10 Questions with Dr. Tom Waller

A conversation with the Senior VP, Advanced Innovation and Chief Science Officer at lululemon

June 10, 2021
Fire Ant

In my previous post, I had mentioned that there’s a very interesting interview coming up with a seasoned leader at one of the most formidable athletic apparel brands on the planet. Very excited to finally share my conversation with Dr. Tom Waller — the Senior VP, Advanced Innovation and Chief Science Officer at lululemon.

Tom’s work has had an indelible impact on lululemon’s trajectory over the past decade. He founded Whitespace™ — lululemon’s R&D and ideation group — in 2012 where he built a team of multi-disciplinary scientists and technical creatives to develop what the company defines as the Science of Feel™. Tom previously served as Head of Aqualab at Speedo International Ltd. where he led new product and fabric development for all Olympic elite swimming projects. Before that, he was the Head of R&D for Progressive Sports Technologies. These are all fitting roles for someone equipped with extensive training in product design, manufacturing engineering, and sports technology (Tom has a PhD, no less). 

Our wide-ranging conversation covers a lot of ground. We start off by discussing Tom’s role at lululemon and why he thinks the brand has become so iconic. We then get into how lululemon has been evolving to capitalize on the secular growth opportunities in the connected fitness, e-commerce, and synthetic biology markets. And all throughout I make it a point to ask Tom about his unique leadership style and keys to success.

Listening to him made me appreciate why lululemon has become the powerhouse it is today. They have incredible people at the helm whose DNA corresponds so neatly with that of the company. Tom is based in Vancouver where his love for family, fitness, and the great outdoors has him spending his free time competing in Ironman triathlons and constantly experimenting with the cutting edge of health, wellbeing, and whole human performance. Now, what could be more lululemon than that?!

You’ve been at the helm of lululemon’s R&D efforts for nearly nine years — most notably as the creator and leader of Whitespace, which is lululemon’s in-house innovation lab. How has your role evolved over that time and what’s now under your mandate as SVP Advanced Innovation / Chief Science Officer?

Wow, it has evolved a lot. I joined the company nearly nine years ago, and the original hire was for someone to lead product innovation. The company was in that stage of growth where it recognized that it needed to take a bit more of a methodical grasp on how it will own its future. And it knew that it needed to hire someone like me. So they went looking, and thankfully for me, found me.

I actually did some consulting work for lululemon back in 2007. I remember at that time completing the work and saying to my colleagues that this company either won’t be here next year, or they’ll change our industry forever. And the latter started to happen. I had kept a close eye on what was going on and asked myself what was it that I saw in this company? And why then did that mean that I wanted to join? The thing that I began to pay attention to was this tolerance for ambiguity that I had never really seen before. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it then. It’s hard to describe accurately now what I was feeling. But there was just this deep cultural desire within lululemon to create its own path. And recognizing that what comes with creativity is ambiguity. 

The company originally offered me the role to head up product innovation. When I started in product innovation, the goal was very much to explore the tangential spaces associated with the products that lululemon was making — hence the term Whitespace™. What could they become? How could we reframe them? Do people really understand what we’re uniquely delivering? Could we take that to scale? Over time the methodology evolved and took shape to cover beyond just the products that we were working on. And we coined this phrase Science of Feel because we felt that what we did uniquely was to elevate the sensory experience of fitness and wellbeing — whether it was their experience in the stores, or actually putting our products on their bodies and recognizing that our products were different. We figured that if we could reverse engineer that secret sauce, then we’d be able to take something really, really quite wonderful to scale.

I think that my rise through the company has been directly correlated to the whole organization, recognizing that we’re sitting on something special here. It takes a bit of a scientific approach and understanding of the problem and acceptance that there’s opportunity to create — not just new products, but also new categories, new businesses, and new perspectives. Fielding these opportunities means that I’m managing our advanced innovation efforts, which to me represents a linear lateral future that needs a different set of projects, a different kind of timeline, and different kinds of resourcing. 

As Chief Science Officer, I represent a way of innovating that is complementary to how well we also innovate across the company. I become a representative of, and create dynamic teams that embody the culture and physical infrastructure which allow for us to be very fluid and complementary to the rest of the business. We are accountable to the projects that we serve across the organization depending on the business’ needs at any time, and we drive the bus only for the period of time where we should drive the bus. 

You briefly alluded to this, but tell me more about what originally attracted you to lululemon and what does it mean to you as a brand? Why do you think it has become so successful, iconic, and enduring the world over?

