It all started with socks.
The year was 1993 and a retailer approached Kathy Ireland to model a sock line. Then a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, Ireland decided she was ready to take on a more significant role — she didn't want to model socks, she wanted to be a partner in selling socks. That began her shift from modeling to business.
Ireland on Wednesday urged 2,100 attendees at the ICAN — Institute for Career Advancement Needs — women's leadership conference in Omaha to follow her lead and pursue their passions without giving up. The 20th annual conference celebrated with a theme of igniting a conversation about education, leadership and inspiration.
“In order to ignite,” Ireland said, “we had to have passion for what we're doing.”
Mary Prefontaine, ICAN president and CEO, encouraged attendees to consider what their legacy will be 20 years from now and what dream they are holding on to but haven't yet pursued. She told them the world is ready for their ideas.
“Today's conference,” she said, “is full of examples that you can fulfill your dreams.”
Ireland's passion of business and design led her to create kathy ireland Worldwide, a design and marketing firm that includes everything from books and fashion to flooring and furniture.
Today, she serves as CEO and chief designer for the company, which has products in more than 50 countries and thousands of retailers, including Nebraska Furniture Mart, Ireland's first retail partner in the home goods industry.
Ireland told attendees they were probably puzzled at first why she was asked to speak at a women's leadership conference since most people remember her from her modeling days. From about the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, she was featured in 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues.
If attendees were there to get modeling secrets, Ireland had two suggestions. To look your best, she joked, contort your body to give the illusion of a thinner frame and use Photoshop.
The truth, Ireland said at a more serious moment, is that she was always more interested in designing and being behind the scenes. When she decided to develop kathy ireland Worldwide, she treaded slowly by building relationships, sleeping in airports to save money and getting used to hearing “no” often.
The hard work eventually paid off and “we were able to build our empire under the radar,” Ireland said. Forbes reported last year that her company sells about $2 billion in retail each year.
That empire, she said, wasn't created without challenges. A wife and mother of three children, Ireland said she knows the difficulties life can present, from the expected to the unexpected — accidents, brushes with financial issues, illnesses.
That's why building a company that offers solutions, particularly for busy moms, is important, she said.
“Just making it out the driveway some days, it's a victory,” Ireland said. “Making it into the store is heroic.”
Conference attendee Tammi Crampton, who is a project manager for Mutual of Omaha, said she appreciated Ireland's honesty about her personal and professional obstacles. It's easy to assume that public figures like Ireland must have every door open to them, and hearing that she faced rejection and criticism was comforting, she said.
“She struggles with balancing as much as we do,” Crampton said. “It was like, 'OK. We all have bad days.'”
Tiziana Green, who is social media coordinator for TD Ameritrade, agreed. Involved in ICAN for many years, Green brought her daughter Elleiana Green, a third-grader at St. Pius X/St. Leo School, to expose her to strong female leaders and their messages. It was a reward for her daughter, who has won some leadership honors at school recently.
“I want to help ignite that fire in her,” Green said.
Ireland said sharing the story about her journey from model to businesswoman has grown into her passion, too. She's learned that she won't find all her fulfillment at work, and that service and education is where she will.
“I just really feel like I need to speak from the heart,” she said. “All I can offer is what I know.”
Other conference highlights included:
»Bob Cronin, senior vice president-IT and infrastructure for ACI Worldwide, and Derek Leathers, president and chief operating officer of Werner Enterprises, were named winners of the Tim Rouse Advocate for Women in Leadership Award. The award is given to male leaders who embody and support the advancement of women. There were 12 nominees.
»Home Instead Inc. was named the Best Place to Work for the Advancement of Women in Omaha, an award created to recognize a local company that promotes the advancement of women in the workplace. The award was presented by Baird Holm LLP and ICAN.
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