From Owning Your Closet to Saving Your Life — Paula Schneider Interview
Tell us a bit about your background and the career you had before becoming CEO at Susan G. Komen. How did you choose a retail career?
Well, my career actually started as a teacher. I had just got my teaching credentials and was a middle school teacher for a year. I was in my early 20’s and I thought it was great fun. But I cleared $738 a month! Which is kind of hard to live on.
So, I decided in order to teach, I had to work outside of teaching. Teach during the day and work at a clothing store nights and weekends. It was a little store in Chico, California where I went to school. One thing led to another and soon I started buying for the clothing store, going down to LA and I thought, ‘Well this is really interesting’.
That’s when I decided to make a change and I ended up in the apparel/fashion sector and did that for many, many years. At 25, I borrowed $5,000 to start my own company, a manufacturers’ repping company where we had multiple lines that we repped, and I acted as an independent rep for manufacturers that didn’t have their own showrooms. Interestingly, I sold the first dress for BCBG!
So, the business continued to grow, and I sold it to take on a corporate position at BCBG. . . as their president. And that’s when everything started to take off. I bobbed and weaved my way up the corporate ladder for 30 years working for everything from Laundry by Shelli Segal to Speedo to American Apparel and 7 for All Mankind. Many of these brands are in most people’s closets.
What prompted you to switch from a career at the top of your field in retail to join a non-profit? Was it a big ‘aha moment’ or something that you had in your mind all along?
No, it was not something in my mind. It was actually something in my breast! Because I got breast cancer.
Tell us about your cancer diagnosis and the impact on your career.
I was in the middle of a major corporate restructuring when I got the news that I had breast cancer. For context, I was the group president over the largest swimwear company in the world that included brands like, Speedo, Calvin Klein, Nautica, etc. 15 different brands which were bought by every major retailer from Walmart all the way up to Bergdorf Goodman. So, this restructure was massive.
When I got the news of my diagnosis, I had about three weeks left of the restructure. And I thought, OK, this isn’t good. My mom had died from breast cancer.
So I asked my doctor, ‘Listen before I start treatment can I have three weeks, because I'm in the middle of this massive work thing. And I’d like to know. . . will I live if we wait three weeks for treatment?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you’ll live. But don't wait any longer than that’.
I took the three weeks and finished up my restructure. The last week, on Monday and Tuesday, I had to lay off a lot of people, which was part of the reorganization. It is always tough. Wednesday, I told my team I had cancer. And Thursday, I went into chemo. That was a rough week by anyone's standards.
What enlightenment happened while you were in treatment?
All you're worried about is living.
I’ve had no evidence of disease for 15 years now. I recently moved, so I went to a new oncologist, and he told me the chemo treatment they gave me 15 years ago was so difficult that they don't do it anymore . . . because most people can't get through it.
I can understand that because I'm tough as nails, but my god, there have been so many breakthroughs, better chemotherapy. So, what I had and what knocked me on my ass, isn’t necessarily what people have to go through today.
Going back to your career transition. Did the universe tap you on the shoulder at this point saying now’s the time to do something different?
Well, after going through treatment, I did stay in retail for a few years and became CEO of a publicly traded company. One morning I was at a retail conference where I was to receive an award and had breakfast with a good friend who was CEO of another retail conglomerate. We had a heart to heart about maybe not wanting to do this anymore. For me, it was wanting to do something more meaningful. When I got up on stage to get my award, I was supposed to talk about how retail was empowering for women.
But I got up on the stage, and instead of talking about retail being empowering for women, I talked about how I was empowered when I was the least physically powerful. When I had breast cancer.
When I sat down after my speech, instead of going back to the table with my colleagues, I sat at my friend’s table. She told me that while I was on stage, she had received an email from a recruiter in Dallas who said they were looking for a new CEO for Susan G. Komen. ‘Would you ever consider that?’
You wrote an article recently about how having cancer made you a better CEO. (How Cancer Made Me a Better CEO - Susan G. Komen® )And here you are CEO of the world’s largest breast cancer non-profit. How does your professional and personal journey inform your leadership today?
I look back at my career, and I always used to say, ‘Hey, you know, folks calm down. We're not curing cancer here’. And that was true of every other business I’ve been in except this one. We actually are curing cancer.
I’ve worked in really high-pressure environments — public companies, private companies, private equity owned companies, hedge fund owned companies, every difficult work structure you could have. And when I go through chaos, fires burning around me everywhere. I’m calm.
Cancer made me even calmer. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Pick what’s really important. Move the needle.
Cancer is not an experience I would wish for anyone to go through. But when you do, it resets what is important to you. I wasn’t going to go off and be a Tibetan monk or get a divorce or any of those things. I wanted everything I had before, but I wanted to do things a little differently.
But having had cancer, I think just really puts a perspective around things, like when people are getting really agitated or upset about things that are really not that important. You can kind of calm down the room.
But at the moment, when this is happening, your perspective is: I want to be alive for my daughters; for my husband. I want to be able to be there when my girls go into seventh grade and ninth grade. Because I knew it was really important during those junior and senior high school years for girls to have their mom around. And then you bargain to be there for their sweet sixteenths. For their high school graduations. For their weddings.
I remember things like going to a movie and seeing a preview for the next movie coming out in the spring or seeing a pair of boots on sale for next winter and wondering both times, if I would even be there to see the movie or wear the boots.
From Leaning Out’s research and countless conversations with mid to late career professional women, joining a non-profit is a highly desirable career move. What advice would you give to those women who want to make a move to the non-profit world?
I think the pace is faster in for profit than it is in non-profit. Not now for Komen because we are moving at the speed of light. . . because you know it’s much more important to save a life than to ship a pair of jeans to Bloomingdale’s. So, one must be prepared to impart a sense of urgency to the mission.
Also, you must be totally committed to the mission. When the board of Komen hired me — and you were on the board, Trish — I said, ‘I think I can do a really good job. But if there is someone who can do it better, please hire them. It’s that important to me.’
Don’t think moving to a non-profit is going to be easy. It is about raising money to fund the mission. It’s about attracting and keeping employees motivated. They may have a tie to the mission, but they need to support their families like everyone else. So, it’s running a business with different values. Different rules. Different financial models.
But in the end, I am on a mission. My mom died of metastatic breast cancer. My brother died of metastatic prostate cancer.
I have two daughters. Right now, I’m in it to win. It’s all about my girls. And my girls are illustrative of everyone else’s girls out there. We need to protect them all.
Paula Schneider is president and CEO of Susan G. Komen®, responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operation of Komen’s research, community health, public policy advocacy and global programs. Schneider brings a personal perspective to Komen’s mission as a breast cancer survivor whose mother died of metastatic breast cancer.