I had a very enjoyable chat with former model and current business woman Kathy Ireland. Kathy became a model in her late teens, but never felt modeling was her fervor. Instead, she saw modeling as a way to an end – a way to pay her way through college and start a business of her own. Starting with a line of fashion designed socks, Kathy Ireland global has grown to contributing design solutions for the whole home as well as solutions to problems for working moms – whom she describes as all moms – whether they get a paycheck or not. Her business has now sold over 100 million pairs of socks.
My interview with Kathy Ireland follows.
You had a successful career as a supermodel. What inspired you to go into business for yourself?
I did okay as a model – I wouldn’t say I was “super”, although I worked for some publications that were super. At the time I was modeling there were lots of other models out there I would believe to be supermodels. I was rarely seen and rarely heard. I was told I had a voice that could “Kill small animals”. But I believe it was a blessing that I wasn’t super as a model because I not at all felt I could count on that.
Modeling wasn’t what I aspired to do – it wasn’t my fervor, but I’m thankful for the experiences it gave me, like being exposed to people of all cultures. I knew modeling would be short term for me. Although I would have liked to do some celebrity endorsements, no one was offering them to me.
I was involved and fascinated in business before my modeling career. I saw modeling as a way to accumulate money to go to college and to save capital for a business.
You started out designing a sock collection and expanded into home furnishings, rugs, lighting, art and upholstery. What was your motivation for expanding into home décor?
We start processing with socks – I thought,”Let’s take something very basic like socks with modern fashion designs” – if women embraced the socks, then we would be successful.
When we first started out, my resourceful Director, Jon Carrasco and I loaded up our backpacks and started knocking on doors to try to trade our socks. We had a lot of doors slammed in our faces and were told, “It will never work. It’s never been done before.” We ended up resting in airports to save money. When people say to me, “Sleeping in airports, that must have been quite a sacrifice”, I reply “That wasn’t a sacrifice. Give up is not doing what is your passion.”
I believe that to succeed you need to turn down the noise, the negativity, and move forward. You must know an awful lot about whom you’re going to work with. We really made it a point to examine our possible partners, even to the extent of pulling surprise inspections – and we support our partners to inspect us just as thoroughly. Our customers come to us because they need a solution and they need it now.
I understand that you use your home as a testing lab of sorts for new products you’ve designed. How important of a role does your home play in your day-to-day business activities? Is that role growing or diminishing as your business continues to grow?
In fact, every team members use their homes as testing labs. The childrens just love it. When I started testing products at home I was testing rugs, and I had my kids take all the nasty things out of the refrigerator and “have at it”. We construct forts with furnishings and have pillow fights to make sure the furnishings are tough, but I have to make certain the kids know that it’s not okay to jump around on the furniture at someone else’s house whenever they’re visiting others. After all, their furniture may not have been designed to survive the abuse.
Trying at home is a lot of fun and it’s useful for discovering what types of improvements require to be made to our products.
You’re CEO of Kathy Ireland Worldwide, and also do a lot of charitable work promoting awareness of family issues such as hunger, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, arthritis, and breast cancer. Yet, you were also named the 2002 Outstanding Mother of the Year Award from the National Mother’s Day Committee. How do you manage to make time for your family?
Ever since I was a little girl I knew I wanted to be a mom. That was really important to me. I made that clear to my team members even before I had my kids. I made it clear to one and all from the outset that I wanted to keep family first – my husband and me at first, but that I would be including kids finally. I’m lucky that I work with an amazing team of people who understand and support that.
About a year ago I spoke at an event in the company of some very well-known speakers, including Maya Angelou and Barbara Walters. My point was that making your family a precedence needs to be a goal each and every day. I oppose with Barbara Walters’ answer of “No” when she was asked, “Can women really have it all?” I think it’s absolutely possible for women to have it all if they don’t lose sight of their priorities. I know for me, when my priorities are out of thump, stress is unavoidable and I get all out of sorts.
Although things change, I look at my calendar and the kids’ calendars 18 months out. Preparing well in advance can make a big variation. I’ve always believed that my business serves my family rather than my family serves the business.
What one factor, trait, or belief would you say has contributed most to your success?
Turning down the noise, the negativity and not getting discouraged. You need to find people who encourage, support and believe in you. And, you need to take the time to really get to know the people you’re going to be working with.
