Episode 190: Sarah Willersdorf, Managing Director and Partner, Global Head of Luxury of Boston Consulting Group

Aspiring fashion designer, turned film director, turned business-woman, Sarah Willersdorf shares with me her challenges being a full-time mother and employee, as well as adapting to life post-COVID. She also helps to define what luxury goods really means in today’s age of democratized beauty. Have a listen!

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey buddy, it's Jodi Katz, your host and Where Brains Meet Beauty® podcast. This week's episode features Sarah Willersdorf. She's a Managing Director and Partner at Boston Consulting Group. And if you miss last week's episode, it featured Joan Sutton. She is the CEO and founding partner of 707 Flora. Thanks for tuning in.
Carey ChanningHey everybody. Welcome back to the show. Oh wait, this isn't Jody. You're probably expecting Jodie's voice. So let me introduce myself. My name is Carey Channing. I am the producer here at Where Brains Meet Beauty and I'm typically behind the scenes, but today Jodi has pulled me on the podcast and I'm super excited to be here.
Jodi KatzCarey, I'm so happy that I'm not all alone anymore.
Carey ChanningSo Jodi knows, but I'll tell our listeners, this is the second time that I have podcasted. And the first time she tricked me into being on the podcast. So this one was more pre-planned, but I don't have quite the hosting chops as Jody, but I'm here and I'm excited. And we want to give you a little intro to welcome you to this episode because there's more to talk about.
Jodi KatzOkay. But before we talk about Sarah, who's my amazing guest, let's talk about you because it's been a really long time since you've been on the show. So our listeners need to know that you're very talented and you're a very accomplished dancer. And if anyone out there is a marvelous Mrs. Maisel fan, that means you've seen Carey and dance on the show.
Carey ChanningYes, guilty. And Jodi is always the most supportive and it's really fun because I get to have many different hats. And there are lots of skills that come from being a dancer and that kind of discipline that trickle into helping with a creative agency and run a podcast. And I think that all of our guests really do prove that as well. Like for instance, Sarah, this episode that you're about to listen to, her answer to what did you want to be when you were a kid? She wanted to be a fashion designer first. Then she wanted to be a film director. Then she got into business. And then as you'll know, by listening to the episode, she landed on being a consultant for luxury goods. So the career path, that's not linear, sometimes works itself out at the end and becomes that much more rich.
Jodi KatzSo what I love about Sarah, and I'm a super fan of LinkedIn, is that I met her via LinkedIn. And you know I used to poopoo LinkedIn and think it was super annoying, but it's where my people are. Our podcast listeners are active on LinkedIn and our industry is active on LinkedIn. So I just met her by randomly connecting with her one day, which I think is so cool.
Carey ChanningDo you happen to remember what drew you to wanting to link up?
Jodi KatzYeah, because I'm so fascinated by that role of a consulting group and I'm super fascinated by people on the finance side of this industry. And it's not a career that I ever imagined for myself, but I think I missed my calling a little bit. So I'm career curious.
Carey ChanningDo you feel like there's a bit of mystery there, consultant is such a wide, vague term, is that where your curiosity comes from?
Jodi KatzWell, I think at Base Beauty, in many ways we're consultants. We just don't market ourselves that way. But I just love the fact that Sarah's clients go the longterm with her and her team. They're there for the long haul to be able to grow the business. And they look to her and her team for the guidance and advice because it's impossible to do this stuff alone. You really do need other partners. So I love those long-term relationships, that's what I strive for at my agency as well. And Boston Consulting Group's huge, so it's just so great to meet someone who's on the team. And as a reminder to myself as I am a recovering perfectionist and someone who's been troubled by self-doubt, the people on the inside of these organizations are just like you and me. She has her kids at home and she makes them dinner and goes to the gym just like me. And she's not a robot, she's a human being.
Carey ChanningIt's funny you say that. In the episode, Sarah really does emphasize the importance of the relationships and the people. And I guess that goes hand in hand with consulting and how she's had the same clients for many, many years.
Jodi KatzWell, should we let our listeners get to know Sarah now?
Carey ChanningLet's roll episode 190. Enjoy.
Jodi KatzHey everybody. I am so excited to be here with Sarah Willersdorf. She is a managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group. And her focus is global head of luxury. Sarah, welcome to the show.
Sarah WillersdorfThank you, excited to be here.
Jodi KatzSo Sarah, I'm going to start with my favorite question. When you were a kid and someone asked you, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" what was your answer?
Sarah WillersdorfYeah, it's funny, I actually think it depends on probably what age you asked me. And as context, I grew up in Australia, so I live in New York city now, but did not grow up in New York City. So I think from about eight years old, til probably 12, if you'd asked me that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I would sketch out designs, I would sew and bedazzle, I don't know if you remember what bedazzling was, but bedazzle for my dolls and toys. And I think we had pound puppies back then, probably a lot of your audience don't even know what they are. And so I was very focused on that. And if you could imagine, I'm a child of the generation who watched Heathers and 90210, and Star Wars. And so you can only imagine the fashions that we came up with.

