ORLANDO – Kathy Ireland can remember the time she was introduced during a television interview as a model who was paid to keep her mouth shut.
And that, she said, wasn’t even the toughest, or most discouraging part of a career that has seen her succeed as a model, actress, and then entrepreneur, eventually rising to become the CEO of a billion dollar company and designer of an eponymous brand product marketing firm, Kathy Ireland Worldwide.
“Early in my career, I did speaking,” she said. “A critic said I had a voice that could kill small animals. I had this really squeaky, high-pitched voice.”
That sounds like the kind of snide and harsh criticism that would make some people question whether they were embarking on the wrong path, one likely to open them up to more ridicule if they continued doing it. But by then, Ireland said, she had learned to accept criticism with an open mind, and rather than feel embarrassed by it, she would look for ways to build on it, and become stronger because of it.
“Sometimes a gift is wrapped in that man’s nasty package,” Ireland said. Because at the moment she told the story, Ireland was the guest speaker at the Heart of Florida United Way Women’s Leadership Council luncheon, an event held at the Hilton Orlando on Wednesday, and one which attracted more than 820 guests, the vast majority of them women who had paid $75 per ticket – or agencies and businesses that had paid $800 per table – to attend this fund-raiser.
Ireland was invited to become the guest speaker, said Karen Dee, the co-chair of the luncheon meeting, because of her remarkable success as an entrepreneur and businesswoman.
“Kathy Ireland Worldwide was launched in 1993, and today it is the 28th most powerfully licensed brand in the world,” Dee said. “The company has designed everything.”
Ireland said she’s learned two things in her career: not to be discouraged by criticism, and to continue to be inspired by the great works that others do, including the United Way Women’s Leadership Council.
“Speaking in public was something I never dreamed would be a part of my life,” she said. “If I can encourage any of you in your communication, if there’s something you need to get accomplished, just get over yourself.”
That’s why the mission of the Women’s Leadership Council was so inspiring, Ireland said, because they empower women to succeed, then help others.
“When you empower a woman, we’re nurturing and we bring that back to our families and our towns, and we change the world,” she said. “Heart of Florida United Way, as I learn more about this organization, I’m so encouraged by it. It’s wonderful to have an organization that reaches out to change lives.”
A native of California, Ireland said she discovered early on that people don’t always encourage women to be successful in the paths they choose. She could remember the first serious job she had, a paper route. When she spotted all those heavy sacks filled with bundled newspapers, she knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
“I was a really scrawny 11-year-old, thinking ‘What have I gotten myself into,’ and there I was, peddling up a steep hill,” she said.
But that was the easy part, she soon learned, after a man stopped her one day and yelled that a paper route was a job for boys, not girls.
“I had many days I thought about quitting, but I wouldn’t give that man the satisfaction,” she said. “To this day, I’m really grateful to that man. That was the beginning of my decision to always under-promise – and over-deliver.”
She worked hard on that paper route, just as she did in her modeling career and as an actress. But what she really wanted to do, Ireland noted, is design her own line of clothing – so she did.
“We started our brand with a pair of socks,” she said.
Once again, she didn’t have a smooth beginning.
“The doors slammed in our faces,” she said. “They said, ‘We love the socks, but who are you?’ “
But by then, Ireland had learned not to become discouraged.
“It didn’t destroy me,” she said. “It didn’t stop me. I said ‘Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow, maybe your mood will change.’ So I encourage all of you, don’t give up if someone is not encouraging you. Just be passionate about what you’re doing.”
That, Ireland said, is what has driven her through every phase of her career – a passionate love for what she had set out to accomplish.
“Imagination without implementation is hallucination,” she said. “Yes, we’re people, and we are brands. The question is, what kind of brand are you? Brands are powerful. Brands build an existing relationship. Men buy products, and women join brands — iconic brands. We’ve got to be consistent with our message, and who we are.”
Most of all, she encouraged women to follow her example – and never feel disspirited by criticism in the early stages.
“Please don’t be discouraged if it takes you a while,” she said. “Please figure out your values and what’s important to you.”
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