Karen Katz, former CEO of multibillion-dollar fashion retail company Neiman Marcus, shared her journey from rejection to success as part of the kickoff for the National Retail Federation Chapter at Iowa State.
Katz and Linda Niehm, apparel merchandising and design dean’s faculty fellow and associate professor, sat down for a fireside chat in a packed campanile room on Tuesday night.
Katz's story starts when she set out to go to law school after graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in political science and government. After not doing well in an undergraduate constitutional law class, she ditched that idea.
Katz then decided to apply to two MBA programs, one at the Harvard Business School and one at the University of Texas. She also applied to two retail training programs, the Foley's Department Store Buyer Training Program and the Neiman Marcus Retail Training Program.
Katz got accepted into the Foley’s Buyer Training Program and the University of Texas MBA program, but the Harvard Business School and the Neiman Buyer Training Program rejected her.
"I like to say that success is sweet revenge," Katz said. "It really does symbolize what my career has been all about. It’s a little about overcoming odds to get to where I landed many years later, but it was kind of an amazing journey and it was fun almost every day of the year."
She went on to train at Foley’s while getting her MBA from the University of Texas at the same time.
Katz started working at Neiman’s over 30 years ago as an assistant store manager and worked her way to the top from there.
“I tried to take on as many challenges that were handed to me,” Katz said.
During her time as the handbag divisional merchandise manager, her team became the first group to introduce Prada to the United States.
“We were on a trip to Milan, Italy and found this product that looked really interesting,” Katz said. “It ended up being somewhat ahead of it’s time when we brought it to the United States but really took risks like that along the way that helped to propel my career.”
In 1999, Katz led the project on Neiman Marcus launching NeimanMarcus.com, a very early time for a department store to launch an e-commerce business.
Katz then went on to become president and then CEO of Neiman Marcus.
She said that successful companies of the future will be the ones that are ready to adapt to change and embrace risks. She sees the retail industry becoming more digital in the age of ‘Alexa.’
“I think [smart devices are] going to play a role,” Katz said. “Today you can order your paper towels and toilet paper. Tomorrow, you may want to order your Chanel bag."
Katz also pointed out how she appreciates millenials for their desire to find brands that are doing good to the world and that have a sustainable mission.
She said that many companies such as Gucci and Bottega Veneta have taken on this concept. She also mentioned the fact that the fur industry is virtually gone due to their inhumane nature.
At the end of the evening, Katz expressed her excitement about seeing where her journey in retirement takes her. She is currently on the board at Under Armour and the National Retail Federation and hopes to mentor college students in their careers in the future.