And then I think in my teens, I actually spent a number of years wanting to be a film director. And it was a time when I think there were a couple of really prominent female directors becoming more notorious. So if I think about Jane Campion, I think about Nancy Meyers some of these people, I actually loved that they were women dominating in predominantly male industries and just great storytellers. And I always loved the notion of hearing stories, telling stories. And then obviously I moved very far away from both of them, maybe not the first, but I moved quite far away from both of those things. And I think towards the end of probably high school, I started thinking more about business and I know business is such an old encompassing term, but my father was a huge advocate of girls having really strong math and science educations.

And so he would focus me quite heavily on math and science and they were strong suits for me. So I think it was only in the later years that I started thinking about things that were maybe a bit more business savvy, but certainly when I was a kid, that was not what I was thinking of.
Jodi KatzWell, we must be around the same age because bedazzled was, everything was bedazzled. I had my own bedazzler, I bought bedazzled clothes that were pre bedazzled. I think my mom bedazzled things for me that weren't ever intended to have rhinestones on them. And for anyone who has no idea what we're talking about, there was a device that you could buy, you can buy loose rhinestones and this stamp almost, stapler stamp that has the rhinestone closures, I guess. And you would put the closure on the bottom of the apparel, the rhinestone on top and you'd squeeze it together, and it would basically staple almost the rhinestone to your apparel. So that was very important. And 90210 was so important to me, Sarah. This is my everything. This show is my social life. It was my entertainment. It was incredible.
Sarah WillersdorfI know, but it's really sad, very sad for lots of reasons. When Luke Perry passed away, I was talking to my team. We were at a dinner pre COVID and I was talking, I was like, "Guys, I can't believe Luke Perry." And someone's like, "Who is it?" And I said, "It's from Beverly Hills 90210." And they're like, "Izzy?" And then another kid's like, "Oh no, I know who it is. It's the dad. It's the dad from Riverdale." I was like, "What?" I was like, "Does no one know?" I made everyone watch the difference between Jason Priestley's role, Luke Perry's role to try. And they still were looking at me like, "Oh my God." And that was the day I realized, "Wow, I'm old now."
Jodi KatzWell, I love that show because I actually do use it as a point of reference for my personal style. So Jennie Garth's character with the little floral dresses, a little jacket on top, and the combat boots and the socks. That to me is the best. That's what I aspire to be on a daily basis. And I don't feel like it's dated, I feel like it's actually completely relevant still
Sarah WillersdorfYeah. You get old enough, everything comes back is what I've learnt.
Jodi KatzAlthough you're not supposed to wear it again if you were there for the first time. That's an old rule, but times are changing. So I want to talk to you about our industry because, this podcast is such a way for me to connect with people. And thankfully I have this during this pandemic time period where we're not together and I've been going to events, the virtual events in our industry, and I'm curious, are these still important to you? I saw emails like Women's Wear Daily is coming up in May. PCPC is coming up in May. Are these things that are still important in your networking toolbox?
Sarah WillersdorfYeah, I think it's tricky, there are pros and cons. So we have also done a lot of virtual events and I've spoken at a lot of virtual events. I honestly think there are some events that you want to have in person, because actually what the beauty of those events is the ability to network and collaborate and have side conversations as you know, the most important conversations are not always happening in the plenary, they're happening on the side. So I would expect that people were anxious to get back to some of the in-person. Having said that, I think pre COVID we had too many of these events. There were too many. We don't need to have as many as that. So I hope post COVID, that it becomes more a blend and the big important ones become more meaningful because you're connecting and collaborating and doing business at the same time.

