Shelley Bransten: An Authentic, Inspiring Leader in Retail Technology Focused on Helping Customers Succeed

The 10 Most Inspiring Businesswomen in Retail 2023

Shelley Bransten, Corporate Vice President, Global Retail, Consumer Goods & Gaming industries at Microsoft, represents a microcosm of two very different industries, having worked in retail as well as technology. She’s a fifth generation San Franciscan as her ancestors moved to California during the Gold Rush. “We did not find gold, but my great, great, great-grandfather started a coffee business serving coffee to the miners. So, he was the original retailer,” she narrates.

Growing up in a family coffee business from a very early age, Shelley was part of the family company in every way. She would often accompany her father on weekends to supermarkets and rearrange coffee cans on the shelves. As a result, she developed an innate interest in brands and understanding why people buy the way they do.

Shelley always jokes that she knew what a supermarket end cap was before she could do a cartwheel or throw a ball. “I’m standing in the supermarket. I’ll look at what people have in their carts. So, it was a natural place for me to go because I just loved both, the art, and the science of retail,” she recalls.

Falling In Love with The Art and Science of Retail

Shelley notes that the retail business is an interesting reflection of everything we see in the world. Even today retail represents over 30 percent of the world’s GDP, the largest private employer in the world, and it’s how most people get their first jobs. So, there’s a reason why people track consumer confidence to understand where the economy is going, and she finds that amazing. Inflation, gas prices, or any bad decision about merchandising and marketing campaigns that don’t resonate with the cultural Zeitgeist, all flow through retail.

“I’ll never forget Mickey Drexler, the person who turned the Gap into an icon of the retail industry and helped the Old Navy become, the fastest specialty retail brand to a billion dollars. He always said that everything good or bad we do in retail shows up in a store somewhere, and it’s so true. I made lots of mistakes in terms of thinking something would resonate with a consumer, but that was part of what makes it fun,” she maintains.

Shelly believes that competition is just an opportunity to innovate, and the more competition the better. The retail industry has had a long advantage in terms of consumer relationships, physical retail stores, and advanced supply chains. “Competition pushes us to get closer to customers and their needs. That’s part of the reason I joined Microsoft. You’ve got to keep moving and stay close to your customer, and competition forces that,” she insists.

Earning The Trust of Customers Every Day

As one of the largest technology providers in the world, Microsoft’s mission is to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” Shelley notes that 20 years ago, the mission was “a PC on every desk and every home,” and now the mission statement doesn’t even have the word technology in it.

“Technology underlies almost everything we do as shoppers, with our banks, our healthcare, you name it. Retail and consumer goods companies needed to have the same advantages, in terms of the most advanced technologies, as the technology industry themselves had. So, my remit is to do that, to take the signal from some of the largest and smallest retailers and brands around the world. It’s a global job to try to distil the most pressing needs and opportunities for the retailers and brands we serve, and then embed those capabilities into our technology roadmap at Microsoft or build a partner ecosystem that does that,” she explains.

“I think our CEO says it best: Don’t come to Microsoft to make yourself cool. Come to Microsoft to make other people cool,” Shelley remarks. “We see our success in terms of how we’re supporting inclusive growth, protecting fundamental rights, creating a sustainable future, and earning the trust of our customers every single day.”

Becoming More Customer-obsessed

When Shelley joined Microsoft, it had a retail capability map, but it was largely focused on the pure technology itself, not the retailer’s business outcomes. If they showed up to talk to Walgreens Boots Alliance or Tesco or Marks & Spencer, or any of their major customers, the conversation would not have been about Microsoft Office. “We would talk about Azure, which is our Cloud, business applications which is Microsoft Dynamics, and many of those products would have been bought by those customers,” she says.

The narrative that worked was based on the most pressing needs of those retailers. Today, the conversation is around helping retailers maximize the value of their data, elevating the shopping experience, empowering their frontline workers, and building a real-time and sustainable supply chain. By discussing business outcomes and working their way back to the technology, they developed a whole new set of technology capabilities.

“We just recently launched an autonomous store solution with Zabka, the largest convenience store chain in Poland. So, it’s been a pretty dramatic shift, and this is part of Microsoft’s cultural shift to become more customer centric and tackle the most pressing needs of our customers. In each of our targeted industries, we’re investing and ensuring that our capabilities are built, not as a transactional relationship but as a partner-driven model, and we’re getting real-time feedback and that’s changing the product roadmap,” Shelley elaborates.

She explains that there are 200 million recommendations of what should be in certain stores going through their Cloud every single day, for just one of their largest retailers. Microsoft recently announced frictionless stores at NRF 2023, the largest retail trade show in the world, and now they’re about to have more autonomous stores and market at a cost that retail can absorb, and that makes her proud.

