Take Command: A Dale Carnegie Podcast

#3 - 'Fail Fast, Learn and Grow' with Jeannie Barsam

Episode Summary

In her time as an executive, Jeannie Barsam has climbed the ranks at a who’s-who of American retailers, serving as VP at Gap and SVP at companies like Talbot’s, Zales and more.

Episode Notes

In her time as an executive, Jeannie Barsam has climbed the ranks at a who’s-who of American retailers, serving as VP at Gap and SVP at companies like Talbot’s, Zales and more—before venturing out on her own, founding Gifting Brands to focus on giving back to her community. Listen to hear her battle-tested insights into real-life leadership.

Episode Transcription

Joe Hart (00:04):

Welcome to Take Command a Dale Carnegie Podcast, the show where we seek to uncover what leadership means in today's world. I'm Joe Hart, CEO of Dale Carnegie, and we'll be talking to diverse leaders with stories to tell across various industries to help unlock your potential for success. We'll be sharing real life insights into leadership, which in turn can help spark the next level of your growth as a leader. In her time as an executive. Today's guest has worked her way through the ranks at a who's who of American retailers serving as senior vice president at retailers such as Talbots, GAP and Zales before venturing out on her own with the focus of giving back to the community. I'm happy to welcome CEO and founder of Gifting Brands. Jeannie Barsam. Jeannie, welcome to the show.

New Speaker (00:55):

Thank you!

Joe Hart (00:56):

Terrific to see you and have you with us here today.

New Speaker (00:58):

I'm so happy to be here.

Joe Hart (00:59):

Well, Jean, you have a really incredible story to tell. I mean, just in terms of kind of where you started and how you've developed your career and how you started Gifting Brands. Tell us a little bit about your personal journey.

New Speaker (01:10):

So I guess I would have to say my personal journey starts back as a child. I always was very adventurous and had no fear. In fact, growing up our family competed in water skiing and it was called speed skiing. It was, see how fast you could go is almost like a car race. They dropped the flag and everybody gets up and you ski as fast as you can for usually about 20 miles and whoever crosses the finish line first is the winner.

Joe Hart (01:35):

This is a family thing you did.

New Speaker (01:36):

This was a family affair. My mom, my dad, I had five brothers and sisters and then eventually six. And so I started racing when I was nine years old and by the time I was 17 I actually was a two time national champion and had the opportunity to go with the US ski team to Australia. And at that time, my goal in life was to break the woman's world speed record, which was 105 miles an hour in water skiing.

New Speaker (02:00):

And I was going to go with the US ski team to Australia and I was practicing for a race and I kind of made my dad take me to the lake. He actually, we had a speedboat and um, ice ski behind our boat and I was practicing and I kept giving him the thumbs up even though I knew that the conditions of the water weren't right for skiing that fast. And I think I was going about 85 miles an hour and I fell flat on my face. I snapped my neck and broke my neck.

Joe Hart (02:27):

Oh my gosh!

New Speaker (02:28):

And so back then there were no cell phones. My dad was a policeman and so he knew what to do in emergency. So he quickly got me to the hospital. We didn't know my neck was broken and I feel like I really, God gave me a second chance. I walked into the hospital, which could have actually made me paralyzed, but by miracle I wasn't paralyzed. They immediately got me on a gurney and you know, got me a neck braces and so on. And the funny story then is after this happened, I was planning to go to college and I had to, I knew I had to work while I went to college and my parents couldn't afford to send us all to college on their own and I needed a full time job. So I, how I started my retail career was I went to the local department store called Gottschalk's in Fresno, California. And it happened to be their corporate office as well. At that time they had I think 15 or 20 stores, department stores. They were similar to a Macy's back then. And I went in with, with a neck brace still on and said, I, you know, I would like you to hire me. Of course for liability reasons. They said, you know, we'd love to talk to you, but come back after you get your neck brace off. But again, I was determined. So I did that. I came back a few months later after my neck brace was off. And that's what really started my journey. I worked my way through college, going to school at night, working full time at the department store, starting at the bottom as a salesperson, working my way up. In fact, by the time I graduated, I had already become an assistant buyer. I had the privilege of working directly for the GMM of the company as his special assistant. I did special projects and then as soon as I graduated I became a buyer.

