Professional Development

How URBN’s inclusive work environment drives technical innovation

With equality baked into its culture, the digital-forward lifestyle retailer is showing, not telling, women they can succeed in tech.

URBN's Navy Yard campus.

(Courtesy photo)

Well known for being a boys club, the tech industry doesn’t have a stellar track record of inclusivity.

Per a 2020 survey by Accenture and Girls Who Code, only 21% believe “it’s easy for women to thrive in tech” — and 50% of women in tech leave the industry by the time they are 35.

The report concludes that the antidote to declining gender parity in tech is to create inclusive work environments. And from URBN’s large but cozy waterfront campus in Philadelphia’s iconic Navy Yard, that’s exactly what four women working on URBN’s tech team have found.

“URBN is a reflection of a different experience,” said Emily Kaplan, director of advanced analytics and digital strategy. “The majority of women on our tech team work in product management, UX, digital strategy, data science and engineering.”

URBN is the parent company of global retail brands Anthropologie, Free People, Urban Outfitters and Nuuly. Though the company opened its first brick and mortar store in 1970, it wasn’t until the late ‘90s and early aughts that its growing portfolio of brands launched a digital presence. Today, with a 400-person tech team, the ecommerce empire considers itself as much a tech company as it does a clothing retailer.

Read on to discover how URBN has created an inclusive culture where, as those we spoke to agreed, women can thrive in tech.

Equality from the top down

Women make up half of URBN’s executive team, sitting in four of the eight senior leadership positions. With such prominent visibility at the top, employees quickly learn there are no limits on the opportunities they’ll find or impact they can make at URBN based on gender.

“URBN is a company where women are not just welcome, but leading the charge,” Kaplan said.

When interviewing for her current job, she spoke to people from each of URBN’s brands, stating that half were women in director levels or above.

“It was almost nicer seeing inclusion intrinsically built in versus them saying, ‘Here’s the women’s group!’” she said. “Seeing it organically versus a packaged PR message was far more powerful.”

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No limits on career growth

Yen Duong, who’s been with URBN for just under seven years, credits “really good mentorship” and a culture of knowledge-sharing with her recent growth from mid-level engineer to staff engineer.

“Early on, my tech lead made sure we were always learning new skills and concepts, and pushed me to take on bigger projects,” Duong said. “Now I’m able to work autonomously and guide other engineers.”

Duong said URBN is a place where you are encouraged to follow your interests, even if it means starting in one role and evolving into something completely different.

A perfect example of this is Tracey Strober, who in her 20th year at URBN has worked her way from Urban Outfitters store manager to her current role as the global director of retail solutions and customer experience.

“I’ve felt very lucky in my career at URBN,” Strober said. “They’ve enabled me to take risks, try things and be successful. I’ve had the opportunity to write my own job description and have the support of supervisors who trust and empower me to take on roles that never existed before.”

Strober made it clear that at no point did her career growth feel impacted by her gender, either negatively or positively.

“I don’t ever feel singled out as a female,” Strober said. “There’s such a good mix of people on each team, in leadership roles and developer roles.”

URBN’s Philadelphia HQ. (Courtesy photo)

Support and flexibility for all

In practice, that inclusive feeling Strober describes is the product of much planning and strategy. URBN provides support systems and development opportunities equally for all its employees, such as employee resource groups, group Slack channels developed and managed by employees, flexible work hours, and a regular roster of internal community events designed for sharing knowledge, developing new skills, building connection and fostering wellness.

“My biggest challenge in the last five years has been becoming a mom,” said Jenn Lukas, web engineering manager, who has worked at URBN for seven years. “URBN Technology as a whole and my web team are really supportive of working parents. You may have doctor’s appointments or a child who’s screaming during a Zoom meeting and I’ve never been made to feel bad about doing what I need to do — and that’s huge.”

As a manager, Lukas understands that everyone has different stuff going on in their lives, whether they are new moms or introverts who need more uninterrupted work time. She praises URBN for giving each team the autonomy to support the needs and work styles of its members, enabling a more organic, personalized team dynamic.

“People work differently,” Lukas said. “It’s important to give everyone the space to do their best work, and make sure they feel heard and are recognized for their contributions.”

Ownership of work

In another report by Accenture, researchers found that innovation is higher at companies with inclusive cultures, for when workers feel valued for their contributions, they are more motivated to innovate.

This rings true for Duong, for whom it’s not just the quantity of new projects, features and systems that makes working on the tech team exciting, but the ability to put your mark on them that drives innovation at URBN.

“There aren’t many places where you get the opportunity to write code from scratch,” Duong said. “Here, the work is your baby. People really care about maintaining it.”

Case in point: Duong once led the data migration from an old database with approximately 20 million users to a new one, while production was live, without causing issues as users were shopping. “I am really proud to have led that,” she said.

To stay not just competitive, but at the forefront of ecommerce technology, URBN encourages technologists to constantly evaluate and improve upon its tech stack year over year.

“We make decisions for the future,” Duong said. “If someone has a good reason to introduce a new technology into our stack, they’re never told ‘no.’ We’re empowered to fit the investigation of new tech into our workload.”

Kaplan believes URBN is a stimulating environment for all people with the spirit and attitude for rolling with the punches.

“The tech department is incredibly fast paced and entrepreneurial,” Kaplan said. “We might set a plan for the year but knowing how quickly the digital landscape changes, roles could shift at any time. For somebody super passionate about technology and being at the forefront of innovation, it’s a really exciting place to work.”

And one that makes it easy to thrive, too.

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