We believe that our secret sauce — outside of the Science of Feel™ — is human connection. You could argue that this is why our physical retail fleet has remained so successful in a world where retail is struggling — because we are not really retail. We are a place where humans connect. And what do they connect on? That is sort of the next important question. 

We represent a doorway to wellbeing that is really sustainable. There’s something about our definition of wellbeing which is accessible. It represents practices that you will actually do — it doesn’t really matter what those practices are as long as you do something. And these practices are not complicated. They’re about living a life where you are active, where you prioritize great relationships, where you take time out and sleep like you mean it alongside a balanced approach to things like diet. No fads, no quick fixes! That is sort of the basic architecture of our culture. 

To imagine that we could bring this architecture to the world was very attractive to me. To imagine that we could productize even beyond the infamous black stretchy pants was very attractive. I wasn’t necessarily coming at it through the lens of I love yoga, or I love clothes, or I love lululemon. Sure, all of those things were really interesting to me. But more importantly what I could see was a doorway to something more accessible — especially in a world where most sports brands were talking about competition and athleticism and almost putting things that were not so accessible to consumers on a pedestal. To me lululemon felt real, it felt human, and it felt honest. It wasn’t hiding behind marketing. 

We also have these incredible people in our stores in every city. They have their communities obsessing about engaging with our ambassadors, and lululemon has become a platform for their businesses to be successful too. This is just wonderful and makes the company even more attractive.

An article that was published in Gear Patrol in 2015 describes you as a tinkerer, engineer, designer, inventor, and athlete. I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description — one that emphasizes the rarity of your background. How do such ostensibly disparate identities come together so effortlessly to allow you to be successful at your job?

Well, I don’t look at those identities like spinning plates. So it’s not about you jumping between identities. 

I’d say that the skill that I’ve worked hard to acquire, based on talent that I enjoy expressing, is to not wear many hats, but to speak many languages. And I think all great innovators are able to have a high degree of empathy for all of the people that they interact with. Those of us that are somewhat change agents have to take quite a deep responsibility in the languages that we speak at any moment. And I’m not talking about French, Spanish, Italian, or English. I’m talking about commerce, research, athleticism, and design. And the job that we have is to recognize that whatever the company is, that is the nation that we serve, and that takes precedence. 

It’s worth noting that as a change agent, you are likely to be bringing new languages to your nation. The worst thing that you could do is assume that everyone wants to speak your new language; to tell everyone that they are wrong or that they are speaking a language that is out of date. For any changes that you bring to the languages being spoken around innovation, it’s entirely your responsibility to get it right. Ideally you first learn the language of the nation you serve. Then maybe teach your new language that you believe to be relevant for the future, and offer a space where third languages can be created together. That way the change doesn’t feel forced in any way upon a person. 

Ultimately the recipe for success is not with having multiple identities, but instead with having a high degree of empathy. And then applying that empathy across disciplines using languages. This isn’t an impossible task. I mean, I wouldn’t say that I’m a master of any of the titles you’ve given me. But I know enough though in a lot of things to be dangerous, and not so much in any of those things that it would ever hold me back.

During your tenure, lululemon’s market capitalization has more than quintupled. Your team’s innovative designs and fabrics have clearly played a pivotal role in that growth. What are you most proud of looking back at the journey so far?

I suppose there’s a simple answer in that I’m particularly proud of the fact that my team still exists. It’s not easy to build a culture and to add a new team. If I may use an analogy, it’s not easy to add an organ to a body, considering there’s a good chance that the antibodies could win and there is serious organ rejection. 

After eight-and-a-half years, I can confidently say that we are a part of the fabric of the company now. During this period, some of the leaders that I’ve seen evolve — people that have worked for me and with me — have either stayed and grown as individuals within the company, or have left and taken this wonderful approach that we stumbled upon to other jobs and industries with great success. I guess I’m just very much proud of the legacy. I’m proud of being able to impact that legacy. 

I’m also really proud of everything that I’ve seen the company be bold enough to do over the years. There have been periods in our history where we’ve sort of accepted that maybe we are an apparel retailer, yoga inspired, and mainly serving a female guest. But these have only been just moments, and we remember that the future is wellbeing and we have a big role to play in increasing it. We remember that that role is shifting, and that the world seems to want more of what we’re good at doing. 

Another source of pride is the launch of our global wellbeing index recently. It is full of frameworks that we’ve been thinking about for many years now. The business brought it to life and they did an excellent job of articulating the research. 

