This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature ‘Why Aren’t There More Women In Positions Of Power?‘
We asked her how she scaled the corporate ladder and then made a name for herself in Silicon Alley. Here’s what she had to say:
What’s your take? Where are we today?
We’ve come a long way. I’m newer to the tech scene. The world that I come from is corporate fashion retail. Most CEOs are men. But there are women in executive roles across the board.
That brings up a good point. If fashion is a female-dominated industry, why are most of the CEOs men?
That’s a bit controversial. What you’ll find in the industry is that there are lots of years behind those roles. I’ve worked with those CEOs. They deserve to be in those roles. You’re also looking at the opportunity and the skills necessary, and they were able to climb the ladder faster. In 10 years, we’ll see more women.
I remember when I started as an assistant buyer, the men all made more than the women. We were all 21-years-old. As frustrating as it was, it made me work that much harder to get promoted before the rest. I was able to double my salary in less than two years.
One thing about women is that they’re more risk-averse. We take a somewhat safer path. If you were to look at my path—and I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life—I took the path of, “I want to know everything I could possibly know about starting my own company before launching it.” I waited 15 years to start my own company. By the time I was 23, I was running a $50 million business within a multi-billion dollar company.
And by the time I was 27, I was running a $350 million business inside of a $15 billion dollar company. I’ve always had a direct line to presidents and CEOs. Imagine being 24-years-old and you’ve got the ear of a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company. I was launching private new labels. I had access to some of the smartest business people in the world, male and female. I was able to forge these relationships and figure out what makes a great leader.
How did you climb the ladder? What was your key to getting ahead?
It’s up to you to grab that opportunity. I was never afraid to say, “You need to give me $10 million or $20 million, and I’m going to give you this much in sales and this much in gross profit margin. One thing I believe shaped me for my entire life is Vector Marketing. I was the top sales rep on the West Coast. I sold knives. It was my first entrepreneurial experience. I made $30,000 in sales in three months. It gave me that entrepreneurial bug. When I was 21, I went to my boss and said, “You need to give me money to grow this business.”
If I hadn’t done that, my boss wouldn’t have given it to me. I got “Buyer Of The Year.” It was a high-risk program that worked. What if it hadn’t? It would have been tragic. The executive vice president at Mervyn’s once said to me, “Better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” Sometimes it got me in hot water but it allowed me to have some big wins.
When did you decide that it was a good time to leave and start Chloe + Isabel?
The biggest mission driving me was, “How can you do something that will make a difference in this world?” Fashion is exhausting. You’re so passionate about what you’re doing. I was now married, and I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The Chloe + Isabel model was that perfect business model: empowering women, providing a financial opportunity for women. It’s a social-selling model. It’s very similar to the 125-year-old direct-selling industry, but it never catered to Generation Y. It’s an ageing industry.
I didn’t think I’d be designing and developing software. Half of our company is engineers. Between October and December, our revenues tripled. We just closed our beta round.
What about approaching VCs? Were you competing against a bunch of young guys in hoodies?
I never thought that I’d take VC money. It never occurred to me to approach one. I was going to go through the fashion industry. I thought, why would a VC want to invest in this company? I had that first meeting, and it just educated me. If I had taken money from my industry, they wouldn’t have understood the tech part of it.
I didn’t know if I’d be received well, but if there’s something I heard over and over again, it was, “It’s so great to meet an entrepreneur who should actually run the company.”
Of all the women I’ve spoken with, they’ve had good experiences. Maybe because there are fewer of us, we’re more highly sought after. If you’re a rarity in an industry, then people are going to want you.
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