Erika Swan has one piece of advice for young women pursuing careers in supply chain: “Don’t be shy, and don’t hold back,” she says. “I thought I would never be able to do strategy, but I was wrong. You need to keep trust in yourself, and if you enjoy doing something, you’ll be successful at it.”

Originally published March 2017

The 37-year-old German knows a thing or two about building a career, having joined the textiles industry aged 20 with hopes of becoming a fashion designer. Working in the cutting room for a small German brand, she had dreams of making her own clothes and forging a career as a creative, before she decided to study the industry in more depth. In 2000, she began a degree in Textile and Apparel Management, before moving on to an MBA in International Management at Philadelphia University in the US.

“In 2004, I moved back to Germany and joined Adidas in an entry-level position, working as a project manager in apparel development,” she recalls. “It was great to be working for such a well-known brand.”

Her first big break came three years later, when she was asked to move back to America – to Portland, Oregon – as a senior project manager with the company. There she ran a team of developers and patternmakers on the commercialisation of the Adidas Originals apparel in North America, and got to grips with managing talented individuals who were sometimes much older than she was.

After three years, she returned to Germany as a senior project manager, and after just a year and a half scored a significant promotion, when she was tapped by the board to become Head of Strategy, Global Operations. In that role, she led the development of the global supply chain strategies, and took responsibility for communicating those strategies to the entire workforce.

It was a career-defining post, and not one that she immediately felt comfortable with. “I was really nervous when they asked me to head up the strategy team,” she says. “But I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was very close to the board and the senior management team, and I learned a huge amount about how management worked in the Adidas group.”

It was in that role that she realised the importance of speaking up: “I always tell people now, if you’re invited to a meeting, and you’re participating, always contribute. Often people are intimidated by the complexity of supply chain, but you just need to simplify it in your brain,” says Swan. “Even if you don’t know something smart to say, always ask a question, so that people see that you’re excited to be there. When I led the strategy team, I found that by asking questions and playing back the answers, I made people think, and that was a really valuable contribution.”

In 2014, after three years in the strategy role, Swan was promoted to her current position, as VP Sourcing Operations Apparel. Now based in Hong Kong, she has a leadership role formulating the sourcing strategy across the region, communicating with key stakeholders and leading a team of planning managers overseeing production transfers and plans, ensuring on-time delivery and duty savings. She oversees a budget of USD3bn in apparel, and decides which factories the company works with, and in which countries.

It’s a big leap from that girl with ambitions in fashion design: “I learned at university that I’m clearly excited about the analytics of the supply chain,” she says, “and when I got to Portland I really found my comfort zone in operations, because numbers are my friend, and that’s where I’m happiest.”

Swan says she gets a buzz from the job she’s doing now: “In my role, I enjoy the diversity of topics that I get to deal with. It’s basically an end-to-end view of getting products to market, looking at the big new trends, the factories, trying new profitability initiatives that save multiple millions of dollars for the company, and accelerating things through the supply chain. It’s all quite tangible – everything I do, I can count; it’s all KPI-driven.”

Part of her task sees her recruiting for supply-chain talent, where she says she sometimes really struggles to find female candidates for senior roles: “I had a huge struggle finding role models when I was working my way up,” she says, “because we have very few female leaders.”

Swan argues there are many reasons why women don’t make it to the senior roles as frequently as men do, but one problem is that they are not always so good at networking, and getting their names known across their organisations. Many women that she interviews are put off by the need to travel frequently, or by the long hours, and not necessarily motivated by large salaries.

“When it comes to analytics or project management, there’s a lot of male talent available, but not so much female,” she says. “But it’s changing. You just need to make a conscious effort to interview women as well as men, because sometimes it’s just easier to hire the guy.”

Adidas is making a huge effort to allow all employees more flexibility in their working hours, with more working at home and more support for those that need it with their home life situations. There are also initiatives run out of HR to promote diversity in the recruitment process, by encouraging all the managers to hire smarter. “We want to make sure we are making better strategies by having more diverse perspectives on the team,” says Swan.

There is also an official women’s network, and a mentoring circle, to make sure women are not disadvantaged.

The problem may be more acute when it comes to hiring supply chain professionals, but Swan says the role of supply chain is changing, both within her company, and more broadly. It’s becoming a much more attractive place to be: “I believe the supply chain is becoming more creative,” she says. “In the past, it was more technical and analytical, and while that stuff is still very important, now it is much more about designing innovative solutions, rather than calculating solutions.”

She concludes, “My role is about using applications to do data analysis, and then trying to tell a story around that data and those graphs, and building a storyline around what matters to the customer.”

She may not be designing clothes, but Swan certainly didn’t leave her creativity behind on the cutting room floor.

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