Career Advice, Interviews

West Elm’s Innovation VP on Turning Passion into a Paycheck

Jennifer Gootman is Vice President of Social Consciousness and Innovation at home décor giant West Elm, where she leads the brand’s commitment to ethical sourcing, artisan crafts, and sustainable production. It’s a highly varied job, and Gootman has an equally wide-ranging resume to back it up. Here’s how this art-loving MBA leveraged a unique passion into a paycheck.

Glassdoor: Before you came to West Elm, you developed an extremely unique resume. Did that help you get the job?

Jennifer Gootman: I’d always been attracted to the interdisciplinary. I had a dual major in history and women’s studies, and I wanted a career path where I was ideologically invested in my work. I didn’t know what that would be, but I knew I wasn’t interested in something single-track-focused. Harvard’s career services tended to work that way: You’re a consultant, or a banker, or a lawyer.

So my career has been varied, but looking back, I see how everything I’ve done along the way informed what I’m doing now. Right after graduating I worked as a travel writer, and I spent two years teaching English in Spain. I came back to America to work at an art gallery non-profit in New York – but I wanted to work more in social justice, so I moved to the think tank Center for an Urban Future and City Limits magazine.

Then I decided to get my MBA, and I interned with a non-profit in Nicaragua to develop a strategy for a jewelry business that hires disadvantaged youth. I loved that it combined art and strategy and design and ethical work. After school, I became Executive Director of Global Goods Partners, a non-profit that works with women artisans around the world. Through this work, I ended up meeting the West Elm team.

On paper, my career has taken a lot of turns. But I was always driven by wanting to make a difference. I developed this expertise with artisan crafts and built that into a large portfolio of work.

Glassdoor: What, exactly, does a Vice President of Social Consciousness and Innovation do?

Jennifer Gootman: It’s funny: People reach out to me for informational interviews and say, “I want to do CSR [corporate social responsibility], too!” Technically that is part of my job – but it’s a lot more, from ethical sourcing to sustainability. My core question is always: How do we use our purchasing power to create change?

My job is both entrepreneurial and cross-functional. So in a single day I might work with sourcing, packaging, quality control, finance, and other teams to talk about how we’re supporting the businesses who make our goods. I might work with our creative team to discuss how that story is brought to customers as well – for example, our September catalog will be all about our work in Fair Trade.

So it runs the gamut from broad strategy 10 years out, to storytelling, to engagement. For my kind of brain, it’s fitting that I’m at a creative company where seemingly disconnected things come together to create something new.

Glassdoor: You’re in a relatively new, burgeoning field. How did you forge a career path?

Jennifer Gootman: In retrospect, all of my many career changes make sense. But at the time it didn’t always feel that way. There were junctures where I’d gotten my dream job and then it stopped being my dream job. That could spark an existential crisis. It can be a real difficulty to make a shift, and  it can be scary.  I definitely had some uncertain times, but the risks I took paid off.

Now I’m here, and I never, ever would have said in 10 years ago that I want to be a VP of Social Consciousness.  It was more an internal drive to be passionate at my job in some way. I always recommend people really take the time to figure out what drives them.

From there, it’s about prioritizing. I didn’t always take the highest-paying job because other things were more important. I took the risk of leaving a job to get my MBA, which meant a lot of debt. And I turned down a great offer at another job while I was in discussions with West Elm – which took about eight months – because I knew that was where I wanted to be.

Glassdoor: How did you know? And how can other job seekers identify companies that are a good match?

Jennifer Gootman: Now that I look back, I’m like, of course, West Elm was a perfect fit – they’re creative, the design is fantastic, they innovate. It’s even more wonderful than I could have imagined. But I knew some of what it would be like: I met the West Elm team while I was working at the Global Goods non-profit, because both groups were working on an artisan-focused industry alliance.

I had already been thinking about how moving to a bigger company could help me make a bigger impact.  I was just so deeply impressed that West Elm was willing to make bold statements and act on them– for example, 20% of our products will be Fair-Trade-certified by the end of the year and the company has pledged to double that [figure] by 2019. 

I finally approached the man who would become my boss and said, “I want do this. Here are the skills I can bring.” I knew their ideals matched my own, and that helped give me the confidence to go for what I wanted.

That’s what I would recommend to others: Identify the drive within yourself and see who else has it. If you’re interested in ethical sourcing, any company with a supply chain has the opportunity to do this kind of work.  Specifics – like ethical fashion or agricultural sustainability — will help you hone in on a field. From there, researching industry coalitions and conferences can help identify target companies.

Glassdoor: What about someone who just isn’t feeling passionate about their current job but doesn’t really know where to go next?

Jennifer Gootman: One aspect of the work at West Elm that has made us, and me, successful is that we’re willing to pilot something to see how it goes  — and sometimes, ultimately we don’t do it. So I’d recommend seeing how you can dip a toe in given your current situation. What are the small things you can do in your job, or in your life?

Small changes can have a big impact. At some companies, maybe you could work with HR to find internships or job placements for underserved youth. In another company, perhaps you can take a look at your suppliers and see how you can support or diversify them.  The point is, sometimes it doesn’t have to come from this great, grandiose place. It’s just about taking your experience and opportunities to help others.

We often think of social causes as something non-profits do. But it should be the mandate of any business: Are we owning the decisions we make? Could we make a different choice or create a new program to help others? And on a personal level, you can do that too. If you’re mindful of the change you want to achieve, there’s often a small way you can bring that purpose into what you do.

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