In 1993, supermodel Kathy Ireland was asked to model a line of socks. Instead, she had this thought: what if, rather than modeling them, she began selling them? Thus began an epic journey of self-reinvention—and an entrepreneurial venture that is today, according to Forbes, a $1.5 billion company. In its March 2010 report on the world’s 125 most powerful global brands, License! Global magazine rated kiWW® as #28—just behind BBC and Nascar, and ahead of Sesame Street, Ford Motor Company and Martha Stewart. What force on earth, we wondered, could turn a Sports Illustrated cover girl and mother of three into a billion-dollar brand and icon of global entrepreneurialism? Authenticity, for one—that, and an enduring refusal to take rejection seriously. — J.D.M.

What was the impetus that led you to start your business?

I was at my kitchen table, pregnant with our first child, and I had been asked to model this pair of socks. I was grateful for the opportunity; it was a job, and not a lot of job offers were coming my way at the time. But I knew that if I didn’t close the door to that chapter in my life, I might not live my dream of design and business.

I think it’s crucial that we have a passion for what we do, otherwise it’s just going to become a chore and rob us of our joy. I’ve always had a passion for design and business. My very first job, when I was 4 years old, combined both elements: I sold painted rocks from my wagon with my sister Mary.

Modeling was a wonderful education. It wasn’t part of my plan, but I am grateful for it, because it exposed me to the best designers in the world. At the same time, I always knew that I belonged on the other side of the camera.

So you’d already had the idea of starting your own business for some time?

I was constantly trying and failing at businesses, throughout my modeling career. If I had succeeded at business earlier, I wouldn’t have gone on modeling so long! But I look at those years as my education, and in that respect, I am very well educated!

In fact, I had already put a team together. Women often try to do everything ourselves and not ask for help. But I know my strengths—and I know my weaknesses. Over the years, while others were spending money on cars and clothes, I was investing in people.

This team included an art director, a creative director, a marketing expert, a production person, and a vision strategist. Today most of us have been together for more than twenty years now; it’s truly a business family.

And this line of socks seemed like a good jumping-off point?

I thought it might be a really interesting place to start a brand. And I liked the people involved. Ultimately that’s what businesses are all about.

So, what happened?

People said it was a stupid idea. We had doors slammed in our face, people telling us, “You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough. What makes you think you can do this?”


kathy ireland Home by Shaw.

Home collection by Rogaska.

Kathy with her baby.

Volunteering for Feed the Children.

Home collection by Pacific Coast Lighting.

Kathy with her family.

You’ve said that in your modeling career, you experienced a good deal of rejection.

Actually, it started long before that. When I was little, I started a paper route, and a man in the neighborhood got really angry at me and said, “What are you doing here? This is a boy’s job, you have no business being here!”

I’m so grateful for that experience, because it was truly a fork in the road. Was I going to let this man’s opinion stifle my plans? Or would I use it as a fire to ignite my passions and move forward, despite the criticism?

And yes, I experienced a huge amount of rejection in modeling, photographers saying, “Nope, too short, too fat, not the right look.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but all that rejection was preparing me for success in our business.

When people laughed at us and said, “It’ll never happen,” it just didn’t faze me. I would simply say, “Okay, we’ll come back tomorrow and try again, maybe you’ll be in a better mood, or maybe your circumstances will have changed.” I work with an amazing team who have that wonderful perseverance and never give up.

And when you have that passion, when you believe in what you’re doing, it’s easy to fight for it.

It sounds like you had your sights set on something way beyond a company that makes socks. Did you see yourself with a billion-dollar enterprise back then, or was it a dream that grew larger as things progressed?

In some respects, no, I never imagined this, and I’m completely humbled by our success. More than anything, I’m so grateful to the women who turned down the noise of stereotyping to embrace our brand. They didn’t have to do it; they could have been like all the people slamming doors in our face. But the women really got it.

At the same time, we’re such a baby brand. We’ve got such a long way to go.

How so? What is it that dictates where your business goes next?

Our brand is all about solutions. That’s our mission: “...finding solutions for families—especially busy moms.”™ We’ve expanded that now to include “Finding solutions for people in love,” for the bridal industry, and so forth—but it’s always about solutions.

So we’ve got our work cut out for us. The women out there give me my marching orders. I may be CEO and Chief Designer—but the women who are our customers, that’s who is really the boss and chief designer. She is the most critical part of our design. She tells me loud and clear what she wants and what she needs. I’ve got the best, toughest boss in the world and I love her.