Finally it would be easy to call out our fiscal impacts too. But these fiscal gains have been a function of perspective changes that we’ve achieved over time. For example in 2013 we had a fabric issue with our pants where poor design led to transparency. I’m proud that we were a part of the solution. And we didn’t just fix the issue. We kept going further. We took that event as an opportunity to remind people how good of a job we do when we create lots of “flavours” of pant experiences. We worked closely with the rest of the business and really made the most of that time as a transitionary period. Not just to keep our linear fiscal growth on track, but to also show that we can change the course of people’s perceptions forever.

Being at the helm of a team that operates five to ten years into the future, I imagine you’re actively thinking about how the Covid-19 pandemic is a catalyst for seismic changes in the performance apparel and fitness industries. Companies such as Peloton brought the gym and a sense of community to people’s living rooms. And lululemon got in the mix with the hugely publicized acquisition of Mirror — a connected fitness system that streams live and on-demand classes to users in-home through a sleek responsive display. What excites you most about that acquisition and can you share anything around what’s in store?

I agree that Covid was an accelerator. But the signals were already there — even before the pandemic. There’s a reality that societal busyness was challenging our ability to fit all of the things that we needed to fit adjacently and logically into parts of our day. We recognized that our personal health was already something that we were becoming deeply concerned about. Cramming that into a very busy schedule was becoming hard, where more and more people were challenging all of the different identities that they could have — whether that was to be a parent, a professional friend, someone who is healthy, someone that is highly social, or someone that takes care of their body and mind. After all, there are only so many minutes of the day. 

With this lens on, we’ve been thinking about how to make the tenants of wellbeing more available to our consumers. If you think about the launch of our experience store in Lincoln Park, Chicago, it’s not just a store. It’s a restaurant, a studio space; there are meditation areas, there are working spaces — it’s the amplified version of what we think a community hub can look like. And as I said at the beginning, we’re a wellbeing community company. We access that wellbeing through the communities that we serve. We ask ourselves how in a world where you are individually busy, how do we become even more accessible to you? Your home was already becoming a valuable part of your existence — as much as your office. And your employer has a responsibility to make wellbeing initiatives available to you as well. So these adjacencies are already getting crammed into our day. Then the digital explosion due to Covid brought something like Mirror to life, where Mirror is responding to this constant constraint of time, and the need to have a versatile wellbeing portal. 

We believe that it is very important for us to be available to you when you need us, and that it should be done in a really versatile way. Because your preferences change, trends shift, your body changes, and your life changes. So you need a platform that would be a great enabler for that. And a new Mirror is a wonderful platform to get you started. 

I think Mirror has a really great future ahead of it. Connected home fitness accelerated in a moment in time but as I said, this has been a trend that has been going on for a long time and will continue. We’re not going to get less busy. We’re not going to get less concerned about our wellbeing. If anything, we’ve all had a bit of a taste of mortality over the course of the pandemic. So there’s a big reality that we are going to be more curious about how we best use the limited time that we have and make the most of it. Any brand that is then available and supportive in those modes will be successful. And we intend to be one of those successes.

We’ve been seeing how the pandemic is transforming the way people shop, with e-commerce penetration having accelerated considerably in 2020 as a percentage of total retail sales. How do you see brick and mortar stores making a comeback and where does lululemon fit in that narrative?

That would not be new news. Clearly lululemon’s stores are — and have always been — community hubs. And the question is, how do we continue to enhance and evolve the role of physical, digital, and omni where there’s a mix of transaction and experience. I think the blurring is where it gets very interesting. 

Ultimately we have a responsibility to connect the community through digital means. Through digital the communities can get bigger. They can get more distributed while remaining more or less intimate. There’s a fascinating potential in that setting. This approach really is a vehicle for who we always have been and who we already are. 

For us, physical retail is not going anywhere. I think our CEO put it really nicely. We’re still in our early innings. As a company, lots of growth is yet to be achieved. And you think about the declarations that we’ve made to the world through the years — that we will be a more digital company, a more global business, serving all genders and preferences in such a way that we will invent a great many models of retail and digital experience as we go, pandemic aside. There is a lot more learning and opportunity to come.

Staying on the topic of what the future could hold, I’ve been tracking the synthetic biology space closely. I’m studying the applications of this science to the textiles market. Sustainable yet functional textiles and dyes are already being produced from a variety of renewable sources such as bacteria, yeast, and mushroom mycelium to name a few. Do you think synthetic biology is the future of sustainable fashion and is the industry ready for this tech?

I think sustainable technologies have a very exciting future ahead of them. All sustainable technologies. One of the greatest outcomes from contemplating them is taking the opportunity to look at our environment and changing our relationship with it. There is this intensification of our recognition that we have a responsibility to the planet, and that we have an opportunity to course correct. As such sustainable technologies are an inevitability, all of them. 

