Leadership & Management

Sonia Syngal on Leading Gap Inc. through the Pandemic

The Gap Inc. CEO shares her insights on leadership and boldness in this View From The Top episode.

July 14, 2021

| by Kelsey Doyle

As the CEO of Gap Inc., Sonia Syngal’s brand is to create with audacity.

In this View From The Top conversation with Adriann Negreros, MBA ’21, Syngal discusses her career, from her start in the auto industry to her recent experience guiding a major retailer through the pandemic. “It’s like that Apollo 13 moment when you just have to get it done and the situation requires us to step into the leadership required,” she says. “That’s what happened and you have to believe that we’re all here for a reason.”

Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund. During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.

Full Transcript

Sonia Syngal: Know yourself, get your hands dirty. I mean, don’t be the student that is worried about creating the wealth. Get your hands dirty, get in the muck. It’s cliche but getting the mock and follow your passion and know that you can change the world. Watching others or helping others do it is not nearly as fun.

Adriann Negreros: That was Sonia Syngal, CEO of Gap Inc. I’m Adriann Negreros, an MBA students of the class of 2021. This year I had the pleasure of interviewing Syngal from her home office in San Francisco. She shared the story about how she climbed the career ladder and how you too can strive for the C suite. Along with fascinating insight on how Gap Inc. continues to revolutionize its business and democratize style. You’re listening to View From The Top, the podcast.

We are always so grateful to have alums back with us. Thanks for joining today.

Sonia Syngal: It’s good to be here Adriann. Nice Gap T-shirt too, thanks for that.

Adriann Negreros: Appreciate it. You know, Sonia, there’s a lot of my talk about, let’s just dive right in. Learning more about you and your family it became very clear to me you have their support forever. Your mom recognized your natural creativity, your design skill. Your father said Sonia, you can break any barrier out there in the male dominated corporate world. That sounds like a pretty unique upbringing to me. Could you tell us more about it?

Sonia Syngal: Sure. Listen, my passion for fashion started at a very young age. You’re right. I was 12 years old, I was five foot seven and 95 pounds and nothing fit. So for me, it was a necessity born of, or an invention born of necessity. We didn’t have a lot of money, I had to make my own clothes so that I felt good about what I wore. And my mother was amazing driving me around Montreal to any fabric store that I wanted and really enabled that creativity. In addition, one of the things I’m really grateful for her is she made sure that I could be highly functional in any room. And she insisted that, every weekend we socialize with her friends and family and other people that just happen to wander through our house. And it was an expectation that we would talk engage with adults from a very early age. And as I’ve walked into all the various scenarios this year that’s been quite helpful.

So for the, my father, really just expecting us to do, my sister, and I to reach whatever height we wanted and that really being the expectation to education, which is what brought me to Stanford.

Adriann Negreros: Incredible. I love that and I’m excited to talk about you socializing with people older than you. We’ll get back to that in just a second. So Sonia, for actually right now, I mean, Kettering University, right? That’s where you go to college. And it’s in Michigan — well known for the automobile CEOs that it produces and you start at Ford. And you’re 21 or so with your pencil in one hand and clipboard in the other, on the night shift, asked to evaluate the productivity of 50 to 60 year olds. So could you tell us about that?

Sonia Syngal: Yeah, whenever I think what was the hardest job I ever had to do. I think of that job. So this job is a piece of cake relative to that one. Union shift, union workers, midnight shift and my job was to make them more productive. Some, 21-year-old fresh engineer that really didn’t know a lot. And that was fine, you realize that connecting with humans at a human level laughing together is really the source of unlocking value. Did I discover any opportunities sure, maybe a little bit here and there, but relating to the the working people on the shift and then observing, very closely observing how work was done, was what made me successful in that moment and I didn’t get a lot of sleep, so it was midnight shift. So there’s that.

Adriann Negreros: And I think you’re right. You’ve called those the boiler room jobs before. I think it’s what we really learn a lot about ourselves.

