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Colette Stanford, Chief Legal Officer At SPARC Group LLC, On Finding Your Champions, A Culture Of Inclusivity, And Best Practices For Connecting With Colleagues – Diversity, Equity & Inclusion


Colette Stanford, Chief Legal Officer at SPARC Group LLC,
recently sat down with Winston & Strawn Partner Diana Leiden to
discuss Aeropostale’s acquisition, growing her small but mighty
team, and looking for talent in new and creative ways.

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Audio Transcript

Diana Leiden: Hello, and welcome to She
Persisted, a Winston & Strawn podcast where legal chiefs and
business leaders discuss their strategies for delivering measurable
value, developing high performing teams, and cultivating
transformative growth. I’m Diana Leiden and today I’ll be
speaking with Colette Stanford, EVP, and general counsel at SPARC
Group. Welcome Colette.

Colette Stanford: Thank you, Diana.

Diana Leiden: So, Colette, you’re the
general counsel at SPARC Group. Can you tell our listeners, what is
SPARC Group?

Colette Stanford: That is a good question.
SPARC is an operator of iconic brands and we operate retail stores,
e-commerce, and wholesale businesses for these brands domestically.
We started with Aeropostale and over the last six years, we
acquired Nautica, Forever 21, Lucky Brand, Brooks Brothers, Eddie
Bauer, and most recently Reebok.

Diana Leiden: Gotcha. I certainly know what
Aeropostale is, but what kind of company is that?

Colette Stanford: Our customers vary.
Aeropostale targets a teen market, Forever 21 slightly older, Lucky
is more of your mid/early twenties, Nautica, Brooks Brothers
probably more career-oriented, and then Reebok speaks for itself. I
would say that Eddie Bauer also crosses age lines more for outdoor
enthusiasts.

Diana Leiden: How long have you been with
SPARC?

Colette Stanford: I started with Aeropostale
about 14 years ago. The company went bankrupt, and we were
purchased out of bankruptcy. I remained with the new company, so I
always joke and say we were the first experiment coming out of the
partnership between Authentic Brands Group, a leading brand owner
second only to Disney and Simon Property Group which is the largest
mall operator.

Diana Leiden: And you also previously worked at
Tommy Hilfiger, is that right?

Colette Stanford: I did, after I left my firm,
I went to Tommy Hilfiger for a little under two years.

Diana Leiden: You came from working at two
different brands-how was the transition to working for a company
that has this big umbrella of brands?

Colette Stanford: Well, I was part of the
transition. When Aeropostale went bankrupt, Simon Property Group
and Authentic Brands Group formed a joint venture, and we were the
first brand in that joint venture. Since then, we’ve acquired
six other brands.

Diana Leiden: And what’s been your role
during the process of acquiring all of those brands?

Colette Stanford: Well, I was the only legal
counsel for a very long time, starting with Aeropostale. Then we
acquired Nautica and Forever 21, and then Lucky and Brooks
Brothers. With those two acquisitions, other attorneys joined, but
we have a very small legal department.

Diana Leiden: How large is your legal
department now at SPARC?

Colette Stanford: Well, I’m actually in
legal and compliance-compliance in terms of product integrity,
social compliance, and sustainability. So combined with legal and
compliance, we are 28.

Diana Leiden: Wow! That is lean and mean.
That’s not what I would have thought given that Forever 21,
Brooks Brothers, and Reebok are huge brands. It’s interesting
to hear that you’re getting everything done with that size of a
team.

Colette Stanford: Yes, we are.

Diana Leiden: You’ve been in the fashion
retail industry for a number of years-was that something you were
thinking about doing when you were in college and law school? Or is
that something that came up later in your career?

Colette Stanford: I knew I wanted to work
in-house. Before I went to law school, I had the opportunity to
work as a legal assistant and I knew that my personality was better
suited for in-house. I loved the camaraderie at my firm but at the
end of the day, my personality is well-suited for having one
client, one goal. I can juggle multiple clients within the one
client, but it’s hard to juggle multiple clients and multiple
partners working for multiple clients.

I knew going in-house, I really wanted to do something
interesting and when I got the opportunity to work for Tommy
Hilfiger, that was amazing because that is another iconic brand.
Aeropostale just really feeds my interest. I learn something new
every day about the industry.

