Work Friends

Mary Dillon


With a distinguished career spanning nearly 40 years and two CEO terms, Mary Dillon contemplated retirement a couple of years ago when she left her helm at Ulta Beauty. She had been at the beauty behemoth for eight years, making her mark as a CEO who advocated for greater diversity, from her leadership team and board of directors to the company’s marketing and products—under her leadership, it signed the Fifteen Percent Pledge in 2021. By the end of her tenure, Ulta’s market capitalization had nearly tripled and the company had become Gen Z’s favorite beauty destination. But soon after leaving Ulta, Dillon realized that instead of slowing down she was ready for a new challenge. In August 2022, she was named President and CEO of Foot Locker.

A recognized retail expert, Dillon found that selling the new cultural category of sneakers isn’t all that different than marketing skincare and makeup. She is weaving universal threads that link sneakers, beauty devotees, and consumers with a strong sense of style and self. All the while she’s opening doors for the next generation of retail leaders, specifically focused on the role the iconic Foot Locker “Stripers” play and the role the company plays in job creation and career opportunities.

In our conversation, Dillon discussed her upbringing and what motivates her to achieve more focus on opening doors for others.

"…the best organizations have leaders who reflect the customers and the employees they serve. Full stop."


I’m originally from the south side of Chicago, one of six kids with a father who worked in a steel factory. While I am a first-generation college graduate, I knew no one in business, especially any CEOs. I honestly didn't know what was possible. In some ways, that was freeing because I never really felt the pressure of any expectations people put on me.   

 What I did know was that I possessed drive and ambition, as I still do. It has been lifelong objective to lean into my ambition. To me, ambition means you aspire to do better and, unapologetically, dream bigger. In high school especially, I was determined to be a good student and was self-motivated. I saw that somebody ran the student council, someone became a foreign exchange student, and others were in the choir. Seeing them explore their interests inspired me to explore mine, and to never shy away from trying new things or exploring possibilities. Since then, I have gravitated toward experiences and opportunities that challenge me, enrich my life, make me see the world a bit differently, and, ultimately, help me become a better leader. 


In several of my roles, I started out as a bit of a square peg in a round hole, but I was undeniably driven and eager to make a mark. For example, my first job out of college was in a brand management training program at Quaker Oats. I later realized I was the first trainee with an undergraduate degree hired from a non-Ivy League school. The program had typically hired from top business school graduate programs, and only a few undergraduates were chosen. I felt it was a chance to get my foot in the door and demonstrate what made me different.

 I put myself through college, and I’m proud of it. My experiences have shaped how I approach my role as a leader in retail. For instance, I hold in the highest regard our [Foot Locker] "Stripers," as we call them. They’re the folks in our stores who wear stripes. I’ve been there and know how front-line employees often on any given day play many roles to customers. I was that 16-year-old working at the drugstore. I was that waitress. I was the person who sometimes cleaned apartments. So my respect is very genuine.


When I decided to head to Foot Locker, a lot of folks, including my family members, said, “This is the third time you’re going to be a CEO, I thought you were going to retire.”  

 I was very happy to turn over the reins of Ulta Beauty to Dave Kimbell and his leadership team. I have no regrets about that. Yet, once I had more time to reflect, I realized that I was at a stage in my life where I wanted to have the opportunity to influence a large organization and, hopefully, set it up for an even better future.

 I love retail and I love that we employ thousands who come from diverse backgrounds all around the world. When I started to look at Foot Locker, I knew it was a brand a lot of people knew and have loved. It enjoys a bit of a nostalgic association and, yet, footwear is an exciting and dynamic category that's going to continue to grow. I felt excited to bring all my career experiences to take the best parts of Foot Locker and set the retailer for the next 50 years of success.  


People may not realize it, but there's way more overlap between beauty and sneakers than meets the eye. If you're a beauty enthusiast, you're likely deeply immersed with the culture, brands, and community around it. You're passionate about brands and products and categories; You're looking for newness and innovation; and it reflects on who you are. It's part of your personality and an expression of you and how you show up. Guess what? If you're really into sneakers, an unending number of sneakers can express who you are, too. You can buy any number of sneakers not just to collect dust, but to represent who you are and what you care about. That’s sneaker culture. 

