Authenticity and LGBTQ+ Allyship with Macy’s CEO and Cowen’s Co-President

On this episode of Cowen Insights, released in conjunction with Pride Month, Jeff Gennette, Macy’s Inc. Chairman and CEO, and Larry Wieseneck, Co-President of Cowen and Executive Sponsor of OUTperformers, Cowen’s LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group, join Oliver Chen, Cowen’s Retailing Broadline and Department Stores Analyst.

They discuss the collective effort to bring awareness and cultivate discussion around allyship, inclusion & diversity, and the current professional environment for LGBTQ+ employees. This podcast is aimed at helping answer the question: “What can I do to make my workplace more inclusive?” Press play to listen to the podcast.

Transcript

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Cowen Insights, a space that brings leading thinkers together to share insights and ideas shaping the world around us. Join us as we converse with the top minds who are influencing our global sectors.

Oliver Chen:

Understanding the magic of Macy’s and the magic of being your whole authentic self it’s Oliver Chen, I’m a research analyst covering retail, new platforms and luxury goods at Cowen. And today, an honor of the beginning of Pride month, we’ll be talking to Larry Wieseneck, the co-President of Cowen and the Executive Sponsor of Cowen’s Outperformers, Cowen’s LGBTQ+ resource group, and Jeff Gennette. I view Jeff as one of the most important and inspirational leaders in retail. He’s the CEO of Macy’s. Gentlemen, we’re excited to have you both here. From my perspective, I see the imperative of innovation, performance, and being the best you can be. Better workplaces allow employees to bring their whole authentic selves to work every day, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or other factors. Diversity inclusion and equality matter for all industries across the workforce, from the board to the C-suite to frontline retail workers. Jeff, as an out CEO, you brought a unique diversity lens to Macy’s business strategy. Why does diversity and inclusion matter? How does it fit into your growth strategy? What are you doing with vendors?

Jeff Gennette:

Well, hey Oliver, it’s great to be with you and Larry, great to meet you. So just kind of a setup on this. So DE&I, it’s certainly embedded in our business strategy and that’s part of our social purpose platform. We certainly have found that operating as an inclusive culture, that environment inspires and provides equitable access to all players. And we’ve created our DE&I program over the years with our colleagues and really with our customers and community input as well. And we really look at our role way beyond just buying and selling goods. So to answer your question, I would say the first part, I talk about it like community outreach and societal change. So in March of this year, we launched Mission Everyone, which was our purpose driven platform. And this is one, the big news on this was that we were directing $5 billion of the company’s spend.

Jeff Gennette:

And this would be through the year 2025 to the partners and products and people and programs that really help us create a more equitable and sustainable future. And at the same time, Macy’s is investing about a hundred million in that same timeframe to nonprofit organizations that support the emotional wellbeing and education of underrepresented youth, as well as environmental stewardship. Now, when you look at the second part of the question, kind of when you look at the backdrop of the retail landscape, we’ve been on the business diversity bus for a long while about how we bring sustainable change for the next generation of Asian, and black, and Native American, women, veteran, LGBT owned businesses and how do we get more of those businesses in both the retail and the non-retail side of our business.

Jeff Gennette:

And we just see a huge opportunity to drive growth with underrepresented suppliers and set a higher industry standard and be a catalyst for change and Oliver, you’ve known us for a number of years and the workshop at Macy’s is one of the underpinnings of that goal. It’s one of the longer running retail development programs for underrepresented suppliers. We’re about to kick off, I think our 12th year of it, and we’ve graduated about 200 companies and just helping them in anything that they need help with. They had to hone their customer strategy, how they get funding, sometimes we give them funding, what they do to improve their balance sheet. We really help focus them to be better suppliers to Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and Bluemercury, and then any other company. The other thing I talk about would be what we’re doing with trying to showcase up and coming diverse designers to design multiple collections.

Jeff Gennette:

And we’re doing that through our Icons of Style program, in that we gave them scale by really having them design as a drop into our private brands. So you can imagine when you have an Icon of Style diverse vendor designer who is scaling the INC brand across 500 stores, as well as our website, that’s given them huge access to new customers and we’re in our second year of that. And also the last I would just end with, when I look at Macy’s, we were one of the first brands to sign up for the 15% pledge, which isn’t just something that we got a press release for, but it really has changed the way that we have acted. And we now have five times the amount of black owned brands that we did before we took the pledge. Those are some of the things that we’re working on.

