CEO Series: On a Bench with Jeanne Jackson, the Lady Who Caught the ball at Nike
From a park bench on campus, Cordelia Shackleton (MBA 2018) caught up with Jeanne Jackson (HBS ’78), to chat about her childhood, time at HBS, ascension to the top of the retail and marketing industry, and some candid advice on relationships.
Honest, charismatic and kind, Jeanne Jackson always had the drive and personal attributes for a phenomenally successful career. But in hindsight, her path to the top of retail juggernaut Nike looks anything but certain.
Born in Colorado, Jackson rarely left her hometown during her youth. “My father was a very traditional Italian guy. When I got good grades he was proud, but when I wanted to go to an expensive college, he thought it was silly to waste money on his daughter’s education. In fact, he encouraged me to go to the state school that specialized in cooking.” Jeanne would have none of it.
Ambitious but financially constrained, Jackson received a scholarship to fund her studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She majored in Finance, a pragmatic decision she says she made “not because I loved finance,” but because “it allowed me to make money tutoring football players.” On top of an ambitious study schedule, Jackson balanced two additional part-time jobs.
An avid skier (Jackson is the Past President of the United States Ski and Snowboard Foundation Board of Trustees), her first thought after graduation was to run a ski school. “That’s what I was going to do,” she says matter-of-factly, “and it was really our ski coach who encouraged me to think more broadly. He pushed me harder, and suggested I try applying for business school.”
Of course, it turns out that his faith in her was entirely well-placed. “I took the GMAT and surprised myself with how well I did. I only had enough money to apply to one business school, and, if you only have the money to apply to one school, you apply to this one. And I got in.” Sure enough, two years out of the University of Colorado, Jeanne arrived at Harvard Business School, and quickly realized that she had “no idea” what she was getting herself in to.
“I felt like I’d dropped into an alien planet”
Jackson can recall vividly what it felt like to arrive in Cambridge. “There were a lot of people who had clearly travelled the world. They were very well educated, dressed very differently to me, and certainly came with a whole lot of experiences that were different from mine.” Despite her evident ability and business street smarts, Jeanne recalls a consistent feeling that admissions had made a mistake. “It was imposter syndrome,” she suggests. “I kept thinking, soon they’re going to knock on my door, figure out I don’t belong here, and send me home.” For current students plagued with similar nightmares, it’s good to know some things at HBS haven’t changed.
Driven by the need for financial stability, despite again being awarded a scholarship and taking loans to attend HBS, Jackson took a cue from her undergraduate years in Colorado and balanced her heavy academic workload with two part-time jobs. “That was probably been the hardest part about my time at HBS. There was no time for anything else.” The first job involved forming a partnership with three fellow students to manage “The Galley,” a student run bar that used to run in the basement of Gallatin Lounge, pulling pints until 2am, then getting up again early to make breakfasts. The second job was moonlighting as a bartender for “The Dean.” Reflecting on the experience, Jackson believes that her demanding schedule is likely why she took only a handful of close HBS friends with her after graduating. Among those she does still see are her fellow “Galley” barmates.
Jackson’s hard work paid off in all regards. She and her fellow Galley teammates led the bar to generate more money than it had ever made in its ten-year history. “We were really good at it,” she smiles. “So good that HBS actually ended up taking it back, and stopped it from being a student-concession. We made too much money.” She then successfully graduated from HBS, alongside classmates including Margaret Peterson, WSA board member, and Ann Moore CEO Time Inc.
And what of her fellow female undergraduates? “The work dropout rate has been high, for various reasons,” she admits. “But the ones who stayed in did extremely well.” Demographics were different then: she was one of only seven undergraduates in her section.
Applying her business smarts to the corporate world, Jackson quickly rose up the corporate ladder, eventually attaining a list of senior management roles at top-tier US blue-chip firms, including Victoria’s Secret, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gap Inc., and The Walt Disney Company. When she looked up and down each corporate the ladder, she often she found herself as one of the few high-powered female executives who made it near the top. Not only was she successful in the boardrooms of others—Jackson also proved herself as a founder, starting a private equity and consulting firm in 2002 where she held the role of CEO.
In some ways, Jackson’s ties to HBS are still extremely strong—for one thing, her corporate associations read off like a list of recent HBS case studies. Jackson was CEO and President of Wal-Mart.com, and was already deeply connected with the upper echelons of Nike when the Lance Armstrong doping scandal broke. “It was very personal for us,” she reflected. “Just think—even our own fitness center was named after him. He was one of the most iconic athletes in our portfolio.” Speaking frankly, she adds, “It was a personal betrayal. It wasn’t just a marketing failure.”
