Zena Srivatsa Arnold’s LinkedIn page reads like a meteoric rise through the blue-chip business world. Procter & Gamble, Kellogg, Google, Kimberly-Clark. Present and accounted for. What’s not on there is one of the most formative experiences of her young career — as a Lancôme beauty associate at a Dillard’s department store in Cincinnati.
The time was the early 2000s, and Srivatsa Arnold was a young graduate armed with a degree in computer science just as the dot.com scene imploded. Rather than let her mope around the house, Srivatsa Arnold’s mother drove her to the local mall and told her to find a job. The experience turned out to be transformational.
“I went into it thinking, ‘It’s retail. It’s going to be easy. And I love makeup, so I’m sure it will be fun,” said Srivatsa Arnold. “But it’s a hard job. You’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to balance. You have to figure out how to meet the customer’s needs, as well as how am I going to hit my sales goals and manage everything. It was one of the most formative experiences I’ve had.”
Now, in her role as chief marketing officer of Sephora U.S., Srivatsa Arnold is tapping into her collective experience — including those very early days — to help position the retailer for continued growth and relevance. She hasn’t lost her penchant for the in-store experience either. One of the very first things Srivatsa Arnold did when joining Sephora was spend a day in the San Francisco Union Square flagship. And while much has changed in the retail environment since her first go-around, her love of the selling floor remains the same. “Being there, understanding how the systems work, the processes work. It was phenomenal,” Srivatsa Arnold said. “I’m a learner. I love to go to new places and try different things and connect the dots.”
You have extensive experience in digital and packaged goods, but this is your first retail job. What was it about this position that piqued your interest the most?
Zena Srivatsa Arnold: I’ve been a huge admirer and fan of Sephora as a long-time customer. I appreciate so much how Sephora has helped to change the conversation around beauty. When I was growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, there were very particular ideals around what beauty was and how it was represented. For the last many years, beauty has changed from more of an unattainable ideal to one of self expression and self care and connection and community.
As you think about representation, what should that look like?
There are so many different layers. As a marketer, it’s important that you reflect the customer you’re trying to serve, in all touchpoints of your business, from the people on the team who are making the decisions about what we’re doing to who we’re portraying in our ads. Who are the people behind the camera and sitting at the strategy table at our agency partners? There are so many pieces of the marketing value chain. The exciting part at Sephora is how we really support brands that are BIPOC founded and women founded. It’s a great set of commitments that we’ve made, and that we live every day, like the 15% Pledge, and our accelerator program. We’re really investing in those areas.
What has the transition to retail been like for you?
It’s so fun. The pace and quantity of the work is at a whole other level. I love it because we’re so focused on customer needs, there’s seasonal things that we’re working with, there’s shopping behaviors that we’re dealing with. The real-time nature of our business is incredible. In packaged goods, you’re always working so far out on a timeline, you’ve got a couple of big launches a year. Here, we’ve got to keep the freshness and engage so much more with our customers. I love that marketing is connected to the business, and is rooted in actual behaviors and seeing the results.
How have you adapted to the change in speed?
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve got an amazing team here and they’ve got a lot of great processes. There’s a rhythm to retail and the team has a great way of managing the work that has to happen to make everything come to life.
You have a broad base of experience, from Pop Tarts to Google. As you assess your career, how intentional versus opportunistic have you been?
I’d say a mix of both. I kind of fell into marketing, because I have a degree in computer science. I had a great internship at a tech start-up during college and was going to go work there after I graduated, except the dot.com bubble burst.
After working as a beauty associate at Dillard’s, I found a great role at GE Capital at a company called IT Solutions. It was B2B marketing and I loved it. GE approaches marketing from a product marketing and management point of view, so you think about how am I going to manage and grow my business. After that, I went to P&G as a brand manager on Folgers Coffee.
What did working on Pop Tarts teach you about driving relevance for a heritage brand?
That was one of my favorite roles. We were in the midst of a shift. Kellogg had to stop marketing Pop Tarts to kids because of the sugar content, so they had shifted to a mom’s strategy. That was fine, but it wasn’t energizing. We realized the number-one way that people bought Pop Tarts was from kid and teen requests. We couldn’t talk to kids, but we could talk to teenagers, so spending the time to figure out the unique insights and positioning for the brand was great. The number-one thing that you’ve got to keep at the heart of everything is your consumer needs, their desires, the things they articulate and also the things that they don’t. That’s really what got us to the leadership position that we still have today.
Do you have a favorite flavor?