Oliver Chen:

Congrats on all that progress across so many buckets. Jeff, what about your own workforce, as you think about leadership internally and the future of talent, how is diversity and inclusion playing a role there?

Jeff Gennette:

Yeah, this is a big one. We clearly believe that, and tell, everybody, or every colleague, we have a hundred thousand colleagues at Macy’s, reflect the demographics of the communities that we serve, that we’re not going to be maximizing our potential. When you think about the frontline colleague, we really match the communities. But as you get closer up to senior leaders is when it starts to winnow down and we really needed to do something about that. So as part of our Mission Everyone pledge, we’re really focused on getting the director level, think about director, senior director, VP, and above, getting that entire population to 30% diverse talent by the year 2025. And putting that marker out there. We’ve been on this journey now for a number of years, we’re now in the 27 and a half percent range will definitely hit the 30%. In order to do that, you just can’t throw it out as a goal.

Jeff Gennette:

You actually have to put actions against it. One of the actions that we created was a program called Mosaic and Mosaic gave… It’s a year program where we take high-high potential talent that happened to be diverse and provide for them a program that brings them equity. So it’s not just about diversity and inclusion, it’s about bringing them equity for whatever their particular need is. It’s almost like a spoke program to get them to a point where they have the confidence and the experience to continue to be promoted. This is a big opportunity for us to accelerate that talent. One of the things that we do with that is we assign them an executive sponsor as well as an external coach. And we just kicked off our third class this week.

Jeff Gennette:

Actually, I met with them in person. We have 42 members in this year’s class and what it gives these mosaic opportunities participants, they can apply their leadership skills and their unique perspective in how they drive strategy and business results. We give them the permission and the confidence to really fuel their creativity and innovation. And it really helps them build their internal networks. And I really believe that this is the pipeline of future leaders that are going to reflect the full diversity of the customers and just help us stem that mid-career attrition of ethnically diverse talent.

Larry Wieseneck:

Jeff, I’d love to ask you a question if you don’t mind. As an ally myself, I’d love to get your view from your leadership position as to what you hope to gain from the many allies within Macy’s, as it relates to all of your endeavors on the various social fronts?

Jeff Gennette:

Yeah. Good question, Larry. What we want to create at Macy’s is really an environment where all colleagues can do their best work and they can continue to learn and grow every day. I learned from Dr. John Gates, who was one of my mentors, who really taught me that when you think about diverse leadership, think about it like a stadium and diversity is having them in the stadium, maybe in the stands, full inclusion and equity is when they’re on the playing field participating. So how best to do that? How best to ensure that you’ve got diverse talent that is really driving substantive change for your strategy? Part of that is we do that through ERGs and really allies like yourself, allies like myself, have the opportunity to support depending on what ERG you’re a part of.

Jeff Gennette:

Allies, I think help diverse leaders be themselves. For me as an openly gay man, I know that being at Macy’s in the beginning of my career, I don’t think I’d be where I am today, if it hadn’t been for the allies that I had at Macy’s and the support that they made it possible for me to be my authentic self and what we try and do that is for all of our diverse talent, for their opportunity to bring their best ideas forward, to do their best work. And that breeds confidence and they’re doing much more of that. So I think supporting colleagues and customers and partners, and being their whole selves and really ensuring that you have a diverse range of perspectives and innovative approaches just it certainly helps drive success and achieve positive societal change and with Macy’s as an example.

Larry Wieseneck:

Well, thanks for that. We’re certainly trying to do many of the same kinds of things that you’re doing here at Cowen. And so I take great comfort from knowing that we’re following in your footsteps and appreciate that insight. If you don’t mind, I’d love to maybe wait into something a little bit more challenging in this period that we’re in. There is obviously, enduring anti-gay sentiment, that’s becoming more pervasive, at least it’s coming to the fore. It may have always been there, but is coming to the fore with changing legislative environments, et cetera and as a decision maker in your organization, how do you remain an ally and a voice for the community while also focusing on the business realities that you have to face?

Jeff Gennette:

I would certainly say that for a long time, much of the corporate world wasn’t as supportive… It wasn’t a supportive environment for LGBTQ people as colleagues, or as customers. And I think that thankfully has changed. And what I’d say is that, companies have a responsibility to support their employees, however they self-identify. And I think at Macy’s, we’re really clear on what issues we stand for. I think that we had a big decision after Black Lives Matter and it was really after when you think about George Floyd of what were those issues that we were going to lean in externally, in addition to espousing them as values internally and within the company. So, that certainly is when we think about LGBTQ, this is a, excuse the pun, but this is an issue that we do live out loud and we stand for it externally, as well as internally.