Joe Hart (04:06):

Let me ask you a question, if I may, I just want to go back because it's this issue of grit or determination, right? It's really a defining characteristic and you see it's a, it's a really important part of your, your career. Where would you say that came from and you know, as a, as a parent, certainly it's something I tried to give my kids who said, well, what advice do you have about that?

New Speaker (04:22):

All I can tell you is my parents said I always had it. I was premature when I was born. I was four pounds and my parents said I came out fighting and I was in ICU for a few weeks and I was always trying to, I guess I was always kind of competing against my brothers and sisters, but in a positive way.

Joe Hart (04:41):

So you, you then advanced that first job, you advanced very quickly. What, what advice would you have and how did you advance so quickly? What were some of the secrets that you, you had there?

New Speaker (04:50):

Especially nowadays, it's important for people to get different experiences throughout their career. And I was always curious and I always asked for more responsibility. I was curious. I wanted to learn marketing even when I wasn't even a buyer yet. So I got involved in back then all there was was really newspaper and radio, but I got involved in things because I was curious. And when you're curious like that people want to help. And I took on mentors and advisors along the way.

Joe Hart (05:18):

Talk about that a little, if you would, who are some of the mentors that you had and in what ways did they help you really kind of accelerate your career?

Jeannie Barsam (05:25):

You know, I'm fortunate, I worked for some really great leaders and some industry legends like Mickey Drexler with GAP. Jenny Ming who actually started Old Navy and some great leaders like Theo Kilion who is actually one of my friends and mentors now. He was the CEO of Zales and he's now the Chairman of the Board for Tailored Brands as well as Chairman of the Board for A Better Chance, which he actually went through when he was a kid. He's actually one of the first African American CEOs ever and he got his chance through this nonprofit, a better chance when he was in high school and they helped him go to a great college and really jumpstart his career as well. So really it's, you need people around you to help. You can't do it on your own. You need to take mentors, you need to seek people out because people truly do want to help if you find the right people.

Joe Hart (06:17):

Yeah. It was that difficult for you to gain those people as mentors. Did they just take you under their wing or?

New Speaker (06:23):

um, I think again, when you're curious and you show interest and value that you add value to the company, they're gonna want to help you as much as they can. If you just want to take, take, take and, and use them, then you know, people are not gonna want to give back. But if they see that you have value and the time and energy they put in your career, they're going to see a payback, then they're going to want to help you.

Joe Hart (06:48):

It's just interesting is I hear you talk about this and it really is relationship, right?

New Speaker (06:51):

It's totally relationships.

Joe Hart (06:53):

You were building trust. They could rely on you. They wanted to give you more to help you. And so it really was kind of one of those proverbial win-win types of situations.

Jeannie Barsam (07:02):

Absolutely. And even now I try to do the same. So, you know, I'll use my daughter as an example. She followed in my footsteps and um, she's now a buyer for a large jewelry company. I'm a mentor to her. I'm a mentor to her friends and a lot of other newer retail junior executives and I just love doing it.

Joe Hart (07:21):

That's awesome. Talk a little bit about your progression through the leadership at GAP and Zales. Right up until the time that you left to found Gifting Brands.

New Speaker (07:30):

You know, GAP was a great training ground and they still are, they invest in their people, they invest in their management training programs, they invest in their leaders and give them training and development similar to, you know, like Dale Carnegie, et cetera. And so I have to say that was the, for the second company. I also worked with Target who also invested in people. But you know, I guess my advice there is for somebody new, just starting out, it's important to work for a company that invests in their team and spends the time and energy to give the training and the development. Because you know, one of the questions that you had asked me earlier, um, have you always been a leader? And as I kind of said before, yes I have, but it took the training and the development to become a good leader. You can be a leader and you can be terrible at it, but you can be a leader and take advantage of all the training and things that are out there. And especially now with YouTube and all the great Ted Talks and all the great books that are out there by people like, you know, Simon Sinek with Find Your Why. There's so many things. I have to say that back when I was going up through the retail career, I expected the company to give me that training. I didn't invest in it myself. And now there's so much opportunity for people to do it on their own and invest not only with the company but for yourself. And I highly recommend that.

