Bernardine Wu ‘Innovation can take many forms.’

Bernardine Wu is the Executive Managing Director of OSF Digital’s Strategy Team. She was also formerly the founder and CEO of FitForCommerce, and co-founder of The Innovation Office. She’s a writer, public speaker, and thought leader in the retail industry, and currently serves on the board of Women of Color Retail Alliance. She’s also served on the NRF Board, the NRF Digital Council, and the NRF Awards Committee.

Douglas Hampton Dowson

8 min read

With a BA in English and Asian Studies from Dartmouth College, and with an extensive retail background in business, finance, digital experience, and technology (and with the foundations of her career rooted deeply in Wall Street itself), Bernardine Wu has ‘led the charge’ in retail on multiple fronts over the course of her glorious (and impressive) career.

She has almost too many accolades to count. And when we got the chance to catch up with her upon her acceptance of the esteemed position of Convrt Awards Judge, we took the opportunity to ask her not only about her background and experiences in retail, but to also seek some ‘words of wisdom’ for those planning to participate in the upcoming Convrt Awards.

What is your background in the industry? Can you describe your job in one line?

Well, that’s a tough question, summarizing your job in one line. I would say my career is really built on building organizations. I have gone, since university, from a 55,000-person company down to a 13,000-person company, down to a 1,200-person company, down to like a hundred-person company. Then, I moved on to starting my own company. 

So coincidentally, or maybe intentionally, I had this wonderful opportunity early on in my career to work for a big consultancy. Then, to work on Wall Street in strategy. And then, I actually got into the retail commerce industry that I’m in right now, kind of through the technology lens of creating supportive technologies. 

Back then it was the early days of e-commerce. But the thread through most of my career has had more to do with creating organizations (whether that was a department or a company), and the resources, strategies, processes, and tools that are needed to grow an organization. That’s what I love doing. 

I’ve been the right hand to multiple CEOs. I’ve been the CEO, and I really love that because that’s my form of creativity in a way. It’s my way of contributing. I’ve always been in sort of more of a service industry, a service-oriented role. That’s what I like. I guess maybe in some ways it’s like saying, I like being the help.

What do you love about the retail industry? And on the other hand, what are some of the key challenges that you see facing retail at this point in time?

I co-founded FitForCommerce with my business partner, Cynthia Kounaris, 15 years ago. We were kind of on a mission because we saw that retailers (this is a broad statement—and again, this was in the early days of e-commerce) were wanting to expand on e-commerce, but really didn’t have a lot of the skills or experience to do that. 

Retailers generally (and I say retailers broadly to mean brands, retailers, manufacturers, you know, grocers, and CPG companies) knew their product. They were very innovative around the product, and maybe innovative around traditional marketing. But this new wave of e-commerce and digital marketing really was not yet mastered in their organizations. So we saw an opportunity to help these retailers with this area.

And so one of the things that I love about this industry is that it is constantly innovating. There is constant change. The customer is always pushing us to try new things, do things in different ways, and create new experiences for the shopper. 

So what are the challenges behind that? I think one of them is the pace of innovation that needs to happen. We always have this saying that today’s best practices become tomorrow’s table stakes. And today’s leading-edge innovation becomes tomorrow’s best practices. And that cycle of techniques and technologies and innovative ways of doing things, going from leading edge to best practice to table stakes, is just getting faster and faster and faster. 

It’s interesting to look at some of the things that are in the market today. I was actually just talking with a CIO the other day, and we were talking about ChatGPT and how often she gets asked about it (and if they’re talking about it). And she was sort of like, “I just got through talking about NFTs and the Metaverse, and now we’re talking about the next thing.”  

So I think one is the pace of innovation. Two is that right now in the marketplace, there’s sort of this rebalancing going on. There was a surge in activity during COVID for many reasons. COVID was obviously bad for many reasons, but from a digital shopping and digital engagement perspective, I would say that it pushed the market. It pushed the consumer to shop more. 

Many of our grandparents got online and were buying online. Many of our parents who would not normally buy online and pick up in-store were doing that.

So, this behavior pushed the market, and then as the market balanced out, it became clear that a sort of ‘rebalancing’ had to happen. There are a lot of layoffs right now. There’s a tightening of budgets right now. So I think that’s natural. It’s unfortunate, but it’s kind of a natural part of a surge happening. And then, having to rebalance supply and demand. We’re not out of it. 

