Rachel Shechtman and Beth Comstock are unlikely confidantes. Shechtman reimagined retail with Story, a Manhattan boutique she founded that presents themed installations, or “stories,” many of which are sponsored by companies. Comstock ascended to the top of General Electric, becoming its first female vice chair and one of the most powerful leaders in business. Recently, the two experienced something of a role reversal. Comstock left GE during a management shake-up, while Shechtman went corporate: Earlier this year, she sold Story to Macy’s and became its brand experience officer. Here, the pair discuss the benefits (and risks) of corporate-entrepreneurial collaborations, and what they’ve learned from each other.
Shechtman and Comstock had known each other for years, but their friendship began in earnest in 2011 when GE agreed to sponsor a curated “experience” at Story.
Beth Comstock: Rachel is the most extroverted person you’ll ever meet. This is a person whose passion is to [make] cold calls.
Rachel Shechtman: I don’t use the word mentor, but I have lots of smart friends who give me advice. Beth and I went out to brunch and had a Bloody Mary, and the only time I’ve ever asked someone [for guidance was when] we were walking out of brunch and I was like, “Is it okay if sometimes I reach out to you to go for a walk? Because you have such a different perspective and experience than I do, and I really value your input.” I didn’t know that I’d be gaining a friend.
BC: I was intrigued by [Story’s] business model. It was retail, which I knew very little about. But the sponsorship piece I knew. We were trying to do more consumer-facing “maker movement” activities. Linda Boff (GE’s executive director, marketing communications, at the time), Rachel, and I cooked up this experience.
RS: That story, specifically, was one of the biggest “a-ha” moments in my career. Eighty percent of our space was interactive. There was a 3D printer and injection-molding machines. You had a 9-year-old seeing a 3D printer for the first time and hipsters etching MetroCard holders on the laser cutter. It was like, If there are all these online business models, why the hell are retailers still talking about sales per square foot? Why aren’t we looking at “experience per square foot”?
After 27 years at GE, Comstock retired at the end of 2017, along with several other high-profile executives. After leaving GE, she spent her time finishing Imagine It Forward, a book about managing change amid uncertainty.
BC: I didn’t realize how much work the book would be; I basically had to start a mini-company to help me get it together. It’s very lonely to be on your own. Recently, we were on a walk, and Rachel was like, “Now you know what I feel like! This is what an entrepreneur’s path is.”
RS: It might not feel natural or comfortable, but you have to talk about it because it’s just going to eat away at you, and that loneliness turns into resentment. Or I should say: It does for me.
BC: Rachel’s an open book. That would be one of the things I’ve really admired about her. She puts it out there: ideas, her feelings. I have learned a lot from that, and I’ve tried to open myself up more.
RS: I can take things personally and get very emotional. Beth sometimes will be like, “It’s not personal,” or, “Don’t let yourself go there.” The other thing I’ve always appreciated is that when she was at GE, in whatever role she’s ever been in, she’d always take the meeting. That says a lot about who she is.
Comstock was one of Shechtman’s sounding boards when Macy’s, with 2017 net sales of nearly $25 billion, offered to buy Story (terms were not disclosed).
RS: I wasn’t going to scale Story without a partner, because operations ain’t our expertise. There’s no one who knows scale like Macy’s. Many [big] companies ask themselves, Buy versus build? The idea of the “acquihire” is something that’s been familiar to Silicon Valley for 20 years, and something I think you’ll see more and more of [in retail]. The job titles and infrastructure of the past 50 years will not be the job titles and the infrastructure of the next 50 years. But it’s hard. For most entrepreneurs, the last thing they want to do is go work for a big company, because the lifeblood will be sucked out of them.
Who’s your icon?
BC: [After the Macy’s deal,] Rachel Blumenthal [founder of the children’s clothing company Rockets of Awesome] hosted a party for Rachel, and [Macy’s CEO] Jeff Genrette was there, and I was like, “I hope you leave her alone.” Big companies either reject the Rachels of the world, because they’re fearful or threatened, or they love them to death. Hopefully they’ll just get out of the way and let Rachel figure it out. Give Rachel a scale person and let them go. I think if companies can do that, they’ll win.