And maybe some of the smaller ones where we don't need to travel, can remain on virtual on Zoom or whatever forum. I also think there is something nice about the ability to record these things and know that they can be on demand and viewed by people. I think it's made a lot of the information a lot more democratic, and so it's not just the senior people shipping off to these conferences, it's actually everyone in your organization can hear and be a part of it, which I actually think is something that I hope stays.
Jodi KatzI love that insight because I was just thinking to myself, I signed up for the Women's Wear Daily virtual event, which is next month. And I think it was, because I'm a supplier, don't forget I'm a vendor because I'm an agency, I'm not a brand, so the pricing is different. So it was $399 for me to attend this virtual event. But if I went to the real in life person, it's $3,000, $4,000 for me to attend. So having these things virtual, number one, it's a no brainer, of course I'll attend it virtual, the cost-savings versus real life is amazing. But it opens the door to other people attending and participating and learning from that information. It makes it less, what I'd say, less elitist. A little bit more relevant to the way that we all want to move through business right now, which is more friendly, more open, more collaborative.

So maybe we'll end up in a hybrid. So maybe next year let's say, Women's Wear Daily event will take place in person and you and I will sit down and have lunch together or a muffin next to each other, but that is also available for people who don't want to be in that city at that time, and they can pay a rate to watch the content as well. So maybe we'll move into a hybrid.
Sarah WillersdorfIt will absolutely be hybrid. It will absolutely be hybrid for sure. And I think that's probably a healthier outcome honestly, versus where we were before.
Jodi KatzSo, I'm not in the consulting world and I've never had a job at a place like Boston Consulting Group, so I don't even know what day to day is like for you. Right now it's 1:23pm in the afternoon, so tell me what the morning's like, the afternoon's like. I want to understand a typical day in your role.
Sarah WillersdorfWell, my day, it is about my role, but I'm also a mum, so it's probably those two things. And so if I take today, I have to get up pretty early to get ahead of my family. So I typically get up pretty early. I try and work out and then I actually already do an email clear in the morning to make sure nothing urgent has transpired. I work across Asia and Europe as well, so sometimes there are things that are coming in over the night. I find my boys wake up around seven, so from 7:00pm until 8:00pm is feeding people and dressing people and finding lost masks, lost sweaters, all those things. And then after, I try and drop my boys at school most days they're at school in person, thankfully. Unless there's something really important. And then after that, at the moment, I'm honestly on a barrage of Zoom calls as we all are. But mine, it's a mix of Zoom calls with clients and also with my teams.

