May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. All month, Tell Me More is talking to people who trace their heritage to that part of the world and have changed the game in various fields.
Business "game changer" Laura Sen is president and CEO of BJ's Wholesale Club. She was among the small group of women on the Fortune 500 CEOs list last year, and Fortune magazine named her to its 2011 list of 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.
In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Sen says she grew up with great support and high expectations. She and her siblings became top students and good athletes thanks to the push from their Irish-American "tiger mom." Her father's parents emigrated to the U.S. from China in the late 1800s.
During her time at Boston College, Sen studied French and did not have definite ideas about a future career. She eventually took up retail because she enjoyed shopping and was enthusiastic about working in a department store.
Sen describes retail as the perfect blend of art and science: On the science side, there's data to help analysts understand trends in consumer behavior, finances and business; and on the art side, it's all about design, products and staying relevant to people's wants.
"I also love the fact that, you know, there's about over 24,000 team members at BJ's and leading a group of people that large is a humbling thing," she says. "It's a huge responsibility, and it's a huge challenge."
Sen has built relationships with people at every level within BJ's. She visits colleagues at the stores, eats with them in the company cafeteria, and likes to ask how they'd improve BJ's if they had a magic wand.
"I just feel like team members are less likely to be frank and candid if they think you're some power figure up on a pedestal or whatever," she says.
But Sen's rise at BJ's was not without obstacles. She joined the company in 1989, was fired by the candidate who beat her for the top job in 2003, returned in 2007, and was named president and CEO in 2009. Reflecting on that experience, Sen says "the world is round": You will always run into the same people, companies or institutions throughout your career journey.
When Sen was asked to leave BJ's, some people encouraged her to mount a legal challenge, but she had no stomach for it. "If I hadn't done what I consider to be the high road, I wouldn't be where I am today," she says.
Sen also mentions philanthropy as part of the route to success. She says that her relatives liked to gamble, and when they won money, they gave some of it away to attract more good luck.
"And I have to say that in my experience in being very philanthropic, I've always found that I get way, way more – I get way more back than I ever give," she says. "That's a lesson that I've taught my children, and hopefully they will carry that on."
Sen says the most important thing to understand in business and life is the power of communication: "The tool that we all have at our disposal and the tool that is most important to use in forging relationships and finding solutions and to move along in the career ladder is communication. And I think that it's so important to think about what the other person is saying and listen hard, to think really hard about what you're saying and how to present that point of view."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and all this month, we've been talking with people who trace their heritage to that part of the world and who are what we call game-changers, people who've made a difference in various fields, from politics to science to culture.
Today, we hear from a woman who's changing the game in business, Laura Sen. As the head of BJ's Wholesale Club, Sen not only regularly hits the lists of most powerful women in business. It's also that she's done it her way, bringing an inclusive management style, something that's improved morale and the bottom line - all this at a company that once fired her. And Laura Sen is with us now.
Welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us, and congratulations on all your success.
LAURA SEN: Thank you for having me, and for those very kind words.
MARTIN: Can we talk a little bit about your background? Your mom is Irish-American, and your dad was Chinese-American. And this is at a time when biracial marriages were not as common as they are now. I was just wondering, when you grew up - when you were growing up in the suburbs of Massachusetts, did you feel there was something different about your family? Were you ever - did you ever have any sense of standing out in any way?
SEN: You know, I would tell you that your perception is absolutely accurate. When my mom and dad married in 1953, it was a pretty big scandal, to the point where folks who were not invited to the wedding went to the church to see this happening. So that's pretty crazy, if you think about it, you know, how normal interracial marriage is today.
But it was the '50s. It was the McCarthy era. I think there was a lot of distrust around - you know, forget about race to race, but even ethic group to ethnic group, if, you know, Irish didn't marry Irish and Italians didn't marry Italians. So it's nice to know we've come a long way from there.
But, growing up, I guess the way I like to tell the story is my mother really wanted us to be the best we could be. As a result, the three children in my family - and we were born in quick succession. My brother's a year older than I am, and my sister's a year younger than I am. We were all really top students and good performers and good athletes and well-liked, and that kind of trumps prejudice, I think.
MARTIN: Did you have any discussions with your dad, or did he ever talk about his heritage in a way that made you feel you had something to live up to? And the reason I'm mentioning this - of course, I know you're familiar with "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," which is one of those books that's just...
SEN: Oh, sure.
MARTIN: ...become a big topic of conversation in some circles this year and the...
MARTIN: ...author, Amy Chua, who's a professor of law at Yale, raised in a similar part of the country, also talks about just this sense of - you've got to be number one. You've just got to do it. It's not an option. And I just wondered if that was part of your upbringing, as well.
SEN: I would say it was, but of course, my mom was not the Chinese parent in the family. It was my dad. In fact, my father was born in this country in 1913, and his parents came over before 1900, which is also quite unusual. So he was very Americanized. But I think perhaps he had the instinct to marry a Tiger Mom, because my mother was all of that and more. You know, she really wanted us to do well. And, you know, I don't - it was never a burden. It was always, you know, just - the expectation was a welcome one, as far as I was concerned.
MARTIN: How did you get interested in business, especially retail?
SEN: Well, it's funny. I was a French major, a romance language major in college, and I really did not have a clear understanding of what I wanted to do. The economy was very tough when I came out of college in 1978. And, you know, like most young women, I liked to shop. And when an opportunity in - working in a department store came along, it seemed pretty appealing. Little did I know how much I would love it.
MARTIN: What do you love about it?