We’re still in a supply chain kind of issue. So I think that is on a lot of people’s minds. There was a big wait-and-see holiday season last year, and I think generally there’s a bit of relief that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it also wasn’t necessarily as great year over year as the past two years. So again, there’s some rebalancing.

And so one of the things that I love about this industry is that it is constantly innovating. There is constant change. The customer is always pushing us to try new things, do things in different ways, and create new experiences for the shopper.

From your first day at work to now, what are some of the biggest things you’ve learned?

I would say that there are a couple of threads or observations throughout my career. One of them is about data—that no matter what job you’re in, no matter what level you are, I think there is a certain amount of paying attention to, or really rolling up your sleeves and getting in the data of whatever your role is. 

Whether that’s understanding the metrics or creating the metrics for that role, or using data to get actionable insights and make decisions. I think there’s not enough focus, training, and acumen on data. Many roles are an art or science role, and most roles are both, and the science behind most roles is rolling up your sleeves and figuring out the data.

Sometimes you don’t have enough data and you have to find the data. 

Right now in the omnichannel e-commerce industry, we have a ton of data, but we’re not using data enough to make decisions. It’s almost like we have too much data and we haven’t figured out how to make it actionable. 

Being able to use data to communicate, whether that’s supporting a strategy or understanding trends and going to your board, your management, and making your business case. 

I’ve noticed that when I speak at conferences, one of my favorite sayings is that data is like a rockstar. If mismanaged, it will trash the place. That usually gets a laugh from the audience. It’s so true that we all now have a lot of data generally, but it may not be in the right place, or we may not be able to turn it into insights.

Since I was an analyst all the way up to being an entrepreneur, I think that data is really important. 

The other is people. Over time you realize that people are the engine. People are the best ingredient. People in your organization, how you structure your team, how you build talent into it. How big or small you make your team and how you enable that team, all those organizational elements, I think those are some of the most critical pieces of being successful. 

Whether that’s being successful as a young person early in your career, understanding the people dynamics of where you are to your mid-career or figuring out how you’re going to be a hero and how you’re going to make the people around you be a hero. All the way to some of the more senior roles where you’re managing people. You may be managing a board above you or you may be managing a management team—and understanding those ‘people dynamics’ is crucial. 

So if data’s like a rockstar, then people are like the band, and the band can also trash the place if not managed, nurtured, and supported.

one of my favorite sayings is that data is like a rockstar. If mismanaged, it will trash the place.

What is your vision for the future of our industry? And what would you like to see?

I talked about innovation earlier on. Our industry is really often at the forefront of innovation (and sometimes stumbling into innovation). I think that that is still the most important thing. 

Innovation can take many forms. Often, people think about innovation as the latest widget or technology, and that’s true. Technology is one of the most amazing enablers of progress. But so is innovation around process and how we do things right. 

We’ve started to see a lot of change in the supply chain in some of the big ugly processes that we didn’t use to talk that much about. We see innovation there. I would love to see the industry move towards (and I believe we have started this) more of a sustainable way of being.

Right now there’s a lot of talk about sustainability. Generally, a lot of it has to do with using natural products or how am I sourcing this responsibly. But actually, sustainability also has a role in many different areas of technology, processes, and people. 

Having a sustainable company means having a culture of thinking about, “how do I use resources?” That could be raw materials or people, and the answer to the question of how you create a sustainable culture. Am I creating a sustainable business or organization or team that I’m proud of? That’s where a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusivity comes into play. It’s all related because sustainability to me, and I think to a lot of people, means, “how are we creating our lives, jobs, and communities for the future?”

When a retailer is looking at opening up a store, hopefully they’re thinking about the entire community and how they’re going to serve the community—not just how am I gonna open up a store and, you know, get more revenue, right? 

Many brands are talking about sustainability. It sometimes feels a little bit like, we call it greenwashing, where it’s just talking about it for the sake of talking about it. But we’re seeing a lot of innovation around stuff like resale, it’s called resale and e-commerce. A lot of brands are offering a way for consumers like you and me to resell our products on that brand site. I can have a Patagonia jacket and I can use the Patagonia site to list and sell my Patagonia jacket and get credit for it.REI has one of the best resale programs in the industry. They’re not doing it just to be cool. It actually fits the REI values and the way that they want to run their company. Same thing for Patagonia and many others. There are many examples of others around, doing things that fit with their values, and thinking about sustainability. I know that’s a wide answer, but I think that there’s an opportunity for every company to think about what sustainability means to them, and think about it across people, processes, technology, and other areas.