Sonia Syngal: Yeah, and I think I’m a big fan of getting your hands dirty. And investing your personal time and your careers, where value is inherently created in this world. And so for me, I’ve always been drawn to that to making things, creating that value, observing that and to me tied to the making of things, watching product at scale happen in the auto industry was incredibly stimulating, exciting, so much complexity. And that was one of the many jobs that I did there.

Adriann Negreros: At this time, Sonia you also recognized, you can’t be what you can’t see. What do you mean by that and how did it maybe influence your decision to move out west?

Sonia Syngal: I think Kettering was an incredible education I had, as a co-op program for five years. I worked 10 different roles in the bowels of a large Fortune 500 company at the time. Ford was at its top in market cap in its history when there — so much to learn. But I stepped back and I looked up and the entire executive team were largely white, largely male. The entire board — same. And the calculus that I made was do I want to work through all that or do I wanna go to sunny California? I knew I wanna go to graduate school anyways. And so all the grad schools I applied to were up on the West Coast. And that’s how I ended up here with making that decision to move to the light.

Sonia Syngal: Sonia, you said you started at Stanford, of course the West Coast I think we have a picture to show everyone.

Sonia Syngal: Oh God.

Adriann Negreros: Okay with this? Could you tell us what’s happening here?

Sonia Syngal: Yeah, so this was one of the courses that we were taking and the objective here was a race around the quad. And we were in partner teams and we had to make this vehicle of using materials that were pre described. And whoever got their fastest around the quad won. So you can see me in the middle there with my partner on the left and we came in second so not quite satisfying. And I think it is a Gap sweater that I’m wearing in the ’90s. So there’s that, although my fashion sense there leaves something to be desired, but that was a fun moment. Again, engineering if you look around and what’s obvious is, continuing to work in a high male, 90% male dominated industry. Whether it was auto or tech was has always been a feature of my early professional time? And it was very forming as well. So an example of that here.

Adriann Negreros: Exactly, and Sonia, I also heard from your team, you met your husband on your very first day at Stanford. Is that true?

Sonia Syngal: I did. The best thing that came from Stanford was that I met my husband. You leave with this sort of complete freedom to believe anything’s possible, but let’s start with my husband cause that’s hands down the best. We met at the welcome picnic the night before. And I showed up with my pencils all sharpened and my schedule all laid out and all ready to go quite organized. And he showed up, having flown in from traveling and tracking around the world for the last four months, with a goatee and his Birkenstocks and literally had flown in the night before. So quite different, but I guess opposites attract and really where we connected was I mean, certainly all over campus, but our shared values. I think we really discovered how similar we were in that, in one of our classes, ambidextrous thinking, which was a fun class at the time.

Adriann Negreros: It’s incredible, and to all the students listening: love is out there. Be patient, be kind it might just happen on the Stanford campus.

Sonia Syngal: And as my mother tells me the most important thing, the most important decision you make is who you partner with. So, I consider that my ultimate Stanford success.

Adriann Negreros: Absolutely, completely agree. So, Sonia, you’ve been on the West Coast for a while now. You’re at a decade with Sun Microsystems and then join Gap Inc. Let’s do it. Let’s talk about Gap Inc. for a little bit. It’s close to home right? It started in 1969 when Dawn and Doris Fisher are selling Levi’s jeans and records and thus Dan says let’s call this company Pants and Discs. I think that’s super fun in 2021. What are your thoughts on you?

Sonia Syngal: Well, let me get to that. But I will say when I was at Stanford graduating, I attended a View From The Top and heard Scott McNealy speak, and I joined Sun Microsystems for a decade because of that. And it was a wonderful decade for me. I’m motivated by his inspiration and for me really what that taught me was think big, really think big you know. But then, when I joined Gap very deliberate for me going back to what really turns me on personally, and what do I really connect with and fashion at scale was something that was right. And then, as you said, the early years at GAP what a legacy that I have to honor right? And Don and Doris at the beginning founded this company. In 1969, they each put in $21,000 of their respective money. And thank God Doris took over the naming of the company ’cause Pants and Discs versus it started as the Generation Gap and then truncated to the Gap. Was really much more compelling and captured the zeitgeist at the moment which Doris did.

