate her industry, develop her career and become a woman business leader in Asia. Before I go into the interview, here is Sarah's impressive bio:

Sarah Young O'Donnell is the Chief Executive Officer of Seibu Enterprise Co., Ltd., overseeing the Seibu department store business in Hong Kong as well as the development new cosmetics mega-stores, including Beauty Bazaar By Harvey Nichols, in Hong Kong/China and the new Beauty Avenue megastore to be rolled out in Langham Place Hong Kong*. Prior to joining the C-suite of Seibu, O'Donnell held management positions in Asia at the Dickson Group, Warner Brothers Studio Stores and the Lane Crawford Group. Before arriving in Asia, O'Donnell was a rising star in merchandising and store management at Bloomingdale's in New York. She holds a BA in Political Science from Wellesley College as well as an AS in Design from Parsons School of Design, and she has an MA (pt) in the History of Art and Architecture at Tufts University and was a Teaching Fellow in Fine Arts/History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. She is married and has three children.

(J: Jennifer Cheng, S: Sarah Young O’Donnell)

J: How did your diverse educational background (in political science, art, architecture, and design) influence your career path?

S: Elements of what I studied relate to what I do today and the problems I have to solve. When it comes down to it, the retail industry is analytical, creative, visual, and influenced by political and economic factors. It's really quite useful to look at business from a broader perspective and within a larger context. The ability to think contextually is very helpful.  My fields of study and educational background all helped me to gain insight and build a strong foundation for the kind of thinking required in my career path.


J:  What do you enjoy most about your role?

S:  I'm a business and numbers person, so I can't help this, but I do love the immediate gratification of seeing sales and profit of course. I love the process too – everything from creating new concepts, reworking concepts that aren't working, formulating business models, getting them off the ground, negotiations, building effective teams and then leading those teams.  It is very rewarding to be able to identify the right individuals for the team, pick the right assortment of strengths and talents, then channeling them for the best results and outcomes.  I don't mean to put it into adversarial terms but sometimes it's really like mobilising your forces and going to battle. At the end of the day, everything does come down to making money and negotiations are a bit of a dance. You have to leave something on the table for the other party so that everyone emerges with a bit of win.  I get a huge thrill from the art of negotiation. There's an amazing rush one experiences from getting a product out and on the floor, and it's such an exciting moment when it sells out.  Then it's on to thinking of what's next, and what comes after that.  The industry is so dynamic in this way.

J:  What has surprised you the most about the luxury industry?

S: When I first started, the luxury industry was very different. The customers interested in luxury tended to fit a certain demographic, mainly older and more conservative. Brands were by and large traditional and outdated.  Now the luxury industry has become much more aspirational and appeals to a much wider spectrum of customers in age and socioeconomic background. People used to buy to “fit in” whereas now it's about expressing themselves. You also have this interesting confluence of luxury and the arts like Takeshi Murakami and LV. Now you can even see street style influencing luxury and vice versa; it's no longer just top down. Finally, it's interesting to see how the different markets have evolved in terms of luxury. The Japanese used to be the dominant market for luxury. It's now post-luxury. In Hong Kong, the customer is so discerning and sophisticated some luxury is almost “too mass” for them. In China which had insatiable appetite for luxury, there's been a change in this desire in that there are a lot of facets developing within the luxury market. It's not about pure status acquisition anymore – you have this abundance of tastes and tastemakers.

Harvey Nichols' Beauty Bazaar grand opening, introduced by celebrity stylist Rick Chin and Taiwanese actress and pal Ruby Lin Xin-yu (right) in 2010.

J: How have you overcome challenges in the workplace?