“Retail is getting smarter, and I feel incredibly proud that my fingerprints and my team’s fingerprints are all over that. You’re not going to see the Microsoft logo everywhere because we see that when our customers succeed, that’s our biggest success,” says Shelley. “Professionally, I have been at the tip of some of the most interesting technology trends at the intersection of Retail and Tech, and the accomplishments are our customers’ accomplishments.”

Leadership Is About Building a Community

Shelley believes that leadership is all about the people you’re leading, the P in your followership. “To me, a great leader is not what they’ve achieved themselves, but how many people around them have reached their ambitions, or are getting promotions or new opportunities, and being pushed to their edges. I’ve had the privilege of working for incredible leaders like Deb Cupp, who now runs Microsoft Americas. It’s about building a community, not a person standing at the top of the mountain, but collective success,” she insists.

Shelley thinks about success more as a journey versus a destination, and that it’s not about planting the flag on the moon and calling oneself successful, because it’s not necessarily financial or a title or even external accolades.

“Success to me is those micro-moments where you just know whether you’re an athlete, you’ve left it all on the field, you pushed yourself. You’ve grown, probably failed, and said, ‘How the heck am I the one doing this project?’ It’s very much a team sport. So, I don’t think you succeed alone. I try to bring the best and the brightest around me with me,” she observes.

What defines success for Shelley is when she brings people along in their careers as she’s developing herself, and it doesn’t involve a performance review or promotion. “It comes in those moments when you can feel it in your body, and then the financial success you hope follows, but you don’t do it for those reasons. Winning just feels so good” she insists.

The Challenges of Being a Woman Leader in Technology

Shelley observes that, during her time in the retail industry, especially at the Gap, there were many senior women who she had an opportunity to watch and learn from as she was working her way up. However, in the technology industry, there are not as many senior women executives, so it took her a while, going from Gap to Salesforce, to find her footing.

“It’s hard to know when you change careers or jobs after 16 years in one company, and then also change industries, whether this is just because it’s new, or because it’s a new industry. I don’t understand all the language, the acronyms, and that was a moment of questioning self-confidence, what we call the Imposter Syndrome,” she admits.

However, as Shelley grew as a leader, one of the things that helped her succeed was looking around corners and going where it was not obvious that the ball was going to go. She points out that leadership is often about asking questions and it took her a while to be brave, and courageous enough just to ask questions. “Now that I have so much more confidence, I ask more questions. It’s not like I know more, it’s just I feel comfortable to ask about what something actually means, and what’s amazing to me is how few people truly understand,” she observes.

Shelley takes the commitment and obligation of being a female leader in one of the most successful technology companies in the world seriously because she knows that, even when she’s not actively looking into the camera in a Teams all-hands meeting or participating in the chat, people are watching her and taking cues. She participates in a lot of executive women groups, everything from what books they read in the summer, to financial planning, to balancing work and home, and it’s something she’s found incredibly meaningful.

“There are a lot of young women and men who are coming up in their careers and trying to figure out how to balance work and home. So, it’s big shoes to fill. I feel privileged that I get to fill them, but it does mean there are fewer women around than I would like, so I want more of us, and it’s something I take very seriously,” she clarifies.

COVID-19 Was the Chief Innovation Officer for Retail

Shelley points out that while there were many phases of COVID, the early days were the first time in her entire career of over 25 years in retail, that the industry was re-segmented into essential and non-essential, and the impacts for both were completely different.

Retailers who were deemed essential kept their stores open, and many of their communications used Microsoft technology. Keeping doors open so people could get their toilet paper, test kits, and vaccinations, was done with Walgreens on the Microsoft Cloud for example.

“We didn’t know if the shoe was going to completely drop because half the industry was getting shut down and the essential retailers would be the backbone of the entire consumer economy. The initial days were to respond, recover, and reimagine, and we’re seeing the results of it.,” Shelley observes.

“People were home, setting up their home offices and Ito grills on the patio. It was crazy, and all of sudden retailers were embracing hybrid. I got calls from people saying, ‘I can’t believe it. We just merchandised our entire line through Teams and can hire people from Scandinavia and we’re based in Pittsburgh.’ COVID-19 was a Chief Innovation Officer for retail because it proved what people could do. It added speed and agility and a level of experimentation into the industry,” Shelley maintains.

The retail industry is now focused on the idea of resilient retail, and what the characteristics of a resilient retailer are, in terms of investments and culture. “Things like investing in the frontline store associate, in the consumer experience, getting a 360° view of your consumer, and building more agility into your supply chain, those are some of the characteristics that will remain true for a while. We’ll start seeing more separation between the leaders and the laggards,” Shelley predicts.

An Eternal Optimist Who Thrives on Variety and Experimentation

With her love for variety and experimentation, Shelley loves the fact that, in her job there are no regular days in the office. One day may be filled with customer meetings or rolling out a new capability, while others could involve a forecast review, looking at the numbers and pipeline, and assessing how they’re doing against some of their biggest competitors. With all the discussion around generative AI, having conversations with customers about new capabilities and asking them what they need from these capabilities is another opportunity for partnership.