Joe Hart (08:45):

Completely agree. And it seems like a lot of times it is up to the person to go out and seek worthy opportunities for me to grow. Well, let me ask you Jeannie a little bit about what, what are some of the traits you'd say define a great leader?

Jeannie Barsam (08:57):

You know, I think a great leader truly has to genuinely care about their team because you know, you can't, you can be a leader, but if you don't have a great team behind you and a team that wants to follow your vision, you're not gonna go anywhere and you're not gonna be successful. So you have to be genuine and sincere about your team. You have to give them a purpose and a passion and a reason to get up everyday and go to work. They want to be motivated. They want to feel that the work they're doing is important and valuable to the company. Valuable today, especially to society, which is one of the reasons I started Gifting Brands is even consumers prefer to shop with companies who are giving back now and are more sustainable. And I think we do that with gifting brands.

Joe Hart (09:36):

And I want to ask you about Gifting Brands. And right before I, we do, I wanna ask you a little bit about what was the position that you held right before you, you started Gifting Brands.

Jeannie Barsam (09:44):

So I was the Senior Vice President at Zales and I oversaw merchandise planning and allocation. So my role in the company was not only, uh, handling the financials of all the product categories and my, my team handled it as well as working with the CEO and the leadership. I was part of the senior leadership team to drive the strategy across the company. And we ended up getting bought out by Signet, which owns Kay and Jared. And my job was eliminated. So I had to make the decision, do I want to go back and work for another company or do I want to try to do something on my own? And that's when I made the decision that I to, I want to try to go out on my own and take that big leap.

Joe Hart (10:25):

Well, let's talk about that because this podcast is all about taking command. And certainly you went from a very strong established trajectory within a company. You could have easily gone in top leadership of a major company, very secure, very lucrative. But you, you chose a different path and you chose really to start something. Talk about what led you to make you are , you're at that fork in the road, so to speak. What led you to do that? Was that a hard decision for you? What did it feel like making that decision?

Jeannie Barsam (10:54):

First of all, I have to say, you know, thank goodness to my husband who became a stay at home dad. You know, he allowed me to have the career and he chose to stay home with our two kids and raise them because I was traveling a lot and we were in Columbus, Ohio at the time and we had no family. And, uh, when I started my career there, I was traveling overseas a lot. So I have to make sure that you understand that I had support and he was great with finances. And so we made a decision that we wanted to try to save enough money that I could retire, you know, in my early fifties. And, uh, we were able to do that. So, first of all, before I made the leap, I felt I had to feel like we were financially secure, that if it didn't work, you know, I could go back to work and with no problem. But one of the reasons that I came up with the idea about Gifting Brands is when I was at Zales, we had $1 million of inventory that when we got bought out, we were able to ride off and it was more expensive inventory. And so being the owner of the inventory for the company, I started researching nonprofits and charities to see if we could donate it and converted to cash. And at the time, this was in 2014 cash for cars was really big. So you could donate your car, it would be sold and then the cash would go to a charity. So I researched, but I couldn't find anyone doing that for luxury companies or brands, private label brands. And so I decided to research it and I came up with a strategy, talked with some of my mentors and leaders about it. They loved the idea and said they will support me. And I built a really strong board of directors and board of advisors and tried to surround myself with really smart people and especially people who are really smart in areas that, that I don't have experience in. And with that we put in our 405 (c) and we got approval from the government. So we were thrilled. We got approval quicker than we thought, you know, having that backing again, relationships and people, so many people have come to me and said, tell me what I can do when you're ready. I want to be part of this and let me know how I can help you. Whether that's starting kind of a loyalty program and building our tribe or whether that's connecting with brands and with other executives of companies that I don't know or even, you know, we've got a lot of people doing pro bono help. You know, I have a woman who's helping me, who is a leader in the nonprofit business and she's really great at marketing and she's giving her services for free. I mean, so many people believe in this that they're actually willing to give us pro bono help. Plus they get a write-off as well, but they're really invested and they want to make a difference. Because when you look at, one of the reasons that brought me to this as well is there was a statistic ,last year actually where there's a big news article where there was over $500 million of inventory from luxury brands and some private label brands, big brands, name brands that were putting their inventory in landfills because they didn't want it to go to discounters or be sold at really low prices and they wanted to maintain their higher brand image and be able to sell their newer products at higher prices and not compete with the lower brands. When you look at that $500 million, that was only five brands by the way, destroyed $500 million of inventory. That $500 million could have fed 43 million people.

