Donna James Leads the Plan to Guide Victoria’s Secret into an Inclusive, Profitable Future

James is a power player with a successful track record as a C-suite executive and a trusted business adviser. Now, as board chair, she’s helping navigate the lingerie giant out of its troubled past.

Julanne Hohbach
Columbus CEO
Donna James became board chair for Victoria’s Secret & Co. when it spun into an independent company in August 2021.

Ask those who know Donna James about her strengths as a leader, and you’ll hear words like strategic, savvy, empathetic, passionate and good at empowering others.

But meet her for the first time, and you’ll likely be struck most by her warm, welcoming personality—a trait that can belie her shrewd business acumen. Colleagues and longtime friends say she has the ability to ask the hard questions but also the compassion to understand different perspectives.

James has been tapping those skills and more as chair of the board of Victoria’s Secret & Co., which in August marked its one-year anniversary as an independent company. It’s a job for which she seems ideally suited.

James, 65, has long been a local power player, rising through the ranks at Nationwide to become one of the Fortune 500 company’s top executives, then retiring and launching her own business advisory firm, Lardon & Associates, of which she’s managing director. She is also a sought-after board member, with 20 years of experience guiding nonprofits and private and public companies, including serving as a director of L Brands—Victoria’s Secret’s former parent—from 2003 to 2021.

Now, James is helping navigate the post-L Brands future of Victoria’s Secret, which is undertaking a multipronged effort to remake itself in a more modern image, with diversity and inclusivity at the forefront and a mission to be “the world’s leading advocate for women.”

But the baggage is significant, from years of declining sales to former L Brands CEO Les Wexner’s ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. It won’t be easy. But James’ friends and business confidants say she’s the right person to lead the eight-member board (seven of whom are women) as it guides the company forward.

CEO Martin Waters, the eighth board member, agrees. “Donna is an accomplished and experienced leader and was the unanimous choice to chair our diverse board of directors. Her ability to build consensus and steward change has been invaluable to our continued transformation. She leads with compassion and humility and is widely respected in and out of the boardroom. I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with Donna in this capacity and appreciate her continued leadership,” he says via email.

When board colleagues asked her to serve as chair, James didn’t say yes right away. “What crossed my mind is what always crosses my mind, [which] is, ‘Where can I be the most helpful? How can I be effective in whatever moment of time any of my businesses are in?’” she says. “I thought about it from two perspectives. One, is it something that I wanted to do? And then two, am I the best person for this role at this time? And after some thoughtful reflection and consulting some of my advisers as well, I said yes. I said a very comfortable yes. I said a very proud yes, as a matter of fact, because I’m really proud to be in this role,” James says.

One of those she consulted was longtime friend and confidant Yvette McGee Brown, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice who’s now a partner at Jones Day. “She really, I think, embodies where Victoria’s Secret wants to go,” McGee Brown says. “I just have such confidence in her instincts and her ability to drive the agenda without being dictatorial, being an inclusive leader. I think that really is her gift.”

Lark Mallory, president and CEO of the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County, says James is “one of the most strategic minds I have ever met,” and she considers her a trusted adviser and mentor. “I think Donna sees the whole court. She understands the big picture as well as how the little pieces fit together.”

Taking Action to Move the Company Forward

Where does Victoria’s Secret want to go? Where doesn’t it might be an easier question to answer. Since separating from Bath & Body Works Inc. and L Brands Inc. on Aug. 3, 2021, the company has undertaken what it calls “The Victoria’s Secret Transformation”—a wide-ranging effort that aims to boost diversity, foster inclusion, start conversations, invest in women-owned businesses, further its commitment to fund cancer research and mental health, and more.

A six-page overview document offers a dizzying spin through the highlights: hiring more diverse models, including women of all body types and skin colors, a transgender model and one with Down syndrome; launching the VS Collective, a group of celebrities, athletes and activist ambassadors, including Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Megan Rapinoe and Paloma Elsesser; starting a VS Voices podcast focused on trailblazing women; debuting the Happy Nation gender-neutral brand for tweens; introducing a mastectomy bra; starting the VS&Co-Lab, a curated online collection of outside brands; partnering with Amazon; and committing to invest $7 million in women entrepreneurs with Amplifyher Ventures.

For a lingerie company that serves a predominantly female audience to focus on advancing women was a no-brainer, James says. “Alignment with being a leading advocate for women has to go beyond leading in sales of lingerie,” she says. “You have to speak to and engage your audience, and engage in a meaningful and healthy way, because they will see right through it if it’s not. And so partnering with, investing in, women-owned businesses or women-led businesses is a natural.”

Early on, the board’s strategy focused on the associates who had persevered through enormous change, making sure the right management team was in place to drive the vision and highlighting “her”—the customer. “The strategy session that we had right after going public is where we kind of coalesced around the focus on her and what that means, and what we have learned about transparency and accountability as a business, and transparency and accountability starting internally with our employees, and continuing to build that trust,” James says. “Because if you don’t get it right from the inside, it’ll show on the outside.”

