Ruler: Jess Mersten

JESS MERSTEN
APPAREL MANUFACTURING & RETAIL

THE FAST FIVE

The Short Story: After completing college two years ago, Jess accepted a position in a rotational marketing program at a global apparel brand manufacturer and retailer. She’s just started her new full-time role as Analyst for the Japanese Market focused on a specific product brand of the retailer.

Biggest College Fear: “I didn’t know what success was supposed to look like once you start working. In college when you get the A, you know you’ve reached the epitome of success. There are very few qualitative metrics used in a classroom and expectations are pretty clear. But in the workplace, I wasn’t sure how to figure out how I was doing. Yes, there are raises and promotions, but those tend to be longer-term goals. You don’t have constant reinforcement in the real world. The gap of feedback in between goals seemed intimidating.”

Virgin Business Lesson: “Regardless of your role, it’s important to feel comfortable voicing your opinions and when necessary challenging perspectives respectfully. In my various internships, I had to deal with sensitive topics like race, culture, gender, and socio-economic issues. In France, as an intern, I had to learn a whole new culture. While it was important to acknowledge a different way of doing things, or respect delicate topics, it was equally critical to get my ideas across in a way where they would be understood and recognized.”

Industry Uniqueness: It’s an exciting time to be in the industry; and retail is fascinating. With the massive changes driven by online shopping, traditional retailers are facing disruptors like Amazon. There’s a start-up mentality emerging in the traditional side of the retail business – a new attitude that’s like we need to make a lot of changes quickly, so let’s just do this and apologize later if it doesn’t work. Retail changes fast, but your actions can quickly change the direction of the business. As a strategist, my input can translate into immediate results.

Right Now YOU Should Be: “Exercising your extravert muscle. It’s important to get comfortable meeting new people and finding ways to be outgoing. In college, if you stuck me in a room with a bunch of strangers and I’d go hang out by the bathroom. You don’t have to be the life of the party, but it is critical to feel relaxed in social situations and put others around you at ease. The professional world favors extraverts. But the good news is those behaviors can be learned.”

MORE FROM JESS

The real world was a question mark and an explanation point. I knew I’d get there eventually, but I didn’t know what any of it entailed.
School was all go-go-go. My parents were always supportive of college, so my path was accessible and well paved. The end of college itself marked a big item off the to-do list I grew up with. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. In fact, the question mark still remains because I’m still learning what I want to do which is both exciting and scary.

In business school, the pressure was intense around the ABC’s, Accounting, Banking and Consulting. Those fields didn’t click with me. I loved concrete things, and seeing projects through from start to finish. Working with a tangible product that I could help create and work with through production to markdown appealed more to me. While ABC opportunities were easier to find, I had the challenge of seeking out roles that weren’t as readily available or the norm at my school. Keeping in mind that I also didn’t quite have a clear vision of the role I wanted to play in a company, I pursued rotational programs that would allow me to see multiple facets of the business. Seeing the big picture and how everything comes together in an organization was really helpful. I have a lot of confidence as I start my new role as an analyst because I know where my work fits in.

When I’m out of my comfort zone, I learn the fastest.
The most important criterion for me when evaluating opportunity is what skill will I learn. If I’m going to grow as a person, that’s even better. I think it’s important to be uncomfortable especially on your first job because you have so much to learn, and if you fall it’s not a big drop. Plus, there are a lot of people supporting you.

There’s definitely a large learning curve with that philosophy, but I’m at an amazing company that really invests in their people. During my rotational program I was getting paid to literally be in classes six to eight hours a week. I could email anyone in the company so I emailed the CEO and got a meeting to discuss business direction. I transitioned into a full time job because I wanted to demonstrate the skills I’d learned, settle into a team, and find ways to innovate the business.

Right now I’m learning the importance of self-managing and how to manage up. In school, if you check all the boxes and you don’t get the A, you have grounds to speak to your professor. But in the real world, your manager is managing a bunch of people, and they aren’t necessarily keeping your promotion and your goals on top of mind. So if you aren’t getting what you need or there’s a mismatch in working or communication styles you need to be able to vocalize and address the issue. Avoiding the issue or letting it continue won’t make your situation any better, and leads to unhappiness. I had three different managers in ten months so I learned quickly how to adapt to styles. Equally as important, I learned more about how I like to work, where I need help, and identifying my own behavioral patterns. I’m learning to recognize the difference between not getting what I need vs. growing pains in a new role. More to the point, do I need to change my mindset, or do I need more from my manager? It’s about making sure I’m clear on what I’m doing well, where I need to grow and asking for things that address deficiencies to make my work life better.