Adriann Negreros: Gotcha, so Pants and Discs this isn’t coming anytime soon?

Sonia Syngal: We can sell pants and we can play music. You don’t have to call it that.

Adriann Negreros: Gotcha. Makes sense. So Sonia, your first role at Gap Inc. was for Old Navy or not your personal but your most recent role rather was for Old Navy and as Dean Levin said, you did an incredible job there growing the business from $7 to $8 billion. Their motto starts with imagine that the world runs right, how did you help Old Navy run right?

Sonia Syngal: So, I think Old Navy plays a special part in people’s lives and it’s a brand that was begun to give a respectful and aspirational environment and clothing as a result where there was no compromise for the value sector. Before then you could only shop for your clothes and a K-mart or what have you and my husband used to tell me like when he was young, his mother used to have to drag him there and he was so embarrassed by having to wear those clothes to school. And the whole objective of Old Navy was pride and respect for these, our families. And that’s what imagined the world runs right is it’s everyone feeling included everyone feeling welcome. And taking Old Navy from $7 billion to $8 billion was sharpening our focus on that differentiation. Making sure that came through in the branding, in the products that we offered, and being relentless in no compromise around fashion, around the front of the brand, the family, essence of the brand, and the value that that brand created. So I stepped back and looked around and I felt like okay, our strength at the core needed a little bit more focus. So we did that. And then we have the ability to grow the brand through expansion, both digital and stores that we did while I was there.

Adriann Negreros: So about kind of sharpening some of the points around Old Navy inclusivity for one Gap was founded to do more than sell clothes, right?

Sonia Syngal: Yes.

Adriann Negreros: It’s kind of in your DNA to create for all and be created by all to design for all and be designed by all. You said in previous interviews you don’t want the Gap Inc. legacy to be a flash in the pan moment. You want to really embrace inclusivity and live it every day. Now CEO of all the brands, how do you think about making sure that happens?

Sonia Syngal: Yeah, for all of the assets and the values that we’ve had as a company, we also were a company that needs radical change so that we can take on the next 50 years on it with an acceleration towards growth. And as I reflect on the past 50 years, and thinking about the next 50 at this juncture, that’s really what I think about. And while we had all these attributes, we had great founders, great legacy, great values, great brands. We didn’t have that singular clarity of why this company exists.

So the work that I did in the first year in addition to losing 70% of my revenue and at the height of the crisis and burning 140 million of cash a week in those early years in those early days was declare: Why do we exist? What is our company purpose? And so as a team we landed on that, we landed on we are inclusive by design as our North Star we articulated that and that’s given us a great business focus, great, great business focus to make our decisions and whether they’re small decisions or big decisions. So great legacies need a clear articulation, which we did.

Adriann Negreros: Absolutely. And I think looking at your leadership team, right? Eight out of 12 of women, people of color represented, to me kind of thinking about the four days of you can’t be what you can’t see seems like you’re executing it right now at GAP Inc.

Sonia Syngal: Well, part of it is just good business sense. I mean, we wanna reflect customers. Our customers are 75% female. We reflect the diversity of America and we want to have that empathy and that understanding and that diversity of thought such that we can best service our customers. So to me, I’m looking for that different points of view, but in reflection of who we’re serving our customers was an important step for us to take.

Adriann Negreros: Personally, I really appreciate that Sonia, I think a lot of companies and organizations want to do that. Again, it’s so cool to see GAP Inc. execute. I wanna talk about something you kinda mentioned about looking 50 years forward. You’ve talked about risk-taking a lot. We had Satya Nadella with us last year for me from the top and his party and advice for the MBA students was to be bold and to be right. If you’re not bold, nothing cool will get done. And he said if you are not right, you’re not gonna be around too long to see anything happen, period. So where is Gap being the boldest and hopefully, right?

