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Former Chanel global CEO talks career journey, going ‘beyond the label’

Maureen Chiquet (left), former global CEO of Chanel, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of The Boston Globe, look out to the audience in Blackman Auditorium during their discussion Monday at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Maureen Chiquet, the former global CEO of Chanel, shared stories and lessons learned from her impressive career leading and launching global brands on Monday afternoon at Northeastern, as well as how she has gone beyond societal labels in her professional and personal life throughout her journey.

Chiquet charted her path from literature major to global chief executive at an event in Blackman Auditorium, which was moderated by Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of The Boston Globe and co-founder of HUBweek. Their conversation drew from Chiquet’s new book, Beyond the Label: Women, Leadership, and Success on Our Own Terms.

University Advancement and Student Affairs co-hosted the event, which was held in celebration of Homecoming week and marked the kick off to a daylong Women who Empower Summit on Tuesday.

“[Chiquet] is a woman who embodies what it means to be open to experience and who has been exceptionally generous in sharing her own story,” said Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement.

In her talk at Northeastern, Chiquet shared her journey in part through the lens of a world that places people into categories, or labels, such as leader, mother, wife, driven, and shy. While these words may describe her, Chiquet explained how she’s defined herself on her own terms.

Maureen Chiquet, former global CEO of Chanel, speaks with Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of The Boston Globe in Blackman Auditorium on Monday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Throughout the evening, Pizzuti Henry asked Chiquet thoughtful questions about her journey as well as lessons she’s learned that might apply to the many students and young alumni in attendance. Pizzuti Henry also said she’s been impressed with Northeastern as a “forward-thinking” university while hailing the co-op program. “They are incredible co-ops—smart, capable, really here to learn,” she said of the many students who co-op at the Globe.

Chiquet opened by describing some formative experiences from her youth. She loved literature and devoured all kinds of stories from books as well as television and cinema, and by doing so learned about not only new people and cultures but also herself. When she visited France at age 16, she fell in love with the country. She studied literature at Yale University, and after college took a marketing position at L’Oreal Paris in 1985. Unlike her colleagues, Chiquet didn’t have a marketing degree, but she understood how to use her keen eye for good storytelling and imagery to bring a unique perspective to her role. “It was there that I ended up crafting my own career,” Chiquet said.

Chiquet used this story to underscore how those in attendance—particularly students—can help find their own career paths. She urged them to ask themselves what they really care about in life and what they can’t live without. Once you’ve done that, she said, determine your strengths and identify where you can make a unique mark.

“No matter what job you’re in, it’s finding within that job the thing that you can get excited about.”

Maureen Chiquet Former Global CEO, Chanel

Chiquet’s career took off after three years at L’Oreal. She worked at the Gap, helped launch Old Navy, and served as president of Banana Republic before becoming chief operating officer and president of U.S. operations of Chanel in 2003. In 2007, she became its first global CEO, where she oversaw the brand’s worldwide expansion.

The theme of company values came up several times throughout the discussion. Chiquet explained how two key factors inspired her move to Chanel. One was the company’s history and legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel, whose clothing Chiquet said “set out to liberate women from the constraints of their times.” The other was that both she and the company cared deeply about creativity. “It ended up being the perfect fit,” she said.

Later when Pizzuti Henry asked Chiquet for her thoughts on the future of retail in the e-commerce age, Chiquet said she believes that successful brands today know who they are and what their purpose is. She pointed particularly to REI, a retail and outdoor recreational company, noting its decision to close on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year.

“This is a brand that actually cares about people getting outside. We feel it when we go to the stores and talk to the sales associates,” Chiquet said. “They embody a purpose, and I think brands that can do that and can move into the future and engage customers in different ways are the brands that are going to win.”

Chiquet doesn’t believe retail stores will disappear for good, either. Rather, she thinks stores may end up focusing less on transactions and more on connecting with and entertain customers in ways that build upon the online shopping experience.

During a Q&A with audience members, one student asked Chiquet how to make the most out of being in a job that you don’t necessarily love. “No matter what job you’re in, it’s finding within that job the thing that you can get excited about,” Chiquet responded. “Find something that interests you, but also think about what are the things I can take away from this job.”