Chip (Wilson) On My Shoulder

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  By Jackie Brubaker

At this point you’ve probably heard about Chip Wilson and his notorious statement in regards to the yoga pants his company Lululemon creates, “Some women’s bodies just don’t actually work for it”. Or, that he blames birth control pills on higher divorce rates, “Women’s lives changed immediately (after the pill)… Men did not know how to relate to the new female. Thus, came the era of divorces.” And, that he decided to call his company Lululemon because he thought it was funny that Japanese people couldn’t pronounce the letter “L”.

But, what we haven’t heard is what it’s like to be a part of a company who’s image seems so idealistic from the outside, yet so controlling from the inside. This is one woman’s story of what it was like to work at Lululemon.

“I started out loving my new job.”

“Sarah” (all names have been changed) told me over coffee in Los Feliz this week. As a young yoga instructor and musician she thought the upbeat and positive image of Lululemon closely matched her own.

Lululemon educator showing her goal sheet

Lululemon educator showing her goal sheet

Sarah was hired as an “educator”. When she told me the title of her position I was impressed. I imagined she was educating stores around the city or even country somewhere high up the Lulu ladder. But, in fact an “educator” is simply a sales person on the floor of a Lululemon store.

The entire “culture” as they refer to it, of the company is based off of personal goals. Not the goals of the store, but your personal goals outside of it. When Sarah first started her new job she was told to make a “goal sheet” with three sections: personal, career and health. It was then printed and framed along side other employee’s goal sheets in the store for everyone, including customers, to see. The idea being that when a “guest” enters and spotted the boards it was part of her job to “educate” the Lululemon “culture” to them. Starting to pick up the lingo, yet?

“When I’d see a guest go up and look at the wall it was my job to explain that these are our goal sheets and they’re meant to “inspire” and “empower” people to live our lifestyle.” Sarah told me.

At first Sarah loved the idea behind the store. She felt supported in her goals outside of it and that there was flexibility in working there. But, she quickly learned that it was the opposite. “They were really pulling me in and that’s when I started to notice that something was very off.”

Once a month employees would meet to discuss their personal accomplishments and goals that they were achieving in each of their lives. They would break up into groups and coach each other. “Goal coaching” is when an assistant manager or manager talks to you specifically about your personal goals and coaches you on how to better achieve them. As she was telling me about this I couldn’t help but think how odd is seems that a company would want to help you better achieve your goals outside of it to ultimately prepare you to leave. I asked her this and she said, “Yeah, it seems pretty cool, right? It seemed very appealing.”

Sarah was already making a name for herself as a musician and started to notice that all of her “coaching” was simply unsolicited advice that she wasn’t asking for. Besides, how would the manager of a clothing store know how to give her advice on her music career? “As my career outside of Lululemon began doing really well I noticed that it was more of a hindrance to work there. They were coaching me on things I didn’t need coaching on. I was seeing results in my life. I wasn’t looking for answers.”

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  Lululemon was conceived out of Landmark Forum. Landmark Forum was created in 1991 as a personal development educational company that conducts large seminars that focus on teaching people to become the best version of themselves. Much of Lululemon’s lingo like “culture”, “educate”, “goals”, “support” come directly from Landmark.

  Landmark has in recent years been dubbed, “cult-like” by more than one source as a way to “prey of vulnerable people”. Not only is it expensive to attend their courses, but also each day is fifteen hours long with minimal bathroom breaks and time to eat. Landmark insists, “Not a minute should be lost”. So, as long as you’re okay with sleep deprivation and huger pains you’re guaranteed a breakthrough in your life.

Sarah had been told about Chip’s obsession with Landmark and how Lululemon was based on it. She was told to read Landmark books and live her life according to Landmarks way.

After almost three months at Lululemon Sarah realized that she wasn’t exactly fitting in anymore. “I wasn’t a robot like the rest of them and that’s when I knew something was wrong.” It was then that one of her assistant managers approached her and asked if she could help coach her, which Sarah declined.

