After a high-G-force ride to the role as director of global strategy for Nike’s multibillion-dollar retail arm, Portland native Ian McMilan enrolled as a Sloan Fellow in Stanford’s one-year MSx Program. Now 32, the former Division I football player for Princeton University and the University of Washington arrived on campus with an open mind, a creative spirit, and longtime dream to become a part of Stanford’s entrepreneurial community.
So why back-burner an apparently flourishing career to seek more education?
It boiled down to a couple of things. When I was 11, my Dad drove me through the Stanford campus. We walked around and I saw all the palm trees and all the grass, and there was this outdoor swimming pool, and I thought, “This is heaven.” And he said, “You could come here if you want — but you have to work your ass off.” I actually wrote a letter to the Stanford president telling him not to forget about me because in seven years I was going to be graduating from high school.
Did you get an answer?
I did. He said to make sure I got good grades and wished me luck. So that was my first exposure to Stanford. This was my dream school, and I had been recruited by head coach Buddy Teevens to come here for football, but he unfortunately got fired. They brought in a guy who I had no relationship with, so my recruitment died. I ended up playing for Princeton and the University of Washington.
Then you launched into your career.
But I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to come to Stanford. In high school I had become a huge fan of Phil Knight, who grew up just a couple of miles from where I grew up. Stanford is where he’d incubated his idea for Nike. It just felt like one of those places where if you’re lucky enough to get in, you have to come because it will change your life.
Any particular personal values that propelled you along that path?
One value is to always be learning, and that means not always doing things that are linear or make sense. I knew coming here would change my life. This year at Stanford improved my leadership capabilities, my confidence, and exposed me to so many new ideas, people, and professors. This year surpassed all of my expectations. Coming back to business school in my 30s probably was not the best financial decision in the short term, but I don’t think about life as this linear thing. I’m really into being present and living in the moment, and I think the experience is the experience.
That might be the most Portland thing anyone has ever said.
My parents are the most classic Portland couple you’ll ever meet. My dad was in the Peace Corps and worked as a public defender. My mom was in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and works in nonprofits. They’re such a foundational part of who I am, and I just want to live up to their standards of kindness and joy, and putting others first, and appreciation for life. I was encouraged from an early age to chase my passions, and one of those passions was storytelling. I love writing. I love acting. I love producing content. What makes Nike so special to me is its storytelling capabilities and its ability to connect with people on an emotional level.
Is part of that because the kind of flagship stores you helped bring to life at Nike are becoming less viable in the age of online retailing?
No, they’re still viable. People are still craving real-life experiences, and if you can create something that draws people in and makes them feel something, then there’s always going to be space for you on the street and in their minds and in their hearts. You can come into one of our stores and fully customize a pair of shoes, from colors to your initials to whatever you want, and that gives people a memory and something to take home. So I believe in the viability of stores for specific brands.
You once wrote, “There’s so much unused capacity in retail." What did you mean by that?
For example, in-store associates are so much more dynamic than brands give them credit for. To assume that all they can do is fold shirts, put boxes in the back, and greet people warmly underutilizes a lot of their talents. I believe the future of retail is being the hub of a brand for people in a city, even when they’re not in the store. People literally text us pictures of some stranger’s shoes under a restaurant table asking, “Hey, what shoes are these?” And our in-store associates will respond and text them a link to purchase the shoes.
Are there other tools besides texting that are effective?
Social media has been a really effective tool. A lot of the smaller brands are using Instagram as a customer relationship management tool, meaning people sign up to follow the store. That’s a great way for brands to directly target those consumers to let them know about sales or special events. Social media is a great tool that all in-store associates should be using on behalf of the brand to spread messaging.
Can’t things go horribly wrong when sales associates have free rein to post content?
If you trust these humans to be brand ambassadors to represent your brand every day in real life, then you should trust them enough to publish a picture or short video on behalf of the brand. For sure there are going to be instances when someone crosses the line or says something inappropriate, but that’s life. The risk of that happening is so much less than the reward. Plus, it’s an easy solve. You just give publishing rights to the manager of the store, so that they have to approve everything before it goes out.
You once described watching two young women bluff their way into a hotel pool to do one of those contrived “influencer” photo shoots. Can something that staged and manipulative really work?
What I was trying to say with that example is that what they did to create compelling content was easy. A lot of brands get caught up in the old model of paying for an agency, hiring a creative director, flying to some remote island with models to shoot this concept that will live for one week, or in one store for one season. That doesn’t make sense. If these two women can talk their way into a pool at a hotel in L.A. with some fake props and shoot content, then your brand can do it, too. It doesn’t have to be so hard. Brands should be more creative in how they think about creating content. Scrappy is often more authentic.
What’s your ultimate takeaway from Stanford’s MSx Program?
It has given me the confidence to see people who have been successful and to think that I could be, too. Access to experts is another. Failure before Stanford felt pretty bleak. But failure after Stanford feels like a restart, that the bottom is not as deep. The community here puts a huge emphasis on supporting each other, and that to me is the most awesome part. I’ve never once felt like I’m in competition with anyone. It’s like, “What’s your dream and how can I help you?”
Did you learn anything about business while playing football?
So much of the way I live is predicated on the lessons I learned through football. There’s just this general obsession with progress, with never being satisfied, but having fun in the struggle. And working with teams. I have so much more fun working with and around other people, and I love motivating and being motivated by others.