Diana Leiden: Do you have any advice for women
lawyers who are thinking about making that leap from working at a
firm to working in-house?

Colette Stanford: Yes, I would say understand
that firm life and in-house life are different. You really have to
know what gets you out of bed in the morning, what makes you happy
at work when work is very difficult. I knew that I could juggle a
lot of different things, but it was important for me to know that I
was working towards one goal.

The firm that I left was small, so going from a small firm to a
small in-house department was not a big leap. The advantage is that
you are a lot more hands-on, so there aren’t a lot of
layers-your client is looking to you, you are helping them make
that decision. You’re not turning over a memo and saying,
“good luck to you.” You’re actually at the table in
the room, on the calls, in the emails helping them make that
decision. It’s fast-paced, but with less information as you
would be accustomed to working at a firm.

Diana Leiden: Right, well and that brings up an
interesting point. You said that one thing that’s important
about working in-house is having the feeling and the knowledge that
you’re working towards a common goal of the company. At SPARC,
which has a number of big brands that aren’t necessarily all
aimed at the same consumer, would you say SPARC has one company
ethos or has certain values that go across all of these different
brands?

Colette Stanford: Absolutely. One of the things
that I loved about Aeropostale that has carried into SPARC is that
we actually live our company values. That was very unique to me and
very appealing. I was at Aeropostale when they only had 500 stores
and, at the height, there were 1,100. So, I was there during their
growth of starting new brands and acquiring brands, but the values
remained. Even during the toughest parts of the bankruptcy, our
values remained. I could probably read them off to you now, but I
won’t do that.

Diana Leiden: Well, what are a couple of the
core values that you think have carried through the transition at
SPARC?

Colette Stanford: Compassion, respect, teamwork
is huge. I’ve never worked in a company, where everyone is so
willing to work and help each other. We don’t work in silos; we
work as teams. Sometimes that means that you’re on every
meeting and I can look at my calendar and I’m in meetings from
nine in the morning to 11:00 at night. But it’s that teamwork
aspect, which is huge. Integrity really goes across not only making
sure we deliver a good product for our customer, but how we
interact with each other, how we deal with our vendors, how we deal
with our coworkers. So, I think I’ve said compassion, respect,
integrity, and teamwork-most recently, we’ve adopted
inclusivity.

Diana Leiden: Inclusivity-what does that mean
to SPARC?

Colette Stanford: Inclusivity is creating an
environment of belonging, where team members feel valued and
heard.

Diana Leiden: Are there any initiatives or
events that you’ve done internally at SPARC to promote that
value and inclusivity?

Colette Stanford: We have. I’m the
co-executive sponsor of SPARC IDEAS, which is our diversity,
inclusion, and equity council. Out of SPARC IDEAS, we’ve
developed employee resource groups and host forums, working towards
creating a diverse, inclusive, equitable environment for our
employees.

Diana Leiden: Is SPARC doing anything within
that initiative to recruit more diverse employees?

Colette Stanford: Yes, HR has many initiatives
that they’re working on. Personally, I think one of the
challenges of recruiting is finding diverse candidates. Even as a
black woman, it was difficult for me and some of the searches that
I’ve had to undertake to find diverse candidates. You have to
make more of an effort. I tap into my network, I asked other
people, and I’m really proud to say that our legal department
is very diverse. Not only women, but also people of color.

Diana Leiden: Do you have any tips or ideas on
how either law firms or companies could be a little more creative
and looking for talent?

Colette Stanford: We talk about referrals, for
example, going beyond who you know. So, if you don’t know
diverse people, you may not have diverse candidates put [before]
for you. In our environment we need jobs filled right away. So, it
really is about making a more of an effort.

It took me months to fill a very important position, but in that
[time], I was able to meet with a variety of different candidates,
including diverse candidates, but that was, again, me tapping into
resources that were not necessarily top of mind. I went to local
schools, I tapped into an organization-Corporate Counsel Women of
Color-I went on LinkedIn myself and looked around to see if there
were candidates that would help create the diversity that we’d
like to see in companies and at law firms. It takes more effort and
a bit more patience.

Diana Leiden: The other side of this is
retention and advancement. Obviously, you’ve advanced really
far in your career and have reached the GC level. Is there anything
that SPARC is doing to make sure that diverse employees stay there
and hopefully advance?

