Milissa Epps is director of industry solutions at Blue Yonder and has had a remarkable career journey that began with a unique opportunity, as a job relocation led her to a fulfilling career focused on category management. She’s spent many years in a variety of retail roles that has led her full circle to Blue Yonder. She talks about taking risks, why it’s okay to say you don’t know the answer, and to learn from mistakes, rather than beat yourself up over them.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in the Midwest and now live in Glendale, Arizona. Career opportunities enabled our family to experience many different areas of the U.S. from St. Louis to Salt Lake City, from Phoenix to Milwaukee and back again. My husband Chris and I have enjoyed exploring all these areas with our two boys.  Our boys are now awesome young men. I believe that the friendships we made and experiences we had along the way have helped shape their trajectories and instilled in them the understanding that taking risks, investing in yourself and caring for others are what ultimately creates an exciting life.

What has your career journey been like before joining Blue Yonder?

I started my career in retail operations working at an Osco Drug store near my hometown. A couple of years after joining Osco, our parent company, American Stores, decided to move its headquarters from Chicago to Salt Lake City. Many associates did not want to relocate, which created an opportunity for me to change careers from managing operations in one store to space planning for all of our stores.

This space planning role was the first time I started using category management solutions that would ultimately become part of the Blue Yonder’s Category Management solutions. 

These Blue Yonder solutions would become a common thread throughout my career.  I have worked for two grocers, a department store, a pet specialty retailer and now Blue Yonder all thanks to that decision.

My career has centered around category management and promotion planning solutions, solution implementations and managing teams who use these solutions. That being said, it was only fitting that last year I pursued an opportunity to join Blue Yonder. It’s exciting to be on the other side of the business, seeing all the pieces culminate together into solutions that support our customers and make us industry leaders.

What is your role at Blue Yonder? Any favorite parts?

At Blue Yonder, I am on the industry solutions team and we are creating turn-key solutions that are specifically designed to increase efficiency grocery retailers.

The most satisfying part of my role is working to solve customer challenges through these new offerings. We are delivering key analysis and opportunity alerts to our customers, which allows our customers to focus on planning, execution and go-forward strategies.

What about your career surprises you?

My degree is in hospitality and restaurant management. My first job out of college was as a hospital cafeteria manager in St. Louis. I really thought my career would be to ultimately run a hotel or catering business. After having my youngest son, I decided to stay home to care for the boys.  When I decided to go back to work, I took a part time job in a drug store that allowed me to continue to spend time with the kids.  Never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would lead me here! I took a chance by taking a new job, in a new city, using cutting edge software to manage product merchandising and was able to get in on the ground floor of a developing market and by happenstance, it turned into a career.

What’s one piece of advice you would have given your younger self?

Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes you’ve made.

When you are younger, with any mistake you make, you worry about what it will mean to your career. Accept the fact that you won’t always know the answer or make the right decision, but be confident that you will find the answer. My advice is, learn from the mistakes and even more importantly, don’t to dwell on them.  If you can learn from the situations that you are in, own the fact that you would do it differently the next time and continue to make better decisions, you will be a trusted partner and leader.

What is the best risk you’ve taken and why?

That move to Salt Lake City for that first corporate job! It was a big step to move away from home. I had always lived close to family. Doing that at a young age gave me confidence that our family could handle relocation and that Chris and I could take on new challenges in order to build gratifying careers.

Have you ever been ‘professionally stuck’? How did you become ‘unstuck’?

Yes.  I had held various roles leading micro and macro space planning teams for PetSmart and realized that I needed a change.  I decided to make a lateral move into promotion planning and governance. In the new role, I was able to leverage my leadership, management and organizational knowledge, while learning something completely new, promotional planning.  It opened up a lot of opportunity for me, including a promotion where I was tasked with more strategic work and with more cross-organizational communication and project leadership.

What is the best advice you ever received? Who gave it to you?

I was in a women’s leadership session at PetSmart a few years ago where the speaker was asked how they handle the work requests that originate from other teams.  The speaker shared this anecdote:  If you evaluate those requests using this method it can make it easier to manage your work and the work that others request of you.  Categorize each request as either a “ball” or an “egg.”  A ball will bounce; therefore you can give the requestor a date in the future when that can be accomplished. An egg will break; so you need to catch it, or provide that work to the requestor as soon as possible.  If you use this method to categorize requests, you will be able to prioritize and respond in the best way possible.

What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

We have to be very careful as leaders to have narrow, clear priorities that we do not deviate from. It’s easy as leaders to get excited about shiny objects. If those new ideas are not aligned with your goals or if they will put the current deliverables at risk, they must be held at bay in order to allow the team to focus and complete the job at hand.

What advice do you have for young women seeking a career in technology?

If you are passionate about technology, go for it! Don’t step away from it because you fear that it is a career path that is dominated by men. The only way to change that is to get involved in technology. We need diverse views, and as women, we will likely approach things differently than men.  Unique perspectives feed ideation and ideation is the foundation for transformative change.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to women in leadership?

We need to get away from stereotypes that even we, as women, proliferate.  There is no reason that any job cannot be completed by a woman, and we as leaders need to make sure that every person that works for us is supported, challenged and given feedback that will help them build the skills and confidence they need to step into the next role that interests them.

What woman inspires you and why?

Sandra Day O’Connor. During a time when women either became teachers, nurses or homemakers, Sandra Day O’Connor was able to become the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice.

She grew up on a ranch in Western Arizona. The nearest public school to their family ranch was over 30 miles away, so she lived with her grandmother in Tucson during the school year and only was home during school breaks and summers.  After graduating from high school at 16, she enrolled at Stanford where she earned a degree in economics and a law degree. 

After graduation, she took a job as deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California. The county initially did not pay her for her work. She took the job, proved her worth and was later hired as a paid employee. It’s just unbelievable to see that she was able to get married, raise a family, serve as Arizona Attorney General, become a Senator for Arizona and be the first woman to serve as a state majority leader. She was appointed to county and state judgeships and ultimately was the first woman to serve as a supreme court justice, all because she didn’t allow herself to ‘fit’ into the norms of her time. 

What’s one fun (or surprising) fact about you?

I grew up on a farm in Missouri. Working for Blue Yonder is a far cry from taking care of cattle!