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Solve at MIT Insights: Cultivating a Future for Corporate Female Leadership

Solve at MIT’s “Innovation for and by Women” plenary highlighted female leaders driving impact across a range of industries. Linda Henry, Managing Director of The Boston Globe, moderated a conversation between two veteran executives: Neela Montgomery, CEO of Crate and Barrel, and Marjorie Yang, Chairman of Esquel Group. 

Working at a male-dominated company early in her career, Montgomery recalled the caveats that came with success. “I remember when I was first promoted to a director, I got a stylist,” she chuckled. “They sent me a stylist who would make me seem more like a director. And her advice was don’t wear so much red.”

Thanks to both female role modeling and progressive male attitudes, Montgomery has observed a marked shift in corporate culture that allows more room for feminine models of leadership. Despite this, she encouraged women to look beyond companies’ diversity claims when choosing employers. 

“What’s critical is that when women are making those career choices, they really investigate companies from a data perspective,” Montgomery said. “Does the data match the rhetoric? Are they really committed to letting me be my best self?”

Henry then turned to Yang, asking how her upbringing influenced the strong representation of women in Esquel Group’s leadership. “My father is an extremely liberal, open-minded man—because he has only two daughters,” Yang said. 

Yang acknowledged that she was also lucky to grow up surrounded by women in leadership roles, including her primary school headmistress and the many female leaders in Hong Kong’s textile and apparel industries. “So as a young child, I was able to look up to all these women. And it became very casual to see women in leadership roles.” 

What’s still lacking in the area of female leadership and innovation? Montgomery believes that school systems and parents need to teach girls how to fail, an invaluable skill she learned only later in life from professional mentors. 

“Really pushing your daughters not to think every possible outcome through, and encouraging them to jump, is something that all of us can do,” Montgomery said.

Risk-taking isn’t new to Yang, who has accepted multiple seats to companies’ boards that were previously all-male. At a Gillette stakeholders meeting, she “sat next to [Warren Buffet] one day and said, ‘I really don’t know how I can add value to the board, but today I think I have an opportunity. I want to share with the board that most Asian women don’t shave their legs, and therefore the numbers projected for the Asian market could be wrong.’”

Montgomery noted that Yang’s anecdote supports why Crate and Barrel’s model of heavy female representation generates positive business outcomes. “Companies these days are obsessed with customer focus and customer centricity, and it’s so much easier to be customer focused when your leadership team and associate base reflects your customers,” she said. 

However, Yang cautioned against “rushing into accusing men or women in leadership positions of having gender bias” when confronting companies running on a more traditional model. Private companies like Esquel Group have and should take the opportunity to look deeper into the nuanced drivers behind statistics like the gender wage gap, Yang says. 

At the plenary’s close, Montgomery reflected on advice she would give to her younger self. “What I probably didn’t understand is that the ladder doesn’t end. At the top there’s always somebody investing in you and believing in you,” she emphasized. 

“Understanding how power works in your industry, understanding how money flows, understanding the values of those who are investing in you is critical.”

To hear the full conversation, view the session video recording.

Solve intern Silvia Curry contributed to this article.

Marjorie Yang and Neela Montgomery speak during the "Innovation for and by Women" plenary of Solve at MIT, May 8, 2019. Photo: Adam Schultz/MIT Solve


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