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Jenelle Sheridan

Jenelle Sheridan

Senior Director, Strategy and Customer Engagement, Athleta

What were your early years like?

I grew up in a northwest suburb of Chicago with two younger siblings, and I was exposed to consulting from a very early age. My dad is a consultant. He started at McKinsey and then he built his own company, Bridge Strategy Group. So consulting is kind of in the blood.

Did you always feel drawn to a consulting career?

Not exactly. I was always intrigued by what my dad did, but I wasn’t sure it was what I’d want to do. In high school, I was more interested in photography and film, and my first job was at a camera shop, developing film. I actually went to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles because I got a scholarship to do a joint degree in film and business.

How did you go from film studies to Strategy&?

After graduation, I worked at a real estate investment firm in L.A. for a few years. I worked in acquisitions, which was fast-paced and very analytical, with lots of problem solving. But, I found myself thinking a lot about consulting. So I decided to get my MBA at Kellogg School of Management. I had a wonderful experience there. Kellogg solidified my desire to do consulting, and it exposed me to retail, consumer product goods, and marketing. Then, the summer between my first and second years, I moved back to the West Coast, to San Francisco, for a summer internship with Strategy&. I was on their CMT [consumer, media, and technology] team, focused on technology with a retail and consumer bend. And I loved it – the team, the people, and the work. I accepted a full-time offer with Strategy& during my second year at Kellogg, and I had a number of fantastic project experiences during my four years with the firm.

Any lasting lessons from Strategy&?

Yes, I believe my experience at Strategy& was absolutely paramount to getting me where I am today. I learned so many of the basics around problem-solving, structured thinking, and effective presence. As a young person, I don’t think there’s a better way than consulting to immerse yourself in understanding how a business works and how organizations make decisions.

Why did you move on to Athleta?

The opportunity came to me through a friend and it aligned — both personally and professionally. I have always been incredibly passionate about retail, health and wellness, I really respected the leadership, and I was looking to get some operating experience. It felt like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up — to build a function, to drive strategy and change, and to lead a new team in such a fast-growing company.

How has your role changed since you joined the company three years ago?

When I started, there was no strategy team, only me, a party of one. Now I have four verticals underneath me — our strategy and new business development team, our consumer insights team, our customer and product analytics team, and our loyalty and payments team. My role has both short-term, immediate business-driving components and much longer-term strategic projects. I manage a team of 12 people, and I’m hiring for a number of open positions. I can’t hire data scientists fast enough.

What do you look for when you’re hiring?

Structured thinking, communication skills, grit, passion, and drive. We’re still a small team and we’re looking to accomplish a lot. I want to hire people who are going to work through challenges and not throw in the towel when things get tough. I use case studies across the board, whether I’m hiring for a strategy role or an analytics role. I find that it’s the best way to see someone’s ability to break apart a problem, structure the steps of how they would solve it, and communicate it in a digestible way—because storytelling is definitely part of what we do.

And didn’t you recently launch a new brand?

Yes! Hill City, our new men’s performance brand, has been a labor of love for the past year and a half. We launched the brand online in October, and [it is] also in 50 Athleta stores across the country with a curated selection of products. We wanted to have some physical presence so the customer could touch and feel the pieces. The brand itself was an opportunity that came out of our strategy pillar because we kept hearing that our core Athleta customer wanted something for her spouse, her brother, her son. Over a year and a half ago, I led an [exploration] to determine how (and if) we should bring this to light. We built a business case, and then we went about actually recruiting and hiring a team to put this concept together. It’s been really fun and rewarding to build the brand from a plan on paper to a reality. We have a lot of support and expertise to make it grow.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I try to provide the vision on what we’re trying to accomplish. Here’s the North Star. Here’s where we want to go on the map. And then, I empower my team to determine how we get there. My job is to remove roadblocks and allow my team to do their best work. I also think that for leaders, being a mentor is so important. I like to maintain close touch with my team and help people develop their own careers.

What career advice can you offer?

Number one, make sure there’s an element of passion in your work. For me, I love our products — they get me so excited about the work. And second, talk to people. Have a cup of coffee with someone you admire, ask about their experiences, what they like and what they don’t like. That’s the best way to bounce ideas off other people and figure out what might be most exciting or the best fit for you.

When and where do you feel happiest?

Outside. I love running and hiking and biking and skiing. Those things, to me, are pure joy. I also love to cook, and I love reading. I try to read one fiction and one nonfiction book at the same time, even if I only get through a chapter each night.

Who do you admire?

Nancy Green, our brand president. She has a creative side and deep product knowledge, and she’s incredibly financially sharp. She has the ability to take a zillion pieces of information, synthesize them, and express it back in a way that’s incredibly clear and concise. Plus, on the personal front, she has a wonderful family and she takes pride in herself. She hikes in the morning. She’s very 360. She has it all going on. Also, even though this might sound cliché, I really admire my parents. My dad is a self-made man who started working at an incredibly early age, put himself through school, and became an entrepreneur in his 20s with a young family. My mom worked all the time and raised three kids. Between the two of them, they’ve accomplished so much, it’s humbling. They definitely inspire me.

This interview was conducted and edited by Jen Swetzoff, founder of Closeup, a content strategy and creative studio. She was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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