S: There are so many different kinds of challenges you face day to day when you are managing and running a business. We were challenged by anything from events like SARS, the Asian financial crisis, to specific problems like a location taking longer to get traction. You have to resolve to get through it with sheer doggedness. My experiences tackling challenges head-on helped me to deconstruct issues into more manageable components and to think about what's really needed to solve the problem at hand in terms of the resources, the team, and whatever is required. For me in particular, it's helped me to be more inventive and to develop different approaches for different challenges, all of which has helped me to adopt a collaborative style of management. I'm that way naturally and yes, I make the final decision but I will be able to gather many different ideas and then make the final decision. It's tough when it's about cutting costs but even there inventiveness and creativity apply, as you need to have your eye on the target and get through it. Sometimes you have to make really tough decisions for the greater good of the business.


J: What do you like to do to “recharge”?

S: Travel is great for recharging, but it helps even just going out to museums, galleries, exploring new neighborhoods. Aside from a lot of travel for work, my favorite places to visit are Budapest, Istanbul, Berlin, Beirut (I'm half Lebanese), Shanghai, Tokyo, London and at the risk of sounding prosaic – New York. Travel is really relaxing, inspiring.  Also, I do enjoy spending time with my kids as they are a great source of new music, media, and keeping up with what's happening. I'm also an avid runner. While I can't be described as an “avid runner”, running is really cathartic and I’ve been doing more of it lately, making it a part of my regular routine.  Exercise puts me on a more even keel and focuses me to handle anything.

J: What skills are necessary to succeed in your field?

S: There a lot of different facets to the field.  Although a large part of it is instinct too, for what I do it's important to be analytical, good with numbers, to recognise patterns and to be visual and intuitive. It’s important to be able to communicate clearly and well, both verbally and in your writing. If you want to be able to lead a team or a division possessing a high level of communication ability is absolutely an imperative.  It's also important to know where you are not as strong. You don't want to be surrounded by people who take the same approach as you would. You want to be surrounded by others with different perspectives and styles of problem solving and new ideas.


J: What are some differences between working in New York and Hong Kong?

S: Hong Kong and Asia are extremely dynamic markets. With the exception and constraints of high retail rental costs in Hong Kong, you do have a consumer who is very informed, aware, mobile, well-travelled.  There is so much happening in Asia. There are so many interesting and different markets even withing China and it is very nuanced, more than most people would realise.

J: As an experienced buyer, what excites you most about new brands and products?

S: The thrill of seeing a new brand selling well. At the end of the day most people don't need anything new but there's the feeling of “you know it when you see it”. I'm a naturally curious person and I like the excitement discovering new things. It's part of my DNA.


J: Best piece of advice you received from mentors?

S: My first boss at Bloomingdales said you can do the best job in the world but you need to be vocal, because no one can read your mind about where you want to do or where you want to go. My dad gave me the old adage of being careful moving up and make sure you don't step on the hand of the person below you.  It's important to be fair and decent as the world is cyclical, the industry is small, and you never know when you will encounter someone in the future in a different business context.

J: Advice you would give to someone starting out?

S: Get broad based experience whenever and wherever you can. Don't discount lateral moves like moving sideways into different experiences, and don't focus on just moving up.  Serendipity is just as meaningful as planning. If something comes up that sounds interesting and you like the planning for it. There is a master plan and it's one that you both plan and let unfold.  If something comes up that is interesting, then go for it.

Get into a position where performance is very easily quantifiable. For everyone, especially for women, this is crucial, so that you, as well as your boss and peers, can see your own results.

Finally, follow your gut in terms of your own development and not to be derailed by extraneous noise or what others think.


In closing, with regards to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, successful women are really reluctant to discuss issues that Sheryl Sandberg raised for fear of appearing elitist. A lot of what Sheryl Sandberg is vocalising is what I have observed myself and the movement and discussion she is inspiring is remarkable.


*Full Disclosure – My Company, Glam-it!, recently launched our hero product GlamPact, the first all-in-one lighted refillable, customisable, rechargeable makeup compact, which in Hong Kong will be exclusively available in the following retail stores: Beyond Beauty at Harvey Nichols Landmark, Beyond Beauty at Harvey Nichols Pacific Place and Beauty Bazaar at The One.