Joe Hart (14:17):


Jeannie Barsam (14:17):

I mean, it's huge. So the opportunity for us, you know, I compare us with what we're doing with a Gilt or Rule of Law, which is a discount company. They sell designer brands at a discount but they are profit and and Gilt Group when they first started, they grew to $500 million in less than three years. So we have big plans to grow the company but, but we are also adding value to the brands that choose to donate with us because our goal is to help raise and maintain their image and let customers know that these brands have now are being more sustainable, not throwing away their product and making a difference through inventory.

Joe Hart (14:58):

So Jeannie, just explain if you would, I want to make sure we get a good crisp elevator pitch if you would just about Gifting Brands so their illustrators understand exactly what you do.

Jeannie Barsam (15:07):

So Gifting Brand is the first nonprofit e-commerce marketplace we haven't launched yet, but we are online. If you want to go take a look at it, it's giftingbrands.com we're waiting to get more brands on board before we do a real big push. Our official launch. We're testing right now and I'm all about test and learn. So what we do is we're partnering with major brands to donate their end of season or excess inventory or even if it's new inventory, but they have too much, they can donate it to us for a tax write off. We then sell it on our website and the customer gets to choose which charity that sale goes to and 100% of the profits goes back to charity. So it's a huge win and it's, there's no one in the industry doing this today and it's a huge win, especially now. One of the things I also did when I left retail and left Zales is I joined a board. I got on the board of the family place, which is a domestic violence shelters, largest one in Texas. And of course I'm on the finance committee. And so, you know, trying to find money to support the great things that they do is hard. They're always doing fundraisers. We don't know till the end of the year whether or not we're going to have enough money to cover all the things that we've done. Gifting Brands gives great charities like these an opportunity to truly focus on their mission and not have to worry as much about where the funds, the funds are coming from. So we are adding value and how and trying to give money so that they can do even more to the community and help more people.

Joe Hart (16:36):

This is a, a nonprofit that you've created and at the same time, you know, as someone who started a business, I think about this as a very entrepreneurial kind of thing, right? You're going out on the limb, you're starting this and you know, putting blood, sweat and tears into it. It's as you do this, what advice might you have for people who are, are trying to do something similar, trying to start something from nothing. I mean it sounds like relationships have certainly been a really important part of your, your secret for success.

Jeannie Barsam (17:01):

Exactly. Well, relationships are key, but also I believe firmly believe in test and learn before you jump out and spend thousands or even millions of dollars. Test your idea. I actually started when I first left Zales I didn't start Gifting Brands. I actually started a jewelry company called Christie Jean jewelry. And my purpose then was still mission-based, but it was a for profit social enterprise and our goal was to give back 25% of sales to charity. And so we would do charity events for large nonprofits at galas. My initial vision for that was to start it as a direct sales company. And so I hired four people, four women. I taught them the retail business, I taught them how to sell, I taught them how to do home shows and said, you know what, we're going to test it for six months and if it makes sense and see if direct sales is the right thing to do. So yeah, there was a small investment that I had to make there, but it was so well worth it. Um, I made the decision not to go forward with it because I wasn't able to give back as much to charity. You know, when you, when you have that type of a business, giving back 25% to me was a priority and um, we weren't able to do that. So through that experience though is when I came up with the idea of Gifting Brands.

Joe Hart (18:13):

So what, what does the next 12 to 24 months look like for Jeannie Barsam?