Colette Stanford: Yes, SPARC is working on
initiatives, looking at promotions, making sure we retain diverse
candidates. In my department, I’m big on education-if I have
the opportunity to help the team expand, I encourage team members
to seek out opportunities (both attorneys and paralegals) to make
sure that they have the opportunities to advance. I’m
constantly looking at ways in which we can evolve their initial
position into something more, and something meaningful for
them.

Diana Leiden: Well, it sounds like the job and
the atmosphere are super-fast-paced and I’m sure things are
happening really quickly, but it sounds like you do you have to
slow down a little bit to make sure that you’re putting thought
into the right people, putting in the right resources, and
investing in people. You can’t slow down too much, in terms of
getting things done, so is that a balance that you’ve been able
to strike?

Colette Stanford: A balance that I try to
strike, absolutely. It’s very fast pace, I never know what my
day is going to be like, and that’s actually what I love about
in-house. Sometimes my priorities are set by the CFO, the CEO, the
Chief Human Resources Officer. Any pressing issue becomes my
priority, helping my team get through an issue becomes a
priority.

Diana Leiden: One of the things you mentioned
that fell under your role at SPARC was sustainability. What kind of
sustainability efforts is SPARC putting into place? This has been a
big topic in retail-with all of these brands is there anything that
you are working on, or the company is working on, in
sustainability?

Colette Stanford: The brands are very focused
on sustainability in a few areas. Sustainability in raw material
selection; sustainability in manufacturing practices; and
sustainability in terms of helping our customers understand how
they can practice sustainability. We also look at initiatives
around the office. You can imagine we deal with a lot of samples.
So, we’ve moved to 3D sampling, to reduce the amount of
material that is in the office. We can’t avoid material, so we
partner with organizations to turn those scraps into something
useful. We work with local animal shelters and they turn the scraps
into blankets for the shelter dogs and cats.

Diana Leiden: Oh wow! That’s so creative.
That was such a creative idea, I love that.

Colette Stanford: Yeah I know, that one we like
a lot. We have an internal sustainability council and it’s
comprised of cross functional representatives from marketing,
production, design, merchandising, legal and compliance from the
different brands and we get together on a regular basis to talk
about sustainability issues that may impact our product but also
initiatives that we can do internally to promote sustainability at
the company.

Diana Leiden: We’ve been talking about how
you and the company are working to recruit and retain diverse
candidates. In your career, did you have any particular mentors or
people that helped you make the decisions to get you to where you
are?

Colette Stanford: Yes, I rely heavily on my
friends. I was fortunate enough to have friends who were attorneys.
I took a few years off before going to law school, so I had friends
who were already ahead of me. I call them my think tank. I rely on
them a lot and, throughout my career, I’ve had partners at my
firm who were great in terms of bringing me under their wing and
showing me the ropes, helping me grow. I can’t point to one
particular person per se, but it’s these groups. It’s
different people that I’m able to tap into, and for different
reasons, that I say overall influence and help me grow as a person,
and within my career.

Diana Leiden: Do you have any advice that you
would give to women in law who want to end up not just in house but
also who want to end up in that C suite?

Colette Stanford: I would say having champions.
I have found in my career that it’s really important to have
people who know you and who can vouch for you when you’re not
in the room. And through the course of my career, I’ve been
able to develop key relationships. And you never know where they
happen. I may have just done an assignment for someone, and they
were in a bind, and they remember “oh, when I was in the bind,
Colette did that for me,” so when they’re in a different
room, they say, “[she’s] great because she helped me when
I was in the bind.”

You need people spreading your name. In order to spread your
name in a positive manner you have to do good work, be responsive,
be attentive, be accommodating, and be a partner. The people
spreading your name may not be the people you think would spread
your name. So just be open to it all. I’ve always encouraged
others to say your champion may not look like you, but if there
championing you, take it. Take it from where it’s coming
from.

Diana Leiden: There’s sometimes a
perception at law firms that women more so than men tend to think
if I just put my head down and do really good work, and work
really hard, and bill a lot of hours then the advancement will
come
. I think I’d like to hear your perspective on that
because my perspective has been that’s obviously part of it,
hard work and doing good work- you’re not going to get
anywhere, usually, without that-but that there has to also be that
next step of taking control and initiative over your own career.
Seeking out these people that you’re talking about and taking
ownership of that.

