College graduation speaker Laura Alber's unconventional path to success

Alber has been president of Williams-Sonoma since 2006 and CEO since 2010

· April 20, 2014, 11:28 am   ·  Updated April 20, 2014, 11:35 pm

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College graduate Laura Alber finished Penn in 1990 with an “anti-plan.” She’s now the president and chief executive officer of Williams-Sonoma, Inc.

Alber, the president of Williams-Sonoma, and College senior Dau Jok will be speaking at this year’s graduation ceremony for the College of Arts and Sciences. Alber has been president of the large home furnishing retailer since 2006 and CEO since 2010, making her the head of the 22nd largest internet retailer in America.

Despite her success, Alber's post-Penn plan started off small. “I got in my car, and I drove with my friends to California with no job and no idea what was going to happen,” she remembered.

After taking a series of odd jobs, she started looking for more stability, so she applied to an entry-level position at the Gap. She later took a job at Pottery Barn as a senior buyer for their catalog, one of the many brands under Williams-Sonoma, which also includes Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn brands, Mark and Graham, West Elm and Rejuvenation.

She was drawn to the tangible but still creative nature of the job, and she loved understanding the changing trends and global influences on the home. “From an intellectual curiosity perspective, it’s a very rich career,” she said.

Alber had an interest in fashion and retail that she started feeding as an undergraduate. After studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh, she returned to Penn with the idea to start making and selling the floppy, velvet hats that were so popular in the United Kingdom. She even got a few local boutiques to carry her product.

Alber was a psychology major at Penn and took a wide range of classes that aligned with her interests rather than an overarching life plan. And since most high-level business jobs are general positions, she said, the range of experiences that she got at Penn has served her well in her career. “My job is everything from math to business to art design, history of furniture, understanding different influences that affect how people live, why do people buy.

“When I look back on my education, I can’t think of a better way to prepare myself for a career in retail,” she added.

She’s also been inspired by her own life and experiences. When she became pregnant with her first daughter, she saw a gap in the company that she knew she could fill. “I saw no well-designed home furnishings for children’s spaces in the home,” she said. So she worked with her colleagues to develop a business plan for what is now Pottery Barn Kids. From there she also worked on Pottery Barn Teen, helping extend the brand even further.

Dean of the College Dennis DeTurck says the College typically looks for a speaker who is a Penn alumnus who has made a noteworthy contribution to their field, often someone who is celebrating a significant reunion year.

DeTurck said that for Alber to have risen so quickly “to the top of her industry, in what is generally a male-dominated industry, I think is really an achievement.”

“I think she has something strong to say to all of our graduates, particularly the women,” he added.

“Present-mindedness” will be a key concept in Alber’s words of wisdom to the Class of 2014, encouraging them to focus on actually doing what they love, not just planning for it.

“The thing you’re going to be the best at is right in front of you,” Alber said.

She plans to balance that message with advice on “what those key attributes and character traits are that I think will allow you to do well no matter what the plan becomes.”

Alber maintains a strong connection with Penn. She has spoken at various events on campus, hosted events for alumni and current students and does alumni interviewing for prospective students.

She serves on the advisory board of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center, a Wharton research center, and a few years ago, she and her husband established The Alber-Klingelhofer Endowed Scholarship. She said that though she had always given back to Penn, the scholarship was her way of doing even more for the University.

“I have a lot of gratitude [for] Penn and want to make sure that people can have the ability to go to Penn even if they can’t afford it because it can change lives,” she said. “I know it changed mine.”

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