Lead(H)er: Gillan Hawkes, Head of Product at 6 River Systems
What does one do with a degree in comparative literature from an Ivy League school? Why, you work on Wall Street, of course! At least, that was Gillan Hawkes’ answer. With so many of her Princeton classmates choosing between careers in banking and consulting, Hawkes parlayed the analytical, listening, and critical thinking skills she had mastered into an associate role.
“It was certainly not a planned journey to go work in banking, but it was a great thing to have done because I think it did round out more of the financial and business side of my education that I didn't formally get,” Hawkes said.
After a few years, Hawkes knew that she didn’t want to spend her career in banking. Not knowing where exactly she wanted to go instead, she took some time to get her MBA at the London Business School, which she chose because of its international focus. The education and the following years in consulting ultimately led Hawkes to discover that she most enjoyed working with a combination of strategy and operations.
Her first retail job, in which she worked to help an oil and gas company develop its gas station retail offerings, pointed her career in the direction of retail.
“We're not all shopaholics, but we all consume stuff, and it was a light bulb moment—I can have a career doing something that just comes naturally,” Hawkes said. “We all do some sort of retail experience every day.”
London kept calling, so Hawkes transitioned to a job at Tesco, one of the largest retailers in the world. There, she developed and implemented multi-channel strategies that helped successfully relaunch the retailer’s online business.
“We've got stores, and we've got a digital experience, so how do you blend all of them and make them compelling and interesting and easy for customers to float between those channels?” Hawkes said. “That was where I thought I’d stay forever because I loved it.”
What she loved less and less, though, was the size of the retailers for which she developed those connections: The Home Depot and Staples are enormous, and with that breadth comes plenty of layers to sift through before change can happen. Hawkes needed a new challenge, and she found it in startups.
She stayed at the first startup she joined, Divert, for almost two years. There, she led the recycling and sustainability company’s customer solutions unit. The department identified business opportunities, built products and services, and operated them with large retailers like Target and Safeway. Hawkes also helped scale and combine teams into single units.
Since catching the startup bug, Hawkes has no plans to return to the corporate world. Startups offer a whole host of new challenges, and as head of product at the Waltham-based 6 River Systems, Hawkes is working in an entirely new side of retail. The robotics company improves fulfillment services for manufacturers, 3PLs, and retailers, keeping her close to the industry she loves while allowing her to expand and apply her skills in different ways.
“I think the very apt analogy of building a bike while you're riding is what I love about where I am today, and frankly about most startups,” Hawkes said. “There are some inflection points within a company where you go from everyone sitting in the same room to several dozen teams that you're trying to keep coordinated across different locations. The trick is getting the right amount of structure, and the right amount of support as a company grows without it being constraining or stifling. Navigating that successfully I think sometimes means success or failure.”
Looking forward, Hawkes knows she’ll continue to work in retail, and almost certainly within the startup space. The ability to manage and build high-performing teams has always been important, and Hawkes hopes to rise to the challenge of providing her teams with the same level of mentorship she receives throughout her career.
“I have some solid ground under my feet, but a lot of kind of unsolid scary, exhilarating things to continue to learn as I go,” she said.
Rapid Fire Questions
What do you do in your free time?
I like to read and run and sometimes do both at the same time via fun podcasts. I listen to New Yorker Radio Hour right now, and TED talks are always a go-to. I'm always looking for new suggestions to keep me interested!
How do you typically handle stress?
Running! Plus I guess I'm a to-do list kind of person, so for me to put it on a piece of paper and make myself do it and cross it off helps me manage the stress of my workload. Also, just stepping back and getting perspective on things at the end of the day helps. I'm lucky in my health and my family and their health, and so I think making sure I keep things in perspective is essential.
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
I drink two, but I think “real” coffee drinkers would hate me because I pour all sorts of hazelnut flavor into it. Coffee people probably wouldn't let me into their coffee drinker club. Like, how can you do that to my hand-pressed coffee? But this is my thing.
What’s your favorite spot in Boston?
I love running near water, so anywhere where there's water and a path next to it, be it the Charles or Walden Pond or any body of water really. I think that the combination of a place to run and look at water and hear the sounds & see the sights that usually go with water is a beautiful place to be.
What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments, unrelated to your family?
I think probably being someone who actually would be happy working and living and dragging my family with me to anywhere in the world where there's an interesting thing to do. I think a lot of people feel a bit hemmed in and constrained and fearful of picking up and moving across the world. That's something I grew up doing as a kid and continued to do throughout my career. I'm proud that I want to continue to be open to doing that forever. I would love to have a bona fide excuse to see the world instead of just my vacation time.
Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?
Absolutely not, no! I think that's the joy of it. I think I want to be doing stuff that I never thought I could be capable of doing, and that's where I want to be.
What’s your advice for recent college grads?
Don't have a path, don't stick to anything you think is sensible. Don't be stupid, but make opportunities happen, and be open to doing things that you didn't think you could be or should be doing or whatever. You're capable of it, and it might be a little harder, but I think the adage of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger—I believe in that. Every new experience fills up your toolbox and will make you a better person, leader, contributor every time you do something that takes you out of your comfort zone.