“ We need to disrupt our ideas about what leadership looks like ”
Asian women are the least likely become executives of all kinds and races. But thanks to women like Deborah Yeh, chief marketing officer at Sephora, a new path is opened for the next generation of leaders.
“Are there any conversations about how you behave as an Asian woman?” What do people expect from us? Are you a dragon lady, a hardcore pro, or are you a lotus flower? And there is an expectation of submission, ”Yeh said of the stereotypes of Asian women.
“We need to disrupt our ideas about what leadership looks like and what leadership looks like.”
You do exactly that. As Sephora’s CMO, she helped transform the brand into an inclusive, inspiring and educational beauty destination. Prior to joining Sephora in 2012, Yeh led marketing strategy and planning for companies such as Old Navy and Target.
Yeh recently spoke with Know Your Value Founder Mika Brzezinski about improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace, how she built a career without a roadmap. generational, through a pandemic and more.
Here’s their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Mika Brzezinski: You’ve worked in both male-dominated industries (in tech) and female-dominated and beauty industries, now with Sephora. How would you describe the different experiences? And how have the female mentors influenced you compared to the men?
Deborah Yeh: I want to sing the praises of the benefits of being around women. But first, I’ll give you a little background.
I got my start in marketing in the tech world. I worked in corporate marketing, accompanying engineers, software developers. I also did marketing in consumer tech… Then I went into clothing and later I played a part in beauty, and that was such a big change. I think when you’re in those industries where you benefit from female leadership, female peers, there were so many more opportunities for different role models …
I distinctly remember I was pregnant with my first child and I was an executive at the time. And I remember walking into the office of my boss, the Old Navy CMO. And I was like, “I have to tell you something.” And she says, “OK, you’re pregnant.”
She said, “I’m going to tell you something. There is no machine more powerful in the business world than a working mother. So when you are ready, we are going to talk about the car seat you have. need. to get on the plane. We’re going to talk about how you get out of here on time. “And I felt so seen and supported at that point. It has been such a powerful moment for me in my career that I give the same talk to people today when they tell me they are waiting … I want to stress how beneficial it can be if you have the choice, everything not everyone has a choice of which industry they get into. But if you have a choice … find the environments that can help you.
Brzezinski: I know you do a lot of important work on diversity, equity and inclusion at Sephora, including with the #StopAAPIHate campaign. I wonder, from an Asian American perspective, if this impacts the work and adds inspiration to it?
Yeah: He absolutely does. Conversing, and exploiting my own identity, has been a gradual process and something that has really come to the fore over the past year.
I have been involved in my work at Sephora for several years on our efforts to create inclusiveness and build a beauty community where everyone feels they belong, which has always been important to the brand … But this what is interesting is that mine personal positioning in these conversations had been that of allying, of making sure that I understood the needs of all the communities that Sephora represented and served, especially those that are the most disadvantaged. and the most challenged… And then the violence against the Asian-American community started to appear in the news last spring. It was a moment of, wait a second. It’s me, my grandparents …
So it’s interesting. I recently became more active in AAPI issues, not directly with Sephora [at first]. In fact, I started my own learning journey last spring. A friend of mine called me up and said, “Hey, have you seen all that is going on in hate crimes? Can we get some Asian-American marketers together to start talking about it?”
I would have these weekend calls with other Asian-American marketers to say, “OK, what can we do together to elevate these issues?” We started to meet more nonprofits in this space… And so, I met some amazing organizations, one of them is a group called Hollaback, which is working on anti-harassment training. Another group called itself Act to Change and focuses on anti-bullying efforts for AAPI youth.
What’s been wonderful is now, especially after [the shooting in] Atlanta we have much more visible conversations… So I was able to really reintegrate this stuff into my work at Sephora. For example, with Hollaback, I said, “Oh, you should meet my social media team. In fact, we’re constantly moderating conversations and trying to create safe digital spaces.” How can we actually integrate these principles of spectator intervention against bullying in the context of social media? So, it’s been really rewarding to be able to connect the dots and yes, to do what has been this personal journey in the professional environment.
