In January 2020, Karl-Johan Persson stood down as the CEO of H&M after 11 years. His successor is Helena Helmersson, the first female CEO of the brand and as of this year, one of the most influential women in fashion.
Swedish born Helmersson has been with the brand since 1997, working her way up from a lowly controller position to eventually take the top spot. Known for her commitment to ethical, sustainable clothing, she's set to take both the brand and the fashion world at large in a very new, very 21st century direction. Find out more about the H&M CEO Helena Helmersson with these ten quick facts.
1. She was born in Sweden
Helmersson was born in the small city of Skellefteå in the north of Sweden in 1973. One of three sisters, she spent her early years in Skellefteå until she left to study at the Umeå School of Business and Economics in the mid-northern region of Sweden. After completing her bachelor's degree, she went on to take her master's degree in international business administration, finally graduating in1997.
2. Her first job was at H&M
Helmersson clearly values loyalty. While increasing numbers of people spend their twenties flitting between companies trying to find their ideal fit, Helmersson obviously preferred the idea of finding a firm and staying there. Her very first job after graduating from Umeå School of Business and Economics was as a section manager in the buying office of H&M. Over 20 years later, the job title may have changed, but the company's still the same.
3. She's travelled the world
If there's one thing you can't accuse Helmersson off, it's not being well travelled. As part of her duties with H&M, she's worked extensively abroad. Her first international assignment was in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she spent most of 2007 working as a production manager. After that, she spent nearly three years in Hong Kong as the brand's department manager for underwear production. She finally returned to her home country in 2010 to take on the position of manager for social responsibility and supply.
4. She's Sweden's "Most Powerful Woman in Business"
Helmersson might only have been H&M's CEO since January 2020, but her past positions with the company have carried plenty of influence in their own right. Four years into her tenure as H&M's manager for social responsibility and supply in Sweden, she was wielding enough power to earn the title of "Most Powerful Woman in Business" from the weekly business magazine Veckans Affärer. Speaking to GreenBiz about the honor, Helmersson said "I'm super proud and very happy. There is a gigantic amount of teamwork behind everything we do, and I take this as proof that it's been visible."
5. She's been named to the BoF 500
As if being named Sweden's most powerful woman in business wasn't enough, Helmersson has also had the honor of being named to the BoF 500, The list of fashion's brightest and best is compiled by Business of Fashion and is considered (in their words at least) 'the definitive professional index of the people shaping the fashion industry'.
6. She's the first female CEO of H&M
After 8 years as H&M's manager for social responsibility and supply in Sweden, Helmersson was promoted to global head of production in 2015. In 2018, she relocated to the company's Stockholm headquarters to take the reigns as the director of operations of the group, with responsibilities over expansion, logistics, production, IT, and analytics. 2 years later, she made news headlines when she was promoted to replace Karl-Johan Persson (the grandson of the founder and H&M's CEO since 2009) as chief executive of the group.
The appointment makes Helmersson the first woman to take on the top position in the group, and only the second CEO not to be a member of the Persson family (as themds.com notes, the first was Rolf Eriksen, who managed H&M after Stefan Persson departed in 2000 and before Karl-Johan Persson arrived in 2009).
7. Gunhild Stordalen is her icon
If there's one person Helmersson aspires to most, it's the Norwegian physician and environmental advocate, Gunhild Stordalen. "There's a lot of people that I really admire, Gunhild Stordalen is one of them because she is trying to change the system," she explained during an interview with agood.com. "Not only a silofied question, but the system around food. And I admire that because that is not as easy, but she is kind of relentless in her ambition to make a change in that industry."
8. Her work in sustainability has influenced the entire fashion industry
As CEO of one of the biggest fashion groups in the world, Helmersson's influence is now almost boundless. But even before she got promoted to the top position, she was already making waves thanks to her efforts in sustainability. As manager for social responsibility and supply, Helmersson was responsible for rolling out initiatives that not only changed the way H&M did business, but that had a fundamental impact on how the fashion world did. in recognition of her work in sustainability, she's been honored with numerous awards, including the title of 'influential leader' by AACSB.
9. She's reshaping H&M for the digital age
As the world moves further into the digital age, brick and mortar stores are becoming a dying breed. But where one door closes, another opens. Determined not to let H&M fall victim to the growing presence of online-only stores, Helmersson is working to reshape the brand for the 21st century. "It is one of the things that will be super exciting to understand going forward: how we see stores today with digital growth moving faster," she said during an interview with the Financial Times. "We have a fantastic advantage in terms of our physical store network. It is what we do with it.”
10. She thinks fashion can be cheap AND ethical
in the fashion world, the words 'cheap' and 'ethical' are rarely seen as compatible. But according to Helmersson, cheap prices don't have to mean cheap labor. "We want to make sustainable fashion more democratic," she's explained to Reuters. "We don't aim for sustainability to be a luxury thing."
"There is a misconception that lower prices in the stores mean bad working conditions or less pay," she went on to say. " (The) 'Made in Bangladesh' collection is something that I'm proud of. Our presence in Bangladesh is coming with so much positive impact if you think about the alternative jobs for women in Bangladesh."
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Written by Allen Lee
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