What does leadership mean to you?

I mentioned before that I’ve always been in a service industry or a service role, and I think that shaped my leadership style as well. I have had some amazing mentors, which I very much appreciate. And I encourage everyone to figure out who their mentors can be.

I have a service-oriented leadership style. If anyone’s ever studied this, it’s a sort of inverted triangle. Most organizations have a pyramid, right? Where you’ve got the board or the CEO at the top, and then you have senior management and then the next level of management, and then the senior army or the rest of the army, so to speak. Service leadership is where you flip that and you say, how can the leadership of this organization, the CEO, the senior management support the army, or the people that day in and day out are doing the work of the company?

Of course, everybody’s doing the work of the company, but I think this inverted service leadership style comes more naturally to me, and I gravitate toward people who work that way. It’s worked for me so far and I see that in organizations that have that kind of a leader, who really talks the talk and walks the walk, who every day thinks, how can I support my people? How can I enable my people? How can I clear the way for my people?

So when something goes wrong, I’m trying to figure out, how do I help? How do I either support someone else to undo or right the ship or adjust, because business is just about constantly adjusting, as opposed to how do I blame somebody or how do I pile on? I have really appreciated benefiting from that kind of leadership.

That’s probably why that’s my style. I wouldn’t say that it was a conscious decision. I just grew into it. I’m very lucky to have had leaders and mentors who led me down that way.

I think that there’s an opportunity for every company to think about what sustainability means to them, and think about it across people, processes, technology, and other areas.

What does creativity mean to you?

Creativity to me means thinking outside the box, breaking barriers, breaking stuff, and sometimes creating what it is that you wanna create. 

I mentioned earlier that I like building organizations and that’s where my creativity comes in. Others are creative around products or technology or around the expression. 

Art is a form of creative expression. We’re very lucky to live in a country where we have the freedom to creatively express ourselves, to blend that into our work, and to weave it into our ability to innovate and break barriers—regardless of the roles we play within the company.

The other part of creativity is the ability to experiment. It’s interesting—when we work with customers, sometimes we’re working with our clients and we’re looking at their P&L, or we’re helping with budgeting, sometimes we’ll say, take 5% and put it towards experimentation, knowing that most of that experimentation might fail, or 50% or 80% might fail. 

In doing so, you are experimenting. You might find something that works, but you will certainly learn from every success or failure about what to do next, or something about your company, your organization, or whatever it is that you’re experimenting with. 

So I think to be creative, you kind of have to have that experimentation mentality, but also have the space for it. So we hope that leaders do create that space for their people.

don’t ask, don’t get, and it couldn’t be more true. If you don’t ask for it, whether it’s asking for the award, for the budget, for approval, for that raise or promotion, then you’re not going to get it.

The Convrt Award is about authentic, independent recognition. Why do you think that’s important?

I like this award because of its independence and because it is not based on any sort of pay-to-play construct. I think in that way it makes it authentic.

I think it’s important to give recognition when recognition is due for two reasons.

One is that when people work hard and they achieve something, or they progress in the industry, it’s important to reward that because that creates an incentive for others to do the same thing.

The other is that it highlights a particular reason, progress, or achievement so that it becomes a standard in the industry. If we didn’t give awards for certain categories or certain awards in the Oscars and the Emmys, then we wouldn’t be setting a standard. In some ways, the criticism of those kinds of awards right now is that the awards did not keep up with what we want to value in our community.

I think that setting the bar, or creating that recognition, does create the bar for others.

What would you like to see from participants entering the awards? Any words of encouragement for entrants?

I would love to see the participants pushing those barriers, creating new opportunities, being experimental, or bringing something new to the industry. That’s probably what I would like to see and value more of in this space.

As far as advice goes—to the entrants or to really anybody in this industry—I say just go for it.

I often have this saying, don’t ask, don’t get, and it couldn’t be more true. If you don’t ask for it, whether it’s asking for the award, for the budget, for approval, for that raise or promotion, then you’re not going to get it.

Too often I see, especially amongst women more than men, that we don’t ask for it enough. I think nobody’s going to be bold for you in your career or for your company. You’ve gotta do that. So be bold, go forth, and be a rockstar.

A small image of two Convrt Awards side by side.
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