Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
When we were kids, my parents always encouraged me and my two sisters to work. If we wanted something, they’d say, “you’ve got two arms and two legs, go earn some money.” They explained that if we looked around we could always find a way to do it. It was the 1970s and opportunities for women weren’t as abundant as they are today, but my parents didn’t see barriers or limits for us, so neither did we.
I was only four years old when my older sister and I started painting small rocks and selling them door-to-door. Three years later, I was washing neighbors’ cars, watering their plants, and designing handbags to sell at the beach near our home in Santa Barbara, California. When I was eleven, my father showed me an ad in a local newspaper that read: “Newspaper carrier wanted, are you the boy for the job?” He knew exactly what kind of a reaction that would evoke from me. I immediately wrote to the paper saying that I was the girl for the job, and I got it.
Before my first day of work, my dad instructed me to give it 110 percent. He explained, “Customers expect the paper on the driveway, so you should put it on their front porch.” I was excited to finally have some real responsibility and make some serious money. In the midst of my route, as I was biking from house to house, I saw a customer standing at the edge of his driveway. As I approached to hand him his paper, he yelled, “What are you doing here? You have no business doing this! It’s a boy’s job and you’ll never last!” I didn’t let him see me cry.
Only much later did I realize what a gift that incident was. The bag full of newspapers was a lot heavier than I had expected, and there were many days when I was exhausted and felt like quitting. But I didn’t quit because I didn’t want to give that man the satisfaction of being able to define me. Instead, I went on to win Carrier of the Year for my district three years in a row.
In my teenage years I developed into quite a tomboy, complete with a nasty habit of burping at people. When I was sixteen, my parents, thinking that a little finishing might be nice, enrolled me in a local modeling school. College wasn’t within my family’s means and my grades were definitely not good enough to get a scholarship, so when a scout from Elite Model Management visited the school and offered to represent me, I agreed. I figured that if I could get work as a model it would allow me to save some money to go to college or start a business some day.
Back then, agencies would send models on “go-sees” to get jobs. The people in charge of hiring would look us up and down and dissect us right in front of our faces. I was rejected a lot. It hurt at first, but I soon learned that it was just part of the process. Eventually, I started to book jobs. Within four years, I was featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and went on to appear on the cover of that magazine three times.
Ironically, at only twenty-seven years old, I was already starting to feel like an aging model and wanted to start a business that was not dependent on my looks. I wanted to start my own brand and, with my background in fashion, felt an entrepreneurial career involving design might be possible. Recognizing that I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own, I decided to hire Sterling/Winters, a management company, to help me get my vision off the ground.
For years we invested a lot of time, energy, and resources in various start-up ventures including a microbrewery, a skin-care line, and various art projects—but all of them failed. In 1993, when I was thirty years old and pregnant with my first child, I got an offer from a man named John Moretz to model a line of socks. It wasn’t a very glamorous gig but rather than have a negative attitude and shoot him down I decided to make a counterproposal. What if we went into business together manufacturing and selling Kathy Ireland socks?
People laughed and said, “You can’t start a brand with a pair of socks. That’s never been done.” But I reasoned that if I could be successful with a product that had no popular connection to me (unlike, say, swimsuits) it would mean that I was onto something. Besides, just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t work.
Before I made anything official, my team at Sterling/Winters, my family, and I tested the socks to ensure that we truly loved them. We also got to know John and the other people with whom he worked. We even did a surprise inspection at the sock factory to make sure we were comfortable with the working conditions there. Anybody can clean up when they know you’re coming, but you learn a lot when you show up unexpectedly!
I took out a $50,000 personal loan to launch my own company, kathy ireland Worldwide, and a young Sterling/Winters executive and I loaded up our backpacks and went around the country presenting the socks to retailers. Doors were slammed in our faces. Some people didn’t think the socks were good enough; others said that they loved the socks, but wondered if they could find something comparable but less expensive somewhere else. Luckily, I was used to rejection from modeling, so I persevered. We were on a very tight budget and did whatever it took, including sleeping in airports, to save money. We viewed giving up material things as an investment, not a sacrifice.
Finally, a handful of sporting-goods stores decided to carry us. Then Kmart picked us up and soon asked for exclusivity. We were thrilled and signed with them. Our contract guaranteed a lot of security for many, many years and we soon expanded to include a complete line of apparel and accessories. As our brand grew, so did our spending. Gone were the days of airport sleepovers. We now had thirty-seven people on our payroll and bigger, fancier offices than we needed. Our financial advisors, however, assured us that our spending was far below the norm for a company of our size.
One day we got a phone call informing us that Kmart was having financial challenges. The next thing we knew, they were filing for bankruptcy. It was the largest bankruptcy in retail history—and a total shock. An avalanche of reality ensued. Guaranteed payments from Kmart stopped coming and my team members and financial advisors completely freaked out. Our bankers asked to meet with us immediately to discuss the situation. They explained that we were personally responsible for all the money we had borrowed from them and that if they didn’t get paid back they’d be able to take away all of our homes. Things became very grim very quickly, to say the least.
Before Kmart’s bankruptcy, we had started planning our brand’s expansion into products for the home. Now we had to think on our feet and devise a new strategy that would somehow allow us to keep our heads above water. We sublet part of our office space and decided to focus all our energy on selling our existing products through various independent retailers. We scurried and scrambled, working around the clock.
