Laura Sen Explains the Power of Learning, How to Spark Change

laura sen

Change is incremental, and starts with one person at a time, according to Laura Sen, former president and CEO of BJ’s Wholesale Club and BC ’78.

Sen spoke to students and faculty about her life and career in business on Wednesday afternoon.

Sen was named one of the 100 Power Women by Forbes in 2010 and one of the 50 most influential women in 2011 by Boston Magazine.

During her talk, Sen emphasized the importance of being receptive and constantly learning new things in the business world. She explained that as a liberal arts major she was forced to learn many new things for her career in the business. Sen also mentioned constantly changing technology and how staying up to date on the current technology in the field one works in is important.  

Learning about the industry or technology is not the only important thing to learn, Sen said. She also learned important and valuable things from her employees over the years.

“Learning from your employees is as important as managing them,” she said. 

Along with learning from employees, Sen stressed the importance of learning about her employees as well. She explained how she tries to learn one thing about everyone that she can talk with them about whenever she sees them and build a connection that way. Earning respect and trust in the workplace is an important part of having a well-functioning workplace. Change in a company happens person by person, Sen said, and having the people trust you is crucial to change.

Sen also explained how implementing large-scale strategic change in a company is very different in practice than coming up with the idea.

“You conceive the change you want to make at a conceptual and theoretical level, but you implement it almost one person at a time,” she said.

Sen gave the example of a change she made in how the inventory is counted at BJ’s Wholesale Club. When she began, all the inventory was counted at the warehouse and then again once shipped to each individual store. Sen saw this as inefficient and instead wanted the products to be counted once, more thoroughly at the warehouse. To get this change done, Sen had to convince people one by one.  

The most valuable part of her career so far has been mentoring others and seeing them succeed, she said.

“The most rewarding change you can make is the change in one person,” Sen said.

In addition to being an accomplished business woman, Sen is also an avid philanthropist. Over the years, Sen has donated money to many different causes and is a part of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Audit Board. Sen said that in the Chinese tradition there is the belief that if you give money away, then more good fortune will come back to you. She sees this in her own life. She gave the example of having the pleasure of watching a Chinese immigrant she tutored go from living in an apartment with her two children and mother-in-law without a job to being a successful research assistant with her own home.

As a woman in the business field, Sen found that she had to work harder than her male counter parts. She talked about how women in the workforce have to make hard choice between staying home with their children and continuing to further their careers. Sen explained that she chose to continue working and she understands that she may have missed some moments with her children when they were younger but that she would make the same choice again.  

Sen ended her talk with advice to all the women in the room.  

“Speak up,” she said. “Always be respectful and always take the high road, but speak up.”

Featured Image by Katherine Mahoney / Heights Staff