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Senior math majors chat with J. Crew CEO

At the end of every semester Helen Herrmann Professor of Mathematics Rhonda Hughes likes to take some time out of her senior seminar to inspire her students as they go off into the real world.

She happened upon the perfect thing April 21 when she caught J. Crew CEO Millard "Mickey" Drexler on The Charlie Rose Show.

Drexler talked about how he came back from being fired as CEO of Gap to take over and revitalize J. Crew and advised young people to not be afraid of the "big shots" who probably don't know any more than those just starting out.

The next day Hughes and her students watched the show online. Just as Hughes had hoped, her students were indeed inspired; however their inspiration led them to a much more immediate call to action than Hughes had anticipated.

During the interview, Rose talked about Drexler's renowned accessibility, asking "If I called J. Crew right now and asked to talk to Mickey Drexler what would happen?"

"You'd get through to me," he said.

"So they said 'call him' and I did. Next thing I know we're making plans for him to talk to the class," said Hughes.

After a few frantic calls to the Telephone Services Department to make sure she could get a speaker phone, Hughes and 14 of her students huddled into her office at noon last Friday and called the J. Crew headquarters in New York.

"I can't believe he agreed to do this, it's so cool," someone said as the phone rang. "Do we call him Mickey?" another student nervously asked.

After a few rings, Drexler's assistant answered the phone. Yes, Mickey was expecting their call but he couldn't come to the phone at the moment and would have to call them back.

The phone rang a few minutes later and, true to his word, Drexler was on the line.

Drexler started the conversation by telling the students that he doesn't give many speeches at Ivy League schools because he feels many of the students have an unearned sense of entitlement and that one of the most important things he looks for in young employees is a drive to succeed.

"I like young people who have worked as waiters and waitresses because I know they'll work hard and they've gotten their butts kicked," he said.

For the next 30 minutes Drexler entertained the students' questions on everything from having a five and ten-year plan…

"If you have a plan, that's usually your first problem."

To what to look for in a first job…

"Try to find a culture you can fit into. But don't worry too much about your first job. Figure out what you can get out of it, do it for a while and get out. The most important thing is knowing when to get out."

June Lee '08 asked Drexler if he'd consider Bryn Mawr College for his high-school-age daughter.

"You guys are one of those small cool colleges," Drexler said. "But she's young and I don't want her to worry about it. There's too much pressure on young people to be perfect."

Drexler got a cheer from the students when talking about the importance of putting together a good team in business.

"I've got a great team and nine out of my 10 senior executives are women," he said.

Drexler finished up the call by telling the students that the best advice he could give them is the same things they'd probably heard many times over, "don't forget your roots, treat others as you'd want to be treated, and work your a-- off."

"I've e-mailed Charlie Rose many times, and never made contact," said Hughes after the call. "On this occasion, one call to J. Crew resulted in a phone conversation with the CEO less than 24 hours later.

"I truly admire Mickey Drexler's commitment to manage his life so that he is able to respond to a request from a professor and her students for some words of wisdom. It really was amazing and the students couldn't have been more excited or impressed," she added.

Senior math major Jody Krieger confirms Hughes' assessment: "What I found most impressive was the fact that this man, who is so accomplished, so powerful—and I am sure extremely busy—could take time out of his packed schedule to talk to a group of college students. CEOs of large corporations don't call you up every day and give you great advice about your career and life in general. This is an experience I, and my classmates as well, will never forget."

Watch Millard "Mickey" Drexler on the Charlie Rose Show

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Posted 5/1/2008 by Claudia Ginanni