Sonia Syngal: And so I talked about why we exist as a company. You guys have all taken the class, I’m sure around culture eats strategy for lunch, right? So the most important thing is defining your cultural tenants for a company. The number one one we’ve said is we stake our future on is create with audacity. So creating with a destiny is really to signal this idea of boldness, this idea of taking risks and so, to me, that’s gonna be a big part of our next chapter and you’re seeing that in some of our decisions as we navigate and move to acceleration.

Adriann Negreros: Absolutely. Could you tell us more, Sonia, about some of the new initiatives, the partnerships, the franchise agreements, and how perhaps those decisions may have not happened just a few years ago.

Sonia Syngal: Yeah, listen, I think at our core, we’re best when we’re at the zeitgeist of culture. It’s a little bit back to where the company was founded, right? We captured this generational divide that was happening in the late 60s. And anchor the company on that, it’s no different today.

We are at our best. When we are at this intersection of culture and with the right products and services. So as we thought about this moment in time and the partnerships, and the people whether it’s a partnership with easy or a partnership with the largest licensing company. That is part of our calculus is that’s gonna feed our create with audacity, it’s gonna extend the reach of these brands that are known and loved and are woven into American fabric. And it’s gonna allow us to expand on both of those dimensions.

Adriann Negreros: Super exciting, I think all of us consumers can’t wait to see what we can purchase in the next few years at the Gap Inc. stores. Let’s talk a little bit about mentorship and leadership Sonia. So firstly, on mentorship, I think we have a photo again, this one isn’t from 1995, I think it’s more recent.

Sonia Syngal: Yes.

Adriann Negreros: This is you and Doris, right?

Sonia Syngal: Yeah, so that’s Doris and I. That’s Doris, one of our cofounders. And aren’t we fortunate to have Doris who also studied at Stanford, got her Economics degree in 1953. She started this company and was very involved in … I like to describe Doris as the heart of this company.

Not only was she smart enough to name it, right, and we’re back first head merchant, but she is a woman who always spoke her mind. And that’s what we all remember about her in addition to the fact that she was a mother, an activist, a philanthropist. And put everyone ahead of herself, but always spoke her mind. So she’s a great role model for me personally, and for all of us and we all stand on the shoulders of those that came prior. And she’s one of many that I look to for inspiration.

Adriann Negreros: Incredible, Sonia I’d love to hear more about mentorship I guess broadly as well. So have you thought about finding mentors throughout your career, and maybe even today transitioning to being a mentor for others?

Sonia Syngal: For me, it’s always been about what do I need to learn? What do I need to learn where in my head and there’s always things to learn? The mentors I have right now are incredible and I’ll always be seeking them out. Your first and most important mentor is your direct boss. And people underestimate that. That’s a very important relationship to fully activate. I’ve gotten so much value over the course of my career from the direct boss relationship. And then of course, there’s mentors that all want to help. People are really very, very helpful.

So, personally I’ve reached out to Scott and I, he’s been very helpful, Scott McNealy, who was the CEO of my prior company helping me right now, as I think about the work that I’m undertaking the chairman of the board. I’ve got a mentor that I met with the Catalyst organization, which is an organization that’s really about accelerating women in leadership and I met her 10 years ago and really wanted to choose her because she had complimentary skills to what I had. And she was a marketing expert. I didn’t have as much of that. So those are examples of how I’ve chosen mentors, and then how I choose the people that I mentor. It’s a tough one. I mean, I think that I’m personally drawn to mentees that have a lot of fire and a lot of ambition and that perhaps I can help guide and accelerate that. But to me I don’t like people that are whiners, I really have very low tolerance for that. So I tend to choose people that can help themselves. That I can then hopefully give a helping hand to.

