Tamar Miller is a veteran retail executive and the founder and CEO of Bells & Becks, the best source for discovering distinctive European luxury shoes for the modern woman. Prior to Bells & Becks, Tamar was Head of Digital Merchandising for leading brands such as Banana Republic and Old Navy. She developed extensive footwear expertise with senior leadership roles in department and specialty stores including Lord and Taylor, Macy’s, and Piperlime. Tamar holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA in Economics from UC Berkeley. She lives in Burlingame, CA with her husband and two children, fondly nicknamed Bells and Becks.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Money was always a struggle growing up. My parents didn’t have enough to send me to college, but I was determined to go to my chosen school, so I got a job and funded my education independently. I worked my way through college, and by the time I graduated, I’d had more professional and leadership experience than most. Over the years, I’ve had to fight just a little harder to get to where I wanted to be. Nothing came as easy as it did for some, and that’s definitely shaped me as a person. That “fight” instinct grounded me, taught me the value of hard work, and instilled in me the ethic of making things happen. To this day, I’m a doer. I can’t stand by on the sidelines and hope that things will happen. As a leader, I set a clear vision for myself, for my team, and together, we make things happen. I like to think that I do it with heart and integrity.
How has your previous employment experience aided your current role?
My first footwear buying role was with Lord and Taylor. Over the years, I had several jobs in the footwear industry, and I developed a deep knowledge of the category. In addition to the technical aspects of shoe-making that I loved, I also got to know this amazing group of passionate “shoe dogs” (people that lived and breathed footwear their entire careers). Footwear became my passion and in some ways my professional “family”. Over time, I also became a kind of shoe dog.
While in business school, e-commerce was still entirely nascent- other than Amazon selling books, there wasn’t much out there. At the time, we couldn’t foresee that we were on the precipice of an entirely new way to shop and experience brands that would change the face of retail. I became increasingly interested in retail disruption. Eventually, I pivoted my focus and got entrenched in digital commerce, running merchandising (product strategy) for e-commerce businesses including Piperlime, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. I learned about the customer journey and how technology has completely shifted the consumer experience. The big-box retailers were suffering and new and disruptive retail businesses continued to pop up everywhere capturing market share and driving growth in surprising places.
Over the course of my career, I also started to see a pattern emerging in the US market –so much of the same product everywhere (a “sea of sameness”, as I like to call it), and a downgrade in quality as retailers were and continue to be completely focused on price and promotion. Finding something that was truly differentiated and high quality was nearly impossible. I saw the opportunity to combine my passion for and background in footwear with the new way of doing business.
Bells & Becks was born from my experiences. I’m building a business on my own terms, one that is focused on distinctive, luxury footwear that reflects my point of view, while selling the new way- direct to consumer. I like to think that I will always be a shoe dog, but I’m beyond excited to do things differently this time around.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your current role?
Hands down the biggest highlight for me in building Bells & Becks has been seeing my product vision come to life. As it turns out, execution of that product vision has also proven to be the single biggest challenge I’ve faced so far on my journey.
The original concept for Bells & Becks came to me on a business trip to Italy. It was on that trip that I realized that there was this entire world of unique quality product that simply wasn’t available in the US. When I set out to build Bells & Becks, I was working off an assumption that I could partner with Italian factories to import amazing footwear. I had a super clear product vision from the outset, and I thought the execution would be relatively simple for someone with my vast footwear experience. That’s where I was wrong.
Finding the right partners and then convincing them to work with me was not straightforward. I visited many factories that were willing, but the product capabilities, aesthetic, and quality, just wasn’t what I wanted. I had to make some hard, brand-defining choices in the early days. I believe that the things you say “no” to shape the brand even more than the things you say “yes” to. With my business plan in hand, clarity of vision, and my experience to guide me, I persevered and eventually landed on the right factories to launch the business. Convincing them to take a chance and partner with me took some doing, but they all understood my product point of view and felt that I was bringing something new to the table.
I’ve been blogging to document my entrepreneurial journey, and as it turns out, it’s an amazing chronicle and reminder of my experiences along the way. At Thanksgiving, I wrote a blog post expressing my gratitude for how far I’d come. I wrote about the experience of receiving a box full of amazingly beautiful Bells & Becks shoe samples that reflected my brand vision coming to life. That was definitely a highlight.
I’ve had so many ups and downs. I feel great about the tremendous progress I’ve made in a relatively short time. In less than a year, I’ve built a concept and a brand, and most importantly, I’ve executed on a product vision that I’m really proud of.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
It sounds a bit cliché, but my advice to women would be to follow your passion. I remember so clearly that I had two job offers when I graduated from college- the first was as an actuary for Chubb Insurance (so not right for me), and the second was to join Macy’s Retail Executive Training Program. Chubb Insurance was offering a higher salary than Macy’s (we’re talking about a few thousand dollars, which was a lot at the time). My parents, both first generation immigrants and very conservative, were pushing me to take the higher paying role. But I knew what I wanted, and being a buyer was my dream job. I’ve followed my passion ever since, and I’ve loved every stage of my career as a result. Launching Bells & Becks is the next step on my journey. It represents something very personal because I’m continuing to pursue my passion and do something I love.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
It’s all about the people and relationships. I don’t believe in separating the personal from the professional. People matter, and when you’re authentic and genuinely care, your team and your partners will come together and do amazing things. Relationships are built on trust, and I’m passionate about acting with integrity in everything that I do. One of my mentors once said to me that people enjoy partnering with me, and I’m able to get so much accomplished because I say what I do and I do what I say. It was the highest compliment coming from someone that I respect and admire.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I like to think that I work smart and simplify wherever possible. On the work front, I do my best to prioritize and think about where I’m going to make the most impact. I know at the outset that I can’t do everything- that’s a given- and though I do sweat the small stuff, I place my emphasis on the details that I believe really matter. One thing that really helps me is that I’m super comfortable making decisions, often in the face of imperfect information. I think this comes from my merchant training. I don’t belabor issues. I make a decision, and I move on knowing that I can always fix things on the back end if I went down the wrong path. I find that as long as there’s forward momentum, I feel like I’m making progress and getting things done.
