Claire Chambers is the founder and CEO of Journelle, a specialty lingerie chain with three stores in New York City, one in Miami, and plans to expand nationally. A previous Katzenbach Partners consultant, she decided to leave the corporate life behind to become more in control of her career. Motivated by a desire to “own” she set out to create a unique lingerie concept where shoppers can indulge themselves in the whole experience. Offering unbridled customer service, luxury dressing rooms, and a pleasant shopping atmosphere; Journelle is the culmination of Claire’s wildest dreams. In our joint interview with STORES, Claire talks about her inspiration, a typical day, and offers career advice to students and young professionals.
NRF’s Foundation promotes retail as an exciting career destination to young professionals and other career-seekers. We like to think of the retail industry as a place where your passion can be your work. You combined passion and business savvy to start your own company. Can you share with us more about how you pursued your passion, and the importance of pursuing passions?
For me, retail provides a challenging outlet and a professional application for very personal interests (lingerie, and retail experience design more broadly). My story with Journelle is a classic one: I was disappointed as a consumer with my options for lingerie, and felt it could be done better!
Pursuing something I’m passionate about is a huge factor in my happiness and my motivation, and looking back, I don’t think I could ever go back to a career that I wasn’t crazy about. I’m interested in literally every aspect of Journelle, from the store design to interacting with our customers or even just keeping the windows clean, even if I have to do it myself.
As I said to a consulting friend once, my worst day as an entrepreneur is still better than my best day as a consultant. While there are new challenges each year, I still feel excited to go to work each morning when I wake up, and I don’t think I could say that about my career as a consultant.
Was there anything in your early work experience that pointed to creating your own specialty retail enterprise?
I had two really pivotal retail job experiences as a teenager, both of which had a big impact on my future choices. The first job was a barista at a local coffeehouse, where the owners gave me more and more responsibility as I gained their trust, eventually making me into a de facto manager. I virtually lived at work that summer, and loved being so directly important to customers’ daily routines.
Later, on a summer home from college, I got a job at the one store that I really admired in Ashland, Ore. — the owner had exquisite taste — and found again that the more responsibility I got, the more I loved the work.
From the earliest age, “owning it” has always been the most motivating thing for me, followed closely by the opportunity to interact firsthand with customers and, hopefully, leave them ecstatically happy.
Why do you like working in retail? Why do you think it provides a good career destination?
To me, retail is a great combination of pure business strategy and consumer psychology. Then you add macroeconomic conditions, and the result is a rapidly changing, always exciting and constantly challenging work environment.
I also love that there’s room, in retail, for operational and strategic brilliance — and I’d even go so far to say that retailers who have one strength but not the other probably won’t get that far.
What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned since becoming the CEO of Journelle?
Someone once told me that a good leader doesn’t hesitate to hire people who are better than them, and this has been a mantra that I try to live by as our company grows and we recruit more senior leaders. Not being honest enough about your own weaknesses and the needs of your business can only lead to entropy.
Describe what a typical day is like for you.
This sounds cliche, but there is no typical day. I feel fortunate that my work ranges from meetings with investors or my board to roaming around construction sites in a hard hat. I’m usually on the floor of one of our stores for a number of hours each week, or at a minimum working the phones and replying to customers’ e-mails for our customer care hotline, and this is vital to stay in touch with our merchandise as well as customer opinions and perspectives.
As our business grows, I also spend an increasing amount of time working with our various vendors, leading and meeting with my talented team and working on strategic projects and relationships.
Can you share what has been a source of inspiration for you? Any designers, entrepreneurs, mentors, or other colleagues that have been influential?
I’m always inspired by the lingerie designers we support, from the very small, first-season designers to the large conglomerates that are shaping our bread-and-butter business areas. Their passion for lingerie, and women, keeps my job interesting season after season.
I’m also inspired by one of my mentors, who was responsible for hiring me in 2002 as a consultant, and has now become my largest investor, best advocate and most honest critic. In particular, his ability to keep evolving and learning professionally — especially in light of his great success — is a great inspiration to never rest on your laurels.
To learn about Claire Chambers’ first job, her social media strategy, and what she considers her favorite charity, read the full NRF STORES interview.