Donna James discusses her tenure as board chair for Victoria’s Secret & Co. at the company’s headquarters in Reynoldsburg.

James is encouraged by early successes, including positive employee feedback and a solid fall 2021 season following the split. Consumer reaction, however, has been mixed. James says while some shoppers never left and some are returning, they’ve lost customers who think the brand isn’t sexy enough anymore. Some are skeptical that the promised changes will stick long term, she says, while others—including model Bella Hadid—are willing to re-embrace the company. “That’s what we’re looking for, one person at a time, and there are going to be those who complain, who don’t like the changes that we’re making, that inclusivity—it’s not their thing. That’s OK. When we had our first transgender model, we got lots of accolades and then we had people who didn’t like it. That’s OK.

“Sometimes you think the reaction’s going to be great. Who doesn’t like inclusivity? It worries some people. And so we know we’re stepping into not just issues of body size and shape. We’re stepping into issues of the heart, issues that are social in nature, issues of engagement between people and human dignity, and in that process, we’re learning and growing, and we need to give other people room and grace to learn and grow, as well.”

In April, the company released its first environmental, social and governance report, detailing its efforts in areas such as diversity, equity and inclusion; workplace issues, including new photo shoot procedures; sustainability; environmental impact; supply chain standards; and community relations. James says the 21-page document includes changes the company has made in the last year, but much of it enumerates things the company already was doing. “We’ve got a story to tell. It’s a good story,” she says.

Echoes of the Past

Wexner acquired Victoria’s Secret from founder Roy Raymond in 1982 for a reported $1 million and grew it from $4 million in annual sales to billions, operating it under entities including Intimate Brands, Limited Brands and L Brands.

But eventually, the business began to fall out of favor with some customers amid complaints of declining quality and criticism it had lost touch with consumers, particularly in the #MeToo era. Net sales dropped, sinking from nearly $7.8 billion in 2016 to $6.8 billion in 2021, but that wasn’t the only problem.

The company discontinued its signature Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, launched in 1995, after chief marketing officer Ed Razek told Vogue before the 2018 show that he wouldn’t use transgender models and said the public had no interest in plus-size models. The show had its worst ratings ever, and Razek left the company in 2019.

Wexner himself soon came under fire for his ties to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender who was indicted in July 2019 on sex trafficking charges and was accused of using his relationship with Wexner to misrepresent himself as a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret. Epstein had managed Wexner’s finances for years, but in a letter to his foundation, Wexner said he cut ties with Epstein in 2007 after he was charged with sex crimes involving minors. Speculation swirled, and questions about the brand’s treatment of women intensified.

A New York Times investigation published in February 2020 alleged that executives had alerted Wexner to Razek’s repeated inappropriate conduct with models and that a pervasive culture of harassment and demeaning behavior toward women persisted. Wexner stepped down as chairman and CEO of L Brands in May 2020 and retired from the board a year later. Many questions remain unanswered.

James doesn’t try to dodge the pains of the past but prefers to focus on the actions of the present. “You can tell people or you can show them, and you can’t deny the past, and you can’t tell the past from the viewpoint of everyone who’s experienced it. You just have to own [that] it was an experience and learn from it and move forward with that learning.”

Over the summer, “Victoria’s Secret,” a viral TikTok song by Jax, hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a catchy melody and lyrics criticizing the company—specifically Wexner, “an old man who lives in Ohio”—for contributing to young girls’ body-image issues. While other companies might have waited for it to blow over, Victoria’s Secret and Pink CEO Amy Hauk, who oversees both brands while Waters leads the overall company, responded on Instagram with a handwritten letter. “We make no excuses for the past. And we’re committed to regaining your trust,” she wrote. “We are all committed to building a community where everyone feels seen and respected. And if we mess up or can do better, we want to know.”

To James, that response epitomized the values the new company aims to embody. “As soon as I saw it after the fact, I sent her a note and said thank you, because this is who we are.”

Climbing the Corporate Ladder

In addition to her chair role and her business, James’ current commitments include serving on the boards of Boston Scientific Corp., The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., private investment company Xponance and OhioHealth. On the civic side, she’s co-executive director of the African American Leadership Academy and has been involved in numerous organizations, including CelebrateOne, YWCA Columbus, the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio and United Way of Central Ohio, to name a few.

Two causes, though, have a more personal connection. Victoria’s Secret’s commitment to cancer research, including funding research into women’s cancers through a partnership with Pelotonia, is near and dear to James, as is the development of the company’s first mastectomy bra. James was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2017 after finding a lump during a self-exam. Though it was caught early, it was an aggressive triple-negative cancer, so she opted for a double mastectomy. “I’m glad I did, because the tissue in my other breast was precancerous,” she says. Chemotherapy followed the surgery, and she remains on a medication regimen. “So when we came up with a mastectomy bra, trust me, I was the first one online putting my order in,” she says.

