July 2020: Hiba Elbuluk '13

In the midst of a global pandemic and civil rights movement, Hiba Elbuluk ’13 reminds us that, as “alumnae who embody the Dream Dare Do mentality, we are arbiters of meaningful change in our communities.” She is passionate about the power of sheer intellectual vitality and drive whether that be a societal change or a job. She shares the importance of self-advocacy, strong communication, and asking yourself the right questions to optimize growth and happiness. Read on as Hiba talks with us about cultivating one’s passions, managing career changes, and the current state of retail. 

If you could describe Laurel in three words what would they be?
Tradition, formative, sisterhood.


What skills, if any, did you learn at Laurel that have helped you navigate your career?
Communication and Public Speaking: Whether it was Senior Speeches or the circular, discussion-based classes, Laurel offered plenty of discourse opportunities that allowed me to develop confidence in my voice.
 
Self-Advocacy: I remember both participating in and reading published studies by Dr. Lisa Damour and Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls. One recurrent theme was the heightened degree of reticence amongst teenage girls in mixed gender settings and the various outcomes that prevail from that reticence. Those learnings were pivotal for me in my own journey to self-advocacy, both academically and now as a working adult. 
 
After leaving Lyman Circle, you completed your undergraduate education at Princeton University, majoring in architecture. What was your favorite experience and your biggest challenge during your first year of college?
Socially, freshman year was exciting because of the opportunity to meet and learn from so many talented peers. Academically, it was truly tabula rasa in a liberal arts environment. In high school you’re restricted in the sorts of classes you can take as everyone must take a different level of the same offered courses. (Although I’ll caveat Laurel actually did a good job in providing options. For example, I’ll never forget the opportunity to take From Harlem to Hip Hop with Ms. Butler or KAP American Studies: The Revolution with Mr. Huston.) But college was a whole new experience. It was exhilarating to take classes in everything from architecture to developmental psychology to art history to civil engineering. While I majored in architecture, I filled my electives with coursework from different disciplines and that was the ultimate immersive experience that opened my eyes to so much about the world. 
 
During summer breaks you interned at Goldman Sachs and then were hired on full time after graduation. But shortly after a year, you transitioned from finance to a seed stage tech startup. What advice do you have for someone interested in changing careers? 
Goldman was an invaluable and formative place for me. It’s where I spent my summers and first part of my career, and ultimately from where some of my closest mentors and best friends came. I genuinely love following the markets and still keep up and invest on my own. However, I realized I had a void in the creative side of me that no longer got to build, create, and be entrepreneurial like in my college architecture and fashion endeavors. Furthermore, because I completed all my summers there, I felt more ready to make a transition after a year. That’s when I started looking into strategy and product management roles in and outside of the firm. Ultimately, in a desire to test out true entrepreneurship, I left for an early stage startup. 
 
In reflection, there are a few pieces of advice. The first is to understand what drives you and to be honest about those motivators. Are you more extrinsically or intrinsically motivated? What types of work make you feel complete? Where do you want to make an impact in the next year? Next five years? Ten years? For me, I had an inherently creative side that I increasingly felt the need to integrate into my day job, not just outside work hobbies. I also knew that I wanted to make a more direct impact on my communities, so moving to a startup that focused on building community-engagement software and had consumer and design-centric clients was a compelling draw. 
 
The second piece of advice I have, which sounds a bit cliché, is to do you research before making a decision—play out the different permutations and determine your level of satisfaction with those scenarios. I talked to over 50 people inside and outside of Goldman before making a decision. I played out the different scenarios—my risk appetite, what I wanted to achieve, etc. That was extremely helpful because I had primed myself for each outcome and whatever happened I knew that was at least an outcome I had prepared for, which made it easier to pivot later. I knew that seed (pre-Series A) stage startups were the highest risk startup so when that actualized, I wasn’t caught off guard because I knew that was a potential outcome before starting and I held conviction in the startup learnings over end outcome. 
 
My last piece of advice is to be selective about from whom you take advice.  Take advice from those who really know you or those you want to emulate. You’ll get a lot of advice in life, particularly as it pertains to big transitions like a career change, and what I realized is that while everyone has the best of intentions, the flood of advice can become more noise than anything. 
 
Now you are the Manager of E-Commerce/Digital Strategy at Bloomingdales. From architecture to retail and everything in between, what have you found are the most transferable skills everyone should try and gain no matter the industry?
In my eyes, the most transferable skill is effective communication. It’s something that takes practice and it’s truly an art, as you have to learn how to communicate with different stakeholders internally and externally. You could have all the hard-coded skills and industry knowledge for a position but if you don’t know how to effectively communicate your ideas or the business case at hand then the knowledge is rendered futile. Additionally, as a leader, you’ll inherently become increasingly cross-functional managing across businesses. This makes your communication skills even more paramount as you have to be able to speak the language of your working partners and exhibit the necessary EQ and IQ (emotional quotient and intelligence quotient) to drive meaningful conversation. 
 
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far on your career journey?           
That life just happens sometimes. As much you try to prepare yourself and make informed decisions, you can never fully prepare for future nebulosity in your career or personal journeys. 
 
On a similar yet different note, something that’s surprising/often underestimated is the power of sheer intellectual vitality and drive. As women, we often think we need to have 100% of qualifications and then some to ask for a promotion or apply for a job, and that’s part of why self-recognition and advocacy is so important. Showing promise, potential and initiative often goes further than the pure qualifications someone may have. I’ve found that the best relationships, products or projects came out of someone (myself included) showing how much they wanted something despite not checking all the boxes, and on the other side, someone taking a chance and supporting them. In that, some of my biggest advice would be to go for it; whatever “it” may be. The worst that can happen is a learning experience in how to pivot closer to your goal. 
 
Covid-19 has affected almost every aspect of life. With stores being closed this spring, you had to pivot all of Bloomingdale’s business to online. What has that process been like? How has it been a change from your previous digital strategy work at Bloomingdales pre-Covid-19?
The whole retail industry was thrown for a loop as a result of Covid-19, whether it was abatement of the Chinese dollar (luxury), reprioritizing sale priorities (Amazon/Walmart/Target) or managing store closures (specialty retail, department stores, big box retail, etc).  For the majority of department stores, nearly 75% of revenue is generated from stores, so there’s immense contingency upon making that 25% of online generate enough business to offset depleted store revenue.  While heart-wrenching, many retailers had to furlough a majority of their workforces amongst larger refinancing strategies to manage liquidity. That means that we’re operating with a smaller workforce while ensuring we are doing all we can to push growth so that we can bring back furloughed colleagues. 
 
There was also a complete shift in the e-commerce ecosystem. E-commerce is often looked at through a funnel of site traffic → order conversion (how much of our site traffic we convert into orders) → AOV (average order value) → revenue. Site traffic comes from marketing spend, which many retailers had to significantly reduce for liquidity purposes. AOV was suppressed as customer sentiment fell, purchases were concentrated in essentials and deeper discounts pervaded the internet. So really that meant focusing on pushing the order conversion lever. While conversion is always a principal focus for us, we had to get a lot more creative with how to drive conversion through offering solutions to customers’ Covid-19 needs and leveraging novel organic traffic campaigns to reimagined categories and site real estate.
 
The other element that we have to control for now is the reopening of the US and what that means for stores, the website and the relationship between the two. We implemented Curbside Pickup when stores were closed and now as re-openings continue, we have to adjust what post-pandemic stores offer customers. What safety precautions must we take to protect customers? How are we reinventing what stores and our website offer conjointly to drive meaningful experiences? As work from home decentralizes populations and people prefer suburban sprawl over urbanized environments, how do we even think about the placement of physical stores? These are some of the pressing industry questions, as it won’t be enough to simply open stores and expect a seamless return to past shopping behavior. The pandemic will forever change many nationwide systems that exist today and stores are surely one part of that. 
 