SEN: Well, what I like to say about retailing is it is a perfect blend of art and science. And, on the science end, it's quite quantitative. We have reams of data, and it's important to use the data to understand your business, understand consumer trends, understand the financials, understand all about what you're doing.
And I grew up in the business during the time when the use of data, the use of computers, the use of automation was growing exponentially in retailing and, of course, in all kinds of business. So, for me, that held enormous appeal to be able to use data to run my business.
But the art side of it is it's about people and products and what they want. And every day, we learn something new about what our members want and we have to respond to that, because we know - we've seen many retailers who become less relevant, and customers move on to the retailers they find to be more relevant. So that's a really fun challenge.
I also love the fact that, you know, there's about over 24,000 team members at BJ's, and leading a group of people that large is a humbling thing. It's a huge responsibility, and it's a huge challenge.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Laura Sen. She's our latest conversation in our game changer series. We're talking with game changers to recognize Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Laura Sen is the president and CEO of BJ's Wholesale Club.
You know, everybody who's written about you in the business press has talked about your management style, you know, and for building relationships with people at every level within the organization, also with vendors - you spend a lot of time visiting BJ's stores, you eat in the company cafeteria, you're known to be accessible.
I was wondering how you developed that style, and also whether you ever particularly as a woman, as a woman of color, ever worry that people would mistake your friendliness for weakness. You know, because we've sometimes seen where women sometimes seem to feel that they have to overcompensate so that people take them seriously, if I can make that generalization and, but I think it's understood that that sometimes occurs. Do you know what I'm saying?
SEN: Well - I think, at the risk of being contrarian, the challenge is to not wear your stripes in such a way that people won't talk to you and won't confide in you and won't tell you what they know, because what they know is so valuable. So when I speak with team members one of the things I like to say is, if you had a magic wand what would you do to change this business to make it better? And then I always joke with them and then I say, because I do have a magic wand. And they always laugh. But it's true because I just feel like team members are less likely to be frank and candid if they think you're some power figure up on a pedestal or whatever, than you're one of them trying to figure out how to do this business better and you really care about what they do and want to hear about what they do and what they know.
MARTIN: How did you arrive at that philosophy?
SEN: I'm a really practical person. I think hard about what works and I think that's what works. You know, I don't see the value in being someone that is intimidating, or unapproachable or aloof. I don't know where the win is in that.
MARTIN: You know, your rise, as we mentioned, to the top of BJ's was not without obstacles. You know, it's well-known that you had worked there for more than a decade when you were actually forced out in 2003. You know, for a lot of people that would just be, that would be it. But then you came back to a very warm welcome, as I understand. And I'm just wondering what is the lesson in that? Is there one that you can pass on to other folks?
SEN: Well, the first thing I would say it that, you know, the world is round. You always run into people or companies or, you know, institutions again and again, and with the global economy it's even more so. Some folks actually, when I was asked to leave the company, encouraged me to be litigious about it. And I just had no stomach for that at all. And I often look back in that and say if I hadn't done what I consider taking the high road, I wouldn't be where I am today. So I think in the end if you do the right thing, if you take the high road it's not always easy but it's always the right thing, right?
MARTIN: Is there anything that you would point to, either in your heritage, in your various identities that you kind of pass on to your children as a roadmap for the way they should proceed? I mean they're growing up - or they have grown up - in a different world, in a different world, right?
SEN: Well, my favorite story is not about anything professional. It's about philanthropy. So my Chinese relatives and, you know, this is at the risk of insulting anyone who thinks I'm putting a stereotype out there, but my Chinese relatives like to gamble. My dad liked to go to the dog track and they would always, you know, go together. In fact, I have an aunt and uncle who met during the Depression, assembling enough coins to make a two dollar bet. So that's how they met each other and they ended up getting married. So that's, you know, it's just, it was something they had fun doing. So when they gambled and they went to the track and later on when they were too old to go to the track and they'd play poker, or whatever they did, and they won money it was the tradition for them - and they always told me this - when you win some money you give some away. So they'd give me some money, you know, maybe a dollar or something, because that will bring you more good luck.
And I have to say that in my experience in being very philanthropic, I've always found that I get way, way more - I get way more back than I ever give. And I think that that's a lesson that I've taught my children, and hopefully they will carry that on.
MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, is there any advice you'd give for people who would like to enjoy the success that you've had in business? I don't know necessarily, specifically retailing, and I just wonder if there's any advice or wisdom you would pass on to someone who's looking at you and would like to follow in your footsteps?
SEN: Well, I think that the tool that we all have at our disposal, and the tool that is most important to use in forging relationships and finding solutions and to move along in the career ladder, is communication. And I think that it's so important to think about what the other person is saying and listen hard, to think really hard about what you're saying and how to present that point of view.
And the better you develop your communication skills, the more successful I feel you'll be and I think that leads into a much bigger idea of emotional intelligence, and relationships and how that is where, you know, you will be at the next level, or not be at the next level. I just think that that's really important. So I sometimes I like to say I'm the Barbara Walters. You know, she asked the question that everybody wants to ask but nobody else will. And if you ask that question in the right way, everybody sort of says whew, wow, she put it out there, she talked about that thing that we really need to talk about. I think you have to be brave, right, and be confident, and know that what's the worst thing that could happen? They'll say, you know, we'd rather not talk about that right now, I think it's all in how it's said. But I feel that communication is the tool that everyone has at their disposal to, you know, make themselves more important in the right way.
MARTIN: Laura Sen is the president and CEO of BJ's Wholesale Club. She's a game changer. And she was kind enough to join us from Boston, Massachusetts.
Thank you so much for speaking with us.
SEN: It's been a pleasure. Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.