Demanding a Seat at the Table: How Gap Inc. Alum Emilie Arel Became One of Retail's Powerhouse CEOs

Gap Inc.
In an office overlooking the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the entire Hudson Bay (no big deal), we met Emilie Arel, CEO of the plus-sized portfolio of retail brands, FULLBEAUTY and Gap Inc. alum. It’s 9 a.m. on a beautiful summer morning, she’s on her second cup of tea, and ready to take on the day. Emilie has spent the majority of her career in retail, has had an incredible career path, and is an inspiration for all women looking to be leaders in their career.  
 
We sat down with Emilie and asked about her time at Gap Inc., how it shaped who she is today, her belief in the power of a good outfit, and what it means to demand a seat at the table.
 
Where did your love of retail come from?
My parents were both public school teachers, and my dad owned a flower shop in our small town of 1,800 people, so the values of retail and entrepreneurship run deep in my family.
 
What was your first job?
When I was fifteen, I got a job at Buckle, working in the stock room. Somehow, I was hired even though you weren’t supposed to work there until the age of 16. I enjoyed working in the store so much that looking back on it now, it’s probably my second favorite job of all time. At the time, I even considered dropping out of college to do it full time, I loved it so much. It gave me such a good foundation in the retail industry.
 
How did you go from working in a stockroom to being a CEO?
During college, I got an internship at Nordstrom, which gave me a lot of insight into how a major corporation works. Then I worked at Target, which was such a great way for me to learn about retail in a broader category of products. It was truly a magical place; everyone there had bullseyes flowing through their veins!
 
At the end of 2006, I had a boyfriend in California, and I knew a few folks from Target who went to Gap, so I got a job as the Merchandising Manager of Women’s at Gap Outlet, and to this day, that is still my favorite job I’ve ever had. I still dream about it if you can believe that! I had the best team and it was during such a transformative time in the brand. We had just reworked the strategy from selling last season’s clothes to building our own product assortment.
 
From there, I went to Old Navy to start their licensing business and later, I accepted a VP position overseeing stores, which was a whole new experience for me. My manager at the time was incredible (and is one of my most admired leaders to date), and he took a chance on me. I spent the next few years asking a lot of questions, learning a ton, and understanding the heartbeat of Gap Inc., which is the stores. There are so many female employees in stores, and being able to work with them, see them, teach them, and learn from them was a really special part of my career.
 
Then, it dawned upon me that there’s this thing out there called the Internet, and I needed to learn about it, so I got a job at Amazon.
 
What was your experience at Amazon like?
I came in as the SVP of retail and then became the CEO of Quidsi. It was intense and fast-paced. Amazon is like nowhere else I have worked – you have to learn a whole new way to work. I made one of the hardest career decisions I ever had to make while I was there. When we integrated our business into Amazon, we had to let a lot of people go. That was difficult for me because it wasn’t a people-driven decision, it was a business decision. But I’m happy to say we were able to find almost everyone a job
 
And then I ended up at FULLBEAUTY, and I’ve been here for almost a year.
 
FULLBEAUTY has laid a stake in the ground as it relates to plus-size clothing and body positivity before that ever became more mainstream. How does it make you feel to be a part of a company that made history?
This company was founded in 1901, and at the time, no one was talking about plus-size clothing. I truly believe clothes can change the way you feel – give you confidence for a meeting or a date, make you sit up a little straighter. It’s also important to me because my mom is a plus-sized woman, and I’ve seen her struggle her whole life with finding clothes that fit and being confident in them. And truthfully, everyone can relate to not being able to find your size and your fit, and it doesn’t feel good. I’m proud of the work we’re doing at FULLBEAUTY; we get so many emails and letters from customers that our jeans make them feel amazing. Honestly, I think that feeling of serving a higher purpose was fostered at Gap, where there is such a strong sense of community and giving back to something outside of yourself and the business.
 
What makes you feel confident?
It’s funny, people think as a CEO you’re confident all the time, and that’s not true. I was telling my daughter earlier today, who just started a new camp, that I get scared too. When I walk into a meeting with 19 men, all with a finance background, it can sometimes be scary. After talking to them for a while I realize they’re not smarter than me, and we all bring something different to the table. I always tell myself, “Don’t wonder, just ask.” Find the thing that makes you feel insecure, and then dig in! Be curious about it. For me, it was when I decided to get my Masters to learn more about finance, because I found myself in meetings where I didn’t understand the numbers. I’m not saying I’m going to turn around and be a CFO now, but I feel comfortable sitting at the table and contributing to the conversation in an area that I used to not know much about. It’s funny because I don’t actually think I’ve been highly qualified for any of the jobs I’ve done, but it turns out that if you hire smart, curious people, they can figure out just about anything. It may not be the case for an airline pilot or a surgeon though!
 
What does being a good mentor mean to you?
When I was offered the CEO job at Quidsi, I turned it down because I was eight and a half months pregnant with my first child. My boss at the time pulled me into her office and said, “I’m not letting you turn this job down.” I was so worried about not being able to pick up my kid from daycare or having to take my kids to the doctor, and not being able to do the job as a result, and my boss said, “Do those things. Just make it work for you.” Great mentors allow you to live your life AND work. I’ve had so many people throughout my career that have helped me build my confidence – they’ve put me in my place or lifted me up when I needed it most (and we all need both).
 
You’ve worked for quite a few portfolio companies – Quidsi, Gap Inc. and now FULLBEAUTY. What draws you to these types of companies?
I get bored really easily, and there’s so many different things you can do within a portfolio company. That’s what drew me to Gap Inc. – there were so many different functions and brands, and seemingly endless opportunities because of it. In the fast-changing world of retail, it’s interesting to have so many levers to pull.
 
What’s the best thing about being a CEO?
I get to help set the leadership and culture of the company. To me, your strategy doesn’t matter if you don’t have the right people, the right vibe, and the right culture to build a place where people want to work. I also love helping people achieve things they couldn’t have imagined. That is such an important part of my job. I wake up every morning and am genuinely excited about coming into work.
 
What don’t you like about being a CEO?
Probably the stuff that most people dislike in their jobs – things that get in the way of moving fast…like recapping a recap.
 
CEOs are predominantly male. What advice would you give to other women who want to be a CEO or a leader in business?
It’s so important for women to find a seat at the table. We hear that phrase a lot these days, but it’s something you really have to push for – literally and figuratively. I have a poster up on my wall that says, “If you can’t find a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Don’t wonder if you can do it, ask if you can do it. Don’t wait for someone to give you something, go get it. Don’t wait to check off everything on the qualifications list either! Take a leap of faith, and trust that you’ll figure out the rest!
 
It’s important to know there will be uncomfortable moments. And that those uncomfortable moments are not a bad thing. In many of my meetings, I’m the only female in the room, which can be uncomfortable, or I guess at least noteworthy at times. If we have a firm coming in to pitch to us, I’ll ask, “Do you have a female partner that can do the presentation?” As women, it is our obligation to ask those questions and demand that people start thinking about it. We have to speak up. I love that Beyoncé demanded that a Black photographer do her photoshoot for the September issue of Vogue. That’s what we need to do – make demands to make change. We can’t wait around for someone to do it for us.
 
We certainly left our meeting with Emilie with a little more pep in our step and a newfound appreciation for folding chairs. Emilie’s passion for retail, belief in people, and inquisitive nature has taken her career straight to the top. Many of those skills were incubated at Gap Inc., and we’re super proud to be a part of her journey.

 

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