“My favorite days are when I’m either out visiting a customer at their headquarters, meeting with my team, and when those two come together. Those are great days. Even if it’s a tough situation, we’ll have the conversation, do the post-mortem, and figure out how to address both opportunity and concerns. I love those days. It’s a really fun job.

As an eternal optimist, what keeps Shelley going is opportunity. She always sees the positive and believes in positive intent, and that keeps her going. She starts and ends most conversations, even with the most senior people, by saying ‘How can I help,’ and notes that it’s amazing what people will say, as even the most senior CEOs can use help.

An Authentic Leader Building an Incredible Team

With Microsoft’s customers what keeps Shelley going is organizing her team around the trends shaping the industry and helping figure out how Microsoft can help to navigate that constantly changing customer landscape. Watching retailers embrace their own transformation at scale, with business measures to prove success is one of Shelley, and her team’s, greatest drivers of satisfaction. “I do have an incredible team. I’ve worked hard to cultivate it. My team tenure is long. These people have known the industry for a long time, and when I’m having a hard day, they keep me going, and I try to do the same for them,” she remarks.

Shelley points out that having great people that complement where she’s not strong has been part of her leadership philosophy, and she’s rigorous about her calendar. “I could spend most of my time in meetings and that’s not what they’re paying me to do. So, I’m rigorous about making sure I’m spending enough time out with customers. And on the family side, there are things I missed, but I try not to miss the big performances, games, birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries. Those are no-travel days,” she insists.

Shelley proclaims that she’s truly loving the job she’s doing right now, because the world has never had a greater need for a company built on trust, especially in the Big Tech world, and especially in retail. The cultural excitement around Generative Artificial Intelligence and Microsoft’s partnership with OpenAI are fueling unprecedented CEO interest.  She has joined a few boards including the board of NRF (National Retail Federation), and a smaller startup called Trove, which is all about re-Commerce and the belief that fashion needs to be circular.

“I care a lot about our planet. I could certainly see myself, at some point, either teaching or being on a lot of boards, because there’s so much that I’ve learned and people have shared with me, that I’d love to give back, but that’s further down the road. Right now, I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I think the impact I can make on the current boards that I’m sitting on is filled with opportunity,” she remarks. “I feel like I’m just getting going. Mine’s been more of a winding road than a direct road. I’m amazed at what I’ve achieved, but I don’t think I’ve achieved everything I want, and I think I have a lot of really interesting work ahead for me, for Microsoft, for the retail industry.”

Describing herself as authentic, Shelley notes that she doesn’t hide a lot, and that can be good and bad. People don’t always want the feedback, but she gives it anyway. “As Oscar Wilde said, be yourself, everyone else is taken. There are so many brilliant people I work with at Microsoft who know a thousand things better than I ever will, but I truly know the retail industry, and I bring that to my job every day. I try to be the best ambassador for the industry that I can be, and I do it authentically. I try to lead with my team, with the executives I report to, and with our customers,” she clarifies.

Keeping Up with Family and Trends

Shelley feels that her greatest achievement as a leader is what she’s accomplished at home. “I have two amazing kids and they’re healthy and good people and that, to me, is the greatest achievement. I’m also a daughter. My parents live very close to me, and I have two sisters, so my relationships with my family mean everything to me,” she shares.

Shelley believes that her family and her relationship with her family and children make her a better leader, make her more empathetic, and keep her connected to trends. “When you have two teenagers, they’re the best social experiment around what’s going on, like when all the buzz of the metaverse came in. My younger son has been living in the metaverse for years through gaming and Fortnite and buying skins and NFTs. I work in an industry where watching the world and being connected to the world versus just focusing on work is a plus,” she observes.

Cultivate a Personal Board of Directors for Yourself

Shelley, who was recently named a 2023 industry leader by Professional BusinessWomen of California (PBWC) shares these profound words of wisdom for aspiring business leaders:

“First off, I would say, even to my younger self, be brave and ask the questions and cultivate your network. I’ve built this personal board of directors, people who are my truth serum, who will call me and tell me if I’m over my skis or not advocating for myself. So, cultivating that personal Board of Directors for yourself is a big piece of advice. It doesn’t need to be super formal, but it’s your panel, the people who aren’t going to tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.

The second piece would be to have fun. Not every day is going to be great, but there’s a lot of data showing that having fun, smiling, joking and laughing and bringing joy to your work truly builds great products, great teams, and great outcomes. So, don’t be afraid to have fun.

The third would be don’t be afraid to ask questions, either for yourself or for others. That’s been part of my later-stage leadership philosophy. I would always advise people that another important thing is just listening and listening well, and the other is just to keep dreaming big because the world needs it, and those are the people that change the world.”