A Conversation with Todd Corley

Todd Corley
Todd Corley
Todd Corley, founder of The TAPO Institute

I used to work for Abercrombie & Fitch back when conditions were far from ideal.

I was hired right out of college in early 2002 at an all-comers job fair where my “collegiate” and “quality” (i.e., white and ripped) looks drew instant attention from a recruiter.

I was thrown into a busy store with zero training, as training was always “on the job,” and watched as stuff quickly went from bad to worse in an expeditious manner.

There were a host of problems with the company. There were offensive anti-Asian t-shirts. There was brand representative appearance grading on the A to F scale. The quarterly magazine/catalogs were filled to bursting with photos of Channing Tatum and dudes who looked like Channing Tatum. And then there was our sole African-American employee, our best employee in fact, whom our regional manager kept demanding we “zero out.”

African-American studies scholar Dwight McBride captured the prevailing spirit of this era in his essay “Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch”:

To brazenly evolve a way of playing on consumers’ worst racially based fears and inadequacies born of a racist structure that defines everything from standards of beauty to access to having the house on Martha’s Vineyard, goes beyond mere “lifestyle marketing.” In my judgment, that crosses the line into a kind of racism whose desire—played out to its logical conclusion—is not unlike a variety of ethnic cleansing.

It was awful. I quit. Ten years later, I wrote an essay about my time there. People read it, but many missed the ending, which referenced the Gonzalez v. Abercrombie & Fitch employment discrimination litigation, $50 million settlement, and subsequent diversification of the workforce.

Of course, I’d never given any thought about how that had come to pass, save for the fact that Abercrombie was dutifully fulfilling some court-ordered mandate.

Then I got to know Todd Corley, former Abercrombie Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer, who was recruited from the outside and responsible for all those changes.

In 2004, Corley, who earned his MBA from Georgetown with a focus on Organizational Development and Change Management, assumed one of the most daunting jobs in America. How do you take Abercrombie & Fitch, a staid old-person wilderness outfitter that had been rebranded as the quintessential purveyor of hot, youthful white maleness by then-CEO Mike Jeffries, and transform it into something that belongs to everybody?

But Corley, who also studied Brand & Reputation in the inaugural class taught by Tuck Executive Education at Dartmouth, delivered the goods, and then some, as detailed in his new book Fitch Path: A Cautionary Tale About A Moose, Millennials, Leadership, & Transparency.

I’ve long been skeptical about the ability of individuals to affect change from the inside, particularly in conservative institutions that have staked their success on a particular tried-and-true approach, but Corley was undeterred.

“Going in, I think people only expected that we would move the needle on ‘visible’ diversity just slightly in both hiring and attracting new customers,” he told me. “Outside of me and my immediate team, the expectations were generally conservative. Personally, I knew that the enthusiasm of Millennials, who were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, were locked in on understanding how to define, embrace, and leverage diversity, in all senses of the word: race, religion, sexual orientation.”

Corley recognized the company’s culture, which he characterized as a “friendly fraternity” consisting of very similar-minded people, was in need of an overhaul. He wanted a workforce of “diversity champions” who were, in his words, “‘all-in’ and courageous about making change and making sure those changes stick.”

This became increasingly important in the wake of the Gonzalez litigation, but for Corley it was far more than some settlement-mandated mea culpa: it was good business. “As customers, the Millennials were looking to see themselves throughout the store experience. We learned from independent third-party marketing reports that the Hollister brand rose steadily to become the number one specialty retail brand for African-American youth while our diversity strategy matured.”

The Abercrombie created under Corley’s watch was foreign to my experience. I’d sneak glimpses into the storefronts as I reluctantly trudged through some suburban shopping center, always noticing tangible results: scads of minority customers being assisted by a “majority-minority” sales staff.

It was a far cry from the exclusionist, white supremacist corporation described by Dwight McBride. Corley’s Abercrombie won eight consecutive “Best Place to Work for LGBT Equality” awards from the Human Rights Campaign, dating back to 2007.

I had been recruited on the fratbro-heavy UNC-Chapel Hill campus by an aging white ex-fratbro; Corley hired two dozen diversity recruiters and sent them to HBCUs and West Coast colleges with high percentages of Asian and Latino students. His efforts were successful, with the minority workforce increasing from 9 percent in 2004 to 21 percent by 2006, then to 35 percent in 2008, and finally over 50 percent by 2010, all while nearly 400 new stores opened their doors.

On top of that, Corley smoothed the rough edges related to the Gonzalez litigation, earning rave reviews from monitors tasked with ensuring that diversity operations didn’t receive short shrift. “The Office of Diversity has a lot of responsibilities,” remarked Fred Alvarez, who was tasked with overseeing Abercrombie’s compliance, “and I think Mr. Corley has done a good job of leveraging his own resources to try to get some of those things done.”

Fitch Path offers a step-by-step blueprint for implementing Corley’s methodology, which, in its roughest outline, consists of doing great by doing good. Diversity is often invoked as an empty buzzword, a series of benchmarks to be fulfilled before getting back to business, but Corley’s crucial innovation was emphasizing that diversity is the business. If your aspirational brand can’t reflect the hopes and dreams of the broadest possible customer base, something Ralph Lauren, for example, successfully achieved years ago through the use of minority models such as Tyson Beckford, then you’re selling yourself short.

Mike Jeffries had resurrected Abercrombie’s fortunes by selling access to an elite club, but these earlier efforts hinged on a very limited definition of who belonged. Corley, by contrast, wanted to market merchandise that everybody wanted, that everybody could see himself or herself wearing. Inclusion was the name of the game, and it was also the subject of various games and activities. For example, there was once an  an essay contest on the theme of “erasing exclusion,” that Corley developed for the company’s increasingly diverse workforce.

Corley understands why the Gonzalez litigation was necessary; the Millennials who had filed the lawsuit were among those who would be inheriting a majority-minority country. Business practices, he believes, must continue to evolve to reflect this reality, and companies and individuals who fail to recognize these realities will soon be left by the wayside.

In that respect, the last-gasp racism of Donald Trump seems particularly misguided. What businessman wouldn’t want the largest possible audience for his goods and services? As Corley writes in Fitch Path, “[the Millennials] are heirs to a Civil Rights Movement they had not known, and in general, they take the equality of other humans as a given, not a goal. As a group they are tolerant of everything except intolerance.”

EEOC dictates and settlement mandates aside, Corley also recognizes, “a drive for social equality and human solidarity comes with no finish line to cross. The price of equality is eternal vigilance and the bottom line is more dependent on the triple bottom line–people and planets as well as profits.” It’s true, given the person who selected Abercrombie’s Indian model, Neelam Gill, for new ads clearly scored an A (not an F) in one of the diversity classes Corley’s team designed and mandated that everyone take.

As for his time at Abercrombie, which concluded in 2014 when he launched his consultancy, The TAPO Institute, Corley has few regrets. “If I could have converted more strugglers and neutral observers to diversity champions, that would have been a nice way to leave the organization, but as it stands, it’s a role I’d undertake all over again, because of the challenges it presented and the relationships I built.” The company has since experienced diminishing profit margins, but a lack of inclusivity hardly seems to be the problem.

More importantly, Corley’s experience has convinced him that succeeding generations will continue to demand much-needed reforms from the corporations that cater to their needs. “Millennials and iGens [Gen Z] remind you of how optimistic we should all be about the future of being more inclusive,” he told me. “Our global community has a bright future!”

By Oliver Lee Bateman

Oliver Lee Bateman is a lawyer and a professor of history. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Mic, Al Jazeera America, and VICE.