True story: A man sitting in a plane on the tarmac at JFK was bored. He grabbed his iPhone and started perusing eBay for Hummers. Moments later, he hit the “Buy It Now” button and purchased a rare H1 Hummer for $130,000. From his phone. Sitting on an airplane.
There’s no doubt eBay, the world’s largest online marketplace, has changed the way we buy and sell things. But in the 17 years since its launch, eBay has changed drastically, too.
Richelle Parham ’91, eBay’s vice president and chief marketing officer, is responsible for making sure people understand what today’s eBay is all about. Some people associate the company with offbeat auctions that have made headlines and are now cemented into eBay’s place in pop culture, such as the cornflake shaped like Illinois that sold for $1,350. Jay Leno has an occasional segment called “Stuff We Found on eBay,” where he jokes about wacky listings like “Friendship for a Year,” featuring a picture of a smiling, bearded man who promises to send you weekly emails, birthday greetings, and to become your Facebook friend. That listing sold for $1.25.
Parham says these novel listings will always be “part of eBay’s culture … but that’s not all we are today. ”
“The new eBay is really about getting to the items that you need and love — not only collectible items but also brand new items, with tags.”
If you haven’t visited eBay in a while, perhaps the most obvious change you’d notice is that it’s no longer primarily an auction website. Auction-style listings are still plentiful, but fixed-price items now account for more than 70 percent of listings, and that number is quickly rising.
But eBay’s transformation during the past 17 years goes way beyond the items sold there. Through innovation and acquisitions, the company has transformed itself from an online auction site to a comprehensive provider of e-commerce services, including online payments and money transfers (PayPal), shopping via bar codes (Half.com) and event ticket trading (StubHub), to name a few.
By the time Parham joined the company in 2010, eBay had come a long way from its original form, but its brand was still in need of a facelift.
Parham grew up in Baltimore and despite her current proximity to San Francisco, she sided with her hometown in the recent Super Bowl. “I wore purple for four days” after the Ravens won, she says.
As a young girl, she attended a small, private K-12 girls school, where her dream to become a fashion designer eventually gave way to the more practical idea of working in marketing and advertising. She chose Drexel because she was excited about the co-op program. During freshman year, she landed an enviable co-op placement at the design powerhouse Valentino in New York City. It was such a great fit for her that she added a double major in design and returned to Valentino for her second and third co-ops.
Her years at Drexel were all about school. “I was doing something very hard that required both left- and right-brain thinking,” she says of taking design classes alongside business classes. “I would do my economics homework, and then stay up all night doing my design projects.”
After graduation she worked at Citicorp for a few years, and then went into agency work. She eventually worked her way up to general manager of Digitas’ Chicago office. After 13 years with the company, a client came knocking with an offer she couldn’t refuse: Visa was seeking someone to lead its global marketing services.
“Ten years ago, if you had asked me what I thought I’d be doing for the majority of my career, I would have said I’d be an executive at an agency, like my role at Digitas. Landing on the client side at Visa wasn’t really part of the plan, but it felt like the next right opportunity for me because of the global platform. It stretched me in ways I hadn’t been stretched before.”
The Visa job came with some great perks. In addition to overseeing the company’s marketing performance management, she was also tasked with managing sponsorships — which took her to some pretty cool places. “I was in South Africa for the World Cup. I was in Beijing and Vancouver for the Olympics. I went to three Super Bowls and sat at the 50 yard line, and I met a bunch of athletes,” she says.
Parham had found a great fit at Visa, but a few years into that position, opportunity came knocking again. This time it was eBay looking for a CMO. Would she be interested?
The big question Parham had to answer was whether she wanted to devote herself to becoming part of a turnaround team. Her current employer, Visa, was on solid ground. On the other hand, eBay was just beginning to make its way back after several years of decline. Stock prices were still far off previous peaks, and sellers were unhappy about a recent rise in fees. John Donahoe, who had been promoted to CEO in 2008, was making solid progress in reviving the company, but there was a lot of work left to do.
Meetings with eBay’s executives — especially Donahoe — made the decision easy for her. “They had a vision. They knew they could turn this business around, and they had a plan for how to do it … I came to eBay because it gave me the chance to become part of something big, and to help to grow this amazing company.”
With the job came more responsibility. On top of shareholders and eBay’s 27,700-plus employees, there are millions of people around the world who depend on eBay. For many sellers, eBay is their sole source of income. These sellers rely on eBay (read: Parham) to attract new customers and evolve the platform to optimize success.
