Career Stories: Nelly Mensah, MBA 2015

Nelly Mensah,  MBA 2015
Current Company: Sephora, Sr. Director of Store Experience and Digital Products
Internship Company: Kering Group in Milan (Brands: Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen)
Pre-and Post-MBA Company:
Deloitte Digital

How did you decide on a career in retail?

My career started in tech with Deloitte Digital. My background is in Industrial Engineering and UX design and I’ve always had a passion for emerging technologies and figuring out hard stuff. I was a nerd through-and-through. At Sloan I realized that I wanted to round out that reputation. I was really interested in consumer products and retail and so immediately joined the Retail Club, which is how I scored a sweet Milan internship! It was a very fun summer – lots of gelato! The internship made it more clear retail was the right path for me, so even though I went back to Deloitte Digital, I was focused on retail projects. A year later, I left to join the Sephora Innovation Team. It was the perfect role because it straddled the background in design thinking and human-computer interaction, with many technologies the retail was trying. After 3 years in the Innovation Lab, a lot of the projects that we worked on were successfully scaled to be full-on projects and programs; so they created a team to run those projects, specifically those that focused on in-store tech, and I was selected to head that team.

How are you leveraging your strengths in retail?

The experience of shopping in a store is changing very quickly.  Consumers have very different expectations and behaviors. They are always on their phones. They want to be able to order-by-phone and pick up, and interact with digital kiosks.  And the same goes for store associates.  They are becoming more and more digital-enabled. They have to have information about products, and deliver a personalized service. So we support both the customers and the beauty advisors. We oversee everything from our clienteling apps, to augmented reality kiosks that lets customers try on products virtually, to self-serve kiosks, AI, diagnostics, AR/VR. How do you use technology to help the client find the best products? Day-to-day, it means I work very closely with our retail operations team, but also IT and product, because they build the tools that we imagine and test.  There are lots of cross-functional meetings, there’s experimenting, and lots of relying on data, insights, and analytics.

The role spans 2 skill sets, one is being an Operator, which is one thing I picked up at Sloan – how do you run a program consistently and make it grow? The other is being an Entrepreneur – when you have a super crazy idea and you just want to scrappily test it out and prove it, before you get buy-in from the execs and roll it out at your stores.  I get to flex those two skill sets, and the background I have from MIT Sloan has been very helpful to me.

How has COVID-19 changed your workplace?

We are obviously online and on Zoom every day.  For us, we have just been amazed at how much faster and more innovative we have been. In a business that has been about being close to people and trying on things, we’ve rethought everything about store associate and customer safety, providing new avenues to help customers learn about, experience, order, and pick up products.

How did you learn about and prepare for your career in retail?

I think the clubs were really key in helping me figure out which way I wanted to go. I joined the Marketing Club in addition to the Retail Club, and just had a huge affinity for the Retail Club.  I was also part of the Design Thinking Club and participated in competitions.  It was very helpful, for any job, to learn how to solve problems in a human-centered way. But at that point, I knew I was going back to Deloitte, so I did not feel the same pressure around my internship and post-Sloan job search.

What recommendations and advice do you have for students seeking a career in retail?

There’s a huge demand for candidates who understand the macro view, the landscape, both in terms of consumer behavior in your industry and being able to formulate a hypothesis for a strategy; and then being really data driven to make the right decisions:  how you test it, scale it, or “kill your darlings” (which are things you’ve worked hard on but that must be abandoned to support your business’ success).

Where are the opportunities?

Three big areas where I am seeing a lot of growth are:

  • Technology – There’s a big need for product managers for retail technology, with a particular focus on experiences, but also machine learning, AI, and analytics.
  • Supply Chain – It’s really important for consumers to understand where products are coming from, where they are sourced. There’s a doubling down on whether products are clean, green, and transparently sourced.
  • Diversity and Inclusion – I’m seeing a drive toward creating a culture for inclusion; creating retail spaces that are safe for everyone. There are opportunities for Head of D&I, Talent, Learning & Development.

What do you read to stay on top of industry trends?
Sephora shares a daily digest on beauty news; and I read a few tech and insights newsletters on AI, Machine Learning, AR/VR, as well as retail news. I try to check out CB Insights, Cassandra Daily, Chain Store Age, Retail Experience and L2 once every two weeks and spend an hour or two to dive into the news.

What is the best piece of career advice you have received?

When you are speaking to people about opportunities or jobs, approach it as if it’s your dream job. Bring that kind of energy to the conversation. Be as open as you can to the job at that moment. There will be time, once you get the offer, to be more analytical about the opportunity later.

The piece of advice I would give: Be open to experimentation. One of the things that attracted me to MIT was the ability to try out different things. I mentioned design thinking and I use it a lot in my career decisions and in my daily life. Find ways to prototype big decisions. Take on a freelance consulting project, research more, try things in a small, safe way to see if you like it, and go from there.  If you’re at work, and thinking about trying something new, try out a stretch project.  You don’t need always need to switch companies or bosses – sometimes a stretch project will help you figure out your next path.

What do you love about your job?

It really does feel like a dream job just because it is a perfect fit.  First, Sephora has amazing leadership, and a lot of them are women.  At any given point in time, you’re watching execs present, or your head of department speaking, and you’re constantly inspired by their passion for their job, how much they care for people and how transparent they are.  There’s a culture of really caring about work-life balance.  It’s understood we’re balancing lots of things.

Second, there’s renewed vigor around diversity and inclusion.  From the CEO to the store associates, everyone is very passionate about it.  It’s part of the Sephora DNA.

The third is the passion of innovation. Every single team is experimenting with and launching new things. It feels good to be in a place where that mindset is embraced and no one is blamed for failures, we just keep on trucking.

Interested in sharing your career story? Contact

By MIT Sloan CDO