A celebrated model, actress, and entrepreneur, today Kathy Ireland is CEO of Kathy Ireland Worldwide (KIW), an enterprise worth over $1.5 billion that offers thousands of products for families and busy mothers. Though Ireland says her modeling days are long behind her, the beautiful mother of three is by no means coasting on her centerfold success. She’s the author of several inspirational books, holds an honorary master’s of fine arts degree from American Intercontinental University’s School of Design, and has appeared on Fairchild Publications’ list of the 50 Most Influential People in Fashion.
Ireland squeezed in a meeting with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Molly Mackin at Los Angeles International Airport, just after having returned from a meeting with her jewelry line partners in Oregon.
Chet Cooper: Did you know that we almost did an article on you, back around 1994, when you were getting started?
Kathy Ireland: Oh, really?
Cooper: Somebody on your team had approached us about doing an interview, and we said, “Yeah, that would be great!” They asked, “How much will ABILITY pay Kathy to be in the editorial?” At that time, they were still used to you being paid to be on covers.
Ireland: So it must have been a modeling agency or something like that?
Cooper: I have no idea who it was. But after all these years, it’s great to see how much you’ve been doing! Our magazine started in 1990 and you started, basically, in ‘93. Good for you!
Ireland: You, too! My goodness. It’s wonderful.
Cooper: Most of the interviews I’ve read about you mention that you got your start with a paper route? But even before that, didn’t you sell seashells or something? When you were four?
Ireland: (laughs) Actually, they were rocks. I grew up on a street called Rock Creek Road. We had lots of rocks in the neighborhood, and my sister and I would collect them, paint them, load up our wagon, and go door to door and sell them.
Cooper: Door to door?
Ireland: Yeah. Our poor neighbors!
Molly Mackin: You sold rocks as pets?
Ireland: (laughs) Not pets, no, but they were functional. Some people used them as paperweights or whatever. My granny had one. I painted a big flower on it and she carried it in her purse. She had my rock and her knitting needles, and she had such a stride, such confidence, my cute little granny. Nobody was going to mess with her. This was before mace or any of that, but she always told me, “you poke them in the ankles with the knitting needle and hit them in the head with the rock.”
Cooper: So you were selling weapons at age four, if I understand this correctly?
Ireland: Well, I looked at it more as “design artwork.” (laughs) The weapon use was Granny’s choice.
Cooper: I sometimes wonder whether people have a genetic disposition towards entrepreneurship. You sound as if you were an entrepreneurial type right from the beginning. I imagine because of your looks you got into modeling, but your brain was probably always working behind the scenes, working on entrepreneurial concepts. Am I correct?
Ireland: I think I definitely entered modeling as a businessperson. I always worked, and modeling was never a part of my plan. It was just an opportunity that came my way, and I felt like if I didn’t explore it, I might regret it. I thought maybe I could save some money for college or save money to start a business, but I never anticipated that my modeling career would go on as long as it did. The entire time I was working in that business, I was grateful, but I knew I belonged on the other side of the lens.
I tried and failed at so many businesses. If I had succeeded sooner, my modeling career would have ended sooner. But it took me a while to start our brand.
Cooper: I hear stories of people’s lives, stories in which certain things didn’t work out for these people, but they learned from their mistakes. Your business deals with children and mothers, which is interesting, and I’m wondering how you feel about the notion that we should allow our children to “fail” in order to allow them to learn.
Ireland: Oh, yeah. Ideally, you provide a safe environment in which your children can fail. A place for them to try and fall down and pick themselves up. You don’t always want to pick them up, yourself, but you want them to know that you’re there to love them and care for them and protect them. And ultimately you’re there to empower them to get up and keep on going and persevere, and not give up. You don’t want to rob them of their motivation.
Mackin: What are your kids like?
Ireland: Our kids are really awesome. I’m biased, of course. They’re each such unique personalities. Our son Eric is 16, Lily’s 12, and Chloe is seven. All three of them are pretty strong spirits and very different, too, at the same time.
Cooper: Are any of them selling rocks?
Ireland: No. (laughs) Our 16 year-old wants to be a pastor, he says. He’s got a passion for going on mission trips. He just got back from Israel, a feeding program over there.
It’s going to be really interesting to see what Lily wants to do. She is probably the most thoughtful person I know. She really thinks about others. She loves music. And all three of our kids play guitar and sing. I love that. My favorite time of night is locking up the house and going to bed, because that’s when they’re all in their rooms singing, independently, and there are all these different songs going off.
Cooper: Do you have a musical background?
Ireland: No, no. They rebelled. I don’t have it at all, but they do. They’re great kids. Chloe is spunky and really funny and likes to play in the mud.
Cooper: Would you let any of your kids do any modeling?
Ireland: I certainly wouldn’t encourage it. I saw a lot of people hurt by that industry. I never felt comfortable, myself, earning my paycheck based on how someone else perceived that I looked. It didn’t feel secure. So far, the issue hasn’t really come up with my kids. I would be surprised if modeling were something they would want to do. I’d have a real challenge if they wanted to do it while they are still kids. I think that would be tough.
