As we watched more and more Black women run everything from Fortune 500 companies and multimillion-dollar divisions to their own lucrative enterprises, we wondered what navigation tools these superstars used to reach such heights. To find out, ESSENCE interviewed more than 25 Black women for the April issue of various ages, industries and positions to uncover what propelled their success. While some named passion as the most important driver, others said execution and building strategic relationships allowed them to soar above the competition. All agreed on the following: Equipping yourself with knowledge, being a problem solver and bringing extraordinary ideas to every situation are a proven formula for achievement. In this special career package, you’ll learn how the tools, tactics and strategies they’ve employed can help you create a winning playbook of your own.
GROWING UP ON STATEN ISLAND, New York, Shawuan Johnson, 39, had always heard the clarion call of style. “It sounds cliché, but I loved fashion as a child,” says Johnson. “I was one of those kids who laid out my clothes before school. And I was into fashion magazines.”
These days, as she jets off to shop in Europe at least five times a year, or fingers swatches of fabrics from her design team, life has come full circle for Johnson. As the senior vice-president and general merchandise manager of women’s apparel & accessories at Tommy Hilfiger North America, she is likely one of the highest-ranking Black women in corporate fashion.
Each day at the $6 billion American brand, Johnson’s team—a cross-functional group that includes design, production, planning, visual and marketing—manages inventory and develops strategies that maximize profits. She is equally a left-and right-brained thinker, having blended her sartorial strength with her business acumen.
“My ultimate plan was to be in a career that I was passionate about and that I was happy doing. I loved fashion, but I was also intrigued by business. When I realized there was a career that combined both areas, I was hooked.”
Getting there was a winding journey, but one led by her inner compass. When deciding upon job prospects during her final days at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Johnson followed the road less traveled, eschewing grad school and traditional jobs for finance majors. “Something inside me knew that investment banking was not my calling,” she remembers. “Yeah, I would make a ton of money, but I wasn’t excited. Fashion is a business. I knew I could be good at that if I was able to get myself in the right door.”
During her junior year in college, an internship at the Gap opened that door.BRAG, the Black Retail Action Group, which prepares students of color for executive leadership in the retail and fashion industries, offered the opportunity. “My advice, especially to young people in fashion, is to get an internship,” stresses Johnson. “But understand what it is you’re going to be doing. When I look for people to bring onto my team, I want to ensure that they have a true affinity for the business and not just the glamorous side. Ask questions, be humble and be willing to do what it takes. You’re not going to be doing that forever.”
Of course you have to follow before you can lead. But after nine years of running a multimillion-dollar division at the C-suite level, Johnson has a few caveats to share.
“I set high and clear expectations, and foster an environment where there is a culture of ownership,” she says. “The team should understand the goals, but I also want a creative culture that fosters new ideas and how to accomplish them.” Another one of her mantras: “You can’t be paralyzed by the fear of failure.” “We go into a fashion season with a plan, but if we expect something to do well and it does not, we have to react,” she notes. “I try to create an environment where the team is not afraid to make mistakes, myself included. And when you do, you have to learn from them and ask, ‘How can I make it better tomorrow? Next month? Next season? Next year?’ “
Throughout her career, Johnson has leaped into a series of increasingly more challenging roles, working for retailers ranging from The Limited to Esprit, and in addition to her number one rule of putting in the work, she says you have to move out of your comfort zone to rise: “When I was 24, one of the first jobs I took was in Columbus. I’m a born and bred New Yorker and always thought I would live in New York. But one of the GMMs from my company at the time wanted me to join her in Ohio. It was a risk and it paid off.” Johnson was later tasked with moving again—this time for three months to Germany, where she had to build and hire an entire staff from scratch. “It was a big job and I was scared,” Johnson says of the gig, which was her introduction to working with an international team. “I realized, though, that you kind of have to be scared or you’re not growing.”
To combat fear, Johnson arms herself with positive self-talk (“That’s an only-child syndrome,” she says with a laugh) and remembers the wise words of her mother: What you think about, you bring about. “When I have doubts—and I think everyone has them—you just have to get back to, You’re really good. You’re really smart. Obviously you have this position because you deserve it. You worked hard for it.” Being industrious is something that this working mom, who lives in Brooklyn with her longtime boyfriend and their 5-year-old daughter, says is the corner-stone of any career: “Success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hard work. I look to build a team of confident, hard working people. And their confidence is based on their actions and accomplishments, meaning they have to walk the walk. Yes, they need to be smart, but being hardworking is equally if not more important.”