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Wearing your tech on your sleeve

Executives from Sephora and Stitch Fix share their secrets to luring tech talent to retail

Wearing your tech on your sleeve
Image provided by National Retail Federation

Not long ago, tech companies attracted all the top tech talent, and for obvious reasons. But today, there is little distinction between tech companies and traditional companies—there are just companies. Any difference is merely a matter of degrees. That also means the competition for technology talent has heated up. It’s no longer a handful of technology giants and start-ups in Silicon Valley fighting over top talent. It’s everyone, everywhere.

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The role that technology plays across the contemporary retail landscape—and how companies can attract and retain top tech talent—was the topic of a lively discussion at the National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show conference, cosponsored by Fast Company, in New York City last month. Executives from Sephora and Stitch Fix shared their thoughts in a panel entitled “Tech First: How Retail Is Reimagining Talent and Acquisition for the Digital Generation.”

MAKING AN IMPACT

According to Karalyn Smith, senior vice president of HR at Sephora, finding and recruiting personnel for positions that are largely unfamiliar to a legacy organization is only half the challenge. The next is integrating these hires into the operation so they not only succeed, but also influence the larger culture. Smith told the assembled crowd that when competing with the likes of Googleand Facebook for talent, the key is to figure out a way to stand out, to find what resonates with potential hires and what motivates them to consider Sephora. “What would make you want to come here and then, more importantly, want to stay with us? Oftentimes people don’t see a career in retail if you’re in a tech job or have a technical background,” Smith said. “So how do we actually speak about our purpose and mission? How do we show the impact of what they could do on millions of people?”

Margo Downs, the chief people and culture officer at Stitch Fix, an e-commerce subscription fashion brand, emphasized the importance of demonstrating that potential impact. “You’re not going to be shoved in a corner someplace, like maybe in one of the Big Four companies where you’re sort of slinging code all day,” Downs said. “One of the things we have at Stitch Fix is hybrid designs, in which data scientists and merchants literally create new products together. So, I think those are some of the things that really, really make a difference.”

Stitch Fix combines Netflix-style algorithms with human intuition; more than 3,000 stylists fine-tune each delivery or “fix” to the individual user, based on a “style profile” each customer provides. It’s a business model that creates enormous sums of data, and Downs says the opportunity to combine that with fashion retail has been a significant selling point.

“Data scientists love data, so a huge attraction is to be able to work with all of that data,” Downs said. “People want to solve really interesting problems, and we’ve got really interesting problems to solve. So how do we talk about that? We’ve done a lot of tech blogging, so that we can actually communicate to people about what we’re working on.”

Stitch Fix has a deep archive of content around both engineering and algorithms, with not-exactly-fashion-blog titles, such as “Patterns of Service-oriented Architecture: Database Transactions.” Downs says that while she may not fully understand the technology behind it, she does know the value of people getting an inside look at how the company is approaching its tech challenges from peers who are outlining the actual problems they’re trying to solve.

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BRINGING TEAMS TOGETHER

Sephora recently launched an initiative called the Innovation Think Tank, which encourages employees from different disciplines—data scientists, project managers, engineers, etc.—to team up on a variety of company challenges outside their day-to-day roles. The teams present their ideas to the senior executive team, showcasing their ideas, their technical talent, and what they can do for the company. “Things like that engage that workforce, and I guarantee they were all talking about it with their peers,” Smith said. “It’s an exciting way to engage that talent in a way that makes them feel important and valued.”

Last year Stitch Fix launched an interactive, mobile, and web-based game called Style Shuffle. The game gives users style choices to rate with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” Their ratings are then added to the user’s profile, which makes the company’s recommendation algorithms even smarter for that customer’s potential purchase suggestions. Stitch Fix has reported higher engagement and satisfaction among customers who play the game.

Downs says a member of the company’s data-science team created Style Shuffle as a side project on his own time. “[He did it] just because he was super intrigued by the problem to solve,” she told the panel. “It wasn’t on a road map, nobody asked him. When we debriefed afterwards, he said, ‘There were definitely challenges that came up along the way with this project, but there was never an organizational issue of getting this done.’ And that’s unique to the company.I think that’s what we’re really talking about: Can I do cool stuff here? Can I be innovative, and can I get stuff done?”

When asked how the company encourages current talent to stay tech savvy while learning new skills and continuing to innovate, Downs underscored the importance of creating an environment in which people are able to develop, learn, and grow based on what they are exposed to. “The way you help people continue to be tech savvy is to get out of their way and create environments where people can continue to innovate, continue to challenge, and continue to say what isn’t working,” she said. “You can’t have any sacred cows. You really can’t get stuck, because if you do then you’re actually going to shut down the innovation that’s in the company.”

Ultimately, both Smith and Downs agree that the way to attract and keep tech talent often boils down to one thing: culture. Smith says it is the primary differentiator for any company. At Sephora, hiring around a core set of values like resiliency, inclusiveness, and curiosity is just as important as an individual’s specific skills. “If we hire people who embrace that and lead with that in their heart, we could teach you other things, we can build skills,” Smith says. “But those are the kinds of things that it’s harder to teach. So we want to set expectations and hire people that buy into our mission and our values. That’s really important.”

This article was created for and commissioned by the National Retail Federation.

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