“I had never done tech. I had never worked in fashion. I had never worked in a startup, so of course I was going to go work in a fashion tech startup,” said Beth Kaplan about accepting — with some hesitation — the job of president and COO of Rent the Runway in 2013. The New York-based online company, founded in 2009, loans designer dresses and accessories to women for special occasions or to expand their professional wardrobe.
Last month, Kaplan spoke about her career at the Wharton Women in Business conference, sharing experiences not only from her tenure at Rent the Runway, but also at such household names as Bath & Body Works, General Nutrition Centers, Rite Aid and Procter & Gamble. Recently, Kaplan stepped down as president and COO of Rent the Runway, but she remains a strategic advisor and board member at the firm.
“Dream big and go for it,” is how Kaplan summed up what she learned about initially taking the job at Rent the Runway. She called the company’s co-founders Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss “amazing rock stars” and said she was impressed from day one with their fearlessness. Rent the Runway, she said, had done things no other company had done: come up with the concept of renting out dresses; convinced designers to sell those dresses to it in the first place; and built a “100% reverse logistics platform” to allow the garments to be rented out 30 times on average. “Because there was no one to tell the two co-founders that it couldn’t be done, they just — with enormous bravery — went out and did it.” Such an attitude is infectious, said Kaplan. “When you believe you can do, you actually can do.”
Kaplan had always worked in large organizations, and as “blown away” as she was by Hyman and Fleiss when she met them, she couldn’t imagine working for a startup. Yet she noted, “What I really learned was that it wasn’t about the size of the company; it was about the size of the mission and the aspiration.”
“I had never done tech. I had never worked in fashion. I had never worked in a startup, so of course I was going to go work in a fashion tech startup.”
Kaplan told a favorite “near-death” story of how the company had to move its entire operation over the weekend before Thanksgiving. It had outgrown its warehouse space, as well as space for what, unsurprisingly, is the country’s largest drycleaning plant. “The next Monday we were up and running,” she said, and the all-important Christmas orders were shipped out on time. “There will be days — many days — where you will experience near-death, and you just have to believe that your dream is worth going after,” Kaplan noted.
“Your reputation is everything,” said Kaplan, illustrating that point with tales of her experience as the senior executive vice president of marketing and merchandising at Rite Aid in the late 1990s.
Most of her time there was “a great run.” Rite Aid Drugstores’ stock went from $5 a share to $55 a share while Kaplan was there. In 1999, she was named Drugstore Marketer of the Year. “Every other drugstore retailer wanted one of me…. At least on paper we were all really wealthy, and I was helicoptering to work, so it was all a very big deal.”
But a massive accounting scandal changed everything. Of the top five officers of the company, three went to prison (including CEO Martin Grass, whose father had co-founded the business); one wore a wire and turned the three in — “and then there was me,” said Kaplan. Her reaction was to put her head down and keep “bailing the water out of the boat,” until an acquaintance, who was an investment bank analyst, asked pointedly why she was still there. “She said, ‘You have such a great reputation. Why would you stay at a place that’s becoming so tarnished?” Kaplan resigned “literally the next day.”
During her talk, Kaplan was asked if she was concerned that her departure during the crisis might have been interpreted as an admission of guilt. She said that while it was in “her DNA” to just keep on working, and that she wanted to be perceived as part of the solution instead of the problem, there comes a point where one’s reputation can be affected by association. In addition, she assumed that the company would soon be bringing in a new management team in which she would not be included. Kaplan added that she had been called to testify in front of a grand jury, and also had been interviewed by the FBI. (“You haven’t lived until that happens,” she commented. “Windowless room with an FBI agent? Really?”)
“There will be days — many days — where you will experience near-death, and you just have to believe that your dream is worth going after.”
It took her some time to find another position, she said, because she had a “press release problem”: Companies wanted to hire her but were concerned about discussing her former company in the hiring announcement. Finally, in 2002, she joined Bath & Body Works as executive vice president of merchandising. “I started over. But I had my reputation intact.”
Leaving with Grace
Kaplan was hired at Bath & Body Works by legendary retailer Les Wexner (who was recently profiled in Fortune as “the longest-serving Fortune 500 CEO,” and whose company L Brands also owns Victoria’s Secret). But while she loved the job, she found she was expected to spend more and more time onsite in Columbus, Ohio, away from her husband and two small children in Baltimore. “It was not the easiest lifestyle,” she said. During this time, her father passed away, which she said was a devastating loss.
She came to a crisis point. “One night in Columbus … I stood out in the parking lot. It was cold and dark; I looked up at the stars and said, ‘What am I doing here? My kids are in Baltimore, I’m re-envisioning apothecaries [for Bath & Body Works], but is this really what life is about?’ And so, I decided that probably it would make sense to leave.”
Kaplan asserts that “leaving with grace” from a job is important, and that “how you leave is as important as how you enter.” It impacts one’s professional reputation. But, she said, “It’s amazing to me that people don’t talk about how to leave an organization. They all talk about how to join one, but they don’t talk about having to leave.” She noted that Bath & Body Works had an extensively documented six-month onboarding process, provided in a large binder to new hires, which made no mention of how people should behave when leaving the company.
She talked with her boss, and together they designed a program with which, Kaplan said, she compiled all her insights and learning, and then “left with grace.”
“In our linked-in world, your reputation is more important than anything else you have.”
Among other things, leaving with grace helps you preserve your relationships, according to Kaplan. “I knew instinctively that these incredible people I worked with at Bath & Body Works were going to be important to me later in life…. Many of those people that I worked with, almost 15 years ago, remain some of the closest members of my professional network.”
Kaplan outlined “certain ground rules” about leaving with grace. Be transparent with your manager, she said. “You go to your boss and say, ‘Look, I found this other opportunity, but I really care about this organization and I’m very thankful for everything you have given me.’ By the way, say that even if you don’t mean it.” Ask your manager how you can help make the situation a win-win, and discuss how much time it will take to wrap things up, she added.
And, if you’re in an organization and doing important work, don’t give only two weeks’ notice, said Kaplan. “I’ve worked with people who’ve given two days’ notice…. That’s not graceful.”
Write up the things you’ve learned, and leave your files in good order, advised Kaplan. She noted that the CTO of Rent the Runway, who had recently left the company, had given a “last lecture.” Another idea is to write an email to the company or to your department describing all that you took away from the experience.
“And you thank people,” said Kaplan. “Thanking people is a very powerful thing.” Treat people the way you would want to be treated in a similar situation, she added. “Because I promise you, in our linked-in world, your reputation is more important than anything else you have. And it matters.”