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  Shortly there after Sarah would work with a customer who had just survived cancer. She was ready to start doing what she loved again, yoga and wanted Sarah to help her pick out a whole new yoga wardrobe to begin it. Sarah was flattered and began helping her solely, taking extra time to make her feel well taken care of this one particular day. It was after the woman left that her assistant manager told Sarah that she didn’t seem to have a good “360 degree view of her section”. Having a 360-degree view meant attending to other customers in her section at the same time.            “The whole store was about “supporting” each other, including helping out other employee’s on the floor if they were too busy to attend to other customers.” Not one educator came up to offer to “support” her in her section as they’re trained to do. She would later be written up this.

After being written up she asked her assistant manager for coaching. “I asked her for help.” Which, is exactly what they preach at Lululemon. Instead of any real tangible advice her manager gave her a dance move that consisted of pivoting 90-degrees in a circle from each customer asking in a high-pitched voice, “Welcome to Lululemon! How can I help you?” Sarah was not amused.

  About two weeks later Sarah was called and told that she’s missed a four-hour shift and is being written up again.

  “I’m not going to say that I’m flawless, but it’s not like me to miss an important date, like going to work.” She wasn’t sure if it was a glitch in the system or a manager forgot to enter a date, all she knew was that suddenly she was being called in for an early morning coaching session without explanation. When Sarah asked why she was being called in her manager dismissed her and told her to be at work the next morning at 7am.

Chip's obsession with Ayn Rand and her novel Atlas Shrugged quoted the<br />
famous line, Who is John Galt on their bags. Chip read the novel at a young<br />
age and was profoundly influenced by the lesson from it that states, if we<br />
all pursue our own self-interest then the world can be a better place.     

Chip's obsession with Ayn Rand and her novel Atlas Shrugged quoted the famous line, Who is John Galt on their bags. Chip read the novel at a young age and was profoundly influenced by the lesson from it that states, if we all pursue our own self-interest then the world can be a better place.

  Sarah showed up for work at 7am to meet with her manager and another employee in a small room to have a discussion and was immediately confused by the trio. While Sarah sat there gritting her teeth expecting to be coached on how to not miss a four-hour shift it’s what would come next that she was not prepared for. The manager closed the door and told her that this was her termination discussion and that it was non-negotiable. She then looked over at the employee seated next to her and said, “And, Karen is here to maintain a safe environment”.

“I couldn’t help but wonder, who’s keeping who safe here?” Sarah thought at the time.

This was coming off the very publicized recent murder in 2011 at a Lululemon store in Washington where one female employee beat and strangled another female employee to death. The murderer tried to cover her tracks by insisting it was a burglar. Dan Morse writes in his story, The Yoga Store Murder, “As a news story, it has all of the elements that the media and public craved: innocent female victims, madmen on the loose, an unfolding mystery in a place that was supposed to be so perfect.”

  Sarah had stopped drinking the Kool-Aide weeks before and it was clear that they had noticed. She wondered if indeed her termination might have something to do with her non-conformist attitude rather than missing a shift. “They all reminded me of fembots and desperate housewives. They were very desperate.”

Her manager promptly walked her to the front of the store to leave, but Sarah was relieved to be leaving by now. As the three of them approached the front doors Sarah stopped and thanked them for the opportunity to work there and that she would always be grateful. The two women jerked their heads back stunned not knowing how to respond. Sarah smiled politely and walked out of their perfected polished glass doors for the last time.

  “In a situation like this it’s easy to wonder if I was wrong? But, then you think, no this is a scary place.”

Chip Wilsons derogatory remarks about women have definitely gotten the public's attention, but for the women working inside of his world they turn a blind eye and seem to be obsessed with belonging in it. Sarah would tell me that ‘Chip is worshipped by his employees’ and that she only had a chance to see a small part of what she calls, “a cult”. She wonders how much worse it is as you climb their ladder to enlightenment. For a company that preaches individualism and self-empowerment it sure has a way of keeping you from it.

Originally published on SocioButterfly.com