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Ashley Stewart Is More Than A Clothing Brand — It’s An Identity

How focusing on kindness and inclusion helped save this retail & lifestyle brand from liquidation.

James Rhee, the chairman and CEO of Ashley Stewart, might not have come from a retail background, but he knew as soon as he climbed on board that Ashley Stewart was worth fighting for. And he did have to fight.

Founded in 1991, Ashley Stewart is a women’s fashion and lifestyle brand originally conceived for the African American plus-size community. The brand is currently in the process of expanding to design for women of all sizes. When Rhee came on as CEO in August 2013, the company was in a dire place. The Brooklyn-born, New Jersey-based brand had survived its first bankruptcy a few years earlier, but was on the verge of another.

At his first town hall, Rhee, who is Korean-American, told a roomful of virtual strangers that he was uncertain if Ashley Stewart had a future. But, determined to try and save the company, Rhee led with his own version of the golden rule: “You will have to be kind.” He added, “Kindness, empathy, these things, they really do lead to awareness of diversity and inclusion. … They are transcendent to diversity [and] inclusion.”

This ethos resonated with Aretha Blake, an African American merchandise buyer from Queens who joined the company a few months before Rhee. “Everybody has to be kind. He said the same thing when he got here, and it’s still the same thing now,” Blake said. “Nothing has changed.”

It worked — not only to motivate employees and bring them together, but to save the company. In the six years since he’s been here, Rhee — who grew up in Long Island, has a Harvard law degree and a background in private equity — has turned Ashley Stewart into “one of the fashion industry’s most impressive turnaround stories in recent years.” By successfully leaning into e-commerce and focusing on fresh digital marketing and social strategies, Rhee guided Ashley Stewart to realize profits in the tens-of-millions, securing a price tag of almost six times what it had sold for only three years earlier.

“We will never be the biggest, richest, fastest, most prestigious company,” Rhee said. “But one day, if people say that this company did more for its underlying customer and employee base than most any company, I think that we’re going to have a tremendous amount of success.”

With the help of Y-Vonne Hutchinson, a D&I expert and CEO of the company Ready Set, Blake and Rhee recently sat down together to talk about confidence in the workplace; the universality of the Ashley Stewart woman; how kindness leads to awareness of diversity and inclusion; the impressive amount of women in leadership roles at the company and more. This meeting was part of an initiative led by CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion™, the largest CEO-led business coalition to advance diversity and inclusion in the U.S. The 600-plus CEOs committed to the coalition have pledged to support more inclusive workplaces.

Check out the video above, sponsored by PwC, to learn more about how Rhee helped take Ashley Stewart from bankruptcy to marketplace success story, and some of the amazing initiatives that Ashley Stewart is doing for its base. 

From PwC:

PwC’s new series, Beyond The Bottom Line, produced in association with the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion™, follows CEOs as they meet their employees face-to-face to discuss the issues that matter. With more than 600 CEOs committed, CEO Action is the largest CEO-led business coalition focused on advancing diversity and inclusion in the U.S. To learn more, visit CEOAction.com.

This article was paid for by PwC and co-created by RYOT Studio. HuffPost editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.

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