Adriann Negreros: For sure and I think certainly you mentioned something that I think a lot of us think about a lot at Stanford. Feeling uncomfortable asking for help and then maybe feeling like you’re invading on someone’s time. But to what you just described, you can always get it back later and people they want to help, right?

Sonia Syngal: Everyone wants to help. It’s really you knowing yourself to know where your gaps are, and to choose mentors that can help you accelerate that gap. And then it becomes a very symbiotic relationship. I’ve always found that I give as much as I get on both sides of that relationship.

Adriann Negreros: It’s wonderful advice. Sonia I wanna close by talking a little bit about leadership. Over this past year maybe more than any other CEO in the world you had quite a unique situation. You’re named CEO of Gap Inc. late March of last year, all your stores then closed down as you mentioned before. Could you take us through those early moments those first few days? What were you thinking? How did you lead this company?

Sonia Syngal: Yeah, I’m probably gonna have PTSD around it, Adriann at some point, but I will tell you in that moment being named and then 48 hours having to take 10,000 headquarters employees to shelter in place and then 48 hours after that how to defer low 100,000 employees. And losing 70% of our revenue realizing we had seven weeks, eight weeks of cash at the burn rate base because of our fixed infrastructure. But when I stepped back and maybe in that moment of crisis everything becomes super clear. It’s like that Apollo 13 moment when you just have to get it done and the situation requires us to step into the leadership required. And so that’s what happened and you have to believe that we’re all here for a reason I was in that role at that time to lead.

And how to feel confident that the training and my life had made me ready for that. And humans are very, very capable. They really are. And so just confidence and belief and focused on the work was what got me through those early days and then we quickly pivoted. We got the largest bond offering in the history of retail because everyone recognizes the value of the power of these brands. And as soon as we secured our liquidity we quickly pivoted to offense and have not looked back and declared our strategy, our power strategy, and our growth strategy and we’re off to the races.

So now I’m having a lot of fun and everyday is fun and everyday is full of challenges. But I’m thankful that all of the experiences that I’ve had over the course of my journey has prepared me as best as anyone can be prepared.

Adriann Negreros: Incredible, I’m glad you’re having fun now. I just saw your Generation Good campaign yesterday. That sounds incredible, super exciting. So glad we’re back on the offense at Gap Inc,

Sonia Syngal: Yeah, listen, it’s an incredibly fun company and why did I choose Gap Inc.? For me the impact … first of all, the fashion industry puta more food on the table of families around the world than any other industry other than the food industry. A lot of people don’t know that. So for every job I have 15 jobs come with it around the world and that’s one and then the other it is highly technical 1,500 engineers it’s highly — creative 2,000 artists and designers. There’s workers in 30 countries around the world — we sell in 93 countries.

So the complexity and the impact and all of these different kinds of people is amazing and then also it’s just fun and cool, like if anyone had told me that I’d be meeting with President Trump and Kanye within a four day period to transact deals. I don’t think I would have believed it or what have you, but it just happens to be again back at the intersection of what’s relevant today. So yeah, it is a lot of fun in the daily basis, thanks, Adriann.

Adriann Negreros: You mentioned President Trump, Kanye I almost want to ask about the conversations, but I won’t. I’ll let my my classmates continue this discussion. Sonia we have a couple questions from the audience.

Student #1: I wanted to ask you how you navigate being considered an over represented minority while also being the only female South Asian fortune 500 CEO?

Sonia Syngal: Yeah, I really struggled with it at the beginning, I didn’t want to be known as the minority female CEO, right and I was sort of adamant about that. But it is inevitable because that is what I am and there’s not many of us. In fact, there’s not as you point out well, there’s a couple, but I guess and by the way, I’m no longer trending.

We had the, Rosalyn Brewer is now the new one so it’s great now people can just evaluate me based on my results which is what I would like. So I guess I moved into ease with it over the year, started out sort of not wanting that to be the determinant realizing though that it also is an opportunity to inspire the next generation and really, for me, though, my ultimate sense of self and sense of success is gonna be winning. I’m motivated by winning. I’m really motivated by winning. And so the benefit of that is I get to stay in this job longer. And I get to role model, hopefully, the next generation longer.

