Target exec on how retail drives business and social impact

Women in retail

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are highlighting female leaders in the retail industry. From small business owners to CEOs, women are leading the way. 

Laysha Ward’s career with Target started more than two decades ago. As the executive vice president and chief external engagement officer at Target, Ward leads the company in its commitment to external relationships that drive business and positively impact the communities they serve.

We spoke with Ward about her career journey, how Target is transforming to meet consumer needs and where she finds inspiration. 

What drives your passion for retail?
I’m excited by the extraordinary ability of retail to create shared value, driving both business and social impact. As an industry, we have a unique opportunity to address and solve some of our greatest social issues. By bringing together leaders from across sectors, retail can be part of the solution. You can shop and save the planet at the same time. It’s a beautiful thing.

Laysha Ward (left) and Tory Burch were honored as Givers on The List of People Shaping Retail’s Future 2016.

Laysha Ward (left) and Tory Burch were honored as Givers on The List of People Shaping Retail’s Future 2016.

Can you tell us about your path to becoming an executive at Target?
I feel fortunate that my path at Target started 26 years ago working in a local store that we owned at the time called Marshall Fields. It was an amazing place to understand retail at the grassroots level and interact with guests — our customers — every single day. Over the years, I’ve used this guest-centric mindset to inform my work, even as our core guests have evolved.

My stores background has also helped me understand the unique role that the company plays as part of a broader ecosystem to help drive business, social and environmental impact. It’s all culminated in my current position, where I’m able to blend these areas of experience and think about how external stakeholder engagement helps us achieve our business and societal goals.

What exciting things can we expect to see from Target in the near future?
Target is reimagining what retail will look like in the future, and we’re already seeing some of that today. In this new era of retail, we’re investing to become more competitive and drive sustainable, long-term growth. We’re transforming Target into a smart network where stores, digital channels and supply chain will work in concert to deliver for our guests at every touchpoint — all while continuing our long-standing commitment to investing in our team members and communities to ensure they thrive along with our business.

Which female leaders inspire you?
Coretta Scott King, the wife of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a friend and mentor of mine until she passed away in 2006. Although she’s gone, she was a major influence on me as a leader and a human being. She influences and informs my thinking every day. I’ve also been inspired by the girls and women I’ve had the opportunity to meet through my work in communities around the world. Some of my most memorable and profound experiences have been the learnings from youth who have overcome incredible odds to achieve great things.

“Sometimes it’s better to stand out than fit in.”

Laysha Ward

What is the best career advice you have received?
To be purpose-driven. Your company has a purpose, its north star that drives everything it does. It’s equally important to reflect on your own personal purpose and ensure that it aligns with your company’s. It becomes a filter that helps you make decisions in your personal and professional life. I think this helps you be healthy, happy and have the most impact. I’d also say it’s important to be curious and a lifelong learner, to be humble and resilient enough to learn from your failures and move forward with wisdom.

What advice would you give to young women interested in careers in retail?
Retail is an exciting and dynamic business that’s transforming. If you like to solve challenging problems, create innovative solutions, work with wicked smart people and make a difference in the world, join us. While there are more women in retail than in many other fields, it’s an unfortunate reality that women still lag behind in key roles across industries.

Regardless of your business, there’s likely going to be a time when women will find themselves as the “only,” whether it’s the only woman, the only person of color, the only one from a rural or inner city background. My advice is to not let being an “only” make you feel uncomfortable or marginalized. See it as a point of strength and differentiation. Sometimes it’s better to stand out than fit in.

What is the last book you read that you would recommend?
I’m reading “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates for the second time, and I’m about to start “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance.