For Maureen Chiquet the day she came into high school and found the words “dirty Jew” scrawled on her locker changed everything.
Chiquet rose from an internship at L’Oreal to Worldwide CEO of Chanel. She is also the author of “Beyond the Label,” a book that chronicles her rise up the corporate ladder.
She grew up in a Reform Jewish family in St. Louis. “My mother felt very deeply about preserving tradition,” she told me in a phone interview. As a result, Maureen went to Sunday school until she was confirmed. The family celebrated Jewish holidays and even traveled to Israel together. But the observance “wasn’t from a religious perspective. It was the tradition and culture that was important.” A good student, bored with the curriculum at her public high school, where “a lot of kids were taking drugs and the teachers became apathetic,” she pushed her parents to enroll her at the private school, where she was one of the few Jews.
“Up until that point I never felt discriminated against, never really felt pressure or bias,” she said. “I grew up in a kind of protected subdivision. Yes, there were Jewish country clubs and non-Jewish country clubs. I had all the mythology behind me. It was part of my cultural makeup. But I never felt like an outsider.”
Until high school. “This same person [also] knocked down the mailbox at my home. And when I walked into a Steak and Shake with a bunch of my friends, he walked up and left when we a walked in.”
The experience with an anti-Semitic high school bully wound up making her a better leader. “It gave me a lot of empathy for people of all different races and religions,” she said.
When she was 16 years old, she spent a month in Provence during which “I fell madly in love with France.” Like her high school experience, this too would prove pivotal to her life.
Chiquet, who now lives in Westchester County, N.Y., has had a lifelong love affair with France. She’d stayed there for extended visits twice before — a summer abroad in high school and a semester in college. An uncle of her French roommate during Maureen’s college stay was a L’Oreal exec, who landed her a job as an intern in Paris. It was the start of a career that, took her to the Gap and eventually landed her the top job at Chanel, In 2003, she was hired by Chanel, eventually becoming its Paris-based worldwide CEO.
Remembering her high school experience – “No one gets over it,” she said – she was always cautious in France. “When I was at L’Oreal [1998-2003], it felt like French Jews hid their Judaism, because it wasn’t long before that where it was dangerous to be Jewish. I remember awkward moments when my roommate [for a college semester abroad] would say she’s Jewish as if to warn others not to say anything [anti-Semitic].”
Chiquet and Chanel parted ways in 2016 over what was described as “differences of opinion about the strategic direction of the company.” But she left an amazing legacy. Part of that legacy was her mentoring women executives, two of whom I chatted with over email:
Stephanie Kramer, vice president for global marketing for Kiehl’s but 11 years ago a young strategy analyst at Chanel, remembers admiring her “presence.” She added,
“It is of course an executive presence — with confidence and grace, but more than that. It is a thoughtful energy which is engaging and inspiring — she truly listens and is curious. She has the ability to encourage you to change your perspective as a leader, in her words and in her actions.”
Julie Thibault, currently Chanel’s VP of fragrance and beauty retail innovation at Chanel was a young strategy analyst when she first encountered Chiquet.
“In my first meeting with her there was a lively debate amongst a large group. I remember her looking at me as I said quietly, ‘I have an idea.’ She got everyone to stop talking and says ‘Julie has something to contribute.’ She had just met me, but wanted to let me have my voice.”
Chiquet is now touring the country speaking on women’s issues and encouraging them to “assume leadership roles on their own terms.”
For the moment, she has no plans beyond that. While working at L’Oreal, a co-worker took her to some Parisan jazz clubs where she learned to appreciate the musical form. “I’d heard many of the songs before, but live the musicians would add in their own influences.” She said that was a lot like marketing: you learn the rules, read the score and then come up with your own riff.
Chiquet is just waiting for the next song to play.