And at the moment I actually find it's almost like back to back Zoom all day long with virtually no breaks. But we work on projects for clients, most of our clients are either big brands or retailers. Typically they're fairly urgent or high-profile projects so the deadlines are fairly intense. And then I probably spend about 25% of my time doing due diligence for either private equity or strategic buyers. So in those scenarios, we are doing a lot of consumer research market studies on smaller brands. And so across those, most times I'd have a few, anywhere from three to five teams doing different things. And then as well as that, because of some of my internal roles, I'll have a number of internal meetings where we're talking about what's our intellectual property. We do some collaborations on research with some different partners, so I'll have conversations with them. But I feel like in a normal day, I could tell you, I'm flying here, I'm meeting there. And right now it's really like back to back Zooms from the morning until the evening, really.
Jodi KatzDo you miss the travel?
Sarah WillersdorfI don't miss the travel. I always tried to manage my travel because I try to be a pretty hands-on mum. But I think it got to an unhealthy notion where we would be flying for very short meetings, long distances. And I do think some of that is not going to come back. And I think going forward, we will still travel, but I think it'll be much more thoughtful. And it'll be about picking a week where you're somewhere and having all your meetings instead of ad hoc long haul travel. I miss traveling in life, but not for work. No. Having said that, I do think for long workshops, if you're doing a workshop with a senior leadership team that's four or five hours, Zoom is exhausting. And I do think for some of those longer meetings, we're much better collaborators in person.
Jodi KatzAnd you are, I guess probably similar to me where sometimes you're at the demand of the client.
Sarah WillersdorfAlways.
Jodi KatzSo let's role play what we say to a client when they're asking us to come for a meeting that could be done over the phone, post COVID. And we say, "You know what? This is not going to be a good use of anybody's time and resources." "Hey, come to this meeting, it will be an hour, and I need you to fly six to get here." What do you say to reassure them that the work can be done?
Sarah WillersdorfPre COVID even, if it was a less than two hour meeting, I would often try to point out it's expensive, it's not sustainable, you don't really need me there, there's other people who can be there. I just think, especially in luxury and fashion as an industry, Zoom and those things were not as well used it, it was a much more in-person culture. I've seen that change now. I feel most of my clients are very savvy on Zoom now, they're used to it. So I really think that for, unless it's a big all day workshop or you're meeting someone for the first time, which I also think is a little better to do in person, I think you'll see a lot more continue in Zoom for sure. Or Teams. I think you're either a Teams or a Zoom person.
Jodi KatzRight. I am personally a Zoom person, I get very nervous when I'm invited to these other platforms. I feel like I'm going to press the wrong button and mess something up. But yeah, I love doing kickoff meetings in person and I love going to the client's office for that, so that I can feel their vibe, their culture, see their people. I love that, so I want to pick that up again and then yeah, workshops, maybe take something that would have been four hours, but find other ways to use time together and make it two days, make it even more meaningful. That to me is super exciting. And then I guess that's probably all we really need to be in person for.

Now if we shoot content, the client could be remote and watch via remote and give feedback. I feel like there's no need for them to get on a plane for that. Some of these things are going to be more personality driven. Like, "Oh, I want to meet the superstar that's in our commercial." "Okay, well then you're going to come to this shoot," because that's just a personal thing. That's just to check a box because it's fun. But yeah, hopefully we'll all be able to manage our time a little more reasonably.
Sarah WillersdorfYeah, I do think it's difficult to build a rapport with someone, not in person. It's not impossible, but to start a relationship from scratch only on a computer screen, I really think it's tough. So I do think some of the travel will come back.
Jodi KatzSo you've been at Boston Consulting Group for 15 years, which is a really long time. I feel like in our business to be anywhere from more than two years, it seems like a long time. I'm curious, what do your kids think is the coolest part about your job?
Sarah WillersdorfNothing. Nothing. It's so funny you asked that. My youngest who's seven just turned eight, about three or four months ago, he actually made this comment, because we were talking about people's jobs and different people's jobs. And he said to me, "You don't really have a job, but you do work all the time on your computer and phone." And so actually I think it's quite hard for them to grasp what this job is because they're like, "A doctor or a policeman or an actor or a fireman," I think they have these specific... But if I had to think, so I don't know if my youngest thinks very much is cool. I think my eldest son, who is nine, he's at an age now where he's starting to get a little bit more curious around brands, he's very into skating and surfing.