Jeannie Barsam (18:17):

so for us, we have kind of a two pronged approach with getting the message out about Gifting Brands. And first we need to let the retail industry know that we're out there and that we're a solution for them to be able to manage their excess inventory and actually get a tax write off for it and do good. And we're also a sustainable option for them so they don't have to destroy or put their inventory in landfills. So that's the first message right now. So podcasts like this is perfect to get the word out about what we're doing. And then phase two is once we feel like we have a nice well-rounded assortment on our website, then we'll do a big launch to the public and thank goodness, you know, news media, everybody's excited about it. I put a lot of media on hold. They know we're coming, they know we're launching, but we wanna really do it when we have a night, a really good assortment and a great assortment of brands.

Joe Hart (19:09):

How will you know when you've been successful?

Jeannie Barsam (19:11):

You know what, when we can give back and help any of it, if we can help one person make a difference in their life, that makes it all worthwhile for me.

Joe Hart (19:17):

And you and your vision for this, if we're five years out, what's it look like?

Jeannie Barsam (19:21):

You know, my vision five years is that we're giving back millions of dollars to charity and I truly believe we by five years, I want my high, low or my local. I always have a, here's my low side goal, here's my high cycle. My high side goal is I'd love to give back over a hundred million dollars a year to charity and then eventually $500 million a year. I truly believe that this concept has that potential to grow because it doesn't have to just work for the retail industry. We can work with service companies, we can work with restaurants, we can work with airlines, we can work with so many different kinds of businesses that want to get their name out there in front of consumers because we're building a consumer database as well.

Joe Hart (20:00):

Jean, let me get into the weeds just a little bit. You talk about giving people purpose, right? And that's kind of a high level idea. What ways have you found that it really connected with people in terms of really helping them, you know, see a purpose in the larger objective?

Jeannie Barsam (20:14):

Yeah, I think, uh, you know, I'll give example. Back when I was at Zales, our purpose back then was to save jobs and turn the company around so that the 10,000 people employees had had a place to go to work. That was a huge purpose. But in doing that, we also wanted the team to feel like they were a part of it. There've been times when companies are at the brink of going bankrupt and you as an employee feel like you can't contribute. You can't do anything about it. It's just happening to you. And one of the things that we did at Zales with Theo who was our leader at the time, the CEO, he hired a great group of senior executives, including myself, and we work together to come up with what is the company's purpose. First of all, our purpose was to serve our customer and in doing that, how do we then give them the product that they wanted so that we could keep this company running and actually turn a profit. So we set clear direction. We were communicated constantly with our team and we tried to inspire them by listening because you know what? Many of these people had been there for 10 to 15 years. They knew why the company was failing. There were 10 prior CEOs changing directions, changing strategy and not listening to what the customer was wanting, but because they were in merchandising or within planning, they knew what the customer wanted. And it was really a matter of listening, listening to what worked, what didn't work, and then making them feel like they were important and valued and using them or, or using their ideas to help turn the company around. I mean, truly when Theo came in, he told the merchant team, I'm going to give you free rein to put in the product that you believe is gonna make a difference versus the leaders making all the decisions. And it really did work

Joe Hart (21:59):

Well. It sounds like that trust that Theo showed combined with really that, that effort to listen and to show people the respect of hearing their ideas, maybe that that was something that really helped people feel more connected to the, the larger purpose. You know, one of the thing we talked about in Dale Carnegie is that people support a world they help create. And that's sounds like it's exactly what you did there.

Jeannie Barsam (22:20):

And and by creating that, you know, they ,a lot of the team members could have left but they, once we laid down, laid out the overall vision and strategy and they were inspired about where the company was going and the fact that we really could turn this ship around. They were inspired and they stayed and they stayed with us and many of the the team members are, you know, still there and now they've been there 20 years. For me it was very exciting, scary and gratifying to be part of something like that where we turn the company around from losing 100 million a year and save jobs.

Joe Hart (22:55):

Just a couple more questions. One is around the people side of the business because so much of what is critical in terms of what you've done in your career this far and then what you're doing right now really is around influence and motivation people, how do, how do you do that? What are some pieces of advice you might give us about bringing out the best in other people?

