When I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, I didn't have a job. It was right at the beginning of the school year, so none of the school districts were really looking for new employees at that moment. I was just looking for something to fill my time until I could find a position teaching. Honestly, I was applying everywhere: Food service, retail, wherever I could turn an application in, I did. I applied at West Elm, and within a couple hours, they called me in. I started that day as a temporary seasonal employee. Since it was a temporary position, I was only expected to stay through the end of Christmas to help out with the seasonal rush, so that's how I got started in the retail industry in 2013.
October will be my three-year anniversary. I had been on the [West End] design team and I was their customer service leader for a while. I took acting positions when other managers were out of the building, so I stepped in and made sure things were still running smoothly. I was finally offered a sales and service manager position. It’s great seeing my own progression; I'm not a person who likes to be stagnant. I'm not a person who likes to stay in one job or one place for a long time, so it was very important for me to have those options to move up.
Lam: What made you stay in retail?
Israel: It was never a dream or an aspiration to work in a retail store. I was just putting in applications anywhere I could find because I knew I had to have some sort of income coming in [and I was later homeless for a time.] I thought going into it that I was going to absolutely hate it, that I was going to do it for as little time as possible and as soon as I could get out of it, I would.
But, what made me stay was that I fell in love with the company itself: the things they’re trying to do, the new ideas, and the initiative to change the way that people are making purchases and experiencing the retail world. I fell in love with the experience of working with clients, learning the different ways that a company works on such a large level, and then specifically with West Elm, how they also work on a local level.
West Elm is a furniture company. It's designed for people who are living in smaller spaces, but they're still looking for something that really is going to speak up to how they want their home to look. One of West Elm’s local programs includes bringing in local artists to feature their work, and also buying handmade furniture from local artisans. We sell the furniture through our store, and we make a big deal out of saying, "This was made right here in Charlotte, or it's made in one of our neighboring cities," and that really brings in a lot of the customers who want that small store feel.
Lam: What are the fun and the hard parts about working in sales?
Israel: In general, one of the fun parts about working in a furniture environment is getting to take a look into your customer's life. You learn how they want to set up their home, whether they like to throw parties or prefer quiet nights at home, whether they are avid readers or if they’re more of a culinary person. One of my favorite parts is getting to take a look and connect with my customers on a more personal level than just selling them a bottle of lotion or something that they would need day to day. This really is helping them create a part of their life that they're going to carry on for a long time.