Cooper: When did you start?
Ireland: I started when I was 17 and went to New York for the summer. But then I came back home and I finished high school with my class and I started modeling again when I was 18. And that was still pretty young. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Cooper: I read that you have several different homes and offices, including a place in Israel. What are you up to out there?
Ireland: Our skin care products are manufactured over there, from the Dead Sea, which is an amazing place. It’s the lowest point on earth, and the minerals there are so rich. It’s just beautiful. You float like you would if you were in outer space.
It’s pretty miraculous. I love it. We do have team members over there, and we’re so grateful to be able to give back, which is a big part of our company philosophy. If we’re utilizing elements from the Dead Sea, we figure we’ve got to give back to this place. So we look for nonprofits to work with. We do that wherever we’re fortunate enough to conduct business.
Cooper: I met with some scientists in Israel who work with children with cerebral palsy. The kids are also working with scientists in the Palestinian area. The goal is to get these kids to walk again, regardless of whether they were Jewish or Palestinian.
Ireland: Isn’t that amazing? We were over in Israel last year doing some work with Sheba Medical Center, which cares for Jewish and Palestinian kids, side by side. Kids are just amazing. They love each other and don’t ask who a person is. Everybody gets treated equally.
Cooper: Have you done any other traveling in the Middle East?
Ireland: Not really.
Cooper: How many countries are you marketing your products in now?
Ireland: It’s about 50.
Ireland: I’m proud of it. When others were spending money on maybe clothes and cars, I was investing in people. In a team. I always loved sports growing up, and I loved the idea of working together with people. I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses.
I think sometimes women, in particular, have a hard time asking for help. But there’s so much we can accomplish when we work together for a common goal. Most of us, at my company, have been together for over 20 years now. It’s been such a journey. The retail landscape is really starting to look a lot like Hollywood.
Nobody was offering me endorsements, so we started our brand from the ground up, with socks. People said, “It’s stupid. You can’t start a brand with a pair of socks!” But we wanted something basic, just to show what our team could bring as far as innovation, design, creativity. We knew that if women embraced our socks, we might be on to something.
But there was so much rejection in the beginning. And there still is, which is okay. It’s all part of doing business. I always say, if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not trying hard enough. My experience as a model was really helpful in that respect, because there’s so much rejection in that industry, so it really didn’t bother me when doors slammed in our faces.
Cooper: It’s hard to imagine you experiencing much rejection.
Ireland: Oh, yeah, it’s just part of life. You can’t be so reactive to what goes on around you. See if there’s something you can learn from it. Sometimes there’s a positive constructive message. It might be in an ugly package, but there might be something useful and helpful. Sometimes it’s just noise and you’ve got to turn down the volume and move forward. Can I learn something and do better next time?
I remember my first day on my newspaper route, back when I was eleven. I had wanted this route so badly. I had 101 newspapers to deliver, and my first day happened to be New Year’s Day. The papers were extra-thick. I was really scrawny, and I couldn’t even lift the sacks. I had to crawl on my belly, stick my head through the sack, and try to stand up. I’d get rid of the papers in the front and the weight from the back would choke me. I’d fall off my bike.
Anyway, I’m pedaling up this steep hill and I see this man standing at the end of his driveway. His face is all red and his neck is all strained and he looks really upset. As I approach him, I realize he’s angry with me. He just starts yelling: “What are you doing here? This is a boy’s job! You have no business being here! You’re never going to last!” Simply because I was a girl.
Cooper: Did you take that as a challenge, internally?
Ireland: I think so. Just because someone says you can’t do something doesn’t mean you can’t do it. A friend of mine, Nick Vujicic he’s a young, Australian guy-was born with no arms and no legs.
Cooper: I think I’ve heard of him. Doesn’t he do a lot of talks, around the world?
Ireland: He does. He goes into developing countries where people who are born differently are just discarded. So to see him go to India and other countries, to see him onstage, to see him happy and productive and helping people, it’s truly life-changing. It’s really cool.
Cooper: When you set out to start your business, how did you find the right team?
Ireland: I was fortunate, for sure! Also, I think I was discerning. I really looked for people who weren’t going to agree on everything but who, when it came to core values, had a similar foundation. You want to work with people who will do business the way it needs to be done, with integrity, and not be motivated by a dollar. They need to be motivated by a need to do the right thing. I found people who shared those values, and I think that’s why it’s worked.
I’m really grateful to our customers. For the most part, our customers are women, but there are a lot of guys out there, too, and the number is growing. I think that’s because we’re in the arena of bridal products now, and I think guys in that market look for somebody older they can trust. I’m grateful to so many women for turning down the noise of stereotyping and embracing our brand.
Cooper: I read something you wrote about your niece. She has Down syndrome?
Ireland: I wrote an article about my sister Cynthia and her daughter, Polly. Polly is eight months old and was born with Down’s syndrome.
Cooper: Have you talked to many parents of kids with Down syndrome? I know you’ve worked with the Special Olympics for years.