Brzezinski: I’m curious, how did you get through the pandemic? And is there something you have learned about yourself, your leadership style, a real struggle that you have faced? We’ve all been in a struggle, but was there one that really pushed you to use your skills?
Yeah: I think the pandemic for me personally [forced me] to overcome my tendency towards intimacy.
… But what I learned during the pandemic is above all the [work and personal life] the barriers have completely disappeared. Everyone can see everything that is going on in your life in the background, in this Zoom screen. But also, my team wanted to hear from me personally. I remember launching a newsletter for my department at that time. I would still send some form of mobile communication from the department, but [it turned into] “I want to tell you about the walk I just took in the morning with my children and how shocked we were that the streets were empty.” And “I want to talk about what I’m cooking in my kitchen right now, the bread I’m making.” And it was so funny that people would actually respond to that and be like, “Hey, we relate to that. We enjoy hearing about real human lives.” So I think the pandemic for me as a leader made me realize how powerful this type of connection is.
… I understand this as a marketer, that there is the power of history. But I didn’t necessarily apply it to my own life… And so I learned a little more to integrate myself more fully into the office.
Brzezinski: Or in other words, know your value and communicate it effectively. I love that you share. And I think I should now ask about your history and your upbringing.
Yeah: … I was born in Chicago. I was a child of Chinese-American immigrants. My two parents were the first in their family to graduate from university. [My father became a doctor and my mom worked in the school system]. They did pretty well. My father grew up in Chicago. My mother grew up in Chinatown. They both finished school and really encouraged me to take my academic obligations seriously, but also to explore.
They couldn’t tell me anything about business. But I had a grandfather who ended up in business. He was a street preacher in China during World War II and was “spotted” by missionaries who suggested that he continue his education in the United States. So my grandfather and grandmother moved temporarily to attend a seminar in Chicago. When they were ready to return to the East, China fell into the hands of the Communist Party and the political environment was tumultuous. The State Department advised the family not to return. That is why the paternal part of the family ended up in the United States. My grandfather had to find a way to make a living, and he did it out of haste.
And this is the reason why this part of the family remained in the United States. My grandfather ended up making a living selling shoes. He seen people buying these sneakers and he said, “Well, I can understand.” He discovered a factory in Hong Kong that could make sneakers, then went to a bank and convinced the bank manager to give him a loan. The bank manager asked me “Why should I help you?” … My grandfather said, “I have nothing. I have no money. I have nothing. “The bank manager took pity on him and said,” Okay, very good. I will take your first shipment as collateral. If you sell enough shoes, I will gradually release the inventory. ” It’s a very unusual arrangement (banks like to secure their risk with real money, not product inventory), but this moment of grace allowed my grandfather to start his business.
And I’m telling the story because for me, my heritage, I have a strong sense of understanding… I didn’t have parents who could call a friend in a country club to do an internship for me. I remember getting out of college and not really knowing how to find a job. I went to the career center, looked at the notebooks and wrote cover letters because I didn’t know how. But I had family members, people and role models in my background who could show that you can improvise your path to success. If you have enough courage, focus, and a little help from people willing to help …
Brzezinski: In closing, I want to ask a question about makeup… How do you sell makeup and sell makeup in this pandemic world? Has all this moved to social media? Have things changed?
Yeah: I think that has changed, even before the pandemic. What’s interesting is that people are finding new ways to discover products, new beauty routines, new beauty tips in so many new ways… It all happened before the pandemic. Over the years, Sephora has actually grown into more of a content company than just a store. We have a whole team of beauty directors, influencers. They’re not just here to help you find your next lipstick, but maybe even “OK, if you have that skin tone, that kind of hair texture, that kind of eye shape, we’re going to help. to navigate this exciting, but complex world. We’ll help you find the right thing. “So it’s been a fun journey to be a part of. I think the pandemic has certainly accelerated it.