A deeply personal experience from her childhood in Greensboro, North Carolina, inspired another passion. James co-founded the Center for Healthy Families to help pregnant and teen parents in Columbus. James herself was a teen mom and credits the support of her family for enabling her to graduate high school in 1975. Her mom and grandmother watched the baby while James attended school and worked a part-time job. As she worked her way through North Carolina A&T State University, they continued to provide support.

James graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and moved to Columbus with her young son, Christopher. She started out at Coopers & Lybrand, a forerunner to PricewaterhouseCoopers, and figured she’d end up being a partner in a big firm. Instead, she was recruited to join Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. in an accounting role in 1981. She moved up the ladder, serving as executive vice president and chief administrative officer and, ultimately, president of Nationwide Strategic Investments, the job from which she retired after 25 years at the company.

James has been a director for numerous other companies—notably Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., CNO Financial Group, Time Warner Cable Inc. and Marathon Petroleum Corp., where she also served two years as a board adviser—as well as a board member for her alma mater. She was appointed by President Barack Obama in October 2010 to chair the National Women’s Business Council, a post she held until stepping down in May 2013.

Today, James finds herself in rarified air at Victoria’s Secret, which ranks No. 480 on the 2022 Fortune 500. A biannual study by the Alliance for Board Diversity and Deloitte shows that in 2020, just 26.5 percent of Fortune 500 board seats were filled by women—only 5.7 percent of them racial minorities. Progress has been slow: In 2010, the percentages stood at 15.7 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, according to “Missing Pieces Report: The Board Diversity Census.” Even worse, only 30 Fortune 500 companies had a female board chair in 2020, and 29 of them were white.

McGee Brown says few executives—particularly professionals of color—have James’ particular skillset. “She is so elegant with this quiet confidence that when she’s in a room, she listens. She doesn’t always have to be the one speaking, but when she does, you can tell it’s something she’s thought about, and not just in the moment, but thoroughly analyzed,” McGee Brown says. “I admire her ability to ask the hard questions without emotion or suggesting a response or being vitriolic. It really is a skill, particularly when she is often the only person of color in the boardroom. She asks the questions that many of us, when we’re the only one, may feel a little uncomfortable about raising. But she does it from a place of knowledge and strength and understanding the business of the organization.”

Dr. Stephen Markovich, president and CEO of OhioHealth, says James is a servant leader at heart, and he views her as the conscience of the health system’s board. “Any organization that she chooses to work with, her lens will be very strategic, very values-based, and she will work to make sure that that organization does the best job it can in fulfilling its mission,” he says.

Giving Back to the Community

James and her husband, Larry James, managing partner with the law firm of Crabbe, Brown & James, will celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary in October. They are well-known patrons of the Central Ohio arts community and generous with their charitable giving. “The two of them have worked to make our community better, more equitable,” Mallory says.

In September, the Jameses received the 2022 Harrison M. Sayre Award from the Columbus Foundation for their work to advance philanthropy and leadership. They also were the honorees of the 2022 CAPA Gala Celebration. Earlier this year, the couple announced they would donate 42 pieces from their personal collection to the Columbus Museum of Art via a bequest. The artwork was displayed in a special exhibition, Forward Together: Promised Gifts from the Collection of Donna and Larry James, from March to late September.

Much as she enjoys community involvement, James also is enjoying this latest career challenge. Victoria’s Secret’s second quarter financial results, released in late August, fell mostly within projections but forecast a drop in net sales from the $6.8 billion posted in 2021, citing continued inflationary and financial pressures on customers. The company announced a $250 million share repurchase program in March, which it expects to conclude by year’s end.

In early September, the stock (NYSE: VSCO) was trading in the $31 to $35 range. Its 52-week high of $65.20 came Feb. 10, with a low of $26.14 on July 13—the day after it announced a new leadership structure that included executive shuffles and the elimination of 160 management jobs at the company’s home office.

What goals has James laid out for her second year? “My biggest goal is to make sure we have laid down track so that we don’t get off of it. And if we do, we’ll know. And that track isn’t just financial, it’s culture. And so my biggest goal is to make sure, along with this leadership team, that we continue to have a healthy and happy culture,” she says. “That means employees are engaged. That means they feel good about the work that they’re doing and how it’s getting done. It doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. But it means that when it’s not perfect, there are ways to communicate back with the leadership at the board about what’s not working and that they’re confident their voice will be heard.”

About Donna James

Chair of the board, Victoria’s Secret & Co.; managing director, Lardon & Associates

Age: 65

Previous: President, Nationwide Strategic Investments; executive vice president and chief administrative officer, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.; accountant, Coopers & Lybrand/PricewaterhouseCoopers; board member for multiple for-profit and nonprofit organizations

Education: North Carolina A&T State University, bachelor’s degree in accounting

Resides: Miranova, Downtown Columbus

Family: James and her husband, attorney Larry James, have two adult sons, Christopher and Justin, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren

This story appears jointly in the Fall 2022 issue of Columbus CEO and the October 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.