Women seek real relationships, and I consider that the source of our brand’s success. It’s about a real relationship. I am not a celebrity, I am not someone they can’t touch or reach or contact.

So there is an authenticity to the brand and to the company. It’s really you, it’s really your passions, and your customers feel like they are a part of that?

They know they are part of it. They know that I’m listening to them and implementing what they are asking for.

It’s heroic for busy moms to get to the store. I mean, they’re dealing with car seats, diapers, temper tantrums—some days just making it out the driveway is a victory. And once she gets there, how is she going to feel if the lighting is bad, if the sales associates are rude, if they are not knowledgeable, if the store’s a mess?

When we find retailers that really get it, that honor her, I fight for those opportunities. Sometimes I get hung up on, but that’s okay—I’m going to call back and fight again and make it possible for her to have the best experience that she can.

We women tend to be loyal. We’ll give people a chance, even if they make a mistake—as long as we know they are really listening.

That’s what iconic brands do, they trade in the world of emotion.

What makes a brand succeed?

I think brands succeed because they simplify the selection process; they build upon an existing relationship.

For every one of the more than 45,000 products we design and market, there is a design inspiration. The design didn’t just come out of nowhere; there is a story behind it.

Why did we choose this European country headboard? Where did the inspiration for this Château Brittany lamp come from? There is a story behind every piece.

Every one of our manufacturing partners works very closely with our in-house design team. I serve as chief designer and work closely with our genius creative director Jon Carrasco. Our team is able to take my rough sketches, along with the information I get from our women out there, and translate it all into something beautiful.

We have our four promises: fashion, quality, value and safety, with safety being number one, but never compromising on the other three.

Will a brand succeed if the product is inferior or if the price-to-value ratio is weak? Absolutely not. That is the quickest way to destroy any brand. But when all the elements are in place, when a product fulfills the promises of fashion, quality, value and safety, I believe a well-branded product out-performs a generic one of lesser or comparable price.

And that’s particularly true during economic uncertainties and societal changes, because we’ve got to make our dollars work for us.

Women shop where they have that trusted relationship. This is a generalization, and it’s not always true, but often men will buy products, while women join brands.

I’m so grateful to the guys out there, too, because our brand is not just for women. One of our team members, Ruben Torres, always says, “Don’t forget about the guys!” I love the guys—my dad, my husband, our son, guys are part of the family, and it’s about finding solutions for families.

But there is that special focus on busy moms, because I know first-hand that she has been really under-served.

Not everyone realizes that having a celebrity name does not automatically confer success on a business. For every Newman’s Own, there are a dozen that didn’t work out.

Fame does not equal brand equity, not at all. Elvis Presley is a legend, it’s hard to think of anyone else of his caliber when it comes to fame. But the Elvis-inspired furniture line introduced by Vaughan-Bassett in 2002 was a flop.

I don’t want to simply put my name on a product. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you’re a celebrity—but that’s not me.

And our customer is too savvy for that. If you could see my tweets, my emails, the correspondence and communication I enjoy with our customer: she doesn’t want an autographed photo from me, she wants solutions, and she wants them now.

Speaking of your tweets, they are clearly you and not some assistant—they’re sweet, authentic and personable. And I sit there saying, how on earth do you manage to do everything you do?!

Some days, not well. It’s a lot of multitasking and working with the team. Often, if I’ve got car trips to LA or up north for business meetings, a team member will drive me so that I can take calls and get work done while I’m en route.

We’re very efficient with our time. I can’t say that I get enough sleep, and I’m certainly not advocating that … it’s just a season in life right now. It’s busy and we’re grateful for that.

It’s a matter of finding time each day to get it all done and still keep my priorities in order: my faith, my family and then being of service to our business. Our three children come before the business. When those priorities are not in order, it’s a mess—a disaster.

How do you stay sane and manage a life within your busy career?

Well, some days I don’t…

Okay: honesty. Check that one off the list.

And that happens when I’m not honoring my priorities. I’m crawling on the floor trying to get from point A to point B, the coping skills are out the window, the stress is unmanageable, I’m not effective or efficient at anything.

So I have learned how important it is to keep those priorities in order.

