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Think PINK

By Juel Grange

The color PINK once solely stood as a symbolic representation for all things female. When an infant girl is born, in most cases, she faces the world for the first time donning a soft PINK blanket. Her clothing, toys, and room's décor are frequently color coded by that very majestic hue which speaks to the identity of a womanly race.

But now, when PINK is considered, not only have her social characteristics remained intact, but she's undergone a makeover into a wildly successful business as Victoria Secret's sub-brand, PINK.

Today, thinking PINK requires a reflection of thousands of pastel tank tops, sweat suits, messenger bags embroidered with that symbolic PINK print, and bras and panties sold to countless tweenage/teenage girls across America, making it the billion-dollar empire it has strategically become.

With its skyrocketing success, it's hard to believe that Victoria Secret's PINK Brand was once an idea that no one knew what to do with.

"Nobody really knew what PINK was. They were like, there's this thing at Victoria's Secret, the chairman thinks it's really special, nobody else really knows what it is, it's selling, people are buying it, but we really don't get it," says Richard Dent III, chief operating officer (COO) of Victoria Secret PINK.

At the time, PINK was just a small entity within the focus of Victoria Secret's multi-billion dollar bra operation. "They didn't have a lot of time to devote to PINK so (Les Wexner, CFO at the time) said, ‘I'm going to put some people on it, let them be dedicated and grow it.'"

One would assume that a global brand targeting women of all ethnicities and walks in life would be pioneered by a female who could relate to the body structure and wants of a woman when it comes to fashion and comfort. But amazing things happen when you think outside the box and embrace new arenas.

That's the case with Richard Dent. A financial guy by trade, Dent never implemented the idea of being the one to grow an all-feminine based fashion brand. But when opportunity approached, the challenge and possibility led him down the path of new experiences.

"I took the opportunity, not that I had foresight at that time to know that PINK was going to blow up and explode, because no one did," he says. "But what I did know was that going over as a CFO on a small team (of about six people), I was going to have an opportunity because there weren't many of us to do about 10 different jobs at once. I was CFO, COO, I did stores, real estate, I did everything!"

And that was the nexus of the flourishing brand and apparel that are well acquainted with high school and college femmes across the world.

Billion Dollar Dreams

Multi-billion dollar businesses and corporations are nothing new to Richard Dent III. At the age of 27, the Columbus, Ohio native was heading up the professional ladder with ambitions to become the CFO of Ford Motor Company. He then moved on to Volvo as the youngest controller for Volvo Heavy Trucks.

"Those are the big 18-wheelers; they had a North America Heavy Truck Division that did four or five billion dollars worth of volume and it was a great opportunity," he explains. "When I went into that role, Volvo had a worldwide bus company and the car company and I was the youngest controller in all those entities at the time, so it was a great experience."

Volvo allowed Dent to realize that he was clearly more than just a "numbers guy," that he encompassed the ability to drive business, create strategy and influence marketing. "Working with the head of marketing, we put together a complete reinvention of the business model," he says.

Though he enjoyed the nature of his work and time with Ford and Volvo, the climate of business was changing and it was time to move on.

Fate brought in the Limited Brand conglomerate, a retail business worth $10 billion, which provided Dent the chance to capitalize on skills learned early on in the automotive industry.

The company was looking for a few individuals with "hardcore finance experience." So in 2005, Dent was recruited to the retail conglomerate and took on a new future."I didn't even know about Limited Brands as a company," he admits. "I was certainly familiar with their brands — Express, Limited, Lerners, and Victoria's Secret –– but I wasn't familiar with the corporate entity."

Grasping the nature of the retail industry and combining that with an extensive financial background wasn't easy, Dent found. In fact, it was quite challenging. But the thing that hooked him was the excitement and the instantaneous results.

The opportunity was "intriguing because it was different," he says. Tapping into a more creative atmosphere, retail brought about a mental transition as well.

Becoming COO enabled Dent to exercise both his left and right brain hemispheres, which he identified as an odd situation for most co-leaders.

