From Secretary to CEO: For Jan Singer, One Call Changed it All

Jan Singer

“You have the power of choice. Exercise it every single day.”

At an on-campus event with Babson’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL), former Victoria’s Secret and Spanx CEO Jan Singer zeroed in on our underestimated and undervalued ability to choose, to take control, and to change our perspectives about what it means to go to work.

By seizing opportunity and immersing herself in the industries that, for her, sparked the most joy, Singer forged her way from secretary to CEO.

Make the Call

Growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts—a city she describes as extremely tight-knit, prideful, and one that many don’t ever leave—Singer longed for more.

“My mom was a nurse, my father an accountant. All the right values … but not right for me. I wanted to be a part of the beauty, the fashion, and the fast pace. I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I was going to get there,” she said.

After being laid off from her first job, Singer spotted a phone number for a then client at CHANEL. It was sitting on a desk as she packed her things to leave. What a serendipitous opportunity this could be, she thought, if she was willing to make a call and take the risk.

So, she did.

After connecting by happenstance with the “actual president of CHANEL,” she launched a career in the beauty and fashion industries, continuing to land exciting new opportunities around the world at Calvin Klein, Prada, Reebok, Nike, Spanx, and most recently, Victoria’s Secret.

“It is much better to risk and fail than to regret.”

Jan Singer, former CEO, Victoria's Secret and Spanx

Create Good Fortune

Babson’s Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Office of the Vice Provost—Global Entrepreneurship, Smaiyra Million P’21, introduced Singer by painting a picture of her as a quintessential leader, passionately curious and kind, and “a true retail savant … the perfect example of having it all and doing it all.”

Most recently known for growing Victoria’s Secret’s $4 billion business across 1,000 stores and digital platforms, Singer was named a National Outstanding Mother Of The Year for her contributions and influence as a parent businesswoman, philanthropist, and mentor.

Her father instilled in her the idea that luck is nothing more than the intersection of opportunity and ability. And, it’s the people who understand how and when to take advantage of both, who we ultimately call lucky.

Embrace Six Essential Elements

To create our own luck and opportunity, Singer advises embracing six essential elements:

  1. Release balance: forget the notion of work-life balance—find work that shares in your values and preferences, something you don’t have to do, but get to do
  2. Know your stuff: leverage your ability to learn, to educate yourself and others. Be accountable
  3. Bring more heart than head: always have empathy, make connections, and be open to imperfection
  4. Be a generous leader: strive to influence, inspire, break barriers, be a team leader and sponsor
  5. No task is too small: be self-aware, tolerate ambiguity, be coachable and open to doing whatever it takes
  6. Create good fortune: have relentless tenacity, and jump on opportunity, because timing matters

She believes in the collective power of teams, be it at the office or at home, and credits her support system for being able to continue her career trajectory through love, life, and children.

“At the end of the day, all you have is family … partner with people who want you to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s your boyfriend, husband, girlfriend, wife, colleagues, or community … life is too hard and too stressful to be blocked by the people closest to you.”

Pictured above: Jan Singer met privately for an insightful mentorship session with Babson’s CWEL Scholars on Friday, May 3, 2019.

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