“People depend on us, our platform and our ability to help surface their inventory,” she says. “They rely on us for their car payments, their mortgage payments, taking care of their children.”
With the gravity of her new responsibilities, Parham quickly got to work trying to understand the identity of eBay’s customers. “We did a lot of research to better understand our shopping enthusiasts and their paths to purchase, from the moment they become inspired to get something to the point where they buy it, and even past that, to the point where they actually advocate for us. I wanted to understand the journey and the things that influence people along the way.”
Specifically, she investigated how they interact with mobile devices, social media, email, telemarketing and other channels, and what influenced their purchases. After gathering a wealth of information on eBay’s users, she set out to create a better homepage. “We spent a lot of time getting the look and feel right — getting it to a more contemporary place. We had an amazing whimsical logo for 17 years, but we needed to do more to show that we are all about simplified experiences. We streamlined the logo, but kept those really strong equity colors,” that people associate with eBay.
EBay users’ new homepages feed them the inventory they say they like. “The new eBay is all about personalization. Now, your homepage is actually your homepage,” she says. “So if you tell us you like Tory Burch dresses and vintage watches, that’s what will surface on your homepage. The new eBay is all about how to get the things you need and love.”
Speaking of loves, though she never became a fashion designer, Parham still loves fashion. “Here at eBay, people are pretty casual. I’m one of a handful of people who actually dresses up for work. And I come dressed based on mood … I don’t have a problem wearing four-inch heels to work when everyone else is wearing flats or sneakers. I really dress based on who I feel like being that day.”
For a fashionista, eBay offers some pretty decent perks. “Since being here I’ve met a lot of folks in the fashion industry. We have a $12 billion fashion business. We have a collection with Derek Lam called Derek Lam %2B eBay. We showed it at Fashion Week, which was unbelievable.”
She says she often takes trips to Los Angeles and enjoys riding with the only family member who followed her to the West Coast — “Skylar,” her blue 1997 BMW z3 two-seater convertible. “Skylar and I put the top down and hang out,” she says.
Parham credits a number of mentors or sponsors — her “personal board of directors” — for helping her reach her goals, and explains that a sponsor is someone who advocates for you “even when you aren’t in the room.”
At eBay, Parham calls CEO Donahoe both a mentor and a sponsor. “He has been very instrumental across the board, and wants to ensure that women have lasting and enduring careers, and that we’re building the next generation of women executives. We sometimes talk about what’s next for Richelle. About a year ago, he mentioned that I should consider joining a corporate board. So we put that out in the universe.”
The universe responded. Shortly thereafter, an invitation came from Scripps Network Interactive to join its corporate board. Scripps owns HGTV, the Travel Channel, Food Network, the Cooking Channel and DIY Network.
Parham says the best piece of advice she’s gotten along the way came from a member of her personal board — a former boss. “He said: ’Richelle, we can always rely on you. We know if we give it to you, it’s going to get done, and it’s going to get done right.
“’The problem is that you juggle. You have all these balls in the air, and you keep them all at the same height, which is a significant amount of work. You need to know that it’s OK to have them at different heights. You also need to know that it’s OK to drop one.’
“It took me some time to even feel comfortable with the notion that he was sharing with me, but over time I’ve really embraced it,” Parham says. “I’ve even talked about it to my direct reports, because I see them doing the same things that I was doing: trying to juggle so many things but not thinking about that ruthless prioritization that you need. Sometimes you need to focus on the most important thing versus spreading yourself too thin and focusing on everything.”
Donahoe and his turnaround team have received wide praise for their success in reinvigorating eBay. A June 2012 New York Times headline proclaimed “EBay’s Turnaround Defies Convention for Internet Companies.”
In fact, as of the day this story went to press, the company’s stock has more than doubled since the day eBay announced it had hired Parham in the fall of 2010.
Still, Parham says her proudest accomplishment at eBay has been establishing a global Women’s Initiative Network (WIN), which focuses on helping eBay’s female professionals build lasting and enduring careers. “It’s all about helping women make a connection here. We are in a male-dominated field. We have women who want to know, ’How did you get to where you are? Who helped you along the way?’”
Parham says her personal and work passions come together in her volunteer efforts to encourage young women to consider careers in technology. She’s worked with nonprofits Dare to Be Digital, which encourages middle school girls to get involved in STEM, and Girls Who Code, which teaches coding to 17-year-old girls who live in New York City. EBay will host 25 Girls Who Code at its campus this summer.
“This is the stuff that really gets me excited and helps me to know that I’m making a difference.”