Jeff Gennette:

So when you have things like to your question, like what’s going on in Texas and personally I’m concerned and I think professionally, I stand with thousands of colleagues that are concerned by the bills that are introduced that single out LGBTQ and specifically that also target youth. And so in the state of Texas, we’ve urged public officials to abandon such laws, we joined with the HRC to come out against where the state of Texas was classifying medical care for transgendered youth as child abuse. So, we saw those bills as harmful to our colleagues and their families. It would make them feel unwelcomed and if those laws were to take root, it’s harder for us to recruit talent and against our values in those states.

Jeff Gennette:

And I think we just evaluated at the end of the day, there was more risk if we didn’t speak out, it’s not to say that it’s popular with everybody. I get a lot of feedback from customers and certainly from some colleagues that, do you really need to put your nose into this? But I thought, and I think, that there’s more risk if we don’t speak out. And these laws, I believe, will create a disruptive environment that could harm our business and depress consumer sentiment and alienate colleagues and customers. So, we’re choiceful about where we stand, but when we do stand we’re out loud, as we do it.

Oliver Chen:

Larry, as a leader at Cowen, what are you doing at Cowen to make sure everyone feels included and safe?

Larry Wieseneck:

So, Oliver, I really appreciate you asking that question. Let’s just start with inclusion. We’ve been on a journey as an organization. As we were a smaller company and we’ve grown quite quickly over the last five years, we just assumed that people felt as if they were part of the team, but as we’ve grown, we’ve had to be more intentional. And about two and a half years ago, we set on a search to hire the first ever head of inclusion and diversity for the organization in the time since that person joined, which was roughly two years ago, we’ve rolled out multiple ERGs, such that folks who are in communities of underrepresented feel as if there’s a place for them to come together to congregate.

Larry Wieseneck:

And importantly, that allies can feel that there’s a group for which they can work with to help make sure that those who are in those underrepresented groups can feel included. So that’s been a big step for us, that intentionality. It served us well, I think over the last two years, as we’ve been in a period of tumult around a lot of social issues, and when we start thinking about social justice and how many of our folks are feeling, having these ERGs in place and having then a number of elements of hung off of that, as it relates to communication vehicles, et cetera, has been an important part of kind of inclusion and the safety that comes from that. Cause I think that there’s a lot of emotional safety that comes from knowing that you’re not alone.

Larry Wieseneck:

In addition, when talking about the world we live in today, we can’t ignore physical safety. And so from that standpoint, there’s been a lot of effort to make sure that to come back to the office, we have a flexible environment that people know that first and foremost, we have their wellbeing in mind, but we also want to make sure that their work being is safe. And so that means flexible work environments, HIPAA coming in for certain elements of the week and that’s different by business based on need. So I would say, we think about safety as everything from physical, to emotional, to giving people the tools to be successful.

Jeff Gennette:

All right, Larry, that sounded really good. I’ll frame the question as to kind of how we really want people to feel included and safe at Macy’s Inc. I think the first comment I’d make is that we want to make it very clear to all of our colleagues about what we stand for. And that starts with our social purpose. We call that Mission Everyone, and the opportunity to create a brighter future with bold representation to empower more voice, choice, and ownership. And that’s really for all of our colleagues, customers, and communities. That’s out there and our teams know that. As a kind of some topics on that spin from that, one of the things that we found through all the societal changes and particularly, during Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, the shooting of Michael Brown, going back six years, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that engendered so much intense feeling in our colleague population.

Jeff Gennette:

And frankly, we, as executives were not responsive, it was kind of crickets. It was like business as usual. And we weren’t validating what was going on for so many of our colleagues and how they were feeling about it personally as either allies or as members of those communities. So we created a format that we called, Can We Talk? Which is we engage in that every quarter and we bring together topics that are super important to our colleagues. And they’re generally pretty thorny. There’s not one clear narrative, there’s different perspectives on it and we either speak to it from bringing in our experts, or we bring in external experts. We just had one that was last week or two weeks ago, that was with Heather McGhee, who is the writer of The Sum of Us.

Jeff Gennette:

And it was really about racism in America and is it a zero sum game or is there a different way to view it? And that just spun a great deal of conversation with our colleagues. We do it on issues like being as being Islam in America. We did it on… There’s being Asian in America and just trying to look at different perspectives from many different angles and allowing our colleagues to participate and see themselves in that. That would be one angle of just how we’re trying to make Mission Everyone come alive for our colleagues. The other way is how we want people who don’t feel necessarily like they have the equity to compete at the highest levels and how we make that a psychologically safe place for them to swing for the fences and make mistakes, but also get big wins and making sure that they’re not talking themselves out of big opportunities that can move our business and delight our customers and shareholder by extension that really starts with someone like me.

