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.


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.