We’re thrilled to feature a Q&A with Eileen Mahoney, the executive vice president and chief information officer of PVH, the parent company of leading fashion brands such as Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, and others, in the Inner Circle this week. Mahoney discusses how she helped PVH pivot during the  COVID-19 pandemic, the retail tech trends she’s watching closely, how she feels about being a woman in a male-dominated field, and how she’s working to get more women into retail technology leadership.

Inner Circle: Please tell us about your career, and your current role at PVH. What departments do you oversee there?
Eileen Mahoney: I’ve been on the IT side of retail for over 30 years now. Currently, I’m the executive vice president and chief information officer of PVH, responsible for developing the strategic direction of PVH’s technology and systems solutions, business process, as well as project and portfolio management. I oversee the company’s North America, South America and Asia IT areas, as well as PVH’s global network and infrastructure. While at PVH, I’ve developed key partnerships with our strategic technology partners and am a member of JDA’s Customer Advisory Board, as well as SAP’s Consumer Products and Fashion Councils. I joined PVH in September 2008 as group vice president of retail information and technology, focusing on expanding PVH’s retail IT systems platform. I was promoted to senior vice president in May 2012. Prior to joining PVH, I was chief information officer at Edison Learning, an international education service provider. I began my career in retail at Macy’s, spending 10 years in various IT positions across the company.

IC: Please tell us some strategies you put into place when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year. Can you describe how you reimagined your business model?
EM: When brick-and-mortar retail stores shut down, we first evaluated our personnel and started to build cross-functional teams based on certain skillsets, disregarding who reports into whom. We focused on the raw skillsets people had and thought, “OK, where else can this person contribute? What departments will benefit most from this person’s skills?” For example, we took someone in supply chain and moved them to help with e-commerce to provide a fresh perspective and new skillset. We found that this unlocked people’s creativity and that people really wanted to help and contribute during this difficult time. This made us realize we shouldn’t focus on strict reporting structures and instead need to focus on how we can best leverage our people and resources, despite how they would traditionally be used.

Secondly, we looked at the different projects we were working on to determine which are helping PVH move the needle to deliver good results, and which aren’t. We continued to build out projects that were helping us progress, adjusting them to the current environment, and tabled those that wouldn’t help us get through this challenging time.

Lastly, we identified our North Star — where we wanted to get to — and started to build a road map on how to get there. We broke it down into the incremental steps we needed to take to get there. This also helped us identify our priorities — nothing like a good crisis to help reprioritize and reset your focus. Our business partners played a key role in helping identify trends and best practices to help readjust our approach to achieve our goals, and in the end, we came out with a healthy approach on how to build our strategy for the future.

Additionally, PVH is very focused on corporate social responsibility, so throughout the process we were very diligent in making sure our COVID-19 plans aligned with and didn’t compromise our corporate social responsibility. We asked questions like, “Will this plan help reduce our carbon footprint? Where are we seeing excess materials or waste? How can we best utilize this set of people?”

IC: Also, I understand that you were able to improve your foundational digital infrastructure to support high traffic volume, increasing e-commerce through PVH’s directly operated digital businesses by 87 percent. How were you able to do that?
EM: Cyber Monday and Black Friday were major impetuses for us to start enhancing our e-commerce plans. In retail, you must be prepared for these holidays to successfully handle the traffic and transactions that occur in those 24-hour windows. The tricky thing about online is that you never know when someone wants to shop — it could be late night, early morning, whenever. So, we had to build the right type of site that could handle different volumes of transactions and maintain high speed. As a result, Black Friday 2019 was our busiest and most successful because we had spent the time building out the best site possible, from a backend perspective. From there, we continued to make incremental tech improvements. These improvements majorly enabled e-commerce because it became more seamless, faster and all around a more enhanced experience.

IC: Can you talk about a few retail tech trends you’re watching closely right now that you believe will have a big impact in 2021?
EM: Consumer experience is key. Not being able to go into stores has deprived people of that augmented experience, where you get to see things in real life and try things on. Augmented reality experiences would help solve this, allowing customers to virtually try on clothes. Virtual try-on and fittings have been done before, but not at a broader scale. Hopefully, as the technology develops, consumers will start to develop an appreciation for it and it starts to catch on. This is the same even for in-store experiences. If people want contactless, they can virtually try on as well. If this does catch on, we’ll start seeing more creative customer experiences pop up. It will be about how augmented reality can create the best customer experience possible.

IC: How would you describe your leadership style? Has it changed much, if at all, during the pandemic?
EM: Anybody who works for me knows I’m tough, but very fair. I have very high expectations and work well with my teams to help them develop their skills, personal leadership and careers. During the pandemic, it’s been important to soften a bit more. This is a difficult time and everyone is feeling the impacts. I’ve been focused on checking in more with people, having coffee chats and cocktail conversations to ensure that we’re all staying connected, despite being apart. We use Cisco Webex, and that has really helped facilitate staying connected. We started utilizing more of the Webex tools to do companywide classes on topics and activities people are interested in, such as yoga, French, whiskey — fun activities that engage our employees so they still feel like co-workers.

IC: I’d love to talk about the fact that you’re a female CIO. Why did you decide to pursue a career in technology, and what are some of your secrets to success?
EM: I’ve wanted to go into technology since high school, and never thought it was that unusual, until one of our guidance counselors told me that career wasn’t for women and that I should consider becoming a teacher. That alone made me determined more than ever to work in tech. In my college years, I realized I was one of a few women in my tech classes. In the last 10 years to 12 years, I’ve started seeing more women, but it’s still a largely male-dominated sector, so I’m always excited to see a woman in the room.

Because of DE&I, we’ve started to meet other women in tech and are talking about how we arrived here and how we can ensure the road is well paved for other women in the future. When you’re one of few women in a male-dominated room, it can sometimes be easy to compromise and try to be one of the guys in order to get a seat at the table. I think it’s very important that you stick to your guns, despite maybe being outnumbered. It’s important to actually show up and be professional, putting gender aside in terms of your decision making. But it’s also important to make sure you’re representing women and showing women in leadership that you’re an asset.

IC: Can you talk about how you’re helping get more women into retail technology positions? Are you doing anything to increase the number of women in tech in the leadership pipeline?
EM: The fact that there are less women in tech today than there were 10 years ago is eye opening. When I started, I assumed more women would enter the industry at a faster pace. I recently did a speaking series with Pace University and started reaching out to young women in their first and second years to give them early guidance — not on writing code or how to be the next Zuckerberg — but on making them aware of the opportunities and how to properly prepare for them. I emphasized to not be afraid to be the only one interested in a certain space. It’s also very important for women to understand and see how they can balance and integrate family life. Showing them how and where to prioritize will allow them to not compromise or sacrifice the things that are most important to them, and will show them that they can have both a family and a robust career.

I want to spend more time showing women that tech isn’t just about STEM and coding. Today, there’s nothing that it doesn’t touch. There are so many ways for women to get involved, we just have to give women the opportunity to have the experience. I’m hoping more women will see this as a great career opportunity for themselves.

IC: What are you most looking forward to, personally and professionally, in 2021?
EM: I’m most looking forward to developing the new normal. Our environment has dramatically changed over the past year, and once we’re back at work, back in stores, back in society, it’s going to change again — it’s not going to just go back to how it used to be. It will be exciting to see what the customer shopping experience will look like in retail and how we start building that out on our end. You don’t always have the opportunity in your career to invent or develop a new operating model. It’s also exciting to know that I will be part of a team that will develop what the new way of working will be in corporate offices, in partnerships with retail teams and how we work with consumers.