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How Martha Stewart became America’s first female self-made billionaire: ‘I was lucky, and I was smart’

April 1, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC
Photo Illustration by Fortune; Original Photo: Charles Sykes—Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Before 2020, Martha Stewart was popular. After a year of quarantine, her appeal to audiences from traditional homemakers to millennials learning to be “plant parents” may be stronger than ever.

The lifestyle guru has continued to expand her purview, too, recently joining the board of the chain BurgerFi. Although she’s long worked on programming and partnerships in the food and cooking spaces, it’s her first engagement with a fast-casual brand. The appointment is also only her second current company board seat.

So what has helped Stewart’s appeal endure, from burgers to CBD? The 79-year-old lifestyle legend—who was America’s first female self-made billionaire—shared her take with Fortune. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fortune: What attracted you to BurgerFi and made you want to join the company’s board?

Stewart: Two close friends are executives and founders of the company. I’ve been watching what they’ve been doing. I have also been following the vegetarian, plant-based meat development, like the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger. I care very much about meat production in the United States—the serving of meat, how important it is to be high quality. They’re dedicated to serving the best meat as burgers, the best alternatives to meat as vegetarian burgers. It’s one of America’s favorite foods, and if we can make them really okay—not harmful in any way, and delicious—we are way ahead of the game.

What attracted me to BurgerFi was its size. It’s small and growing. I’m a fan of certain aspects of Shake Shack. This, to me, is an alternative to the Shake Shack offering.

What’s your view on the plant-based meat space? Are you a fan? Do you think it has a lot of potential?

Oh, I think it has a lot of potential. I have been an investor in Beyond Meat, and I’ve been trying older products for several years now. For vegetarians, for people who like the idea of a hamburger but don’t like the idea of meat, it is such a nice answer.

I just ate a Beyond Burger at BurgerFi last Friday. I’m not a big meat eater. I like grilled meat when I eat meat, but it’s rare that I eat red meat.

At the same time as you’re getting involved with a burger chain, you have a line coming out with EasySpirit. More than maybe any other businesswoman, you cover such a wide range of industries and products, from burgers to shoes.

We’re sort of like a conglomerate for the home and the homemaker. So the homemaker needs good, comfortable shoes. We started a few years ago with Aerosoles, and we have moved on to Easy Spirit. Their manufacturing has high standards, and the shoes are extremely comfortable.

How do you translate the core “Martha Stewart” appeal between these different kinds of endeavors?

We started doing fashion in a big way a few years ago with QVC. It just took off—our down vests are what I call the “new sweater.” We did beautiful jeans and jean shirts, which are the basis for a garden wardrobe or a casual wardrobe. Those are the kinds of clothes I wear on a daily basis. That’s what I’m designing and working with manufacturers to create.

When I was a young mother, my daughter Alexis said to me once in a grocery store when I was wearing an apron, that I looked like a slob. She said, “Mom, please don’t embarrass me. You can’t go out in your apron.” She made me realize it’s important to look put together no matter where you are. I continue to try to always look well put-together, but comfortable and practical.

What about you and your brand do you think is resonating with millennials and even younger generations?

It really started a few years ago, when I did a roast of Justin Bieber. Up until then, my demographic following had basically been women between 28 and 54, the typical women’s magazine audience. Then it completely changed and exploded my demographic, bringing in young people, bringing in men, bringing in a Black audience through the other performers on that same roast. That’s when I rekindled my friendship with Snoop Dogg. His social audience and his likability have greatly translated into my audience. So we just keep moving along, expanding our offerings, and expanding our audiences. And always making practical, high-quality products at a fair and affordable price.

These new audiences you’ve brought in—what are they interested in once they start following you? Following along on social, or your CBD business, or your more traditional lines?

They’re watching me on television—I’m teaching a very broad audience how to do things. Especially in the past year, everybody wants to make their homes nicer, their garden; they want to have chickens; they want to do all this stuff. If you go to a garden center and ask about succulents, who’s buying the succulents? It’s 20-year-olds, because they can learn to garden starting with a simple thing like a succulent. If you forget to water it for two weeks, it won’t die. But then they go on and start to grow dahlias. And then they start to grow poppies, and they get to the homemaking arts, and that’s what my job is—to teach everything about home-keeping, homemaking, home-creating. That’s what my job has been and will continue to be.

On this topic of younger audiences, your social media is one thing millennials love. Even your recent post announcing your BurgerFi role was not the typical board seat announcement. What motivates you to use social media in this way? What’s your strategy?

I like social media—Harper’s Bazaar, they called me the “original influencer,” which I am very proud of. I really think that I can, in my way, by educating, informing, inspiring, I can influence. And I don’t do it in a silly way. I do it very seriously. Because I believe that you can learn how to do things well, and you can really improve your living conditions and your living style if you pay attention. That’s what I’m all about. And it’s important to me that the whole company feels that way—that we’re helping people. It’s not a mission—we’re not a religious group. But we’re an avid group of learned people teaching great things to a big audience.

Do you find that you’re reaching a different audience on social than even the diverse audience you described?

All the time. It takes a while for my friends to get on social. But it doesn’t take a long time for the early adopters of social to find me, because it’s fun. What I post is fun. Like the swan that just landed on my farm—it’s now coexisting with all the chickens and geese and guinea fowl. People like to know that that happened.

Where do you see CBD going? What’s the potential for you in that category?

CBD is a rather new product. For many people, it certainly is a useful product in the medical world—instead of taking that Tylenol, you can take a drop of CBD oil and get stress relief and anxiety relief. People are finding that it really works.

We’re proceeding very nicely. It’s really fun. Canopy has been a great partner with the gummies, the dog chews. We’re going to develop more and more flavors, different oils, different ingestibles.

You were America’s first female self-made billionaire. What does that descriptor mean to you?

I was lucky, and I was smart. I built a beautiful company, and I was rewarded. And that’s the American way.

What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs?

If you have a good idea, and you have encouragement from your family and friends, try to build it into something amazing. Entrepreneurial behavior, to me, is the most exciting way to work. To build on a business, and build more and more, it’s so much fun. Every day I wake up with a new idea. That’s kept me really active. My motto is, when you’re through changing, you’re through. I really believe that—you have to keep aware of what’s happening around you.

What do you consider your legacy in media, lifestyle, and beyond?

I consider myself a master teacher. In gardening, cooking, creating, decorating, crafting, holiday celebrations. It’s all of those things. That legacy will end with 98 books so far, and thousands of television programs.

Do you think you’re going to get to book 100?

Oh, yes. That’s my autobiography.

This idea of your legacy as a master teacher—has it been satisfying to see more people learning over the past year at home?

Oh, sure. Think about how many hundreds of millions of homes there are in the world, and we all need advice. We all need inspiration. That’s what I’m here for.