At lululemon we’re staying close to all of the advancements in the space. We really care about the human as an organism, the planet as an organism, and the intimate relationship that we as humans have with the planet as being part of nature. We recognize the importance of technological breakthroughs that allow us to learn more about what is possible. 

We made it public not too long ago that we’re part of the Mylo Consortium for example. We’re excited to bring new products to life through this initiative. There’s something fascinating about new technologies being available to us. We’re excited to experiment and explore what these new technologies might mean for the benefit of our consumer, for the planet, and for businesses alike.

How would you describe your leadership style and is there anyone in particular who inspires it?

That is a good question. And maybe when I say that, what I mean is that’s a difficult question to answer. 

I promote a lot of autonomy and personal responsibility. I consider myself to be inclusive — for two reasons. One, because the more people I surround myself with, the smarter I get. And two, the more perspectives that we invite, the better the outcome of whatever it is that we are all working on. I really do enjoy debate. Having lots of perspectives around the table makes us all smarter. And it creates an environment for really wonderful debates. To work with me is to acknowledge that debate is a given. 

The debates centre around questions about how we win hearts, minds, and wallets. And how do we lead and serve? How do we speak all of the languages and ensure progress, but while making sure that we don’t move so fast that we don’t ask all of the questions that we need to ask? 

I also encourage ambiguity. When I do, I see two types of people. There are people that are very, very creative, but when presented with a blank sheet of paper will slip into paralysis. And then I see this other type of person presented with a blank sheet of paper — they just start doodling. I tend to encourage the environment where the doodlers really thrive. I ask for lots of range, lots of curiosity. Even when we recruit we keep the job descriptions pretty vague, so people can engineer their own existence at the company. I guess I have high expectations of being able to handle complexity because I think that that’s our job.

Ultimately though I think innovation is a team sport. And that’s the world I came from. That’s where I first learned to lead as captain of my team. There have been times when I realized I stepped into being a coach, not a captain. And I didn’t enjoy it and I wasn’t as effective. So as I’ve scaled up through the company, I’ve had to find new ways to be a captain. And I think a captain recognizes that they do have positional excellence and are responsible to be part of patterns of play. But it doesn’t matter who scores as per team sport. So for me, it’s about finding and reinventing what it is to be a captain and making sure that everyone knows that as much as I’m a co-creator, I am also the leader. So there’s a lot of mode switching. And we have to be kind to each other and remind each other what mode we’re in. 

Entrepreneurs reading this interview may be wondering how you stay motivated to continue building, innovating, and making such a big impact. What’s your secret?

The energy for me comes from the adventure — with the sense that I continue to turn over rocks that have not yet been turned over. I have a personal purpose statement that may resonate, which is to be a crucible for learning and to inspire audacious acts. I think that my energy is hardwired to that. 

My energy therefore comes from learning. And from the audacious acts that I see occurring because of the contributions that I’ve been able to give the space; that I’ve been able to create the confidence that I instill in people that it’s okay to fail. As I always say, failure is just a part of learning, which I greatly value. 

But the energy really is in the adventure. Adventure is learning and adventure is taking the untrodden path, and being the one bold enough to do that. And then being humble enough to raise your hand and say from time to time “well, that was the wrong path”. Let’s backtrack and try a different one.

As a parting gift, what’s one video, book or other resource that you’d like to leave our readers with that will make them smarter?

There are a few books that have really stuck in our team. I read a lot. So it’s always hard to pick one or maybe to get overly enamored by confirmation or recency bias to the one that I just read. But Range by David Epstein is really, really good. It speaks to the importance of persistent curiosity and not feeling pigeonholed. 

There’s another book called Legacy by James Kerr, which is the story of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, and how they managed their culture as one of the most successful sports teams in history based on consistency and persistent successes. What I love is how good a job Kerr did around codifying the team’s culture and then making it accessible, and recognizing that they are standing on the shoulders of giants. They know that their job is to make their shirt better than they found it and as good as they can for the person that’s going to inherit it. 

Those two are up there in terms of culture and talent development. There are dozens beyond that, of course. People can also listen to me speak at various events that I’ve participated in. I’ve tried to do as good a job as I can to articulate some of the things that I’ve seen in the world, and to help people understand why some of the things we did at lululemon were successful.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Bonus content: As Tom mentioned in our conversation, he has done several engaging talks at various events — search him up on YouTube to check them out. I’m sharing one video in particular (below) that captures the essence of his work at lululemon, and how his team builds high performance products for customers.

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