Victoria's Secret chairwoman: 'We hear you' as brand evolves toward inclusivity
Donna James, with her characteristic modesty, emphasizes her new role as chairwoman of the soon-to-convene Victoria’s Secret board is not about her. And while the seven-member board of six women and one man, CEO Martin Waters, is quite possibly the most women-dominated corporate board in American business—someone please email me if I’m wrong—James says it’s not about the optics.
It’s about something deeper.
“I think it signals a reality of future possibilities for all of us around diversity,” the longtime Columbus executive says. “Where we're not into simple optics, especially optical novelty, [but where] we really are focused on what matters and what works for our associates, customers, the partners we have and our shareholders.
“That's what really excites me: the possibilities for the future. And not just around board composition, but for change and growth. As business and as people.”
Change and growth have been evident at the iconic Columbus lingerie retailer in recent years, as it lost its founding CEO Les Wexner following years of declining brand popularity, national media scrutiny in the wake of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal and reports that it harbored a culture of misogyny. The struggles prompted a decision to separate Victoria’s Secret from parent company L Brands, which will become Bath & Body Works.
In a time of #MeToo and calls for more inclusive sizing and marketing, Victoria’s Secret has dropped its Angels and launched the VS Collective, a diverse group of spokesmodels who include soccer star Megan Rapinoe, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and LGBTQ activist Valentina Sampaio, the first transgender model to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
The collective caps a gradual shift toward a new brand image, one that customers are noticing, as evidenced by improved financial performance over the past three quarters.
Hopes are high for the potential of the brand, which is still very much a dominant player in the global lingerie market, once its spinout is completed this summer. James, who is managing director of Lardon & Associates and a former top exec with Nationwide, will be joined on the new board by CEO Martin Waters and five women executives. They are Irene Chang Britt, former president, Pepperidge Farm and senior vice president with Campbell Soup Co.; Sarah Davis, former president, Loblaw Cos.; Jacqueline Hernández, former chief marketing officer, Hispanic enterprises and content, NBC Universal; Lauren Peters, Former CFO, Foot Locker; and Anne Sheehan, former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Investor Advisory Committee.
James says she’s never too old or too stuck in her ways to grow and change—and the same goes for Victoria’s Secret, where she has been a corporate director on the board of parent L Brands for about 17 years. “We're embracing change. We're confronting our past self in the process. And we're engaging others along the way toward becoming our best selves,” she says.
She calls the VS Collective “the embodiment of listening [to] what our customers were missing, what they were saying to us. And now we're saying: We hear you. The whole notion of this collective is women defining for themselves who they are and what they want to be, versus having that defined for them.
“These outstanding women have a voice about self, they have a platform to raise up other women, and we are part of supporting that, driving that—and doing it collectively. And the world needs a whole lot more of that.”