Colette Stanford: I think, honestly, the nature
of where I’ve worked, and where I’ve been, I’ve had to
keep my head down. When you have the amount of work that we have
going on, it’s hard to keep your head up, but I do think
it’s important that people get to know you. And that’s
something that I had to learn over time. I think that’s a part
of networking. A lot of times you think of networking, you have to
go to these events and hand out business cards. True, but
that’s not all to it. To me, networking is, I’m getting
coffee, someone is there, and we start chatting. Or I’m
chatting at the copier, or we’re on the elevator, or I pass you
in the hallway. People have to get to know you, because if they
don’t know you then they don’t know if you they can trust
you. When the opportunity comes up, they’re like “I
don’t know her, so I don’t know what she’s capable
of.”

I’m not a big group-person, but I’m really good at
catching someone on the side, so when we have a call, instead of
delving right into whatever we’re going to review, maybe
we’ll chat about something-not sports related-we may not talk
about sports, because I think that’s something that women find
themselves [in]. It’s funny, I say every office has a thing. At
my firm, it was baseball. They talk baseball all day and night. I
did not know there was that much to know about baseball, but
apparently there is. At Aero, they were big on basketball. I like
sports enough, but I’m not a sports person. So how do I connect
to a group that is into sports? Well, I’m not going to connect
with you on sports. But I’m going to connect with you on other
common things. I might connect with you because we live in the same
area, or because you mentioned that you visited this place, and I
like travel, so we can talk about travel. I think it’s
important as women that you’re not only authentic but also give
your managers, team members, or your direct reports an opportunity
to get to know you. When people know you, they trust you.

Diana Leiden: I definitely agree that the
solution when you’re on the outside of a work group is not
necessarily to take up that same hobby. You don’t have to watch
baseball for six hours a day or get into fantasy football.

You work a little harder and try to find common ground. And,
frankly, that probably is a better way to build more personal
connections.

Colette Stanford: Right, and you know, frankly
speaking as a black woman, my experience is just different and
there weren’t people like me around. So, what do I do? Do I
just keep my head down and just do my work and get recognized for
doing good work? As you said earlier, that only gets you so far. I
had to learn over time that I have to be authentic to who I am.
I’m not going to be the person in the middle of the room, but I
can grab you on the side and make a connection with you, and [you]
will remember that, and we can build on that. I’m not saying
that now I’m besties with a whole bunch of people, but they do
know me, and they trust [me] which is the ultimate for general
counsel.

Diana Leiden: You raised that throughout your
career, you haven’t necessarily always been surrounded by other
people of color, or, I’m assuming, by a lot of women.
What’s been your strategy to build common ground when
you’re looking around and you really don’t see that
there’s a lot of people of color and women that are reflected
in your workplace?

Colette Stanford: I listen. You probably know
all of the stereotypes about attorneys talking a lot, I listen a
lot. I listen to what people are talking about, after they talk
about the sports. What else? Are you talking about your kids, the
kids in daycare, the kids [in] middle school or in college? Are you
talking about your elderly parents? Are you talking about travel?
Are you talking about your community? I have a good friend at work,
we talk about church. And because he’s very active in his
church, that’s probably not something that a lot of people
know, but in chatting we got to know that about each other. I’m
active in my church so that’s what we connect on.

Now, outside looking in, no one would ever know that’s how
we connect. For me it’s been important to really listen to get
to know people. As much as I say, “it’s important for
people to get to know me,” it’s equally as important for
me to get to know them. I’ve connected with people because
their parents were elderly, and unfortunately, my mother passed
away from Alzheimer’s and my father passed away from a heart
condition. So, when people are talking about the challenges with
their elderly parents, I can relate to that-I’m listening and
getting to know them as well.

Diana Leiden: Has working remotely over the
past few years been a challenge when trying to build those
connections, when we’ve been over Zoom and all of that, rather
than being in the office?

Colette Stanford: You know it’s funny when
you talk to people on Zoom now. The pandemic was tough. It was
definitely hard on retail, was hard for us, but what it also forced
us to do is, I think, look past what we do in the office. So now,
if I’m on the phone with you, oh! I see your kids drawing, or
the dog barking, or the person in the background that you may have
mentioned in passing, but now we have a connection. I have team
members who have small children and if the baby is crying and you
have to be on the call, then “hi baby,” you know, and we
just keep going. I don’t know if we would have been that open
to that pre-pandemic. So yes, it’s a little harder, but I think
we’re also more accommodating and accepting of the fact that
our coworkers have lives beyond their job.

