Terry Roberts believes success is built on intellectual curiosity, creativity, and individuality. It’s part of what led him to an in-house position at American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) and part of why he has thrived working within such a casual and eclectic corporate culture.
“The culture is really born out of the customers we serve. They’re mainly young people who are about individualism. The whole notion is about wanting people to feel comfortable in their own skin,” explains Roberts, adding that it’s a rare pleasure for an attorney to wear sneakers and T-shirts to work every day.
“There is a sort of energy of excitement and hope at AEO. We’re future-oriented because that’s our focus for our American Eagle and Aerie brands, and our customers and people here genuinely care about each other.”
Roberts has an especially sweeping view of the retailer’s company culture, since he serves as the global brand’s lead in-house labor and employment attorney while also overseeing the company’s inclusion and diversity efforts.
“We are trying to do our best to make sure that our internal culture matches what we believe in as a company, but it’s still aspirational,” he says.
“We have this community of people who now understand that they not only have a platform to speak their truth but also a mechanism to try to drive meaningful change.”
In 2018, Roberts launched the company’s Inclusion and Diversity Alliance. At the same time, the AE and Aerie brands have continued to become more inclusive and diverse in their connections with customers. Roberts says the company still has a ways to go.
The road to delivering on AEO’s mission, though, may have gotten shorter, as the distinction between brands’ aspirations and practices has possibly never been as clear as it became in 2020—first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then later due to the global Black Lives Matter antiracism movement.
“The first half of 2020—I’ll say, ‘Are you kidding me?” Roberts says, laughing. “It’s been the most challenging year I’ve ever had as a professional, let alone as a person.”
The pandemic itself rattled every industry in unprecedented ways, though retail was especially hard hit, and many major companies declared bankruptcy within weeks of many states’ imposed quarantines. “You can’t take for granted how tenuous [the beginning of the pandemic] was,” says Roberts. “I thought it was incredible how we not only survived but positioned ourselves for the future very well. We’re a benchmark-type retailer in our space.”
Just as AEO was, as Roberts puts it, “getting its sea legs” following the first wave of COVID-19, the murders of Black Americans such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd set off a new wave of civil unrest and quickly exposed how and where brands fail to meet the aspirations of their inclusive missions.
“COVID had the chance to cripple almost all retailers from a business standpoint,” says Roberts. “But the deaths of those Black individuals, and obviously I’m a Black man—I would say that hopefully when we look back, this moment will be a real transformational event for us as a country and company. Because we are typical of many companies that have less diversity the higher up you go.
“I’m hoping, whether it be through self-reflection or otherwise, that people realize that things don’t just happen. Change only happens through hard work and deliberate focus.”
“We have a great culture, but it’s not a perfect culture. We have people who want to do the right thing. But that is not enough. You have to actually get it done. Having good intentions and not being racist are not the standards.”
Roberts acknowledges the standard line that building diversity must come from the top, but he believes it also has to be built from the bottom up. “That’s how you create a real community of people who are committed and can help put in the work,” he says. “We all have to play a role, and one of the great things that has happened is the Alliance has gotten bigger since recent events. We have this community of people who now understand that they not only have a platform to speak their truth but also a mechanism to try to drive meaningful change.”
Even as Roberts concedes that 2020 has been tough and it’s not going to get easier any time soon, he is still optimistic about the future.
“I’m hoping, whether it be through self-reflection or otherwise, that people realize that things don’t just happen. Change only happens through hard work and deliberate focus,” he says. “And it’s very clear inclusion and diversity actually amplify things. They don’t take away from what people have and what they’re doing already. I’m incredibly confident in AEO. This is a company that, like all others, is flawed and has so much work to do. But more than any other company I’ve worked for, I feel like we have the most potential to be truly great.”