And actually, I work with brands. I know them and I think that's more interesting to him. He thinks that's more exciting. But honestly, unless I start to become a Fortnite champion or professionally snowboard or surf, I'm not sure. I'm not sure that I find a lot of the things around my job because I think it's just hard to grasp, it's hard to grasp the adults sometimes when you tell people you're a consultant, what you're doing and what you're working on.
Jodi KatzI love this. You work but you don't have a job.
Sarah WillersdorfYou don't have a job, but you do work all the time. Yeah.
Jodi KatzSo my kids love it when I'm telling them that we're working with brands that they know, like things that are around the house, things that were around the house before they became a client of mine, that's super exciting to them. And then sometimes from an influencer marketing perspective, I'm telling my daughter about the people we're talking to, and these are people that she watches, she's 10, people she watches on YouTube. So I think she sees a little intersection between her world and my world and she gets very excited. And then my son who's 13, I actually hire him to look at emerging platforms, because he's there everyday, the gaming. The gaming isn't that my world, but I know the intersection with beauty is rich. So he contributes.
Sarah WillersdorfYeah, I love that.
Jodi KatzIt makes me so happy and it gives him something to do, when he's not playing Fortnite, he has something else to do. And then one day, like last year was talking about, what is the potential, what do I do with my business? What do I want from it? And I was mentioning options and one of them would be eventually to sell it. And he said, "Don't sell it." Because I think in his head, he's like, "This is something that I might want to contribute to someday in a meaningful way." I just thought that was so sweet. It was such a heartwarming moment.
Sarah WillersdorfI do notice, and I talk about this with some friends, I guess because of what I do, I encourage my kids to do certain things. And so actually it's funny, you talk about Fortnite. I held off letting my son play Fortnite for a long time. And then during the pandemic, he kept asking and kept asking and I did a bunch of research, but then I said to him, "You need to make a case to me about why you should have fortnight." So he actually did a PowerPoint presentation on why Fortnite, why it was no worse than Roadblocks and those things. And so it's nothing cool about my job because, we obviously communicate very often in slides, but I do think there was something in that.

And to your point, the fact that I know, versus some of their peers parents, because I know TikTok, Instagram, or Twitch, or these, I don't know if they think it's cool, maybe they don't want me to know so much about these things, but I do think we can look at some of that. So it's a little bit the same as yours, I think.
Jodi KatzSo you told me when we started our conversation that you knew you wanted to be a fashion designer and then you ended up in luxury goods. So I feel like you did it, you did it from a different avenue. You're not maybe designing the apparel yourself, but you're designing the constructs that allow this to happen. So why luxury goods? What is appealing to you about that? And how did you come into that specialization?
Sarah WillersdorfYeah. So I think you're right, I always had this interest in creative and design. Actually, when I went to university, we call it university in Australia, my undergraduate degrees, I actually did fine art and finance. And so the fine art world was always a great interest to me. I have a tremendous respect for creators. I love being around creativity. And so I had that side and then I had the finance side and I think, as well as encouraging an education in math and science, both my parents were huge advocates of women being independent and women always be independent, never rely on anyone else. And so I think there was probably some encouragement from their side that maybe the business side was a little bit more, I would be able to look after myself a lot more going into that side then maybe in the arts, who knows?

So I think I was looking for something that brought together the right and left brain. I had a strong math and science background, but I love art, I love design. A lot of the people, I spend time with are highly creative. And so actually, every industry I worked in, I even spent time in media, was industries that had content sides or really creative sides, but very commercial sides. And so I think that's how I sort of landed here. I love, and it's not just apparel and personal goods, but I think the notion of very high quality, highly designed, unique, long-lasting, timeless things, I was always drawn to that. So I think that's the interesting side.

And then more recently, it's an industry so disrupted. It's gone through so much change. Moving into digital, now data and analytics. So actually, it has a lot of really interesting business challenges and operating model changes that actually make it really fascinating, I think.
Jodi KatzSo can we define luxury? Because my guess is the past five years, it was probably before five years ago, is was super crystal clear how you define it, and my guess is that's evolved. As someone who's helping grow brands in that sector, what is the box that luxury is in? How do you define it?
Sarah WillersdorfIt's much broader than it used to be. To your point, well, when we look at what luxury used to stand for, or the attributes it used to spike, it was more high quality, craftsmanship, unique design, and it basically demands a high price or a high premium. And I think they were the things that were really the tenants of luxury. And the craftsmanship, to be honest, is often linked to a longevity of story. Actually, it's quite hard to, in luxury, to start overnight without a strong history or heritage. What we've noticed in the last five years is that this definition has broadened and actually the new luxury, if you like, is also about this strong emotional connection, it's about a real community. Sustainability is becoming more important. And then collaboration. So luxury is now looked to also have partnerships and collaborations for newness and extra creativity.

