Department of Marketing Communications speaker series begins with guest Tim Gunn


Photo: Lucia Thorne

Discussion and Q&A with Tim Gunn

By Lucia Thorne, Living Arts Editor

Tuesday, Feb. 9 marked the beginning of the Department of Marketing Communications’ four-part spring semester speaker series, “Rethinking Consumer Engagement: Leading with Empathy, Equity and Integrity”, with the inaugural guest speaker Tim Gunn of Project Runway. The discussion focused on how to create and maintain a compassionate work environment and Gunn’s experience in doing so.  

Department of Marketing Communications professor Sharon Topper conducted the interview with Gunn via Zoom. Chairperson of Marketing Communications Brent Smith and Provost Michaele Whelan introduced the event. 

Smith said the theme of this semester’s speaker series was inspired by the current battle for social justice in the United States, and the goal was to focus the discussion on how one can do their part to ensure an equitable and compassionate workplace. 

“[This series comes at] a time where we acknowledge the importance to reflect upon who we are and who we can be,” Smith said. “Be that in how we live, or how we work, or how we contribute to this thing we call society. Thus, I’m so pleased to be introducing the first of four talks.”

Gunn is best known for co-hosting the first 16 seasons of Project Runway and co-hosting the Amazon Prime series Making the Cut, which premiered in March of last year. Gunn served as a professor at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan for 24 years and most recently was chair of the Department of Fashion Design for his last seven years before retiring. 

When asked by assistant professor of market analytics and graduate program director Sereikhuoch Eng about how he practices being an empathetic leader, Gunn said he thinks about how he would feel in the other person’s position. 

“I test my empathy on myself. How would I respond to these words being spoken to me, to these words with this intonation, to this letter, to this email, to this communication, how would I respond to it?” Gunn said. “If I’m uneasy and feel uncomfortable about it, then it needs to be amended. You have to really probe internally and develop the resources to have that level of empathy with everyone you interact with. I would use myself as the laboratory.”

When Topper questioned Gunn about how he delivers constructive criticism with kindness, Gunn accredited his ability to teaching. As a teacher, Gunn said it will discourage students if their instructor is too harsh. 

“I learned very quickly that if you’re too blunt an instrument without somehow putting a velvet glove on it, that your students discredit you, they just shut down, and they don’t listen to any longer and they just label you as, well, that mean person,” Gunn said. “That is never my intention. My intention is to help or else I would just walk away, which I have occasionally on Project Runway.” 

Talent Acquisition Specialist Janet Pohli asked about Gunn’s vulnerable leadership, to which Gunn said he always strives to become that leader. 

“When you see a vulnerable leader and you see the kind of response that a leader who’s willing to let his or her guard down, it’s very inspiring, and and at least for me, and it’s the empathetic side of me,” Gunn said. “I want to be that person. That’s the kind of leader I want to be.”

An anonymous attendee asked Gunn how he maintains confidence in himself and his professional abilities and for advice on how to do so. 

“From a lot of life experience I’ve learned that goes back to what we were talking about earlier about being yourself, being who you are,” Gunn said. “If you are always true to that person you are, you don’t have to worry about really any interaction.”

The next episode of this series will focus on Women in Business Leadership, featuring guest speakers CEO of Horn Strategy LLC Sabrina Horn, Director of Communications at Whitney Museum of American Art Danielle Bias, and Director of Operations of Three Uncanny Four Nuna Charaffedine. The free event is taking place over Zoom at 3 p.m. EST on Feb.17. Registration is online.