My faith is a cornerstone for me, and that’s how I start my day: in prayer, being in the Word—and if there is any success, that’s where the credit goes, not to me. On my own, I’d make a big mess out of everything!

Now, that’s me. But I really encourage people to figure out, what is important to you? What are your values? And then to put boundaries in place to protect those values.

For example, at home I screen all my calls. Even people I love go to voice mail. I do get back to them, just not on their timetable.

Don’t be afraid to put in boundaries. I was 40 years old before I learned that “No” is a complete sentence. Again, especially for women, we often feel we have to offer an excuse or reason: “I’d love to help you with this, but my husband needs me to do this over here, or, I’m helping with the school…”

But you know what? “No” is fine. “No thank you” is even better. You can’t do everything. I can’t be at every friend’s birthday.

There are choices. Sometimes we have to say no to good things in an effort to do great things.

What are the biggest challenges for women in today’s world?

On a global level, it’s enormous, it’s mind-boggling. I’ve had the privilege of speaking at the U.N. for the Millennium Development Goals and working with young people who are truly making a difference and changing the world, doing things like building schools and health clinics with so little resources at their disposal.

It gives me so much hope—but there’s so much more that needs to be done. For example, in the area of human trafficking: it’s estimated there are over 27 million people in slavery today, whether sexual slavery or slave labor.

Education is such a critical thing for empowering women and girls. With education comes opportunity. In many countries the boys are educated but the girls are not, and this makes them much more vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

One organization I work with is the Alliance for Christian Education. They have a pilot program called Providence Hall High School (providencehallfb.org), now in its fourth year. This college prep high school serves children of all faiths, kids who would otherwise be falling through the cracks. The teachers in this program become these kids’ mentors and really tap into their genius.

We so often put limits on kids. We look at their backgrounds, at their family situation, and say, “Well, this kid’s probably only going to do so much and no more…” No, I reject that—these kids are brilliant, and when you have someone who believes in them it’s truly amazing.

Do you see a strong direction towards greater opportunity for women in the workplace, in the business world, in positions of leadership in the world?

Most definitely. People talk of these times as being times of challenge; I look at them as times of opportunity. And we need to step up to those opportunities without excuses, without limits. It’s hard work. It means not letting ourselves get in the way and not being caught up in ourselves and how bad we feel about being rejected.

A dear friend was with me once when I was giving one of my first business speeches. I was so terrified I wanted to hide under the table. He said, “Would you get over yourself? It’s not about you! You’ve got information they need.”

That’s the truth. Everyone has gifts. Sometimes it’s a matter of discovering them and developing them, but they are there. And how terrible would it be to just horde them to ourselves? That’s not what those gifts are for. They are there to be shared with others and truly celebrated—and then they grow and multiply.

If we worry about our own comfort, we’re going to stagnate and never go anywhere. We’ve got to be able to step out of our comfort zone and realize that our discomfort is irrelevant when we look at the big picture or at what we want to accomplish.

I think it’s so important to combine vision with action. Imagination without implementation is hallucination.

The people I know who are really successful, who are living their values, are those who take imagination in one hand and implementation in the other, and allow them both to drive their lives.

If you get too caught up in imagination, you get intoxicated and never get down to a strategy and timetable. If you get too bogged down in implementation, it’s easy to lose the passion of the dream. It’s a matter of combining them both and letting them drive your dream.

And not being distracted by naysayers.

Absolutely. I still get rejection. Sometimes I like to blame it on a poor cell connection, but I know people are hanging up on me. It’s okay. I’ll try again tomorrow.

I make calls every day, and if I’m not getting rejected, I’m not trying hard enough!

We can’t control our circumstances; we can’t control people around us. What we can control is how react.

Are we going to let somebody else silence us? Are we going to let them put us in a box? Limit us? Or are we going to move forward with our dreams? That’s what is needed. You just cannot stagnate. If you stagnate, you’ll just go away.

I think some of our most difficult, hurtful moments end up as gifts.

We’ve got to put one foot in front of the other. It’s exciting and it’s a privilege to be a part of that never-ending journey.

That’s why I so strongly recommend finding something that you are truly passionate about—because that passion is what it’s going to take to keep you going, when you have to fight for what you believe in. That, plus working with people you love, people you are willing to fight for.

I love it when someone tells me I’m a tough CEO. I take that as a compliment. Yes—I would hope that I’d fight for the people I love and care about.

www.networkingtimes.com/link/kathyireland