Q and A: Furnishing a Better Future for College Students

January 15, 2014
In her 18 years with Williams- Sonoma, Inc., CEO Laura Alber, C’90, has transformed the well-known housewares company, particularly its Pottery Barn brand, by vastly expanding its product line, entering new geographic markets, and launching Pottery Barn Kids, Pottery Barn Bed + Bath, and PBTeen. Having started her career in the fashion industry, first with her own small business and later at Gap, Inc., and Contempo Casuals, Alber taught herself the history of furniture design when she shifted to home furnishings. She brings that same drive to her Penn roles, whether she’s interviewing applicants on the West Coast, representing the University at events like the recent inauguration of UC Berkeley’s new chancellor, serving on the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center’s industry advisory board, or supporting financial aid in the College. Here she shares her professional journey, its roots in the College, and her reasons for giving back.

Q: How did you first become interested in retail?

Alber: During my junior year abroad at the University of Edinburgh, I saw a lot of people wearing decorative hats, and started selling them to stores in Philly. I made business cards, I made order forms, I made the hats, I made the labels, I sewed them up and peddled them around town. It was really fun. It was one of those things that gave you courage that you could make something happen that wasn’t there before. I took my first job at the Gap because I thought, “I get this retail thing, and I like it.” I fell into it because it was what was natural for me to do.

Q: What is your vision for Williams-Sonoma?

Alber: Everything we do revolves around our mission, which is to enhance our customers’ lives at home. Not only do we want to give our customers beautiful, high-quality, functional pieces for their homes, but we also want to leave the world a better place because we did business in it. Our growth is going to come from growing our current brands, launching new brands, and global expansion.

Q: Does your background in psychology affect how you manage your company?

Alber: I think the same reason I was drawn to that as a major is probably why I’m drawn to retail, which is that it’s about people and what drives people. I think my liberal arts education at Penn was key in preparing me for my current career. Psychology, and I did a lot of anthropology, with some Wharton classes sprinkled in, really prepared me extremely well for what I do today. It’s a combination of art and science.