Jeff Gennette:

And so I have this thing called noble failures in which I go out in front of the population and whatever the group is, I just did it in Orlando for our all VP and above meeting that we had last week and talked about my latest noble failure and what it does is it shows just that, Hey, I’m willing to admit when I’ve made a big mistake and what I learned from it and counter that with where I’ve had successes and that at every level of our company of basically sharing this whole idea about noble failures so that all of our colleagues can see their leaders admit when they’ve made mistakes, when they’ve been ahead of their skis, what they’ve learned from it and how that has not changed their perspective, that I’m still going to swing for the fences because my customers counting on it. So, those would be the ways that I would describe the… Oliver, your question.

Oliver Chen:

Thank you for that, gentlemen. Very helpful. So zooming out on the state of the business, agility and flexibility are so important to both organizations. Jeff, how are you driving younger customer engagement and then Larry, how are you approaching the business, given broader market volatility as it relates to Cowen?

Jeff Gennette:

Okay. New customers? Well, we certainly have talked about that on many earnings calls. What I’d say is that we’ve been on this journey of transformation with our polar strategy since 2020. And it’s a rich blend of kind of the art and science of retail strategy. And certainly a key pillar of that is what we’re doing with data analytics and technology and what I call our performance driven operating model. But to give you some specifics on that, which is helping us attract a younger customer, one is really getting that embedding much more data science into every aspect of our operations. It’s helping us develop assortments and market them more efficiently to appeal to a younger customer. It’s really helping us go from kind of broad based promotion to more personalized messaging in all of the media platforms that this customer traffics.

Jeff Gennette:

When I think about developing more online interfaces, that’s across digital, mobile, and social platforms that engage the younger consumer, it’s helping us really push us on new categories. So one of the things that we announced, I don’t know, on the third quarter earnings call was what we’re doing with Toys R Us. And that for us is, yeah, we have a big opportunity in toys, but more importantly, it gives us a millennial parent on ramp into the Macy’s brand. And it gives us the opportunity to build a second and third purchase in another category, based on them coming in for toys. And we saw a dearth of toy experience in America and we want Macy’s to be that. It’s also helping us with things that we do with collaborations with diverse designers. We just did one with Maluma, who was a gigantic Latin star.

Jeff Gennette:

And we did that with through Icons of Style, which I mentioned earlier. We’re trying to attract new customers through our brand platform, which is Own Your Style. And that really takes our fashion from just a full brand lens to a style lens, which mixes brands that’s making us more relevant. It’s how we merchandise stores now, it’s how we’re merchandising our website. That’s helping us build relevancy with this customer. I’ve mentioned Mission Everyone, and what we hope to do with that. And I just would conclude by saying that across all three of our name plates, just continuing to diversify our leadership and merchant teams, to advance our assortments and marketing messages, that’s helping us appeal to a younger customer. This leadership is much more precise about ways that we can be more relevant.

Larry Wieseneck:

Oliver, I think as it relates to the environment we’re in, we go into every year, presuming that we’re going to find a volatile environment. Some years, we actually find that the market is more conducive and supportive of what our clients are trying to execute on. In other years, it’s more challenging and then some years we have both. So go back to 2020, when we were sitting, somewhere on March 15th to April 15th, we literally thought we were looking at what was going to be an enormous restructuring cycle. And by the time we got to June and July, the market was wide open and the opportunity to finance and be more aggressive on strategies, kind of was at a higher level than we would’ve ever expected. So, we don’t know what the environment’s going to look like three months, six months out.

Larry Wieseneck:

When we tell you is we try and be consistent in the way we approach the opportunity set and this is across the entire organization. So all we do is be close to our clients. That’s true for all parts of our organization. And as a firm that’s really client centric, we have four pillars of our approach, which is vision, empathy, sustainability, and tenacious teamwork. They all really are there to describe how we show up for each other and then importantly, for our clients. And so I think in difficult environments, I’ve always felt this, it goes back to my formative stages in the industry, but really goes back beyond that to, I can remember, I won’t say which airline, we’re not advertising for, there was an airline who had an advertisement back in the day where sales were down or for some company and the sales force turned to their leader and said, “what are you supposed to do right now?”

