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When athletic clothing and gear retailer Lululemon announced plans to go public, Kathy Elsesser ’93 knew everyone in the consumer retail space would be vying for the account. As the global co-head of the Consumer and Retail Group at Goldman Sachs, Elsesser was well aware that every firm competing for Lululemon’s IPO would do an impeccable job researching and pitching the company. Her team needed to stand out.
On the day of the pitch, the entire group, including the head of Goldman’s investment banking division, dressed head to toe in Lululemon. They also each wrote down and shared their professional and personal goals in the same vein that Lululemon employees share theirs at the company’s headquarters. “I wanted to show them that we really respected that,” says Elsesser. “And I have to say that in doing that exercise I learned a lot about my team.”
She also landed the Lululemon account thanks to that innovative approach to connecting with the company on a personal level.
“What’s really important in consumer retail and marketing is understanding that it’s less about the actual item. It’s more about the connection with the consumer and how companies cultivate and create that [connection],” Elsesser explains. “At the same time, as we’re working with clients we’re developing that connection on a personal level and therefore sharing and understanding a passion for their product.”
Though she’s arrived at a place that makes sense for her professionally, Elsesser never experienced that “ah-ha” moment when it came to discovering her niche. Consumer retail ultimately combined everything she found fascinating: client relationships, retail trends, economics and business marketing. Yet she discovered such an ideal intersection gradually and fortuitously. Goldman Sachs, for example, was meant to be a job that could bring her to New York to live and work while applying for law schools. She soon discovered, however, that she loved the people and the company’s brisk pace.
Then Kellogg came to Goldman to recruit analysts for its management school and Elsesser was intrigued. “I found Kellogg’s approach refreshing,” she says. “I thought I wanted to do something more marketing-oriented, creative and team-oriented, and Kellogg offered all of that.”
At Kellogg she realized just how ideal Goldman was for her. “Kellogg and Goldman are very similar in that they’re very collaborative and very much about winning as a team while having your own individual contributions.”
Since graduating and returning to Goldman in 1993, Elsesser’s Kellogg network has only grown. This, she says, is invaluable as she navigates the rapidly evolving retail space.
“Consumer companies, broadly defined, used to have an easier time controlling what information was seen, by whom and when because the communication paths were relatively defined and narrow,” explains Elsesser. “Now information is hard to control — there are influencers and regular consumers who can speak about your product whenever they want, however they want.”
Still, Elsesser says there’s never been a better time to enter the consumer retail space. “I don’t think there’s ever been a more interesting time to help companies figure out how to appropriately engage with the consumer in this new environment, and to delight them and give them something that’s meaningful and helpful,” she says. “The bar has risen as the expectations on behalf of consumers have risen, as they should given the amount of information and choices they now have at their fingertips. So it’s an incredibly fun and interesting and challenging time.”