The novelty of having a phone call with Tokyo at midnight really hasn’t worn off yet. It’s so cool.
Having this job right out of college is so rewarding because I’m able to make an immediate impact on the business. I see the results of my work. In retail your hands are on the product. You’re seeing sales; you’re looking at customers shopping baskets and launching campaigns that affect their experience in the moment. There’s this intense creative energy happening. I mean it’s not Silicon Valley. There are established norms and ways we do things; but at the same time, we have established relationships with awesome suppliers and vendors around the world who you can engage with directly to rapidly execute new ideas.

Retail impacts billions of people around the world. And, it’s just fun to play with clothes. I see the product around the office and I get really excited. It’s a product that boosts people’s morale – whether it’s a job interview or dressing a toddler. It’s so motivating when I hear from customers, “I love this blouse. It makes me feel so good.” Or, when I’m sent a picture of a customer’s baby wrapped in our bear hoodie –a gift she got from the baby registry; it’s a reminder of how you show up in people’s lives.

You don’t have to follow the school of fish.
My parents are both lawyers. They did a great job letting my sister and me find our way. My sister is an actress turned wine distributor. For a while, I thought I wanted to be a chef, so they bought me a culinary set and a book on schools. They went with my whims growing up. I’ve always had an interest in business, and remember being in restaurants with my dad in middle school geeking out over the business decisions—calculating turnover, figuring out how much the waitresses were making. Fortunately they never said you must be a lawyer.

However, the ABC culture of my business school offered unique pressures to navigate. As president of the student association there were expectations about my career path. So me, having this mentality of I’m going to try a bunch of things that start with letters towards the end of the alphabet led to some interesting conversations. Fortunately I had professors on campus that constantly reminded me of the variety of options. And I took courses that really interested me, cultivating a pool of like-minded people to hang with.

It’s so important to build your support system. I was lucky to have a strong family support system. But I also needed to connect with organizations and clubs to extend that support network. Surround yourself with positive people on a similar journey. Don’t waste time on toxic relationships or feel like you should stick with a group of people because of a minor common interest. Learn when a relationship isn’t good for you. There’s a common thread of ‘I don’t know what I want to do’ in college. Know that it’s ok to be unsure. Don’t be shaken by other’s that appear to be sure; they just may be swimming with the fish because they don’t know what else to do.

Patience is really a virtue. Wait it out.
Patience is so big in terms of things like recruiting. Opportunities come up early, and if you don’t pause, take a breath and gain clarity, you’ll get caught up in the cycle and lose sight of your goals. It’s tough because when you are in a competitive environment the fear of losing out or letting something pass you by adds to the pressure of making the right decision. But taking the time to find the right match in terms of company, culture and function – finding something that really speaks to you will ultimately keep you happy and successful in the long run. Take the time to pursue your interest and figure out what you enjoy. Avoid the mentality to go into something because you’re told it or because everyone else is doing it.

I’m telling myself the same thing every day. I’m an intense let’s do this kind of person. And on my new job I’m ready to help out and make an impact. At the same time, I know I need to learn where the pain points are and understand how the tools, people and culture work. It’s important to sit back and wait. Because if you jump in too quickly, you are never going to have that moment back where you can just take everything in. And without that moment, you may lose the ability to make insightful decisions later on.

I thought after graduation I’d be ready. I’d be like adulting, immediately.
I’m still waiting for that moment where I feel like a successful competent adult. There are weeks where I’m like, I don’t want to do my laundry, I don’t have time. Or I spent too much money going out this week, my budgets off. I thought after graduation, magically I’d be this adult; have it together, be perfect at work, everything in place.

My big revelation is that we are all still searching for that moment where we can say, yes, I’ve got it down now. The truth is I don’t feel more grown up or more professional than a year and a half ago when I was a student, but I’m excited to continue developing into the person I’m meant to be.