Larry Wieseneck:

And he came out and he had tickets for everyone and said, “go out and see your clients. You’re flying to California, you’re flying to Texas.” Right? And I think that’s what we do in a tough environment. What we do is we want to be there as the person listening. Sometimes we have the answers, but a lot of times it’s just listening. It’s hearing what is in fact, the biggest concern of our clients, and then being nimble to make sure that we can provide them with insights, where we have them and where we don’t be bold enough and humble enough to point them to others that can, because the most important thing is that we’re authentic and where we can add value, we will and where we can’t, let’s make sure we find them places because in a difficult environment and volatility, lots of people hide under the desk and our job is to stand above and be there for our clients and hold their hands. And so that’s what we try and do.

Oliver Chen:

Thanks, Larry. As a closing question, can each of you give us two points on how allies can be helpful and the biggest changes you want to make next as it relates to what we’ve discussed today and any closing remarks. Jeff, I’ll have you go first and then Larry.

Jeff Gennette:

So I think the first step to being a great ally is just a commitment to listen with an open mind and not react. The art of asking the follow up question, to really plum for deeper meaning and understand and listen with your whole body so that you understand body language and how you’re reading, who you’re listening to. I think the second thing I’d say as an ally is, speak up in your own social circles when you’re among the majority, and you’re expressing a divergent point of view. I have courage to do that and certainly speak up on a member of the community is placed in a situation where they can’t speak up for themselves. I think that would be one, is just really listening with an open mind and speaking out where appropriate.

Jeff Gennette:

And the next thing I’d say is just being clear what your company stands for and its values. If all of our colleagues can’t recite our values, then there’s an opportunity for how we communicate them and how we make them live in our strategies, just getting super clear about that. And I think that comes across to customers and ultimately, shareholders, when we do that right. I think that comes with not just the soundbites of your values, but really what are your measurable goals that you’re putting against those values that are clear and they’re actionable, and everybody is measuring it and they know where we stand and you’re clear about where you’re making them and where you’re not, those would be the two things that I would point to.

Larry Wieseneck:

I think those are great. And I’ll make sure not to say the same ones because I very well might have. What I’d say is I think, certainly for me on a number of fronts, I’m going through my own personal journey and trying to be a better ally. I’d say, no one should be hard on themselves, start with empathy and then move to action, right? The idea that one’s going to be extraordinarily active at first, without first going through their own journey, I think really hard to make those expectations either us of our employees or for that matter, anyone of themselves. So let me just bring it to life a little bit. I think on the empathy side, showing empathy, letting people know that you’re there for them, that you’re a good colleague, a good partner, and someone who listen to the comment that was raised earlier in many respects, you’re a safe room, you’re a safe shoulder.

Larry Wieseneck:

So to speak. I think just doing that has a force multiplier throughout the organization. And so I would say that’s the first place to start. And for those who really don’t know what to do, that’s a big step. And I would say that will make the entire community better. I think once one feels comfortable with showing empathy, then you move to what I call, showing up and standing up. I think for each person that will take its own form, whether it’s participating in events with the ERGs as an ally, whether it’s in your community, getting more active and letting people know that you’re not going to stand by, as others are made to feel marginalized. There’s some things that I’ve done that I feel, again, each person has a different platform, but I’m really excited about being the executive sponsor of our LGBTQ+ ERG.

Larry Wieseneck:

So it’s a way for me to demonstrate in my way that I’m taking action and then others can do what they wish from that. The other thing that we’ve done, which is a little bit different and for us as a investment bank, I think is unique angle is we’ve recently set up a strategic partnership with Gaingels, which is a LGBTQ originated at least started that way, venture capital fund. That’s making a real impact in the double bottom line by investing in great opportunities in the venture space as an investor first, but by bringing their network from the community, they’re also delivering a change in the executive suites of the companies that they invest in. And so that’s another opportunity for us to take a standup approach, which is we’re doing something that is helping to move forward the agenda as opposed to just watching. But again, I start with empathy and then move to action.

Oliver Chen:

Jeff and Larry, thanks for bringing your whole selves to this personal conversation. There are a few things I took away from it. One, the important leadership roles allies can take and the many opportunities for everyone to embrace allies and foster that. Two, empowering voices and flexibility in what Macy’s and Cowen are doing to foster authenticity in this context and three, roles both companies are having across the many stakeholders, suppliers, vendors, employees as well. It was great having this conversation with you both. Thank you.

Speaker 1:

Thanks for joining us. Stay tuned for the next episode of Cowen Insights.


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