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At Gap Inc., Unlocking Creativity Through Internal Mobility

BoF learns about the development and upskilling opportunities that working for a portfolio company like Gap Inc. enables, hearing from creatives who have worked across more than one of its brands — Gap, Athleta, Banana Republic and Old Navy.
A Gap Inc. employee at work.
A Gap Inc. employee at work. (B.HUST)
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Internal mobility has become a powerful instrument for businesses looking to harness employees’ potential and boost their engagement levels. After all, nearly 80 percent of employees are either not engaged or are actively disengaged at work, according to management consultancy firm Gallup.

Not only does reallocating talent increase employee retention, with workers staying almost twice as long in organisations that offer internal mobility programmes and opportunities, according to research by LinkedIn, but it also benefits businesses’ bottom line. Replacing an employee can cost between 50 percent and 200 percent of their annual income, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Gap Inc., parent company of the Gap, Athleta, Banana Republic and Old Navy brands, utilises internal mobility to offer talent multiple touchpoints across its brand roster. This opportunity leans into wider learning and development opportunities aimed at upskilling and engaging its existing talent pool. About 18 percent of Gap Inc. executives at the vice-president level and above started their careers working with product and customers in stores.

Supporting moves across its brands and business is one of many schemes that Gap Inc. uses to foster creativity within its business, alongside new collaborative workspaces called Co-Labs and a Design Apprentice Program to help close the skills gap for underrepresented graduate talent.

BoF sits down with Lauren Kazemi, Athleta’s vice president of merchandising, Rudy Montenegro, Gap Inc.’s director of store design, and Irtiza Rizvi, a design director at Banana Republic, to learn more about how they have leveraged Gap Inc.’s internal mobility opportunities.

Lauren Kazemi, Vice President, Merchandising, Athleta

Lauren Kazemi, Vice President, Merchandising, Athleta

Kazemi started her career at Gap Inc. 17 years ago and is a graduate of the company’s Rotational Management Program. Currently a vice president at Athleta, Kazemi has also worked at Old Navy and Banana Republic.

How has your career evolved at Gap Inc. across its brand portfolio?

LK: For almost 17 years, I have technically only worked at one place, but it feels like I have had three unique experiences at three different brands under this parent company. I have had the opportunity to grow, to educate myself, to develop, to learn about different customers and business models. It feels like each of the brands is its own mini company.

If I have a challenge or idea, or just want a fresh perspective, I also have a wide network of people that understand Gap Inc. and the ins and outs of the business. For example, at Banana Republic, when we were repositioning the brand, redefining the design pillars and our design philosophy, we brought in other brand leaders to hear a fresh perspective. It’s a great way to leverage insights from experts outside the brand.

How has internal mobility contributed to your personal development?

Internal mobility has given me more perspective when it comes to making decisions. It gives you more experiences to pull from — positive wins but also failures and learnings.

So, now that I’m at Athleta, I can approach a customer problem with knowledge of how we approached it at Banana Republic — I was at Banana Republic when we were repositioning the brand for the past two years, and I helped in the launch of the Baby collection.

Of course, you can’t just copy and paste what you learnt while working at other brands. You have to understand the brand values, their customer, where they are in their growth trajectory and the kind of risks you can take.

How can internal mobility boost creativity?

When you arrive at a new brand, you have to immerse yourself in their story. Every brand has a unique reason for being — a hole in the market they were looking to solve. Then, you learn about their customer and what they love. It is inspiring to come to understand those components — it is what motivates me and keeps me creatively energised.

Working alongside three world-class design partners boosts your creativity and forces you to think differently, as they all work differently. I learnt a lot from all of them, from problem-solving activities to performance, functionality and even simply creating beautiful products. It offers unique skills that I am still developing.

How does internal mobility feed into wider learning and development opportunities at Gap Inc.?

I started in an entry-level role as a merchandise coordinator and everyone on my team had been through the company’s Rotational Management Programme (RMP). They were encouraging me to do it too as I wanted my next step to be a cross-brand, cross-functional experience.

I learnt the value of what every function brings to the table. As a result, I have empathy for all stakeholders when I’m making a business decision.

That was my first taste of rotating through the Gap Inc. brands. RMP allows you to move through the core functions, like merchandising, planning, production, digital marketing, giving you a taste of what each brand is about, their story, customer and culture, before you choose a job.

I learnt the value of what every function brings to the table and what they do to drive the business forward. As a result, I have empathy for all stakeholders when I’m making a business decision — I can understand and anticipate what production or marketing will need, or what the inventory team might ask. It prepared me to be an empathetic participant and now leader.

Rudy Montenegro, Director, Store Design and Facilities Planning Operations, Gap Inc.

Rudy Montenegro, Director, Store Design and Facilities Planning Operations, Gap Inc.

Montenegro spent five years as head of store design in Greater China across Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, and then three years in the same role for Greater China and Japan, based in Shanghai. He then moved to San Francisco as part of the Gap Inc. store development team, focusing on workplace design, planning and experience.