As an entrepreneur, my days are crazy busy, and the responsibilities can feel even more overwhelming because everything is on my shoulders. By making decisions, I’m able to cross things off my list and move on to other areas that require my attention. Each decision builds off prior decisions, which in a way simplifies the work.
Women often strive for perfection in all aspects, and that’s where we get into trouble. Over the years, I’ve had to let go and be ok when some things don’t get done. Work/life balance is only possible because I’ve learned to simplify on the home front. Of course, it’s easier to do that when you have help and can outsource certain areas of your life. But you have to be willing to outsource, which means letting go of some things. I’m super fortunate (and so thankful) because I’ve got a great husband and a support group around me. My two kids (8 and 12) are at ages where they need their parents’ emotional presence more than anything. Finding balance means clearing the clutter so that I make time for myself (I try to go to yoga a few times a week) and can be physically and emotionally present to attend to their needs.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Similar to many professional women, my life is a fragile system that only works when everything is perfectly in balance. The minute some new variable is introduced- a sick kid, a flat tire, an ailing parent, the delicate balance gets totally out of whack and chaos ensues. Even when things are perfectly balanced, so much of our kid’s lives happen during the workday. Women inevitably feel torn about stepping away to experience these important daily milestones. Finding a work environment where we can participate fully in the happenings of our personal lives while still being ambitious, goal orientated and achievement-focused is an enormous challenge.
I’m so fortunate to have worked in corporate retail settings for most of my career that have been extremely supportive of women in leadership roles. I was able to look around and see many amazing female leaders that were driven and ambitious but were able to make it work because of the flexibility that the company afforded them. A culture of flexibility simply doesn’t exist in most industries. It still seems as if professional ambition is not consistently compatible with being a working Mom.
How can we encourage more women to start their own business?
It took me so long to finally take the plunge and start Bells & Becks because I literally didn’t know where to start. The initial steps were the hardest. I started by getting educated and networking like crazy. I tapped into entrepreneurs, leaders, friends of friends, and people I respected. They connected me to two or three other people. In this way, through conversation and time to think, I started to see the vision for what’s possible. I was encouraged by seeing so many other women and men like me that took the plunge- people with similar experience or in so many cases, even little to no experience. It took me a while to realize that if they can do it, why can’t I??? I would encourage anyone considering starting their own business to begin by having lots of conversations. Network and ask questions, and soon you’ll find that you’re enveloped by more support and reassurance than you ever thought possible.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I’ve had several amazing mentors that have guided and coached me over the years. I’ve always felt torn as a working Mom. Not being present on the home front when all the other Moms were showing up to the school play in the middle of the day always made me feel inadequate. My mentors are women that seemingly have it together. They get that work/life balance is not that straightforward. Choices have to be made, and their guidance, friendship, wisdom, and council has helped to shape my career as a female leader and mentor to others.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire many influential women that have made broad impact, but for me, the ones I admire most are the women that have mentored me along the way, women that took the time to invest in people.
The one that really stands out is Carol Baiocchi. I was fortunate to work for Carol as a footwear buyer at Macy’s. She is literally revered in the shoe world- everyone in the footwear space knows and respects her, and yes, she’s a bit of a “shoe dog” herself. As a leader, she built expertise in a complex category that allowed her to go very deep, and she went about running the business in what seemed like a uniquely different way. She was entirely focused on relationships- driving the business through deep partnerships that enabled her to get things accomplished where others stalled out. She was always the first to try new things, a kind of footwear pioneer that was willing to take big, bold risks. She made impact in many ways as a female leader including taking care of “her own” by being one of the founding members of the Two-Ten Footwear Foundation and mentoring women footwear executives along the way (me included).
I credit Carol with teaching me so much of what I know about the mechanics of running a shoe business. But even more importantly, my perspective on partnerships and my ability to make decisions big and small were shaped by her leadership and the example that she set all those years ago.
Beyond Carol, there are so many amazing women retail leaders that I admire. Ruth Hartman, Laurie Beja Miller, Amy Lauer, Bonnie Dahan- all are some of the most thoughtful, respected, and engaging leaders around. In every case, these women are multi-faceted, and their lives are full well beyond work. They are focused on doing something more to make real impact and repair and improve the world. I’ve watched their personal and professional successes- not just what they do, but how they do it, and I’m completely focused on following in their footsteps.
What do you want to professionally and personally accomplish in the next year?
On the professional front, I’m excited to get Bells & Becks launched and dive into the customer response to the product. On the personal front, being an entrepreneur has afforded me the flexibility to do more outside of work. I’ve taken on volunteer opportunities to give back and nourish my soul. I feel so much more fulfilled than I ever have before, and I’m beyond excited to see what’s on the horizon.
What are the top three tips you can offer to an entrepreneur starting out?
a. Just get started- put your ideas out there and kick the tires with as many people as will listen and give feedback.
b. Network like crazy and take in information with the understanding that it’s just information. No information is good or bad, it’s just knowledge that you file away for future use (one of my mentors taught me that).
c. Believe in yourself every step of the way. There are down days, and it’s on those days that you have to remind yourself that you are smart, super capable, and that you kick-ass!