Alice Bedwell
Alice Bedwell
Posted 04 March 2024

Retail’s Leading Women: AMA with Julie Channing

For International Women’s Day 2024, we interviewed leading women in the retail marketing industry to highlight their experiences and learnings while helping aspiring leaders along the way.

This AMA (ask me anything) is with Julie Channing who has dedicated nearly 25 years to building and nurturing beloved world-class brands and dynamic marketing teams. Her journey has taken her from the ground floor of early-stage startups to the strategic echelons of legacy businesses, with a portfolio that includes giants like Levi’s, Google Nest, and Allbirds. At Allbirds, she didn’t just contribute; she was at the helm of building the brand and steering the marketing organization through its explosive first five years.

Now, Julie channels her vast experience into her own strategic marketing consultancy and advisory practice where she partners with consumer-led, purpose-driven brands eager to scale their impact and elevate their teams. Let’s take a look at Julie’s learnings and milestones from her career so far.

Can you share the journey of how you started in the retail marketing industry and the key milestones that have defined your career path?

I kicked off my career in the ad agency world, collaborating with iconic brands like Intel, Palm Pilot (oh, the memories!), and McDonald’s. My journey into retail marketing began while overseeing the Gap Inc. account, sparking my love for the fast-paced nature, cultural ties, and focus on the consumer. This passion led me to a role at Levi’s, a brand close to my heart as a Bay Area native, where I spearheaded our digital brand marketing efforts globally and in the US. Following Levi’s, I was part of Nest’s rapid expansion phase post-Google acquisition, helping to grow the US market and launching in eight European countries. My adventure continued at Allbirds as the first marketing hire, building the brand and marketing team from scratch and navigating us through seismic global growth over five years.

Nowadays, as a Fractional CMO and marketing advisor I’m focused on empowering purpose-driven brands to connect with their audience and drive brand + shareholder value simultaneously. Reflecting on my career, it’s clear my drive has always been to broaden my skills across different sectors and company stages, all while supporting brands that aim to make a real difference beyond just selling products.

As a woman in a leadership role, what challenges have you faced in the retail marketing sector, and how did you overcome them to achieve success?

My marketing leadership journey has been a beautiful mix of challenges and triumphs. I’ve encountered moments when my style or ideas were singled out as “too [something]” by some male colleagues—a label that seemed to stick less frequently to my male counterparts. Rather than see this as a setback, I used it as motivation to dig deeper and push further.

Reflecting on it, my competitive soccer days taught me invaluable lessons about resilience and self-assurance. Those experiences laid the groundwork for navigating professional challenges with determination and poise. They taught me the power of a confident voice and the importance of teamwork, lessons that have been indispensable in my career.

In leading teams and projects, my goal has always been to demonstrate the strength that diversity in leadership brings to our industry. There have been times when I felt the need to prove my worth more emphatically because of my gender, but I chose to view these moments as opportunities to showcase my unique contributions. As a woman and a working mother, I bring perspectives that enrich discussions and decision-making processes.

For me, achieving success means breaking down barriers and fostering an environment where diverse leadership is not just welcomed but seen as essential for innovation and growth. It’s about leading with both head and heart, showing that our varied experiences and voices not only have a place at the table but are key drivers of progress and creativity.

Can you highlight a specific project or initiative that you are particularly proud of in your career, and how it has impacted the retail marketing industry?

One of my career highlights was playing a pivotal role in the formative years of Allbirds, a venture that not only disrupted a traditional industry but also set a new standard for purpose-driven brand marketing. The introduction of Allbirds was a game-changer, captivating both consumers and the industry with our unconventional approach. This ranged from our eco-friendly packaging that doubled as a shoebox and shipper, to our unique store design that enhanced the customer try-on experience, to memorable material storytelling and unexpected brand partnerships.

What fills me with pride is not just the success of Allbirds itself but seeing its ripple effect across the retail marketing industry. From streamlined packaging initiatives to a greater emphasis on sustainable materials and transparency about carbon footprints, it’s clear that our innovations have inspired broader industry change. It’s incredibly rewarding to witness and know that I played a part in sparking this shift.

Mentorship and support are crucial in professional growth. What advice would you give someone looking for the right mentor?

I once heard a great piece of advice: finding the right mentor is like putting together your own personal Board of Directors. It’s a strategy about pinpointing the exact skills you want to hone and then connecting with people who aren’t just experts in those fields but also resonate with you on a deeper level. Based on what I’ve learned:

  • Identify Your Needs: Start by taking a hard look at where you want your career to go and figure out what kind of guidance you need to get there. This could be anything from specific industry insights to leadership skills, or advice on making big career moves.

  • Diverse Perspectives Are Key: A mentor with a background that’s different from your own can open your eyes to new ideas, sparking creativity and innovative solutions you might not have considered.

  • The Importance of Genuine Connections: Seek out mentors whose work and values inspire you, creating a relationship that’s built on more than just professional achievements.

  • Respect Goes Both Ways: Good mentorship is a give-and-take. Make the most of their time by coming to each meeting prepared and with clear goals. And don’t forget to bring your own insights to the table; sometimes, a fresh perspective is exactly what your mentor might appreciate.

What advice would you give someone who has just started out as a mentor?

Being a mentor is such an incredible honor, but as with any important role it comes with great responsibility as well. 

One key piece of advice for new mentors is to avoid the instinct to solve every problem for your mentee. True mentorship lies in highlighting unseen opportunities and perspectives, rather than direct problem-solving. Listening intently and reflecting on your mentee’s thoughts can often lead to more profound development, helping them to hone their decision-making skills and confidence.