The impact of the incident on Jackson is still palpable. After all, Nike remains her closest corporate tie today, having assumed the role of President and Special Advisor to the CEO in June, 2016. That said, Jackson appears somewhat comforted by HBS’s continued approach to updating the curriculum. “I’m glad there’s a case on Lance. That’s fabulous.”
“The need to make money was a very straightforward motivation. It may not sound the most inspiring reason, but it was the real one.”
What motivated her relentless dedication to her career? Jackson acknowledges that “though it sounds trite,” it was the need to make money. “I remember the day when [she and her husband] had enough money in the bank to decide whether both of us needed to work. If you don’t grow up that way, I don’t know that you can relate. There just wasn’t a choice.”
On managing two professional careers and having children, Jackson admits that she never considered having her husband or herself stay at home to raise the children. “Don’t get me wrong—he has a totally alpha profession,” she says of her airline pilot husband. “But it’s in a different way.” Ultimately, both have managed to balance careers with a family life though the help of daycare and nannies.
And as for how they met? “He arrested me,” she says—with an entirely deadpan expression. In fact it’s entirely true: she met her husband when he, a 26-year old security guard, stopped her, a 31-year old executive, from entering the office of Federated Department Stores without a security pass.
Jackson believes that Sheryl Sandberg “nails it” when she argues that a partner must truly be a partner in every sense, and that a couple must be built on a foundation of shared values. Jackson has seen a few cases of so-called “power couples,” but finds that there is “always a compromise somewhere.” In short, don’t marry someone because you think you can change them. People don’t really change and it will only lead to angst.
With Jackson’s keynote address down, and our interview time taken, Jackson’s phone was ringing. Despite approaching retirement, and stepping down from the boards of Nike, Nordstrom, Harrah, Williams-Sonoma, Motorola, CRS, West Marine, and the United States Navy Exchange, Jackson is clearly still moving near full throttle.
The hard work that was evident in Jackson as a child is still evident now. I wholeheartedly agree with her: people don’t really change.
Cordelia Shackleton (MBA’18) is from London, U.K. Prior to HBS she worked in London in investment banking, investment management and at a food tech start up. She studied Chemistry at Oxford University for her undergraduate degree and Finance at The London School of Economics for a masters degree. She is interested in retail, consumer products, aviation, media and entertainment and sport (both watching and participating!) and is going to work for Amazon in Seattle this summer.
Jeanne P. Jackson has been President, Special Advisor to the CEO at Nike Inc., since June, 2016. Prior to that, Ms. Jackson was President, Product and Merchandising at Nike, from 2013 to 2016, and President, Direct to Consumer, from 2009 to 2013. She stepped into that role after serving on the Nike Board of Directors for eight years.
In addition to the eight years on the Nike Board, from 2001 to 2009, she has been a member of the Board of Directors of McDonalds, Inc. since 1999, where she serves as Chair of the Compensation Committee, member of the Governance Committee, and former Chair of the Finance Committee. She also serves on the Board of Kraft-Heinz, Inc., on both the Audit and Governance Committees. Ms. Jackson has also served on the Boards of Nordstrom, Inc., Harrah’s Inc. (now Caesar’s Inc.), Williams-Sonoma, Inc., Motorola Mobility Holdings, CRS Inc., West Marine, Inc., and the United States Navy Exchange.
Prior to stepping off the Nike Board to assume an Executive position in 2009, Ms. Jackson was CEO of a private equity and consulting firm that she founded in 2002, MSP Capital. Ms. Jackson served as the Chief Executive Officer and President of Wal-Mart.com from March 2000 to January 2002. She was an Executive with Gap Inc., from 1995 to 2000. There she served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Banana Republic from 1995 to March 2000 and simultaneously as President and Chief Executive Officer for Gap Inc. Direct.
Prior to Gap Inc., Ms. Jackson held various senior management positions with Victoria’s Secret, The Walt Disney Company, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Federated Department Stores. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado, and Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. She has been recognized by Business Week as one of the “Top 25 Managers,” by Vanity Fair as one of the “Legends, Leaders and Trailblazers” and has been cited many times in Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women in Business.”
Ms. Jackson serves on the Board of Advisors of the University of California, Irvine, Merage School of Business, and has previously served on the Board of Advisors of Harvard Graduate School of Business. She is the Past President of the United States Ski and Snowboard Foundation Board of Trustees, where is remains a Trustee, and formerly served on the Boards of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and Sage Hill School in Orange County, California.
Ms. Jackson is married, with two grown children, and currently resides in Henderson, Nevada.
Thank you to The Women’s Student Association for helping to coordinate this interview. Next month we will also feature the third keynote speaker, Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss and comments from the organizing committee.
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