When Kathy Ireland donned a teeny-weeny yellow bikini and flashed a sultry smile for the cover of the 25th Anniversary Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 1989, she was catapulted to overnight fame and a high-octane career as a supermodel. She scored two more SI covers and put her buff, tan body on display in practically any fashion magazine you can name. Twenty-five years later the beautiful mother of three has long since traded the runway for the boardroom. Starting with a line of socks, Ireland created a multi-billion dollar empire of licensed products — furniture, lighting, glassware, sportswear and more — based on her company’s motto, “Finding solutions for families, especially busy moms.”
Ireland uses her success to support causes she cares about, from promoting Christian education to supporting HIV/AIDS research and care. Ireland is also committed to fair treatment of workers in the factories around the world that manufacture her products. As successful as she is — Kathy Ireland Worldwide does $2 billion in sales per year and her own net worth has been estimated at $350 million — her infectious sense of humor and commitment to family helps her keep perspective. She still considers the home she shares with her husband, Dr. Greg Olsen, and children, Erik, Lily, and Chloe, the important center of all she does.
Jeanne Wolf: One could say you got your education dressed in a swimsuit. What did you learn on the runway that translated into all this business success?
Kathy Ireland: One of the greatest lessons from that long-ago career was all of the rejection. I hated it at the time, but I feel badly for people who don’t experience being turned down. When we started our brand with socks, I was an aging, pregnant model, and people slammed doors on me, literally laughing in my face, and it didn’t destroy me.
JW: Do members of your family weigh in with opinions about your company’s products?
KI: Our house is a very busy, active lab. My family, my kids, see my failures; they see the messes I make. I’m like, “C’mon guys, let’s see how sturdy this is.” Since they were very little, we would get disgusting things out of the refrigerator and throw them on something like a broadloom sample to make sure it would hold up. I’ve had them jumping on the furniture to see if it was durable. I remember when Erik, my first, had a play date at a friend’s house, I was mortified because he began jumping all over their white sofa. I was like, “No, honey, you can only do that at home.”
JW: You’ve become an important spokesperson for your designs and for causes and issues you feel need a voice. How did you gain the confidence to speak out?
KI: The truth is I do not feel qualified or adequate. I’m completely uncomfortable. By nature, I’m a very shy person. I couldn’t string a sentence together when I was younger and worked as a model. As a kid, I couldn’t make eye contact with an adult. But when you see the need and the opportunity, you recognize that your comfort is absolutely irrelevant. My best advice today is all that you give is all that you get, so give it all you’ve got. Another important lesson: Get over yourself.