Jeannie Barsam (23:12):

I think first you have to listen. You have to listen to the person that you're, you're talking with. You have to genuinely care and genuinely and sincerely want to learn about them, want to understand what their wants and needs are. Whether it's somebody working for a big business, you have to understand for, you know, for a company to work with us and a big brand to say, yes, we want to be part of Gifting Brands. It has to be a win-win for them as well. And so it's finding those areas where you can help them with a problem that they have and be their solution and personally, I think it's really understand, you know, understanding people and understanding what their needs and wants are and whether or not you can help them. Even helping might just be opening a door by saying, Hey, I know you wannna get into the retail business. I know you wannna live in New York. Let me think of all my contacts in New York and who I can connect you with. Something as simple as that. But it makes a huge difference for that person.

Joe Hart (24:05):

I mean there, there's the expression about people don't care about what you know until they know that you care. And it sounds like that's really your piece of advices is to demonstrate caring and really to try to put other people first and to help them and so forth.

Jeannie Barsam (24:16):


Joe Hart (24:17):

I'm curious, you know, one of the things you talked about was almost being born with this natural self confidence and not everyone is born with that kind of self confidence. And you talked about raising a family. I've got six kids, four of whom are daughters of one of my priorities is really making sure that all my kids and especially my daughters are strong, confident young women who can take on the world. What advice might you have for, for me as a father or for them and we're in the workplace?

Jeannie Barsam (24:41):

I think first for them to learn, constantly learn, find out if you're not sure what type of business you want to be or what type of person you want to be, find a role model. Find out how they did it, find out what worked, what didn't work and learn from their mistakes. But also learn from their successes. And as a parent, be supportive. You know, your kids are gonna make some stupid mistakes and they need to make them themselves, guide them as they're making them and you know, let them know, you know, here's what I would do. Here's my advice. They may or may not take it, but also they have to know that you're there for them if they fail, you know, you can't win if you don't fail. And that's back to the test and learn philosophy. You need to test, you need to try things out and you're gonna fail. But failure is important. I'll use, you know, Thomas Edison is an example. Took him a thousand, tries to get the light bulb and a reporter once asked him, why did it take you so long and why did you fail a thousand times? And he said, I didn't fail a thousand times. It took a thousand steps before I was able to create the light bulb. And that's kind of like life. It takes little steps, small steps. It's not, they're not always going to be big steps. They're small steps. And I really would challenge, you know, especially young women along the way, get great mentors, read a lot, but really invest in the time and energy to own your career and own who you want to be and not just let it happen to you.

Joe Hart (26:06):

That's terrific advice and it would seem like so much of what you said, even going back to the Thomas Edison example, it's really about attitude. It's like how we choose to see things and are they, are they failures, are they opportunities, are they steps along the path? So, so terrific advice. If our listeners want to learn more about Gifting Brands, what, where should they go?

Jeannie Barsam (26:24):

You can go to giftingbrands.com our website is up. We do have a few products that we're testing right now you can purchase, although we haven't really told the public, but if you want to learn more about us, you can go to giftingbrand.com.

Joe Hart (26:37):

okay, so the public doesn't know, but our listeners do so they can get on and start getting those deals.

Jeannie Barsam (26:42):

Yes, you get the first view. Please send us emails or go to my LinkedIn or go to our Facebook page and give us some advice or pointers if you like or you don't like what you see.

Joe Hart (26:52):

Awesome. Well, Jeannie, thank you so much for your time today. Great talking to you and wishing you all the best.

Jeannie Barsam (26:57):

Thank you. Good luck to you and all the best.

Joe Hart (26:59):

Thank you.

Jeannie Barsam (27:00):

and to your daughters. Thank you.

Joe Hart (27:02):

Thanks so much for listening to the show this week and I hope you enjoyed this edition of take command, a Dale Carnegie podcast. This episode was recorded by Aaron Peyton and Bob Old and edited and mixed by Justin D Wright of Sea Plane Armada. Please consider rating this episode and subscribing to us on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.