"Some COO's have those jobs where they only do left-brain stuff and aren't involved in any of the right-brain creative stuff. I'm a part of all the creative conversations. What my responsibility is and what I'll do is really take those ideas and say what I'll need from an organizational standpoint to support that and what I need to accomplish in stores."

He adds, "That's the fun part about my job because we're an idea machine. And my role is to help take those great ideas and monetize them."

The HBCU Collective

Destined to leave his imprint amongst the entire PINK brand, in 2008, after successfully integrating a collegiate line for the country's major universities, Dent sparked discussions amongst colleagues about constructing a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) collection.

"Nobody even knew what these schools were," says Dent. "Nobody was familiar with the tradition of Historically Black Colleges. So the idea of ‘wow, girls really like PINK and girls really like their schools,' if we could put the two together that would be crazy!"

Crazy? Not so much. But business savvy? Right on target. An HBCU alum himself graduating from Florida A&M University (FAMU), Dent ingeniously spearheaded the crafting of PINK's second phase of its collegiate effort toward Black college students. The outreach featured the likes of FAMU, Howard University, Spelman University, and Southern Louisiana University.

"We basically took to the HBCUs the largest retail distribution they've ever had by offering product in our stores and online," Dent emphasizes.

The new addition to PINK not only bestowed HBCUs with the largest retail distribution they've had in history, but also conjoined the line with a scholarship program sponsored by the Limited Brands Foundation.

"Being able to give something back to these schools that were very helpful for me and my career was a big deal for me personally," says Dent."

While PINK's HBCU sector serves as a vessel to engage the brand's African American consumers, the visual depictions within the company's marketing have also been used as a viable tool to connect with Black audiences.

African-American model Chanel Iman, one of the modeling industry's leading figures worldwide, serves as one of the brand's foremost spokespersons and model.

And the hands of countless Black femmes are even a cyber driving force behind an outpour of support via Facebook, in the form of plentiful "liked" statuses and continual comments of praise.

The Universal Brand

Dent says PINK does not have a specified point of view about who their customer is and how they represent their brand; they aim to appeal to all ethnicities.

"Our customer demographic looks like America," says Dent. "Because of that we don't really have to go, ‘Here's my commercial for Black people, here's my commercial for mainstream.' We want PINK to be the most aspiring brand for all college age females of any ethnicity."

And this testament stands true. Throughout the pages and covers of catalogues and situated amongst Victoria's Secret PINK web portal are the images of breathtakingly beautiful Black, brown, and yellow young women.

The creative and business minds behind Victoria Secrets PINK and PINK Nation spend a great abundance of time on college campuses engaging and connecting with young women and discovering their styles and wants when it comes to relaxed and stylish fashion.

Because of this, there is no surprise at the number of 19-year-olds and 20-somethings they hire to represent and model their apparel.

"PINK from day one has always been built on customer intimacy," says Dent. "We spend a ton of time on college campuses and talking to girls, and we hire a lot of girls who are relatively close to that life stage."

Mentor and Advisor

Though his usual day-to-day is all hustle and creativity, a major joy Dent receives is mentoring African-American students and professionals about truly working hard and accomplishing their goals.

"Whenever I talk to kids, I tell them that you really have to work your ass off. Nothing is going to be given to you, especially as an African American," he emphasizes. "There's a level of organizational sophistication you need to have to be successful because ‘smarts' is not even enough as you get higher up the ladder."

He also shares wisdom with his colleagues in the corporate world, explaining, "I just made a choice in my life to mentor a lot of professional people."

With all of Richard Dent III's accomplishments and ability to create opportunities for others, he remains grounded in knowing and believing that his successes are beyond him.

"For whatever reason, God blessed me with the ability to kind of navigate corporately and to understand politics. I appreciate that naturally and realize that it is a gift."

(*Juel Grange wrote this story as an N'DIGO intern from Columbia College. Updating and additional reporting by N'DIGO Associate Editor LaToya Cross.)