Question: How are you feeling about the reaction to the Walmart sale? A lot of people, both employees and customers, felt that Walmart was antithetical to Modcloth’s values, and seemed personally really angry with you. How did that feel?
SUSAN: I spent the last 15 years of my life working on this business and trying to make a positive difference in the world. It hurts to hear former employees and customers tell me that I am “selling out” or that I’m ruining the brand (aka: my life’s work, so far). But, now that I’ve had some time to think about everything, I’ve realized that the negative reactions are actually an indication of how strong the ModCloth brand and community are. People truly and passionately care about it, and feel like it’s something they own. And that’s extremely hard to create in a brand. So I’m proud of the reaction too, in some way.
I’ve also received incredible support from people who actually know me, and it has been a great learning lesson for me personally to really only care about the opinions of people who I know and respect. Without fail, all the other women entrepreneurs in my life have stood up for me and sent me words of encouragement. No one knows what it’s like to run a business, and have people’s livelihoods dependent on you, until they’ve done it. I started living with that responsibility when I hired my first employee a long time ago.
2. I heard from several people that Matt Kaness was really not enthusiastic about using plus size models, saying in one meeting that they weren’t “aspirational” to look at. Employees felt like he tried to street the marketing team away from using plus size models, trans women, girls in hijabs — the quote I have is “It was sorta well known around the company that Matt seemed to only get excited about models with a traditional look.” Have you heard that criticism of his leadership? How would you respond to it? Is that something you ever tried to address?
SUSAN: I learned so much from Matt in the two years I worked with him. Getting to learn from his years of experience at URBN and other lifestyle brands was especially illuminating for me, because I’ve never had a “real” job outside of ModCloth. One of my biggest goals that we talked about during Matt’s interview process in late 2014 was elevating and growing our in-house ModCloth line, which he has led our company to achieve in an incredibly short period of time. That has allowed us to bring even more of our assortment to our community in the full range of sizes, which Matt was adamant about doing. If you look at all we’ve done since the beginning of 2015, I think it’s clear that ModCloth, under Matt’s leadership, has continued to lead the charge in our industry and has become even more inclusive and diverse.
I’d also love Lizz, our Fashion Director, to respond to this question more directly too as she’s been leading this team specifically and can speak to how we’re committed moving forward:
LIZZ: One of the things I really appreciate about having Matt as a leader (I first started working for him in late 2015 at ModCloth) is this: while he’s constantly challenging us to be better and move faster, he is also genuinely open to feedback and has encouraged ModCloth to internalize his phrase “feedback is a gift”, which allows for many opinions and open debate before we pick a direction. I’m constantly impressed by the other women (and men) I get to work with everyday. We’ve all been hired here because we are smart: we are being paid for our experiences, ideas and opinions to grow (and protect) this brand. I’m confident giving feedback against any idea that isn’t right for our brand or community to start a dialogue to get to the right idea for ModCloth. And Matt has nurtured that environment. I hope that all our team members would feel the same, and if they don’t feel comfortable speaking up in a meeting in the moment, come to me or one of the other leaders so we can help.
I’m hugely inspired by Susan and ModCloth starting ‘real-casting’ so long ago, and being able to cast and shoot with inspiring (and yes, aspirational) women (cis and self-identifying) of all shapes, sizes, religions, races and ethnicities is one of the reasons I’m super proud to work at ModCloth. I’m excited about our March campaign, Style for All, that showcases some of these amazing women and goes more in depth about why we are inspired by them. We’ll be working with more inspirational women in the months to come.
Regarding the use of the word ‘aspirational’ in your question...The team has done an incredible job finding amazing models to work with, many of whom are modeling for the first time! But occasionally finding models that fit our plus photoshoot samples (size 2x) and are aspirational to our community (meaning they demonstrate that certain special spark/quirk and don’t just look like an un-attainable idea of someone else’s idea of beauty) has been challenging. So! if you live in the LA or the Pittsburgh area tag us on your instagram (@scoutmemc) if you’ve got that special ModCloth spark and wear a size 2X!
3. What was your role and Eric’s role after Matt took over as CEO? What’s your role today?
SUSAN: Eric was asked to step down as CEO by our investors. He did that in January 2015, and stayed on part time for a few months to help Matt transition. He has not been involved since, other than being an amazing partner to me at home. I was the Chief Creative Officer of ModCloth, managing our design and creative teams, until November 2016. After getting Matt up to speed, and getting Lizz Wasserman, our fashion director up to speed, I felt like I finally had a chance to step away from the business.
Since November, I have been a very part-time consultant at ModCloth, and I will continue to stay in that role for as long as it makes sense.
Eric and I are planning to spend the next year traveling the world and maybe writing a book about our experiences. We have lived three lifetimes in the last 15 years, and I think it would feel really good to share our successes, failures and learnings with others. Entrepreneurship is a really hard path, but it is incredibly rewarding, and I think more women especially need to consider it as a viable career option. If my story helps, that would be amazing.
4. What else am I missing? What else do you want to say about Modcloth’s current company culture? I’m interested in the way it might have changed over the years, and your hopes for it going forward.
SUSAN: As a leader, I have always relied on leading by example. I work hard, and I always strive to follow the golden rule and be kind to people, and I believe that is the culture that we built at ModCloth. The people we hired have done the same, and I would expect that to continue in the future.