When I was young, my dad used to tell me when I was delivering papers on my paper route, “If the customer expects their paper in the driveway, put it on the front porch.” He helped me understand the idea that you need to give 110%, that it’s important to exceed expectations – to under promise and over deliver, and I see that in successful businesses.
I took my kids to an ordinary amusement park and then took them to Disney World. You could easily see the difference that Disney makes and you can appreciate their attention to detail. A tremendous amount of work and thought goes into differentiating Disney World from just any ordinary amusement park.
Your website is an important tool for your business. How do you keep its message unified?
I’m very concerned with the website. I have an incredible team. I give direction, but I think the real direction comes from the customer – what her areas of interest are, what her needs are.
Some of the content is experience driven as well. We had a close call with one of the kids and I thought, “This almost happened to us – how can we stop this from happening to someone else?”
I offer my point of view on the website. My team members also have great suggestions – like those from Chef Andre and Nicholas Walker. It’s a real team effort. Kathy Ireland Worldwide now has an infrastructure of 37 people. The team members know and respect my priorities and they know how it needs to be done. Everyone gives 110%.
I see the website as a Thank You to to women for rotating down the noise of stereotyping. Many of my customers who first bought socks have been following the site for years. We don’t sell anything on the website, it’s all about providing solutions to problems the customers are facing. I believe that if a customer is going to take the time to visit the website, I don’t want to waste her time – I value her time too much.
Who would you say have been the most influential people in your life? In what way?
Jesus Christ. I became a Christian at the age of 18 out of boredom, loneliness and jet lag. One day my mom threw the Bible in my suitcase and I opened it to Matthew and started reading out of boredom. I’d been to church before but never really liked it. It was noisy and seemed like a scary place, but the Bible is really about Jesus, and it’s amazing. Many of the stories in the bible are about being a woman in a world that’s completely dominated by men, but they demonstrate just how much Jesus loved women, broke down barriers for them and gave them courage.
What would you say was the biggest mistake of your business life? What did you learn from that experience that you’ll always carry with you that other entrepreneurs might learn from?
I look at failure as an lesson, and I admit I’m very well educated .Not researching partners carefully enough has caused problems. I learned that if someone says, “No”, you need to ask, “Why?” If they say, “Yes”, you need to ask “How?” You really need to do your training, get to know the people in your life and who you’re functioning with.
I had lunch with the dean of the Law School
at USC. He said, “A genius learns quickly, but doesn’t sleep much.” Most busy moms don’t get sufficient sleep – I like to sleep and I don’t get as much sleep as I’d like. I work in my office, when I’m on the road and when I’m at home. You need to have self-control and set limits.
What advice can you offer working moms about realizing their dreams, nurturing their families and balancing work and life?
Discover your fervor. You can’t truly consign to anything without passion. Every dream needs its own plan – you must put a plan in place. Examine your dreams, set goals – what you want to achieve – and then look at the obstacles and try to take away them one by one.
Look at everything in your life – where can you cut back on expenses so you can realize your dream? Look at the available capital that are out there – get to know the bankers, be friendly and be available. My business started with a loan that was funded on a business plan. You need to let the banker feel your passion and the interest you have for your dream.
What inspired you to write your book, Powerful Inspirations: Eight Lessons That Will Change Your Life, and who do you think would benefit most from reading it?
The motivation behind each lesson came from God. The book was written to answer questions women had asked me. I’ve heard from men and amazingly, even many teenagers who tell me the book has been very helpful to them.
I’ve also written three children’s Story Reader books that are part of “Mona’s Favorite Words”. Actions Have Consequences, What Do Mommy’s Do? and An Angel Called Hope. I narrated them all at a slow pace, to hold children, especially for those who don’t have English as their resident language. I’ve found Story Reader books really come in handy for keeping kids engaged. With my own books my kids can hear my own voice reading to them while I’m helping one of the others with training.
What’s next for you?
Mostly, my customers will decide that. I’ll be co-sponsoing my 4th LPGA tournament in November in Alabama
with The Mitchell Company. I’ll be developing homes with Mitchell Company, which is exciting because I get to work with neighborhood issues, like safety, access to parks and services and the like. The first development will be in Florida
Who Has Inspired You?
Kathy Ireland has truly progressed from her early days as a fashion model
to becoming a role model for working moms and just about anyone who needs inspiration in their life. Since our interview, I’ve already been able to put her advice of setting boundaries and learning it’s okay to say “No” to good use.