Sharen Jester Turney may have her native roots planted deeply in Oklahoma soil, but since her childhood as a farm girl just outside Ardmore, the CEO of Victoria's Secret of Limited Brands Inc. has become one of the highest paid, most respected female executives in the world.
On Wednesday, Turney, 56, will share her philosophies on philanthropy and business in a luncheon address at a “Giving with Style” symposium hosted by the Women's Philanthropy Network at the University of Oklahoma. Turney holds a bachelor of arts degree in business education from OU. The one-day symposium will explore trends in charitable giving and philanthropic efforts by women.
Business owners should consider not just their own bottom lines, Turney said, but should also find ways to improve their communities. That may seem easily said from a woman who reportedly makes about $9.5 million a year. But she practices what she preaches and has practical advice for managing a hectic career, charitable work and family.
“How do you give back? Giving back is not just money. It's time, it's energy, it's giving a helping hand,” Turney said. “In business strategy, at Victoria's Secret, obviously our business strategy is to make a profit. But I think our higher purpose is to really affect life around us and to make women feel good about themselves.”
For Turney, giving back personally and through the businesses she runs is a way of life. Victoria's Secret of Limited Brands Inc. donates millions of dollars and more than 25,000 volunteer hours each year, she said.
“I think for everyone, being able to do that just makes you feel good,” she said. “And when you work with a company that has very high values, and is living those values, you also have more engaged employees and more engaged customers.”
Women and giving
Women, it seems, are more willing to open their wallets than men when it comes to charitable giving. According to research by the Women's Philanthropy Network at OU, in some demographics, women give twice as much as men with equal incomes.
“Women's economic power has been steadily increasing,” said Cassie Gilman, executive director of the Women's Philanthropy Network, in a news release. “They are now leveraging that power to make changes in the nonprofit sector.”
Getting started in charitable giving will be a topic covered at the OU symposium. Turney said to start by thinking hard about what causes you feel the most passionate about. For her, those causes are the needs of children and the eradication of cancer (she lost both parents to cancer).
“What do you believe in? Where can you make a difference or where do you really want to make a difference?” she said. “Then you need to funnel your energy and your time and your giving to those things that you are passionate about.”
When she was a young girl growing up on a farm with a rancher/auctioneer father and a mother who taught nutrition, Turney's life consisted of school and doing chores around the farm along with her five brothers and sisters, such as herding cattle and changing irrigation pipes. She figured, like her mother, she'd become a teacher.
“It was really a great experience for me,” she said, admitting that sometimes, she misses that simple farm life. “As I left Oklahoma and moved around, I haven't lost that sense of that small-town community.”
But it was actually getting out to see the world, experiencing new cultures and people that really broadened Turney's horizons.
“Even when I think back when I was graduating from college, I just think what I lacked was that broad experience,” she said. “I think kids today have such an opportunity to be exposed to so much more than I was at that time, that now, you can see all the wonderful opportunities in front of you.”
And, perhaps accidentally, Turney's career led her to fashion in 1979 at Foley's.
From there, she went to Byer California. In 1999, she landed the title CEO and president at NM Direct (Nieman Marcus).
Then she was snagged by Victoria's Secret Direct, the brand's catalog and e-commerce arm, which she led to become one of the world's largest direct marketers of women's lingerie and apparel.
Turney was the recipient of the 2009 Hug Award, an honor given to individuals in the fashion industry “with a heart.” In 2005, she received the Dr. Catherine White Achievement Award from HeartShare Human Services, which promotes self-sufficiency for more than 16,000 children, adults and families throughout New York. Also in 2005, Turney was inducted into the Hall of Fame Business of Education at OU.
The secret is balance
When you're an exceptionally busy jet-setter like Turney, balancing a huge career, a family, philanthropic work and just taking care of yourself becomes a matter of prioritizing.
“I get my calendar out at the beginning of the year and my son's stuff — whether he was in grade school, kindergarten — his stuff went on my calendar first. If he had a play or parent-teacher (conference) or his spring break, I really tailored mine around his calendar so I could be there for him when it mattered. You just have to make the decision and you have to be very clear within your calendar about making time to be with family.
“When I'm with my family, I really try to turn everything off and be there now, and be in the moment,” Turney said.
“The job will still be there when I go in.”
Since her son is now off to college, Turney said she's got a little more time to do things for herself. She gets lost in books — she's been reading “The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen — A Woman's Guide to Living & Leading in an Illogical World,” by Barb Stegeman. She loves mysteries and biographies, and makes time to exercise in the mornings.
“I've been playing a little tennis and I'm still lousy, but it's such a release for me,” Turney said.
She may not be as good at wrangling a tennis racket as she was at herding cattle with her dad on the farm, but Turney seems well in control of all other aspects of her life.
“I think the most important thing is stay curious, be a lifelong learner, make sure you balance your time and that you actually take time to restore. That's the most important thing. To keep up on your mood elevator and stay happy. The way to do that is by taking care of yourself.”
And while her career and family life soar, Turney is still grounded firmly with two feet on the ground. Her proudest accomplishment, by far, she said, is how well her son has turned out.
“He is just grown up to be one of the most compassionate young men that I know and I'm very proud of him, his values, his discipline,” Turney said. “I think that he's got to be my best accomplishment.”
How do you give back? Giving back is not just money. It's time, it's energy, it's giving a helping hand.”
Sharen Jester Turney,
Ardmore native and CEO of Victoria's Secret