How has your career evolved at Gap Inc. across its brand portfolio?

I have worked at Gap Inc. for over 15 years, starting at Old Navy in store design, as my background is in interior and industrial design. Before we centralised store design to the parent company Gap Inc., I was focused on one brand, but looking for opportunities to be more creative.

I ended up moving into a creative service for all brands, designing stores in Rome, Milan, Ginza, Croatia and South Korea. My big opportunity came when we launched Gap China. I was based in San Francisco, but the team in China decided they needed me there to bring the Gap culture to China and also understand the Chinese consumer. So I relocated there in 2012.

I was there for five years and have now moved back to San Francisco, where I lead the workplace experience, designing and planning for our corporate facilities. We remodelled our 2 Folsom Hub, looking at how to represent the brand layers in their spaces, and are looking at how we can create a more engaging office experience at our New York Hub.

How has internal mobility contributed to your personal development?

When I moved to China, I was just a senior manager, and then I moved up the ranks to be a part of the leadership team there. I managed everything from conceptual design to opening the store, and I had to learn how to bring Gap culture to a new part of the world.

I built my career faster than you would expect because I had to learn quickly and broaden my creative focus.

I built my career faster than you would expect because I had to learn quickly and broaden my creative focus to more than one store design and brand. Working on multiple brands, I got to use my creativity in different ways and test new concepts. We did a small-format Gap store versus a big-format, and looked at how we could add pop-ups, like at Narita Airport in Tokyo. That got me to the position where I am now.

What are you excited about the future of working?

I grew up with this brand — my uncle led the facilities team a long time ago, and now I’m in a similar role. It’s a full circle moment with a company I have loved and believed in for a while. There has been a lot of positive change recently — new leadership, new product lines, new energy — so I’m excited about where Gap Inc. is going.

We are innovating and learning across the business, enabling and empowering our people, and we are focusing more on the customer than ever. I’m excited to see what sort of opportunities the future brings.

Irtiza Rizvi, design director of Women’s Sweaters & Baby at Banana Republic.

Irtiza Rizvi, Design Director, Women’s Sweaters & Baby, Banana Republic

Rizvi was a designer at Gap for two years before moving to Banana Republic to relocate to the US’s West Coast, where he has lived for five years.

How has your career evolved at Gap Inc. across its brand portfolio?

I started my career at Gap in 2016, working as the designer for women’s sweaters. I was part of an amazing team there but then Banana Republic announced in early 2018 that they were moving their New York operations back to San Francisco. I had been living in New York at that point for over a decade and I was ready for a change.

There were a few openings I was interested in — one was a senior designer on the women’s team at Banana Republic. My manager was super encouraging about it — they even endorsed me for the role. It was an incredible feeling to have that level of support, every step of the way. That kind of mentality is an important part of the culture here.

How has internal mobility contributed to your personal development?

It was invaluable — the move allowed me to lead a team, which I hadn’t done before in fashion, and develop and hone my leadership and management skills, to inspire and develop others too. That was always a goal of mine.

Our company values learning and development. When we launched our Baby and Toddler lines, I was part of that team from the beginning, despite having never worked on childrenswear.

I also had access to classes and workshops that helped me improve those skills. Our company highly values its employees’ learning and development. When we launched our Baby and Toddler lines, I was fortunate to be part of that small team from the beginning, despite having never worked on childrenswear before.

Not many can say that they have launched an entire division at a brand the size of Banana Republic. It’s such a rare opportunity. For Gap Inc. to take that risk on me was encouraging. It was a steep learning curve and a lot of hard work, but so fun and rewarding.

How can internal mobility boost creativity?

There is a lot of cross-brand communication here and the fact that we have so many employees that have worked at the different brands helps make that happen. For example, when I started working on BR Baby, I was still in touch with some of my colleagues at Gap. We leveraged their learnings to help us understand sizing and perfecting our fit.

Part of the reason that we made it happen with such a small team is because we were able to leverage their knowledge and history from the Baby Gap brand.

Any past experience will help you in your next role, but when the culture, systems and processes are similar, it makes it much easier to transfer those learnings. So when I joined the BR team, there were learnings from working at Gap that I was able to bring with me. I also shared some learnings with my old team at Gap and they ended up implementing some changes based on that.

What are your personal learnings from working across Gap Inc. brands?

I used to work in finance and spent several years as an analyst, and every day was monotonous and unfulfilling. What I love most about my job is that no two days are the same — every day I learn something new. For example, I just completed some training on a new 3D software. I also go on visits to our vendors, our mills, the dye houses — a wealth of information is at your fingertips.

We also work with some of the most talented, knowledgeable, passionate individuals in the industry. Whatever you put in is what you get out, and you can make and learn as much as you possibly want.

It’s about thinking outside the box, pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, being courageous — and being at a place where that kind of mindset is encouraged makes it a lot easier.

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