Career progression, leaps of faith and 'imposter syndrome' - two women of color share their experiences of fashion tech

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan October 23, 2020
Summary:
Two female leaders from the world of retail tech share their stories of breaking into and thriving in a fast-moving sector.

retail
(Keane and Spence)

The challenges facing the tech sector when it comes to diversity and equality in hiring are well-documented and in the main don’t make for edifying reading, even if progress has been made in recent years. But more work is needed to be done and that’s one of the goals of a new movement, the Fashion Minority Alliance

The Alliance is a non-profit organization which launched during London Fashion Week last month with the aim of supporting Black and minority creatives in the fashion sector. In its collateral it states: 

We work collaboratively with businesses, brands, organizations and industry gatekeepers to promote and secure the advancement of Black and Minority creatives and ensure that the intersectionality of all our differences are accountably transformed into positive, sustainable, long term industry change.”

The tech sector is represented in those involved with the launch. Sian Keane is Chief People Officer at luxury e-commerce platform provider Farfetch, while Vanessa Spence is Womenswear and Menswear Design Director at UK e-commerce champion ASOS. The two spoke at the recent BlackTechFest conference to talk about their own experiences of getting into and progressing in the fashion tech sector. 

Keane had worked in recruitment for 15 years prior to joining Farfetch: 

That was a move that I think at the time took a lot of a lot of bravery. But what was very clear to me was that I really wanted to do something that I loved. The biggest lesson that I've learned in my career is thinking less about how you can fit into a box in a company and to think more about what sort of work do you love doing. Because once you find something and say yes to something that you love doing, it feels really natural. It doesn't feel like work. You're enjoying it, it's got meaning and purpose and it's incredibly rewarding. So that was a big leap of faith to me - thinking less about seniority and title, and much more about you know what sort of work I love doing.

Both the tech sector and the fashion industry were new territories for her:

When I was working in recruitment, I never worked in technology, and I've never worked in fashion, but I knew I loved both. The first thing I did was, I knew I wanted to work with people and therefore I needed to get the right qualification. So I studied for my CIPD - which is the HR qualification - at night in order to get that under my belt. The next thing I did was, I went down the list of all the people who worked in fashion magazines at the time, and started to reach out to see what connections I had, because everyone's connected to somebody on LinkedIn, for example. There were a few people that I knew that knew someone or was related to someone or married to someone in another business and I started reaching out and and making some connections. One thing led to another and along came a very small company called Farfetch, that was 20 people at the time. There was one [feeler] that came from HR support and then that was what I said yes to.  So I think it's thinking about all the feelers. around the industry that you're interested in and trying to make connections, wherever possible.

Tech platform

Farfetch, as diginomica has documented before, sees itself as much as a tech company as a retail firm, providing a platform for many luxury brands, such as Burberry and Chanel, as well as being selected as the technology partner for Harrods in the department store’s push to build out its global e-commerce operation. Keane says: 

Tech is embedded in everything we do, but I'd say definitely from a design point of view it's really evolved. At the beginning, we didn't have as many tech resources just in terms of how we research, how we get our information. Everything's so accessible now and it's pretty global. I think personally in terms of fashion, that's made fashion more interesting and maybe just more attainable and less elitist…For the wonderful and traditional history of the fashion industry, the most important thing that technology can offer is making a connection between all the creators, the curators and the customers of fashion. It's a real enabler and provides the online experience for all three and really makes that connection point. So I think that the power of the technology and enabling us to be able to do that on a global basis is really incredible.

All of that means having the right skills and teams in place to support such an ambition and presents a challenge to Keane in her role: 

We recruit people from both fashion and technology backgrounds. The biggest thing to remember there is that you have a uniqueness and something to offer. It's not so much about, ‘Oh I tick this box on fashion, but I don't tick this box on technology’. It's more aligned to thinking, 'I have this to offer -  my experience in fashion, or technology - and actually I'm aligned to the values of the company'. If you blend those things together, the other parts can be learned. So it's thinking about what is unique from a purpose and values point of view, combined with your experience.

ASOS alignment

For her part, Spence has been at ASOS for 13 years:

I was the third designer to start there and I've now got a team of nearly 100 people. I studied fashion at uni. I think if you'd asked me when I was five what I wanted to do, I would have said I wanted to be a fashion designer definitely, but I definitely wouldn't have figured out, probably 10 years ago, if I wanted to be management, if I wanted to be a design director.  I would have said no, I was very much all about hands on creative. As I kind of moved along in my career, I just saw the benefits of being able to work and nurture people, develop them and actually to be able to direct them and then create something even more amazing than I could have ever kind of even imagined.

Like Keane, Spence’s involvement with a tech business was a new experience: 

One of my biggest moments in terms of having to say saying yes to something was definitely joining ASOS. At that point I'd been in fashion for probably coming up to ten years and ASOS was one of the first online, fashion retailers. At that point, 13 years ago, selling fashion online to females in particular was something that was said couldn't be done. When they first approached me for the role, to be honest…it just wasn't something in terms of us or the High Street bricks and mortar space even really looked at. So to say yes to that at that point took a lot of bravery.  

To others who might find themselves in similar situations that demand a ‘leap of faith’, Spence has some advice based on her own experience: 

Really thinking about what your values are, that's what made me say yes to ASOS.  I felt that as a company, they were aligned to my values and I could really see myself working there and being able to develop and grow. When I said yes, all of my friends and my work colleagues that were really experienced, they were like, 'What are you doing? You're not going have a job in three months! Why are you doing that?'. It was weird because I couldn't even really tangibly explain why.

That recollection prompts another recommendation: 

Don’t be too rigid. If something else comes up, be willing to pivot, be willing as you go along the journey [to recognise]  there might be something else that actually you find that you think you'd love even more.

Imposters

And both women admit to having overcome the burden of ‘imposter syndrome’ when making career moves into unknown spaces. Keane opines: 

One of the best things to do is to realise it's there, it's real. I think everyone has ‘impostor syndrome’, whether they admit it or not. I certainly have. I still have it every day. The biggest thing that I talk about is to realise the uniqueness of what you have to offer. So everyone's life experiences, the background that they came from, the education you've had, the socialising that you've had, is different to somebody else's, therefore everyone has a perspective to offer in any form of discussion. So what I would say is less about whether or not you feel you should be there or not, think more about what is your perspective and speak up and give that perspective, because it will be absolutely unique to anybody else in the room.

Spence concurs: 

Just remember who you are and what you have to offer and that you're not on your own - everyone experiences it.