On Thursday, Oct. 3, students packed into the Red Doors for an event co-hosted by the Career Center as well as the Department of Accounting, Business, Economics and Finance for a Q&A with Muhlenberg alum Trish Donnelly ’88, CEO of Urban Outfitters. With Associate Business Professor Roland Kushner moderating, Donnelly discussed her time at Muhlenberg, being a woman in business and her current successes and challenges with Urban’s business model.
“The liberal arts education really taught me to think critically, to be curious and of all things it has served me well in my current role as CEO of Urban Outfitters,” shared Donnelly. “That’s really where I learned the very important skills and tools that took my career to where it is now.”
Donnelly entered Muhlenberg as a Business major, but after her first economics class, she switched paths and decided to be an English major. She especially valued her experience studying abroad.
“I had never been overseas before and I did my semester abroad in London, which was awesome,” she said. “And again it opened my world to global possibilities and expanded my world beyond what I knew in Livingston and Allentown.”
Moving closer to her college graduation, Donnelly figured the next steps in her career would be to use her English major in law school, but after doing poorly on the LSATS, she again set her sights elsewhere.
“I knew I loved writing, I loved magazines and I loved fashion, and so I thought: writing, fashion, magazine, journalist maybe, editor someday, and I applied to the NYU School of Journalism and got in,” Donnelly said.
While working towards her masters degree, Donnelly took a job as a receptionist with Ralph Lauren, a position that she had found through a friend.
“From that vantage point, I knew I wasn’t going to be answering phones the rest of my life, but I got to see how a fashion company worked and operated,” she said.
It was from her role at the receptionist desk that she became fascinated with all the different aspects of a major fashion company, so when a position as an assistant buyer opened up, she applied and got the job.
She worked her way up through Ralph Lauren, later becoming an Executive Vice President at J.Crew and then the President of Steven Alan. In 2014 Donnelly was hired as Urban’s President, moving up to CEO in 2016.
Donnelly described how she had always loved the Urban Outfitters brand, recalling her first experience in the store in its early days.
“I remember what I wore, I remember what I bought and I have never had an experience like that at a retail store in my life,” she said. “I bought the cutest little baby tee.”
But in 2014 when she was first offered a position at the company, Donnelly found that she was disappointed in the way Urban was being run at the time. With stores being disorganized and mismanaged, she felt that the brand had lost the romance, value and experience that she had once adored.
“If you get a job offer where you know you can make a difference, that’s the job you should take”
Despite the apparent struggle she faced in joining the company at that time, Donnelly found the challenge of revitalising a brand empowering.
“If you get a job offer where you know you can make a difference, that’s the job you should take; you want to go to the place where you want to make a difference,” she explained.
As president and CEO Global of Urban Outfitters, Donnelly oversees all 200 stores in the United States, 65 stores in the EU/UK, eight websites in different languages and home offices located in Philadelphia, London and a newly opened office in China.
Climbing up the rankings at her past and current companies, Donnelly has often found herself to be the only woman in her corporate environment; however, she dismissed any notion that this dynamic ever affected her career negatively.
“I never thought of myself as a female executive,” she explained. “I always thought of myself as an executive. There were certainly times when I was at the table and I happen[ed] to be the only woman. I didn’t over-prepare for those meetings because I was the only woman, I over-prepared because I am ambitious and I wanted to be prepared.”
After concluding her conversation with Kushner, Donnelly wanted to ask students some questions herself about solving different obstacles she has come across in her career.
“I get a google alert on my phone and the BuzzFeed article says: ‘Urban Outfitters manufactures a bloody Kent State sweatshirt that they are selling,’” she said, describing her second day working at Urban. She asked students how they would handle that situation.
After hearing a student’s response, Donnelly explained that her first step was finding out if the situation was true by contacting her marketing and design team. She explained that a buyer had ordered a lot of vintage sweatshirts in bulk, and “as [the design teams] do with a lot of vintage items, [they] over-dye,” coloring vintage clothing to give it a new or distressed look. Out of a bulk shipment of sweatshirts dyed a light pink, she claimed that there was one unfortunate dye mistake which all news stations picked up.
“The fascinating thing is, you craft a response [with the PR team] and you send it to all those media outlets and nobody runs it,” she said about the media coverage of the controversy.
When the Q&A was opened up for questions, Jaelyn Blonder ‘21 asked Donnelly a question targeting Urban’s business ethics: “In light of the new climate change, is Urban doing anything to move forward into a more ethical future?”
Donnelly answered quickly, listing efforts she says her company has embraced to combat environmental issues associated with fast fashion.
“Yes, we know all those issues are very important to you, and you are our customer,” said Donnelly. “We do so much in terms of sustainability, whether it is working with denim factories that use less water, or switching stores to LED lighting; those are just some of the examples of the hundreds of things that we do.”
However, she added, “What we are not good at as a company is communicating that.”
She further explained that Urban is working to establish a sustainability committee, expanding their “Urban Renewal” line of vintage clothes and repurposing deadstock fabric in clothing and for insulation.
“The liberal arts education really taught me to think critically, to be curious and of all things it has served me well in my current role as CEO of Urban Outfitters,”
Donnelly credits her experiences at Muhlenberg for opening up her mind to a wealth of possibilities. She also shared that she had fond memories, not only of her educational experience at Muhlenberg, but also its social impact.
“I had a really good time here. I had a lot of fun. I made my best friend and life-long friends,” she said.
Donnelly’s advice to current students? “Listening is not to go underrated.”
Cover Photo Courtesy of the Muhlenberg College Office of Communications.