Diana Leiden: Right, we’ve gotten a window
into each other’s lives that we didn’t have before, for
better or for worse. I agree with you. Would you have any advice
for folks who aren’t super outgoing or don’t love to
network in big groups? People who don’t have that natural
desire to be networking.

Colette Stanford: I think start small. Big
groups can be intimidating. Start small and also give yourself some
grace. You’re concerned about am I making the right
impression? What are they going to think of my shirt? What are they
going to think of my jacket? What are they going to think of my
hair?
And honestly, they’re probably not thinking that
much about it.

Start small, give yourself some grace, and make an effort.
You’re going to have to get out of your comfort zone. I have
team members that don’t like to be on camera ever and I will
let them do that sometimes. But sometimes I’ll give them a
heads up, “hey this meeting, it’s a camera meeting, so as
much as I know you’re not comfortable with it, I need you to do
this.”

Diana Leiden: Right, and I think that’s
good advice for managers and supervisors as well. It’s okay to
make those requests, particularly before the Zoom, like you said,
give them a heads up, this is a video meeting, or I want you to
present on this issue. As long as you give people a heads up and
give them some notice, it’s totally fine to try to push people
a little bit out of their own their own comfort zones.

Change out of their sweatpants. Right? I’m probably wearing
sweatpants right now, no one will even know on Zoom, but it gives
them a chance to brush their hair or whatever else.

This is probably a broad issue, but what do you think, beyond
SPARC, is one of the most pressing issues facing the fashion or the
retail industry right now?

Colette Stanford: Right now, it’s supply
chain. Supply chain is huge. Not just the obvious barges at the
ports with thousands of containers that are not being delivered and
the downward effect that has on business. Right now, there are
still shutdowns happening in countries that are manufacturing that
impact business. From a traceability, visibility standpoint, the
government and our customers want to know where [our] raw materials
[are] coming from. So having that visibility when that may not be
your business model is difficult.

I also think privacy issues will always be a challenge. Customer
data is still king and so is how you use customer data, where
you’re getting it from, do you have the right permissions? I
don’t think that’s going away. What new way are hackers
inventing to try to access your systems? Recently I got the most
creative emails regarding various accounts that I have. They’re
so creative that you really have to do a double-take. I mean I can
figure it out, but to the person who’s not going to delve
behind it they’re so convincing.

Diana Leiden: Right, the ones we joke about
like the constant voicemails about extending your car warranty, but
you know I have certainly seen those coming through, either
professionally or personally, which is something you do a
double-take and go, “well I’m very suspicious, so I’m
going to look into this.” But then the same thing is happening
to all these people who aren’t lawyers, or who aren’t used
to being highly suspicious over things like that, and it’s
really scary.

Colette Stanford: It is.

Diana Leiden: Well, I have one more question, I
always ask people that I meet who are working in the fashion
industry, do you feel like, especially as a woman, that there’s
more pressure to be fashionable or be on your fashion game, then in
other types of businesses?

Colette Stanford: So, luckily for us, the SPARC
brands aren’t high fashion brands-we’re iconic brands. As a
result, a lot of creativity is allowed. You have people like me who
can’t give up the business casual look, versus very creative-I
won’t name any names-but very, very creative outfits and
hairstyles from our more creative team. I think I’ve benefited
there, but I think there is always pressure on women with respect
to looks that men just don’t have.

One of the best things that has happened are the laws that have
now made hair discrimination illegal because as black women, our
hair is judged quite frequently. So not having that pressure and
knowing that there are laws to protect against that type of
discrimination is a big step from when I started. Just seeing
natural hair being embraced is huge and a big positive step.

Diana Leiden: Well, thank you so much for your
time, Colette. I found this super interesting, so on behalf of
Winston and the She Persisted Podcast, I just wanted to thank you
for sitting down with us.

Colette Stanford: And thank you, Diana. As a
shy person, you made this a very easy conversation to have, so
thank you and thank you for inviting me to participate.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.



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