Behind the Seams, Power Figures

Liza Bennett is the Brains Behind Bare Necessities

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We’ve met our fair share of Power Figures here on Bare it All, from fashion designers to physicians, novelists to entrepreneurs. To kick off the year, we realized we didn’t need to look any further than our own backyard, to a woman who knows the business of fashion better than pretty much anyone. Who has built her career from the front door to the top floor. Who gets things handled all day, every day without breaking a sweat.

Torching every stereotype about female bosses, Liza Bennett is what you want in a leader: kind, likeable, unflappable under pressure, an ally in the corner office who wants everyone to succeed–and to be happy and have a life while they’re at it.

Liza has spent the past 15 years at Bare Necessities, ascending from the brand’s second-ever buyer to the Vice President of E-Commerce, seeing things through when we were a private company, then under Walmart and, now, under international intimate apparel corporation Delta Galil.

We picked Liza’s brain to find out what she’s learned about finding your calling, forming a team you can count on and trusting your gut…in and out of the office.

Q: Tell us a bit about you personally.
A:
My mother was born in China, and my father was from New York. They met in Colombia, where they were both working. They got married in Panama, moved to Switzerland, came to Brooklyn, moved to Florida–where I was born–then to New Jersey, where a lot of my dad’s family lives.

Their journey was bold; you get inspired by the examples you see, whether you know it or not. My mother in particular didn’t want women who immigrated after her to be discriminated against the way she was. She always felt a responsibility to make life better for others. She was generous and always nice, but I mostly admire how grounded and wise she was. I can barely remember her ever getting mad; She always seemed to be able to keep everything in perspective. I spend many days wishing I was more like her.

My sister and I are only a year apart. We’re like twins. The people I work with never believe it, but I’m very shy; I had to be outspoken because she’s even more shy.

My cousin was a buyer at Bonwit Teller. I decided I was going to be a buyer like her, and I did. Just making a decision and sticking with it, especially when you have so many choices, is a huge advantage.

“Just making a decision and sticking with it, especially when you have so many choices, is a huge advantage”

Q: How did you get to where you are now professionally?
A: 
I studied marketing and finance at Lehigh University. When it comes to being a buyer, you always hear you’re either going to love it or hate it. I loved it. After many years, I realized the reason people hate it is because they think it’s going to be very glamorous, but it’s so much more about business.

I got a job out of school as a buyer for JC Penney, then Lord & Taylor. I worked for Nautica Sleepwear, Ralph Lauren and Carole Hochman before a former colleague brought me over to Bare Necessities in 2006. E-commerce was around, but it wasn’t what it is today. I took a chance on this small company. For the first six weeks, I was like, “What have I done?” There were no reports, no systems, no automation. So I made them. Bare Necessities was growing into the great place it is now. At first, I was begging people to sell to us. After a year, we were getting accosted at the trade shows. I had to wear my name tag backwards.

So much of it is about trusting your instincts. As with all things, you live and learn. Half of it is getting hired by people who know you. Noah Wrubel, our founder, believed in his people, which helped us build the business. I built my personal brand by being a really good partner. Even at the big department stores, I would make deals that were fair to both parties. I learned how to be strategic, not just to buy up goods and see what happens.

It’s hard to go to major brands and demand the same types of things department stores get when you’re a small business, and that was the job in the beginning. It took years of building trust to earn some flexibility. We had good judgment and the vision to be right enough of the time to do what we wanted. We had the freedom to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars of Spanx or Yummie when Oprah sang their praises. We could be nimble and jump on an opportunity.

Q: What difference do bras even make? Why should finding the right one matter to women?
A:
I’ve learned there are things that are better for me to wear. The older you get, the more a bra matters. You want a better bra so that you can feel and look your most confident no matter what you put on over it

When we started selling bras online, we could do extended sizes–your 38As, your 56G–that would never be feasible in a store. We have the one that you want at the time you need it. We could make available things nobody else had, and that inclusivity has always made me proud. A great part of what we do is serve traditionally overlooked customers no one else could.

With our exclusive Birdsong brand, women can put it on and say, “I didn’t realize what I was missing.” Everyone should know there’s a world of choices out there. We’re here to make them more accessible.

Q: What’s a typical day like?
A:
I spend a lot of my day conducting, making sure things go right. Overall, I feel responsible for the people; I care whether they’re happy. Everything is about relationships. No system can tell you what to buy or how to make a deal–people do. Customers have put so much faith and trust in us. Our staffers have so much heart; they never just throw in the towel. At the end of the day, our work is never done. Those are the things that really make me proud.

“I feel responsible for my people; I care whether they’re happy. Everything is about relationships”

Q: What challenges did you have to overcome in business, and how’d you do it?
A:
Being a woman in retail has always meant men at the top. I made it as an entrepreneur at a small company. I love Bare Necessities because we built a real business and had a life balance when we did it. I helped build a place where the grass is already green. We make mistakes but, more often than not, we’re successful. We aren’t lucky; we make our own luck.

Q: What drives you?
A:
The fact that so much falls back on the buyers. The invoices getting paid, the way the creative is perceived, the constant deadlines. You have to figure out what you’re going to prioritize. A buyer has to be well-rounded: good at math, smart, able to command a room, friendly, a go-getter, self-motivated, goal-oriented, fast. You can’t necessarily teach those things. A big part of what I do is try to put together the best possible team.

Q: What’s your leadership style?
A: Direct to a fault. I don’t like to make things into a bigger deal than they are. I deal in truth and reality. The numbers spark creativity, they drive the direction of the company. What matters in the end is the intimate conversations, the strategizing, the nitty gritty…not the design of your PowerPoint presentation.

I’ve always given my people leeway. No one is in my head, so I can’t expect them to do something the exact same way I would. Give me as few details as possible to get us to the goal. Did we accomplish what we set out to do? That’s all that matters. I try to teach people to think critically, to plan ahead, to ask questions but not necessarily to manage every bit of everything.

“Give me as few details as possible to get us to the goal. Did we accomplish what we set out to do? That’s all that matters”

Q: What do you want women to know who are coming up behind you?
A:
It’s been said before because it’s true: Work really hard and be nice to people.

Q: What are you looking forward to next?
A:
If you know your subject, it’s easy to take on different roles. As a recent acquisition of Delta Galil, we have many opportunities ahead. Things are about to get even more fun and exciting.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO LIZA
Favorite bra:
 Birdsong Eva Full-Cup T-Shirt Bra.
First job: At the ages of 14 and 15, my sister and I worked a luncheonette counter at a small-town drugstore. She was the short-order cook, and I was the waitress…it was just the two of us!
Stressbuster: I run low-stress.
Style signature: Simple. Just stylish enough to seem put-together but not to stand out.
Superpower you wish you had: The power of healing.
Biggest regret: Not learning to speak Chinese from my mother.
Craziest thing you’ve ever done: I don’t do crazy.
The perfect day must contain: Some excitement, some rest and definitely some sunshine.

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Brooke is the editor of this here blog. In a previous life, she was an editor at Good Housekeeping and O, The Oprah Magazine. Brooke has written for Glamour, Travel+Leisure, New York Magazine and more. She’s into concerts, travel and her exceptionally adorable daughter and husband.
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