Fortunately, Kmart was eventually able to get back on its feet under new management. At that point we moved forward with our plans to expand into the home area—but this time we would sell our products at both Kmart and independent retailers. Dealing with multiple stores is a lot of work, but it’s enabled us to build a more solid foundation. No matter how good things look, they can always change. Whether it’s a recession, a health crisis, a natural disaster, or something else, things frequently hit out of the blue and you need to be prepared. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket—and always accomplish this in an ethical way. Also, never get too comfortable and be conservative with your spending.
When it comes to my business, I’ve always been ambitious and a control freak. Whether it’s human resources, sales, marketing, design, quality control, or shipping, I involve myself in every aspect. I’ve also been inspired to embark on other projects, such as making a series of exercise videos and writing several books. I didn’t realize what a toll it was taking on me. But then, in 2009, around the time that I was about to launch my book Real Solutions for Busy Moms: Your Guide to Success and Sanity, my son, Erik, got a camera and took a picture of me. When Chloe, my youngest of three children, saw it, she said, “Mom, you look pregnant!” The image took my breath away. Not only did I look overweight but I also looked overwhelmed, overstressed, and over everything!
There was a temptation to just delete the photo, but when I thought about the “real solutions” I was advising others to consider, running from the truth felt hypocritical. The photo of me on the book’s cover was beautifully retouched; Erik’s photo was real. I thought, Let’s just get the truth out there and learn from it.
There’s so much pressure on women to handle everything. Many of them, especially during their child-rearing years, tend to take care of everybody but themselves. At the time Erik photographed me, I was burning the candle at both ends and wasn’t being healthy. Seeing the photo was a real wake-up call. While I’m still on top of all aspects of my expanding business, I’ve also learned the importance of delegating and that sometimes it’s necessary to say no to good things in an effort to achieve great things.
I was at a conference where Barbara Walters, whom I greatly respect, said she didn’t believe women could have it all. I disagree. We can have it all, but not all at the same time. Our lives come in seasons, and we have to prioritize our time in each. Besides, having it all looks different for each person because we all want different things.
Today, kathy ireland Worldwide designs and markets more than fifteen thousand products. We are in more than fifty thousand stores and in more than eighty countries. Our products and services include apparel, jewelry, housewares, home furnishings, flooring, lighting, replacement windows, publishing, entertainment, and all things bridal. I even bought Sterling/Winters in 2000.
For years we were able to operate kathy ireland Worldwide under the radar. As a private person owning a private company, that suited me just fine—but everything changed in 2012 when Forbes wrote an article about us. The ensuing publicity forced me out of my shell. It also made me realize that by keeping quiet I was being selfish. There are people everywhere struggling to get businesses off the ground. I’ve received so much wisdom from others who have shared their stories of failure and success with me. I now find it fulfilling and a joy to do the same for others.
For many years I was ashamed of the gaps in my formal education. I was intimidated by other people’s intellect and frequently felt like I had no business joining a conversation. Eventually, I realized that I didn’t need to feel that way. Although I am a huge proponent of formal education, a real-life education can be extremely powerful. I also realized that I could take matters into my own hands and learn from reading and doing research on the Internet. There are no limits to the ways you can educate yourself. The smartest people I know never stop learning.
I have been harshly criticized at various points in my career. Back in my modeling days, a photographer very publicly said that I had a voice that could “kill small animals.” When I first started in business, a journalist wrote an article referring to me as a bimbo. In 2010 I hosted ABC’s Academy Awards red carpet segment and, among other negative comments, the chief marketing officer of a large public company tweeted that I was on drugs, looked pregnant, and that whoever hired me should be shot.
Although criticism often hurts, it can also be a gift. Even when it comes in a really nasty package, you have to examine it. It may simply give you the resolve to prove your critic wrong (as it did with the man I encountered on my first day delivering newspapers), but sometimes you’ll find an opportunity to learn. For example, my voice was too high and squeaky—it was something I had to work on to be taken more seriously. Also, I did look a little stiff and uncomfortable while hosting the red carpet event.
Other times I have discovered an opportunity to teach. I called the journalist who wrote that I was a bimbo, for example, and said, “I have great respect for your profession, but I need to understand why you used that adjective to describe me. I have children who will read this. Also, when you write something that is not truthful, it hurts my business and there are many jobs at stake.” He was extremely apologetic and we have become great friends. I made a similar call to the tweeting chief marketing officer. He also apologized and felt embarrassed about his actions. I could have let the comments go, but I knew that if I didn’t confront these people they would be more likely to subject others to this kind of thing down the line.
People frequently tell me about business ideas they started but then abandoned—often because they encountered rejection or someone in their lives didn’t like the idea. I say, “You stopped because of that? If you never fail, it means you are not trying hard enough.”
It’s essential to surround yourself with the right people. When it comes to core values, such as integrity and tenacity, being on the same page is important, but don’t be afraid of working with people who take an approach that is different from yours. Diversity allows you to complement and learn from each other. Building a great team has always been a priority for me. As a result, most of us have been together through thick and thin for almost twenty-six years. Without this long-term strategy, our business could never have grown into what it is today.