Ireland: When I was pregnant with our second child, Lily, I had a false positive. The doctors had told me my daughter was going to have Down’s syndrome, but it turned out that she didn’t. I just really believe God doesn’t make mistakes. However our child was going to be, we were going to love her and she was going to be great.
During that pregnancy I found I was really comfortable with not knowing the outcome. I was familiar with the work of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Special Olympics, and I found that inspiring. Here was this woman, in a male-dominated family, who started the Special Olympics in her backyard and didn’t use any family money. During that time, people who had any sorts of differences were just shut away. Nobody wanted to see them or deal with them. And what Eunice Kennedy did was bring them to the Olympics and onto the world stage and force the world to look at them and to acknowledge them and to see their ability. That really encouraged me throughout my pregnancy. I know my niece Polly is going to have a great life.
Cooper: I have to say, I’m impressed by the jewelry you’re wearing. I don’t know who’s doing the design with you, but it’s really nice.
Ireland: Thank you! Our manufacturing partners are Mikhail and Ila Jhaveri. They’ve got factories both abroad and in the States. Some in India, in different parts of Asia. They’re good people, and they make really high-quality products.
Cooper: How are you able to keep track of all the products you have?
Ireland: Well, there are about 45,000, so, that’s quite a bit. It’s really been humbling. I don’t just put my name on the products, because I really give my heart to everything. We always have team members traveling, bringing inspiration, collecting raw materials.
Our mission really began with finding solutions for families, especially for busy moms. We’ve gradually expanded it to an interest in finding solutions for people in love, through our bridal products. We have design studios that have become gorgeous estates for weddings, and brides are loving them. Another of our missions is a search for solutions for people in business. It’s been such a privilege to be asked to speak to groups throughout the country, throughout the world: a lot of small business owners, a lot of female CEOs. That’s exciting, particularly, because when I first started, I wasn’t seeing a lot of women in powerful positions. Seeing that change is encouraging and exciting.
Cooper: How does your company help these businesswomen out?
Ireland: We design specific furniture for offices. We have two manufacturing partners who service in that area. For home office products, we have Kathy Ireland Home by Martin Furniture. This is our high-end price point. It’s just beautiful, exquisite craftsmanship. The CEO of that company, Gil Martin, started out by building furniture in his garage, and he also happens to be a rocket scientist. He’s a really smart guy.
My first home office was my kitchen table. So it’s fun to figure out how people are living and how we can make our products conducive to working in those spaces.
We have another partner, called Kathy Ireland Office by Bush. That’s centered on ready-to-assemble furniture. This is our opening price point. It’s an exquisite value. It’s just amazing.
Cooper: And Bush is the manufacturer?
Ireland: Right. It is so easy to assemble these pieces. I mean, I could never even figure out LEGOs with our son-that was so complicated for me-but I’ve assembled these pieces.
Cooper: And they’re shipped to the customer in a box?
Ireland: Yeah. You really save. It’s a great value for people living in smaller spaces.
Cooper: So this is ideal for kitchen offices, home offices?
Ireland: These pieces could be for a home, but they’re also for businesses. If somebody’s starting a business or adding to it, these pieces are worth considering because they’re designed so that you can grow and add on.
Cooper: When you designed these products, were you thinking about ergonomics, as well?
Ireland: Always. We’re always thinking about that, and about sustainability. We can always do better. There’s always room for improvement. That’s something we’re always thinking to do.
Cooper What about accessibility, for people with disabilities?
Ireland: We think about that in our design studios. Here’s a good example: our seven-year-old daughter’s teacher’s in a wheelchair. We want to make sure our products make things easy for him. We don’t want any of these pieces to be awkward for anybody. We want it all to be smooth. Safety is a huge focal point for us, especially in respect to children or to customers with disabilities. and this is true if you’re talking about children, about somebody with a disability. You don’t want someone to be hurt. We opt for dime radii on our tables, on our case goods, rather than those really sharp corners that can easily cause accidents and hurt people.
Cooper: Do you plan to sell your products online?
Ireland: We do sell online, but not through our website. Our site is designed to be just a communication channel, a thank you for people who have embraced our brand-and a place where they can receive information on fashion, home, family, all of that.
Cooper: Are you still involved with The Dream Foundation, out in Santa Barbara?
Ireland: We support them, yeah. I had the privilege of working with them closely when they were in their beginning stages. They do really great work, and are the only national organization that grants wishes to adults who are facing life’s end. We’re also involved with Make-A-Wish Foundation for kids.
For the past couple of decades we’ve been hosting a mother mentor program. It’s a service for teenage girls who find themselves in crisis pregnancy situations. It provides mentoring, a day of workshops on things like, how to avoid domestic abuse, how to develop job skills, where to get an education, how to figure out your life’s goal. We pair each girl with a mentor, a woman in the community, and help that relationship thrive. It’s called 911 for Kids.
Cooper: You’ve come a long way from selling rocks.
Ireland: (laughs) I know! Everybody starts somewhere.