Don’t tell Kathy Ireland that it can’t be done.
While growing up in Santa Barbara, Ireland’s father showed her a job listing in a newspaper because he knew what kind of reaction he would get out of her. The listing read, “Newspaper carrier wanted: Are you the boy for the job?”
“I wrote to the editor, no, I’m not the boy for the job; I’m the girl for the job,” said Ireland, who was 11 years old at the time. “I can do this route better than any boy. I deserve a chance.”
Her first day on the job, Ireland noticed a man who was so upset that he was red in the face. When she handed the man his paper, he told her she had no business doing a boy’s job and that she would never last.
“I didn’t let him see me cry, but you know what? To this day, I’m really grateful to that man because there were a lot of days I felt like quitting, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction,” said Ireland, who spoke to about 200 people Wednesday night at the Catalyst for Thought event at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. “I held on to that route until I was nearly 16, and each year won Carrier of the Year for my district.”
The supermodel turned businesswoman has used that motivation to fuel her $1.5 billion company, Kathy Ireland Worldwide, a brand that “finds solutions for families, especially busy, underserved moms.” The company designs and markets about 45,000 items, including furniture, clothing, accessories, skin care products, real estate, music and publications.
Ireland’s first product was a pair of socks. Although many ridiculed her idea, she said, socks are something everyone needs and it gauged her team’s creativity and innovation. As doors slammed in their face, she and her team slept in airports to save money as they kept pitching their product.
“People said, ‘You can’t start a brand with a pair of socks. It has never been done,’” Ireland said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be done — that’s noise. In order to succeed you have to turn off the noise of negativity so you can move forward with plans for your dream.”
The mother of three has learned that successful businesses treat their workers as family.
When the line of socks took off, the brand’s exclusive seller, Kmart, fell on hard times and declared bankruptcy in 2002. The bank threatened to take her and her corporate officers’ homes.
“It was the largest bankruptcy in retail history, and my heart still breaks for the thousands of people who lost their jobs ... but no one on our team lost their job,” Ireland said. “I never had a family business; we’ve always had a business family. When you treat your team like family, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish.”
Ireland also advised that men buy products and women join brands. She said product quality is paramount.
“A well-branded, high-quality product will outperform another generic product of the same or lessor value, especially in economic hard times,” Ireland said.
“Barbara said no, but I respectfully disagreed,” Ireland said. “I think we can have it all, but not all at once.”