Peanut butter! It was the most requested flavor, so I went to the president of morning foods and said, ‘we have to do this! This is what our consumers really want.’ He said, ‘This is so hard, because with nuts, you’ve got to have a separate production line.’” So we had to develop a new supply chain for it. But when we launched it, it was a huge hit.
From Pop Tarts to Sephora. What are your top priorities for the year ahead, what’s your assessment of the business?
It’s been fascinating to see the huge growth in the beauty category overall, this continued rise of usage and premiumization of products. Sephora is well positioned for the trends that are happening right now. Not only is the business growing, we’re growing share. For me, coming into something that’s working really well, it’s figuring out, how do you really take it to the next level?
What does next level look like?
One aspect is personalization. We have started this and do it very well today. I want to enable that to live in this omnichannel world. There’s so much that we have to build in terms of the back-end, and so much magic we can unlock there. Another is our Beauty Insider program. It’s top in the industry and I want it to be top overall. How do we think about it being one of the best loyalty programs out there? How can we extend benefits for more of our brands and other brands that make it more of a lifestyle program? There’s so many interesting opportunities.
Third, it’s important for us to reach Gen Z and BIPOC consumers. We’ve done a great job of that in the products we carry and I want to make sure our marketing is amplifying that and reaching them in the places and spaces where they are thinking of beauty.
Another priority is how we continue to build and grow our relationships with brands. It’s awesome to see how closely we work with brands. We do a lot of joint planning and growth. I want to figure out how we can take that to the next level. What more can we do with them? We just started a retail media network, which is doing phenomenally well. We want to make sure we’re giving our brand partners everything they need and that they’re seeing results. There’s a lot of opportunity to grow that.
How are you thinking about experiential retail vis-à-vis marketing?
I cannot wait for Sephoria. It’s a fantastic way to bring to life what our brand and the brands that we carry are about. It’s going to be a hybrid event — live and virtual, and there are opportunities to do much more of that.
The other key area to focus on is how do we bring more of our point of view to our consumers? How do we as a brand act that really demonstrates what we stand for? I love that we are already doing the hard work. I want to talk about it more so people know and understand the things that we’re investing in and why they matter.
As you think about your career path, what have you learned? What advice would you give to someone who hopes to follow in your footsteps?
The biggest shift and jump in my career happened when I went to Google. Up until that point, I had mostly consumer goods experience. It was pretty structured. There was some innovation, of course, but not a ton. What really helped accelerate my career was being in a high growth environment where you’re expected to take a lot of new things on and there’s a lot of energy for experimentation. In most packaged goods companies, you’re focused on efficiency, figuring out how to do more with less and there’s less risk taking.
Places like Google embrace risk, because at the speed that the industry moves, if you’re not testing and trying new things, you’re going to lose. And it’s OK if half of them fail — that’s almost the point, because you’ll learn something from it and continue to grow.
It was a fantastic experience. As my businesses grew, my teams grew, my scope and influence grew. I don’t think it would have happened as quickly in a more traditional environment, because you just didn’t see those growth rates. So it was definitely an intentional choice to go to a place of growth and I highly recommend, even if it’s not where you want to end up.
Also, I’m a learner. I love to learn and go to new places, have new experiences. You develop expertise by doing and trying a lot of different things and connecting the dots. Getting broad experience across industries and different types of roles really helps in that.
How how has your leadership style evolved?
I try to be a servant leader. I really enjoy getting into discussions and working with people. I have a lot of passion for insights. I love hearing the team’s point of view and figuring out what does best in class look like? And how can we challenge ourselves to get there? I see my role as setting that vision and that challenge for how can we raise the bar on everything we’re doing, and what do you need from me to enable that?
Is it hard coming into a new team? How do you win their trust and support?
There’s sometimes a tendency to say, OK, I’m new here, so I want to change absolutely everything. I’ve been trying to be careful about, OK, let’s find a few places that we really want to push on and how can we do that together? It’s a process. The team has been great in welcoming me, but trust is built over time. We have to go through the fire for a few rounds to really get there.
As a woman, and as someone of South Asian descent, did you ever feel your gender or ethnicity slowed you down during the course of your career?
I feel fortunate that I [didn’t feel] the brunt of discriminatory behavior straight to my face. I’ve had the good fortune of working in a lot of great companies and have seen and been supported. When I was starting out and trying to figure out the corporate world, I went into it with the attitude, OK, there’s going to be obstacles, things are going to be harder, I’m just going to have to figure it out and tough it out, and I’m going be committed to making it happen. I feel like the world is changing. Today, Gen Z is questioning why it has to be harder. Now, there’s a lot more accountability for leaders to not be jerks and to not discriminate, and for we as leaders to ensure that we’re keeping the door that we’ve walked through open for those behind us.