AACSB 2019 Influential Leaders Paula Bennett and Barron Witherspoon

How Mentorship Spurred Retail Careers of Two AACSB Influential Leaders

Through different paths, Paula Bennett and Barron Witherspoon have established themselves as retail industry leaders and attribute much of their success to the mentor relationships that started in business school.

Research shows that the academic and career benefits of mentorship and the importance of developing these relationships—particularly during the academic years—is monumental. In fact, 75 percent of executives say mentoring has been critical to their career development, according to a survey by the American Society for Training and Development.

Two of AACSB’s Influential Leaders in the retail industry, Paula Bennett, former president and CEO of J.Jill, and Barron Witherspoon, vice president of corporate industry affairs at Procter & Gamble (P&G), attribute their success to an education and mentorship that equipped them with the right tools and helped lay the foundation for business success.

For them, mentorship began in the classroom.

Paula Bennett attended Ohio State University, where, she says, her education set her up for continued learning and encouraged her to stay curious. Bennett was interested in learning how to achieve balance between the science and the art of marketing. She enrolled in a course with William Davidson, a professor of marketing, who taught her that it is not just about creating and growing a business. The real value comes from building a brand with meaning behind it.

A few key pieces of advice stood out to Bennett and she took these lessons with her in building her career: always be forward-thinking, setting goals and working to develop the foundational skills that will help you reach these goals; assemble a diverse team with a variety of skills and contributions; and create value for customers and shareholders.

Throughout her career, Bennett applied these lessons by looking to the future and identifying that customer relationships would be an important element in succeeding in retail. With this forward-looking approach, Bennett has shaped the retail landscape as a visionary at some of the world’s most recognizable brands, including Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co., Eileen Fisher, and, most recently, J.Jill, where she served as president and CEO for 10 years.

As the leader at J.Jill, Bennett fostered a culture that placed tremendous value on understanding, serving, and building the company's loyal customer base. She ensured there was a shared understanding of these customer-centric goals and clarity around roles and responsibilities in delivering on those goals. Her foresight, coupled with her leadership, helped J.Jill create a database that strengthened the company’s brand loyalty among consumers in the women’s fashion marketplace.

Barron Witherspoon’s retail success stemmed from his business education, as well. Having an older brother at Tuskegee University, Witherspoon knew that was the business school he wanted to attend.

Witherspoon was immediately drawn to the environment, where professors knew him and invested in his development. Tuskegee’s dean of students, Ben Newhouse, saw Witherspoon’s potential and took a particular interest in him. Knowing university leadership saw potential in him and cared about his professional development kept Witherspoon motivated. He remained focused on the present and absorbed everything he could while at Tuskegee as he worked toward developing expertise in economics.

This focus on learning, together with encouragement from mentors, helped Witherspoon feel confident and prepared in his transition to the workforce, and it gave him the motivation to always push himself. “I had several instructors that served as influencers and knew me personally. Those close relationships made me feel accountable and gave me the drive to strive toward bigger goals.”

Witherspoon initially aspired to be a group manager at P&G. He feels humbled to say he was able to surpass that goal and now serves as the vice president of corporate industry affairs.

Through his work, Witherspoon is able to impact the consumer goods industry. He provides business solutions, critical thinking, analysis, and personal leadership to some of the most difficult business challenges in the industry.

Though he is a recognized thought leader, Witherspoon likes to think of himself as a learner, as well. Even now, at the height of his career, he continues to take in as much new information as possible and encourages others to do the same. “Focus on absorbing everything you can, whether it’s in school or in your job, because no matter where you are in life you should never stop learning.”

While both Bennett and Witherspoon received education and advice they were able to carry with them and translate into developing successful retail careers, not all students report a similar experience. A 2018 study from Strada Education Network and Gallup found that only 43 percent of graduates strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement, “While attending (institution), I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”

Bennett and Witherspoon recognize how fortunate they were and now work to provide this same mentorship for current students. The relationships they developed were so impactful that they both felt inspired to take what they have learned in their careers and share it with aspiring business leaders.

For Bennett, Davidson was so influential in her education that she created a scholarship in honor of him for marketing students at Ohio State. Additionally, Bennett is always looking for ways to use her experience and voice to help other people create value and is a fixture in classrooms and at events at Ohio State. She says, “I’m determined to make a difference in the things I’m passionate about.”

As a female business leader and one of only seven women in a class of 234 undergraduate business students at Ohio State during her cohort year, Bennett has also taken particular interest in encouraging women to pursue an education. She set up a women’s leadership fund at Ohio State to help women see their value, grow in confidence, and be inspired by the opportunities they have.

Likewise, knowing what a large impact mentorship can have, Witherspoon mentors about 20 people at a time, offering advice and support no matter the stage of their career.

Though Witherspoon mentors young corporate managers and executives, he focuses on connecting with students in the earliest stages of learning. P&G sponsors an annual leadership camp and conference called Tuskegee University Business and Engineering (TUBE), where an average of 30 student leaders are selected to be trained by P&G leaders in the beginning of each school year.

Witherspoon recognizes that his education helped him feel prepared for the workforce, and he now wants to equip current students with that same confidence. The TUBE program aims to build well-rounded students by bringing in leaders from different industries to share their experience and discuss contemporary topics. Living by his belief to always be a learner, Witherspoon enjoys being exposed to university students and their ideas and goals.

Additionally, Witherspoon and his brother offer financial support for current students at Tuskegee through their Witherspoon Brothers Leadership Endowment. This endowed fund provides a scholarship to two deserving students each year.

Through strong relationships with mentors and educations that laid the groundwork for successful careers, Paula Bennett and Barron Witherspoon have established themselves as leaders in the retail industry. While they each have taken unique paths, they are both testaments to the importance of strong mentors and leadership in building a career. Bennett and Witherspoon now work to provide support and advice to current students and young professionals by striving to influence and have a positive impact on the next generation of retail leaders.

An annual initiative, the AACSB Influential Leaders challenge recognizes business school alumni creating positive, lasting impact in their industries, communities, and society. Learn more at aacsb.edu/influential-leaders.