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Swapping Lacrosse Sticks for Handbags

Feb. 26, 2018

By Mandy Housenick columnist

Katie Leto quickly learned to persevere during her freshman season on the Lafayette women's lacrosse team.

A 3-14 record in coach Alison Fisher's second season in charge will do that.

"The way in which you work as a team, Lafayette lacrosse offered so much of that," Leto, a 2013 Lafayette graduate, said. "You had to learn patience if something didn't come right away.

"By the time I was a senior, we were one of the top teams in the [Patriot League]. When I first started with [Fisher], we weren't."

After enduring those growing pains early in Fisher's tenure, Lafayette made the Patriot League tournament in Leto's last two seasons as an attacker.

Much of the same can be said of Leto's start of her professional career.

The history and Spanish major interned in finance. The only connection it had to her majors was that she was in Spain.

"Lafayette seems to have so many connections with finance," Leto added, "that I thought that, maybe, I should do that."

Leto's willingness to try something new led her to a life-changing experience during her second internship, this one as a product developer at Nine West, a well-known designer of women's footwear, handbags and accessories.

The Chatham, N.Y., native loved her internship with Nine West as much because of the people she worked with as the job she was doing.

"I didn't even know what product development was," Leto said. "By the first week, I had fallen in love. I was so energized. Not that the [finance] work I had done the summer before was boring, but I was ready to leave at 5 o'clock."

"But at (Nine West), every day flew by. I couldn't get enough of it."

Leto's passion became evident to her mentor at Nine West, Cali Schoen, who reached out to her twice during her senior year at Lafayette.

The second time, in the spring, Schoen offered Leto a position at her new company, Henri Bendel, an upscale women's specialty store based in New York Center that sells handbags, jewelry, fashion accessories, home fragrances and more.

There was a catch. The position was 40 hours a week, but it was not considered full time and didn't come with benefits.

Nine West offered Leto a full-time position with benefits, but she took a leap of faith based on her relationship with Schoen.

"I thought, `I might as well. I have nothing to lose," Leto said. "I started in June after graduation and by the Fourth of July, the only thing I wanted was to figure out how I was going to get a full-time job (at Henri Bendel).

"I was around some of the best and the brightest. I was kind of earning a Ph.D. in product development in a short period of time."

Leto eventually earned that full-time position in January of 2014, and has not regretted a moment.

She travels the world because Henri Bendel (who was born in Lafayette ... Louisiana, in 1868) has facilities in South Korea, the Philippines, China and Vietnam.

Every day is an expansion of what she learned during her internship with Schoen at Nine West.

Every day, Leto is proud of the choices she has made regarding her college and career.

"Lafayette pushed the global experience, and I traveled so much through Lafayette and that opened so many doors. I go (overseas) and I want to make the most of every opportunity, and that's because Lafayette taught us to do that."

-Katie Leto '13

"When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing," she admitted. "I can't tell you how many Excel charts I messed up, and Cali was so patient. I stuck with it.

"Lafayette pushed the global experience, and I traveled so much through Lafayette and that opened so many doors. I go (overseas) and I want to make the most of every opportunity, and that's because Lafayette taught us to do that."

As a member of the product development team, Leto works with the design team to ensure that not only is a great product produced, but that it has a shelf life long enough to justify the expense of making high-end handbags, etc.

The product needs to have a history, "so (this job) does kind of tie in, believe it or not, in a round-about way to my history major," she said laughing.

Four years into her career at Henri Bendel, Leto said she still gets a thrill when a friend, family member or a stranger comments about the quality of a Bendel product that can be bought online or in one of more than two dozen stores across the country, from Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York City to King of Prussia.

"I get to say I work for that company," she said. "That's always really fun. ... As the brand continues to grow, it's always exciting to see that."