How do you see the retail industry changing in the long-term as a result of the global pandemic?
Retail is no stranger to disruption as the past decade has seen everything from the boom of direct-to-consumer funding and companies, the fall of iconic brands, unprecedented growth in the secondary market (resale, rental, grey market, etc.), the advent of social media advertising, particularly Instagram, and the rise of the influencer market. Reflecting on the pressures a global pandemic exacerbates, Covid-19 will likely propagate further growth in the secondary market as it’s economical, more sustainable, and an extra source of cash, particularly valuable in a recession. 2019 was the end of a decade-long bull market, where cash was easy to find and invest. In a looming recession, the threshold for investment will be tighter, with companies having to prove profitability faster and earlier. Additionally, companies that obtained funding before proving viable unit economics are not likely candidates for renewed investment. Many banks and consulting firms have published studies indicating that shareholder returns on M&A deals done in a bear market are greater than those in a bull market due to valuation discounts and “winners” (those benefiting from current conditions with a strong balance sheet) having more than enough capital to buy. So if anything, we’ll see greater stratification between winners and losers in the industry. 
 
Transitioning from financials to an operational perspective, every retailer is thinking about how to minimize supply chain risk whether through geographical changes or greater automation, as a lot of the disruptions companies faced at the start of the pandemic stemmed from closed factories or warehouse safety restrictions. Additionally, last mile delivery will be another key focus as mail carriers started limiting order capacity as retail demand outweighed their workforce supply. 
 
The last anticipated changes relate mostly to what I spoke about before—people and stores. From a customer perspective, accountability and inclusivity will become definitive non-negotiables that retailers have to holistically integrate into their ethos (recruitment/retention, marketing assets, brand portfolio mix + % minority brand penetration, vendor accountability, etc). From a human resources perspective, the pool for talent in remote work has challenged previous localized recruitment models, so there will be a larger discussion on how and where to recruit talent. Subsequently, there will likely be permanent shifts in what headquarters signifies for retailers. As it pertains to stores, we’ll truly have to rethink the value-add that drives foot traffic and continual safety for customers. 
 
How has it been finding work-life balance in the midst of all this? How do you keep your support systems strong and practice self-care, especially living in NYC?  
Great question. I tend to think of balance as less of a constant entity and more as an average of busy and relaxing times that ebb and flow. During this time, it’s been important for me to gauge how I’m managing the duration and transition between those periods of intensity and relaxation. Part of that has entailed setting standards for working from home, as the lack of compartmentalization between the spaces where I sleep, eat, exercise and work makes it harder to operate under a natural schedule cadence. For relaxation and self-care, I love reading and have been taking time to read before bed with a cup of tea. Lastly, spending time with the people I love whether virtual or one-on-one in-person has provided a vital support system.
 
What Bloomingdales’ product best captures your personality and why?
It’s funny because in a recent search for candles/linen sprays on our site, I came across this multi-use spray called Hiba Wood Atmosphere Spray. I’ve only ever known Hiba to be an Arabic name, but I came to find it’s also a special type of Japanese wood from the Aomori Hiba tree. My name’s not one you’d easily find on tourist keychains or a Dylan’s Candy Bar Name Jar, so when I found this namesake product you can imagine I was overly excited. 
 
What makes you proud to be a Laurel alum?
Education is an important life tenet for me, and my Laurel education was a privilege. It provided an empowering environment for learning from engineering classes to digital design classes to Kenyon-AP classes that are rare for a high school setting. Having that knowledge as a base platform to build upon has been extremely valuable in my academic and working career. 
 
Anything else you’d like to add?
We’re in the midst of a global pandemic and civil rights movement. As Laurel alumnae who embody the Dream Dare Do mentality, we are arbiters of meaningful change in our communities. When you can take the time to educate, self-reflect and most importantly drive permanent change from these new learnings—vote, offer your time and resources to organizations and others, donate, etc. Lastly, the work we need to do as a country requires dedicated change, so in between the moments when you’re making your mark take moments to recharge.
 
Additionally, if you’re interested in e-commerce or looking to transition careers, feel free to reach out. I’m happy to help out a fellow Laurel sister.
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