Student #2: Hi, Sonia, thank you for being here today and thank you for giving us this little window and some of the challenges you faced over the last year. Question for you is how do you envision the future of retail in a post COVID or the physical retail stores in a post COVID world?

Sonia Syngal: I think physical is really important, humans are five dimension, we’ve got five senses and I would argue six senses. We’ve got the obvious five senses, and then we have the heart, which is our sixth sense, what we feel. And retails, I mean, apparel in my sector, but in general retail large largely transacted 80% in a physical environment. So sales are generated primarily in the physical environment. Now, that physical environment has to be relevant. It has to be differentiated. I mean we’ve got the next generation that pretty much only transacts on their iPhones, yet they crave experiences, right, and they will go to one experiences. So the obligation on us is to create those experiences that are relevant, that’s gonna change all the time. I think if we can do that and we will, it maintains this premise that humans go through the world, the physical, world physical, human beings. That interface is really, really important, it’s incumbent on us to make it good.

Student #2: Thank you.

Adriann Negreros: I think there’s something exciting Sonia about the physical store still. I always get excited when I walk into a GAP store. I probably never leave without buying something. So, as a consumer, I think we’re all excited to see what kind of changes moving forward in that experience.

Sonia Syngal: Thanks, Adriann. Yeah, in 86% of apparel purchases are emotional purchases. So, what you just expressed is how I make my money for this company and I appreciate that please go shop in more stores. We need the revenue.

Adriann Negreros: This is why I have too many black sweaters.

Sonia Syngal: You can never have too many. You’ve seen my closet.

Adriann Negreros: I wanna close with our lightning round on View From The Top, it’s a tradition. Are you ready for it?

Sonia Syngal: I think so.

Adriann Negreros: Okay, so best date spot on the Stanford campus?

Sonia Syngal: Oh gosh, I did the Dutch Goose. I don’t know if it’s still there, but that’s where we had many drinks, when we were there.

Adriann Negreros: Got it perfect. Your favorite or best new quarantine hobby slash skill?

Sonia Syngal: Cooking. I mean, I think I really have embraced cooking. I hadn’t done much of that in recent times, but it’s very therapeutic and enjoying it.

Adriann Negreros: I completely agree. Sonia, could you tell us the best piece of advice to leave the Stanford community?

Sonia Syngal: Know yourself, know yourself, get your hands dirty, I mean, don’t be the student that is worried about creating the wealth, get your hands dirty, get in the muck. And, it’s cliche, but get in the muck and follow your passion and know that you can change the world. Watching others or helping others do it is not nearly as fun.

Adriann Negreros: Agree. Sonia, the last one is very easy, none of this open ended situation so I’m gonna give you some options okay. So the best brand: Banana Republic, Old Navy, Gap, or Athleta.

Sonia Syngal: Boy, it’s like asking me to choose between my children. Here’s the way I would answer it. There’s four characters and set in the city, as a woman, we all relate to all of them at any one given time. So I have this theory that we’re all those four women and so it’s the same with these brands. We all affiliate with these incredible brands, sometimes your Banana republic, my mode when you’re interviewing sometimes, you wanna go feel free and you buy that hoodie from Gap. And sometimes you take your family for their kids’ clothes to Old Navy and sometimes you gotta really win on the workout field and you put on Athleta, we’re all are important.

Adriann Negreros: For sure they’re all incredible brands. Sonia, thank you so much for joining. We can’t wait to see what happens at Gap Inc. over the next few years under your leadership.

Sonia Syngal: Thanks again.

Adriann Negreros: You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Adriann Negreros of the MBA class of 2021. Lily Sloan composed our theme music and Kelsey Doyle produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website www.gsb.stanford.edu, follow us on social media @StanfordGSB.

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