Additionally, expanding your mentee’s network by introducing them to your professional connections can be incredibly beneficial. It not only broadens their perspective but also opens doors to new possibilities.

Lastly, embracing mentorship as a mutual learning experience is vital. Soliciting feedback from your mentee can reveal areas for your own growth and improve your effectiveness as a mentor.

How do you approach balancing work and personal life in a demanding industry like retail marketing, and do you have any advice for other women striving to achieve this balance?

Juggling a vibrant career in retail marketing alongside personal life has definitely had its ups and downs. Early in my journey as a working mother, I received two sage pieces of advice that I still call upon: “done is better than perfect” and “it’s not what you do, it’s what you get done”. 

These mantras have been game-changers, especially in a world where the pursuit of perfection can feel like the norm. They’re reminders to value efficiency and practicality over chasing impossible standards. After all, we don’t get extra karma points for trying to be Wonder Women! 

Besides having these pearls of wisdom as daily reminders on a post-it by my desk, two specific strategies have really helped me find a better balance lately:

  • Prioritization and Delegation: I use a simple method to mark tasks based on their importance (I) and urgency (U), directing my energy where it’s most impactful. Striving to devote at least 80% of my time to tasks with significant impact daily keeps me focused on what truly matters.

  • Mindfulness Minutes: Understanding the critical role of my mental health like never before, I’ve turned to guided meditations for a quick reset. Apps like Calm offer quick sessions that boost my focus and lift my mood, proving invaluable during crazy busy days in particular.

Staying on top of the ever-evolving landscape of our industry feels like a full-time gig in itself, but I do my best to soak up daily updates and actively expand my knowledge. Here’s how I tackle it:

  • Daily Dives: My routine includes a blend of newsletters and social media handles that provide a wide spectrum of viewpoints on the marketing and retail landscape. I lean on favorites such as BoF, NRF Smartbrief, Puck, Forbes, Adweek, and Marketing/Retail Brew for their comprehensive snapshots of trends and breakthroughs.

  • LinkedIn Learning: A daily scroll through LinkedIn lets me see what’s capturing the attention of my peers and industry leaders, providing real-time insights into our evolving field.

  • Active Learning: I’m committed to never stop learning, setting aside time each month to dive deeper into topics that I want to better understand. Whether it’s a webinar, podcast or online course, platforms like BoF, Marketers That Matter and Section have been invaluable for expanding my expertise, especially on cutting-edge topics redefining our industry, like generative AI at the moment.

Diversity and inclusion are essential in fostering innovation. How do you contribute to creating an inclusive culture in your team and the retail marketing industry as a whole?

In my work as a marketing consultant, I help brands weave diversity and inclusion into everything they do. It’s all about making sure inclusivity and accessibility aren’t just buzzwords but are actually reflected in their strategies and customer experiences. For example, with one client focused on young families, we’re highlighting the many forms families take today. And for another, traditionally seen as a luxury brand, we’re working on breaking down price barriers to make wellbeing accessible to more people. These projects fire me up, as I get to support brands across and beyond retail in building a more inclusive world for their customers and their teams.

Given your experience, what advice would you offer to young women aspiring to pursue a leadership role within the industry?

Leadership is so much more than just a title. It’s about the impact we create, the inspiration we spark, and the positive changes we drive forward. Looking back on my own journey, I’m truly proud of the milestones I’ve hit and the obstacles I’ve navigated through. Here are a handful of lessons that have not just guided me, but also kept me anchored and propelled me forward:

  • Own Your Unique Voice: Embrace your individuality; it’s your superpower for igniting innovation and effecting change. Don’t shy away from being distinct with your ideas and viewpoints.

  • Keep Learning and Growing: The path to leadership is filled with invaluable lessons. Treat each challenge as an opportunity to learn something new and to stretch beyond your comfort zones.

  • Find Your People: Surround yourself with a supportive network of mentors and friends who boost you and push you to expand your horizons. Remember, it’s about genuine connections, not just climbing the ladder.

  • Bounce Back Stronger: Face it, setbacks are part of the journey. What really counts is your resilience in bouncing back, learning from these experiences, and continuing to forge ahead.

  • Speak Up: Champion your ideas and take pride in your achievements, no matter the size. And don’t forget to lift others up along the way. Shared success is the best kind.

  • Stay Authentic: Your values are your guiding light, steering your decisions and actions. Never lose sight of them.

As a leader, what role do you believe women play in shaping the future of retail marketing, and what changes or advancements would you like to see in the industry to further support women’s growth and success?

Living in a world that still feels like it was primarily designed by and for men, despite women making up more than half the population, really highlights why we need more women at the forefront of creating empathetic, inclusive, and deeply resonant retail strategies.

To truly champion women’s advancement and success, it’s crucial to roll up our sleeves and get practical. This means ramping up mentorship and sponsorship to give women clear paths forward, coupled with the guidance they need to shine. Embracing flexible work setups is another must-do, allowing women to juggle their careers and personal lives more smoothly and happily. Tailoring leadership development to the unique hurdles women face is also key to building their confidence and skill set.

By putting these actions at the forefront of every company agenda, we can unlock the immense potential of women leaders, driving forward innovation and growth. As retail continues to evolve into a more digital, personalized, and values-driven space, the influence of women leaders becomes not just beneficial but essential for brands looking to exceed customer expectations in this new era of business.

If you want to hear more from inspiring women in the retail industry, we’re proud to say our Lifecycle24 line-up is full of them! Get your ticket to the community conference of the year, on 30th April 2024, here.

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