Bootstrapping Your Brand at High Point Market

Learning from Kathy Ireland & Angelo Surmelis

Entrepreneurs know big dreams begin with small, incredibly fragile seeds. And unlike the beans that Jack planted, beanstalk success stories don’t sprout overnight. On Sunday at High Point Furniture Market, as President of WithIt, I have the incredible honor of interviewing two tireless and quite frankly, brilliant entrepreneurs: Kathy Ireland and Angelo Surmelis.

WithitI have to be honest though, I’m more than a little in awe. I’ve interviewed Harvard professors, worked in a prison and spoke in front of thousands of people. My life experiences (working in the prison, for example) have taught me to clearly define my feelings.

I’m not afraid, but I’m definitely in awe.

I’ve spent hours reading and watching videos of Kathy and Angelo online. In one of the many interviews I watched of Kathy she said the true measure of an entrepreneur is overcoming obstacles, turning them around and using them to your advantage.

During Kathy’s childhood, she sold painted rocks from her wagon and made purses and accessories that she sold at art fairs and beaches. Angelo used his paper route earnings to buy wallpaper, moulding and a saw. Both saw obstacles and opportunities and created their own “yes” from it.

Bootstrapping success

Both Kathy and Angelo lay claim to an impressive list of successes.

  • Kathy as a Sports Illustrated cover model. Did you know she graced the cover for 13 consecutive issues and that her first cover was (and still is) the top grossest single edition of any magazine. In the world? Did you know that Forbes estimates her worth at more than $2 billion? Learn morea about Kathy at or follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.
  • Angelo’s path to iconic designer. He’s been on CNN, Good Morning America, Saturday Night Live and even General Hospital. He’s designed for brands like Playboy and served as a designer on the Style Network and HGTV. Learn more about Angelo at or follow him on Twitter , Pinterest and Facebook.

Kathy Ireland - Sports IllustratedBut they both admit to an equally long list of failures. Being willing to discuss success and failure in equal measures takes a bite out of my trepidation. They’re real people, with real fears and hopes and dreams.

Lesson #1 ~ Get used to rejection

For Kathy, rejection was part of the job description as a model. At some point, everyone is going to be told they’re not pretty enough, tall enough, short enough, skinny enough, curvy enough…

Accepting rejection is something I learned early as a freelance writer. Just because one editor didn’t like my essay or query letter didn’t mean I was a bad writer. Protecting my dream to be a writer became my strongest business strategy.

Lesson #2 ~ Invest in relationships

Angelo and JuliaMore than a few markets ago, I strolled into the Handy Living showroom to say hello to Angelo after tweeting with him. I didn’t expect him to know me but he welcomed me – as a friend. Angelo’s warmth and authenticity sets people at ease within seconds. Whether you’re watching one of Angelo’s videos or chatting with him in the showroom, he’s the same effervescent, self-deprecating guy in a fedora that you can’t help but love.

Working in a prison, as a teacher, as an editor and now as a consultant makes me more of a human behavior professional than it does anything else. I’ve learned to manage upward, lead from the middle and keep a project moving forward when I’m dead last in line.

Before I accepted my job at the prison, I laid my life bare for the government of Canada. That first lesson in transparency has taught me it’s always better to come to the table without agenda. There’s less to remember if you’re always you.

Lesson #3 ~ Get a good mentor

Angelo SurmelisWhen Kathy talks about her mentor, Elizabeth Taylor, her face softens and her eyes light up. It’s clear these two shared something beautiful that goes far beyond the business lessons. Kathy and Angelo talk about each other the same way – mentors and friends to each other.

I have had some incredible mentors throughout my career. Some have become very good friends, while others provided what I like to refer to as reverse mentoring. I learned from them despite their bullying leadership.

We all need mentors and it’s one of the reasons I accepted the role of president for WithIt in 2012. I’m proud to lend my name, energy and passion to an organization focused on mentoring and elevating women in the home and furnishings industries. Who have you lifted in your career?

Lesson #4 ~ Success has nothing to do with fame

Kathy’s quick to share how she took an opportunity to model socks and turned it into a business venture. She knows her current customer intimately and has incredible respect for her and the challenges she faces in her daily life. And she knows that woman doesn’t care what she looks like in a swimsuit.

“Our customer is the most critical part of our design team and it’s really hearing her – she’s my boss,” Kathy Ireland told Robin Roberts on ABC News. “I’ve got the toughest boss in the world.”

Lesson #5 ~ No is a complete sentence

Kathy Ireland - Forbes listedKathy says she was 40 years old before she learned that “No” is as complete a sentence. If you know where you’re going and you remain focused on that goal, you’ll eventually get there.

Kathy says she’s reached many of her goals by investing in the people around her – human equity. We aren’t islands and we can’t do any of this alone and the sooner we tap into the spirit and power of collaboration, the sooner we start winning. Kathy remains intimately connected to the people in her organization and is involved in everything from HR issues to marketing to product development and design.

The next time I hear someone tell me they’re too busy to do “that” (whatever that happens to be) I’m going to tell them about Kathy and Angelo…


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