Eileen Fisher: business has the power to make a difference

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Tuesday, 16 December 2014 21:48 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Business has the power to make a difference, and can be a movement around social change. We are working towards becoming a fully sustainable company by the year 2020,” explained Eileen Fisher, who started her namesake fashion company in 1984. In an in-depth interview, we discussed the origins of her entrepreneurial spirit, the challenges facing women entrepreneurs and her efforts to empower this community, business as a force for social progress, and much more.

As an entrepreneur, in particular a woman entrepreneur, what were some of the challenges you faced while trying to launch and grow the EILEEN FISHER brand and company in those early days?

We celebrated 30 years this year and I've been reflecting on what I’m most proud of: Staying true to ourselves was always a challenge. There were times when I veered off, tried to move in a trend direction, or lost track of what seemed meaningful and important. In the end we have stayed true to our values, both in relationship to the design concept and our commitment to creating positive change in the world.

Simplicity is at the core of the design idea I planted as a seed all those years ago—a collective of simple shapes that work together in many ways. The intention is to “solve her problem,” giving women the pieces to put themselves together easily and joyfully so they can focus on life. We believe that good design is a result of paying attention to what women want and need, and how clothes function and feel. Women long to experience the magic that happens when you put on garment that has been pared to its essence. It comes alive on your body, and you discover a certain freedom and confidence. I want EILEEN FISHER to be known for clothes you don't have to overthink and that feel amazing every time you reach for them.

Are things better today for women entrepreneurs wishing to start their own companies and break through old stereotypes?

I don’t' know if it is better. For people starting businesses now, or growing businesses, it is important to ask yourself why are you doing this? What is the purpose? Your purpose? The purpose of your business? I’m asking “why?” all the time. It only makes sense to create something new if what you’re doing is meaningful and engages people working on the product and those buying the service you provide.

Over the years, what kinds of efforts have you been involved in or led that have supported other women entrepreneurs taking this leap?

Ten years ago, we launched the Women Business Grant Program and have awarded up to 40 grants totaling over ${esc.dollar}550,000 to wholly women-owned businesses that are innovative, socially-conscious and committed to sustainability. I know how important it is to have someone believe in you, especially when you’re just getting started on your own. I am constantly inspired by the big impacts small businesses can have on their communities. These companies deserve recognition as role models for the way that they create inventive approaches to working harmoniously with the planet and one another.

Most recently we’ve partnered with TakePart.com, Participant Media’s digital news & lifestyle magazine and social action platform, to launch In Her Company, a campaign that celebrates women entrepreneurs. 30 amazing women-entrepreneurs from different industries like food, fashion and technology are featured in the campaign. It was important to create a place for these women to share their stories on becoming business owners, and the trials and obstacles they’ve faced as women. The ladies featured in In Her Company believe in doing good and giving back to the community.   That is why we’ve partnered with TakePart.com to help us reach the conscious consumer and create a social conversation for the issues faced by women business owners.

Do you believe business can be a powerful force for social change?

I have always thought of the company as being about more than the clothes. Creating meaningful impact in the world is at the heart of it. Business has the power to make a difference, and can be a movement around social change. We are working towards becoming a fully sustainable company by the year 2020. Our work with women and girls, human rights and the environment, and how we work as a company completes the circle. It’s about the product, people and planet, and the choices each of us make every single day.

Alex Wolf from na2ure, one of the In Her Company entrepreneurs, is a great example of a force in social change. Her company found a way to bring STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to kids and prepare them for the new generation of careers. na2ure has beautifully designed physical and digital games that teach children about science and the natural world through play.

What are some of the leadership lessons you've learned over the years, and what advice would you give aspiring women entrepreneurs?

I have always been a listener. I believe good ideas come from everyone. I have created a culture in my company that is highly collaborative. It is a place where people have the opportunity to engage, inspire each other, and contribute to the company, each other and the world. There was an intentional effort to create this environment where possibility is key. Less about egos and limits and more out of openness and learning and belonging to something bigger with purpose.