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Model-Turned-Entrepreneur Kathy Ireland Talks About Getting Advice From Warren Buffett

July 18, 2016, 6:10 PM UTC
Dame Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones in "Love Letters"
Lifestyle designer Kathy Ireland arrives at the "Love Letters" theatrical debut to raise awareness for World Aids Day held in the Paramount Theatre at Paramount Studios December 1, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)
Michael Tran FilmMagic

Former supermodel Kathy Ireland has a very familiar face, but these days, it is her apparel and home furnishing brands that grab attention.

For someone who was not taken seriously in the business world at first, Ireland now has a net worth of almost a half-billion dollars, according to Forbes magazine, and is even buddies with Berkshire Hathaway legend Warren Buffett. Take that, doubters.

For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, Ireland sat down to talk about what she has learned from her life’s extraordinary journey.

Q: What did you learn about money growing up?

A: My dad always taught me to under-promise and over-deliver. On my old paper route, if someone expected a paper in their driveway, I put it on their front porch.

Q: As you became a success in the modeling world, how did you start investing that money?

A: I started to look at what made sense to me. Growing up in California, real estate made sense. Prices always seemed to just climb and climb. As a result I purchased my first condo when I was only 21.

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Q: Was it strange to be thrown into circles of extreme wealth, in the fashion world?

A: There was a lot of frivolity all around me: Cars, clothes, fancy meals. But what some people thought was luxury, I thought was just wasteful. I never felt comfortable earning a living based on my outward appearance – it always felt temporary to me. I just thought of modeling as an opportunity to save money for college or start a business.

Q: When you launched your business post-modeling, did some people not take you seriously?

A: Quite a bit. It was written that I have a voice that could kill small animals, that whoever hired me for a TV special should be shot, that women couldn’t relate to me because I was a bimbo. And that was just the public stuff!

In private, it could be even worse. Once I was in a meeting about fitness equipment, and a man leaned over and said, ‘Don’t worry your pretty little head about this. Don’t you want to stay home and make babies?’

Q: You obviously proved them wrong, so what business role models did you aspire to?

A: One is Irv Blumkin of Nebraska Furniture Mart, a Berkshire Hathaway business. He got us our start in the home industry by giving our brand a chance, when others were laughing in our faces. Eventually our business family came to include Warren Buffett, who counseled me not to limit our company to fashion, which can be so cyclical.

Q: You have structured kathy ireland Worldwide (kiWW) as a private company – is the hope that your three children might one day take over?

A: There will always be career opportunities here for our children, if they are interested in the business. But I want them to live out their own dreams.

What I love about being a private company is that many of my decisions might not fly on Wall Street, but they work for me. Once I walked away from a deal worth millions of dollars because I wasn’t happy with the safety of the products, which met standards in some states but not others.

Q: What kind of philanthropic legacy do you want to leave behind?

A: I look up to Elizabeth Taylor, who was virtually a member of our family. She commanded a vast empire, but was always in charge. With her AIDS foundation, she left clear, focused goals, and directed exactly where she wanted the funding to go and which people to help. That’s powerful. These days I’m honored to be an ambassador for her foundation, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss her.

Q: When it comes to giving, how do you decide where to allocate your dollars?

A: I want to see people getting results. That is what I look at. If I am joining an organization, I need to look at the books and see the financials.

Q: What money lessons do you pass along to your own kids?

A: We want to give our kids the resources to not live in fear, but not so much that it kills their motivation. The other day one of my daughters wanted to buy some art pens, so she had to do some babysitting. She made a choice – and she earned it.