Women executives in retail #8: Michelle D’Vaz-Plant, head of marketing at London Designer Outlet.
Michelle D’Vaz-Plant, head of marketing at London Designer Outlet.
Women who have reached senior positions in the retail world are (all too) rare, not to mention invisible, which is why we decided to get to know them better by inviting them to tell us about their career paths, the challenges of the past and those of the future.
Michelle D’Vaz-Plant is head of marketing at London Designer Outlet, a Realm centre in Wembley Park. She says that mentorship can help women in retail to negotiate barriers to their careers.
How did you get into retail? Was there a clear career path?
My career started early, I got a Saturday job working at my local chemist aged 14. I was never an academic, I didn’t like studying or being in the classroom, and I wanted real life experiences. Working in a shop, and interacting with people, helped me to serve that inner desire to problem-solve and think on my feet. I planned on going to college to study marketing. However, as I started college I heard about a Retail Scheme at Harrods and realised that working and learning was more aligned with the way I consume information.
With that decision, my path in retail was laid. An apprenticeship at a world-renowned brand such as Harrods enabled me to gain the skills I needed to operate a department, manage people at an early age and to cover lots of principles within retail, such as operations, buying and merchandising, promotions and marketing. All of this gave me a well-rounded view of retail and enabled me to make a focused decision on which particular area within it was where I wanted to be. Retail marketing was that chosen channel.
How did your career progress to reach your current role?
Hard work and determination played a huge part in my career. I know it sounds clichéd, but I felt that I had to work harder to prove myself as I hadn’t gone to university. I had to work long shifts, weekends and offer to get involved in everything I possibly could. I saw every opportunity as a chance to learn something new and threw myself in head first, putting myself forward for everything even if it was cleaning out stock cupboards. It gave me the chance to understand retail processes.
I reached out to the marketing director at Harrods and asked if I could do one of my placements within the team there. I did so and then successfully applied for a full-time role within the marketing team. I then quickly identified a strategy for how to succeed. I realised that finding female mentors within the department, that I could learn from and shadow, would be instrumental in helping me shape myself, especially when I was younger and just starting my career in retail marketing. This has been my strategy throughout my career. I will always find strong women that I feel I can learn from, and looked for their support and mentorship to help me grow.
I have progressed throughout my career with a very clear approach. I always try to work with brands that align with my own values, whether that be their internal cultures, the products that they offer or whether they truly are customer-centric and have the customer at the heart of everything they do.
What challenges have you overcome? Have there been any specific barriers related to being a woman in retail?
Retail support departments on my journey have always tended to be male-biased. Breaking down those barriers of being a woman in retail has been an ongoing challenge throughout my career. The constant need to prove my abilities and to go the extra mile to reinforce my worth, plus the hard work that was needed to progress my career at times, has been relentless.
To add to that dynamic, I became a young mother which led to me having to go back to work when my child was only a few weeks old to ensure that I didn’t lose by missing opportunities and career progression. It certainly felt at times that, as a woman, you were made to feel lucky to be in a role. Juggling motherhood and a career was a difficult time in my life. There were no policies in place back then with maternity cover or parental support, and with the extreme amount of hours and days that you have to work in retail these obstacles certainly added to the challenge.
What advice would you give young women considering a career in the retail sector now?
Retail can be rewarding in so many ways. It’s fast-paced, it’s exciting, with a great team around you it can be a lot of fun, and you can get exposure to many aspects of operating a business. My advice would be to find a strong female leader within your team, or close to it, that you can learn from who can support you or mentor you and guide you on your retail journey.