 As I’ve immersed myself and embraced sneaker culture, I’ve found that the freedom of movement, the expression, and the connection to a younger part of culture are all really fun and gratifying. It’s why my team and I focus on "unlocking the inner sneakerhead in all of us." I'm convinced that there’s an inner sneakerhead in everybody. They just may not know it yet.


Interestingly, I can look at my career in chapters of fashion because I've worked in different industries. For a long time, up until my 40s, I didn't think at all about what I wore and if it mattered. Not that I wasn’t appropriate, but I wasn't thinking about a personal style. As I got more senior in my career, I realized it was something to be aware of.  I started to get more thoughtful about the “right” way to dress in different industries or settings. 

 The beauty of today, and at Foot Locker and the sneaker industry, is that a very open aperture exists for people to bring their best selves, whatever that means to them, in terms of how they dress. Today, women especially have a lot more options available that are comfortable, unique, and stylish. Sneakers, as part of these broader shifts, are a fresh new area of opportunity for self-expression in more parts of life than perhaps even a decade ago.  

 In the past, my relationship with sneakers was through the lens of running shoes and fitness. Now, I wear them every day. I pick my sneakers and then my outfits—building from the shoes up. Or I pick them in tandem. I love nothing more than a wide-leg pant, jacket, and a great sneaker. It’s become a bit of a uniform for me, whether I’m on the road, in meetings, or in the office.  

 I've loved interpreting what it means to dress as a CEO of a footwear retailer. I strive to show up looking professional, but comfort and ease are important to me, too. A suit jacket with a hoodie, for example, is fresh, fun, and easy–and a combination I wouldn’t have dared try at the start of my career. If I’m traveling, I go for any pair of sneakers I can run around an airport in. There is no shortage of inspiration around me since I work with so many creative and cool people and notice how people in different places dress. 


In the past decade, I have finally crystallized what's going to be the best leadership mosaic for me to run a company. Listen, I am not an expert on everything, and I'm humble enough to admit I don't have all the answers. What I do know is that if it's a consumer business, job one is leading through the lens of consumers and understanding the competitors. Second, it is surrounding myself with a leadership team that leads with my same values. It is about respecting and understanding the real power of, and leverage by connecting with, the folks who connect with our customers. Set them up for success, learn from them, and use their feedback to get better. 

 Then, in the middle of all of it, I insist on a leadership team with three characteristics in equal parts: functional expertise, enterprise thinking, and collaboration. I expect each person reporting to the CEO, whether the head of finance or the heads of merchandising and marketing, to be a top-of-the-game functional expert. But also able to get out of their functional silo and be a bigger-picture enterprise leader. That means being able to sit at the table and think about what’s right for the entire company, not just what's right for you and your group. Closely related is collaboration: people who understand and value the power, not necessarily of consensus but, of asking questions, listening, and working cross-functionally to get the best answers. 


I want to leave a twofold legacy. First, I want to ensure that people see themselves in leadership roles and challenge any notions of what a CEO is or should be. One thing that surprised me—and, actually, I feel flattered when I hear it—is when people say, “Oh, you're not what I thought a CEO would be.” Or, “Gosh, you're a lot easier to talk to than I expected.” So when I hear that from our employees or others, I want them to know that anyone can be a CEO. To me, there's no question that the best organizations have leaders who reflect the customers and the employees they serve. Full stop. 

Second, I want to create more opportunities for others. In our country and globally, I believe the most logical leadership model is a diverse one because that describes our world. If you look at Foot Locker, 88% of our team members in the U.S. are people of color. More than 60% of our Executive Leadership Team and 80% of our Board are gender or ethnically diverse. We can make better decisions and connect with our customers if our leadership team reflects our customers. We're also employing people, creating careers, and generating pathways for kids who are making money to go to college. I'm especially proud of that. We need to not just support them but represent them. It's a world-class team and talent.  

Weekend Blazer in Seasonless Wool | Cadet Blue
Weekend Blazer in Seasonless Wool | Cadet Blue
$450 View Product
Jones Trouser in Seasonless Wool | Cadet Blue
Jones Trouser in Seasonless Wool | Cadet Blue
$295 View Product

"I'm convinced that there’s an inner sneakerhead in everybody. They just may not know it yet."

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Find Mary on Instagram.