So I think the definition is broadened. Also, different people have different definitions of luxury, but if you think I even define some of the street wear brands as luxury and some of the Nike limited edition shoes and things as Nike. And it's not always the price that defines them, but the exclusivity is sometimes the access, it's difficult to get, you have to queue, it may only be a hundred dollars t-shirt, but if you're having to queue or wait or because it's limited, it also is a form of exclusivity, I'd say.
Jodi KatzRight. So what are the parameters? I guess this is always a parameter with luxury because if you're handcrafting something, you're not making billions of them, you're making thousands of them. So that supply versus the demand is putting in pressure, which then raises the prices, right?
Sarah WillersdorfI think that's right, although I see some designers now trying to turn that on their head. I look at what Telfar has done with their pre-ordering to try and democratize and make sure people who want this can get this. And it's still a luxury item of sorts. And so I think there's some interesting shifts happening.
Jodi KatzYeah. I'm curious, when I think about how beauty, luxury beauty, what that means. When I grew up, my guess is you saw the same ad since we were watching the same TV, luxury beauty was the woman on the private yacht in Capri, with the private plane. And these images of exclusivity, therefore I'm not part of it as a customer, was really what led the conversation. And now beauty is completely opposite, and thankfully so. It's about being included. It's about building a community. It's about all being at the same party together. So that's on the opposite of luxury, like the way that we knew it?
Sarah WillersdorfYeah, it's democratized. I think there's been a big democratization. But I think there's inclusivity of sorts, for sure. I think it's become more inclusive of skin color, body type, where you are in the world, sexual orientation. All of these things, I think it's moved along. When you think about the prestige angle of beauty, there is still an aspirational element, even if it's through price or through the benefits it's going to offer you. But I agree with you, it's definitely shifted and it's more complicated than I think some of the commercials back from probably when we grew up. I actually think beauty as an industry has been much faster to innovate in some ways, and test and trial different things, when you think about technology and products and other things. And I think even now you see, I'm sure you see all the time, there's so many new companies coming up all the time around everything in skin care and color cosmetics and fragrance, that is really interesting. It's a really interesting space.
Jodi KatzLet's talk about, 15 years like I mentioned is a long time, actually, that's how long I've been running my business so it feels like an eternity. So after 15 years of being at a consulting group that's focused on these industries that are literally constantly evolving, every day you wake up and there's something new, the rules have changed. What inspires you the most?
Sarah WillersdorfIf I think about what inspires me at work, let's say at BCG. So I have incredible teams. So still to this day, the caliber of people I work with and the teams they have is exceptional. They're young, smart, driven, down to earth people. And I think that's just tremendous. So I think having access to that talent is just really a privilege. And at the same time, I get to work with the best brands in the world for typically they're C-suite, on some of the most important problems they're trying to work on. And again, we have the luxury of picking a problem and just focusing on that without the other things, because I've left consulting a couple of times for operating roles. And in an operating role, a lot of your time, as it should be, is spent managing people, managing the team, fighting for budgets, these things.

And I think one of the luxuries we have is, we get there and we're heads down solving a particular piece and then trying to work with the organization to execute it, so I think that is still inspiring. There's obviously a frustration always in consulting, that even when we're with clients a long time, and some of our clients we do work with for a very long time, that you do want to be around to see the execution and the implementation. So I think that I definitely find inspiration from. I also get a lot of energy from entrepreneurs. So I spend time with I'd say the startup or early stage community, and I'm always blown away by the energy, the disruption, how much people are doing with so little, and the hustle. And I think in lots of places in America, I live in New York City where there's a ton of hustle, and I think that energy of the hustle and building things from scratch is just so energizing.
Jodi KatzWell, Sarah, thank you so much for your wisdom. It was so great to chat with you today.
Sarah WillersdorfGreat to speak with you as well.
Jodi KatzAnd for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Sarah. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes. And for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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