Kym Gold is a style icon (True Religion jeans), who recently hatched Style Union Home & authored The Gold Standard: How to Run an Empire.
With a 30-year career in fashion and now home style, I know the journey of developing a business reputation is different for women. It begins with identifying your passions, paying serious attention to building confidence and asserting yourself, especially if you are the only woman at the board table. I think credibility is key.
My journey cannot, and should not, be replicated by anyone. You need to create your own path. But I have learned a few universal lessons:
Do what you love.
The big question is: Do you pursue what you want to do or what you should do? In my experience, many women find themselves pressured into certain fields, sometimes by loved ones pushing them toward a traditionally female-led occupation. If you truly love something, you will regret devoting your energy elsewhere. Following your true passion offers the best catalyst to build your reputation.
During the early 1950s in Paris, Julia Child was told that women were not meant to become professional chefs. She did it anyway, graduating from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu and becoming the first woman to host her own cooking show on television. Similarly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was reportedly questioned about taking the place of a man at Harvard Law School. Her reply is less relevant than her legacy; she became the first Jewish woman and only the second woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court.
Growing up in Southern California, I had an intrinsic sense for fashion, which, mixed with a little chutzpah, resulted in my first business venture on the famed Venice Beach boardwalk. Armed with a few hundred dollars loaned from my mom, I traipsed downtown, asking manufacturers if I could buy their overages and damaged goods. Pieces I had seen in hot retail stores selling for $60, I dyed different colors and sewed stars and hearts on to cover the imperfections. I paid $5 and sold each repurposed T-shirt for $30. Before I knew it, I was selling at swap meets and private parties.
Learn by getting involved in the world.
Some fields require degrees even to get your foot in the door, but for every entrepreneur toting an MBA from Harvard Business School, there are countless others who graduated from the “School of Life.” I earned a two-year degree from a community college and managed to find my way into business. Even if you have an advanced education, you will still learn as you go along, so I am a proponent of “just do it.”
There is great wisdom in the real world. For entrepreneurs, you need to place yourself in your future. Do not be afraid to volunteer your time in the industry where you want to be if only for the practice of living in your joy and meeting everyone you need to know. Work that job as if your life depends on it; people will remember you for your work ethic. That is another way to earn credibility, plus you will probably meet future partners and customers.
Work hard and practice discipline.
How do you grow your business into a great one? I am only as good as my team, but before I had a team, I did everything myself. I have worked in every aspect of every business I have created. You cannot boss around the housekeeper until you have cleaned the toilet yourself. That is earned credibility.
Discipline is also important. I have always been a hard worker, and I love being challenged. I know that if I stay in my comfort zone, I will not get very far. Credibility is built in this way as well. Others will notice your hunger for a challenge, and if they do not, that is okay. Just know that the combination of finding your happy place and working hard will get you everywhere. Say what you mean and do what you say — now that is an unparalleled character trait that is huge in my book.
Make your own money.
The tech startup world may not agree with me on this one, but I have also found it important to make your own money before you expect venture capitalists to do it for you. In my experience, venture capitalists are interested not so much in your product or business but in you as the driving force to make it a success.
Build your business organically, rolling profits from one project to the next. Take out a small business loan if necessary. Convince the marketplace that you have got something valuable, and leverage social media to cultivate customers and buzz. Before you jump into the shark tank of venture capital, be prepared to show your vision, hard work and success to date.
For much of my career, I was surrounded by men. Being in the fashion business, this is ironic but true. As women, we are conditioned by society and popular media to value what we see in the mirror: Your looks might open the door, but your brains will keep you in the game. You will need not only your smarts but your tenacity when you are in a boardroom filled with your male counterparts. That is when you will really appreciate having earned a reputation as a respected leader who brings others up along their journeys. I think that kind of power is everything.