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How Former Supermodel Kathy Ireland Built a Multi-Billion-Dollar Company by Instilling Trust Into a Brand Name

It all started with selling rocks. When Kathy Ireland was 4 years old, she collected rocks, painted them, and, with her sister, took them door to door in a little wagon. The going price was 5 cents apiece.

That entrepreneurial drive “was in my DNA,” she told American Essence. With her parents’ encouragement, she ran with it, putting up lemonade stands, washing neighbors’ cars, and designing jewelry—whatever she could find to do.

At age 11, she got her first serious job: a newspaper delivery bike route, up and down the hills of her Southern California town, with 100 customers. Her dad told her to give it 110 percent—if customers expected the papers in their driveway, he said, put it on their porch. That lesson in under-promising and over-delivering stayed with her ever since.

To some, Ms. Ireland is best known for her modeling work in the 1980s and 1990s. She graced many magazine covers, including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour. Sports Illustrated featured her in its swimsuit issues 13 consecutive times, including its best-selling 1989 swimsuit issue.

Many ask how she pivoted from modeling to business, but to Ms. Ireland, it wasn’t a pivot. Modeling simply helped her save money for college and fund her entrepreneurial ventures. Even during her modeling years, she was trying her hand at various businesses—and failing a lot, too. But as any entrepreneur knows, failure is an education in itself. In that respect, “I’m very well educated,” she has said in other interviews, with a knowing smile.

Ms. Ireland believes her early jobs contributed to her fearlessness. “I always worked, and I’m grateful because as I grew, it gave me confidence that I could walk away if the circumstances were not good. … I knew I could do anything else for a living.” She’d experienced so much rejection in the modeling business that she became accustomed to it.

Ms. Ireland said actress Elizabeth Taylor taught her a lot about jewelry: “She really educated me so much, looking for the quality inside, outside, every angle.” (Courtesy of Jon Carrasco)

Growing Her Company

In the early ’90s, as Ms. Ireland neared her 30s, modeling work grew more scarce. She got to thinking of business ideas that could leverage the appeal of her household name.

Swimsuits were an obvious choice—too obvious for her liking.

But she liked the idea of socks.

The idea was sparked when a request to model socks came her way. Someone else might have turned her nose at the offer. But Ms. Ireland liked the quality of the socks, and she liked the people who got in touch with the request—John and Marilyn Moretz of North Carolina—even more. In the end, she partnered with them, working with her team to put in sweat equity and lend her design flair to the socks; Moretz Mills would manufacture and distribute them.

The choice of product might seem unglamorous, but for Ms. Ireland, it was strategic. The kathy ireland socks served as a litmus test for her brand.

“Whatever little smidgen of celebrity I might have had back in the days when I modeled, I knew it wasn’t enough for a brand and that women were too smart to buy something just because it had my name on it,” she said.

If she could earn the trust of women—specifically busy moms—by offering a product that combined quality and value, then she knew her brand had a chance of succeeding in the long run.

It turned out that socks were just the beginning. Ms. Ireland’s brand licensing company, kathy ireland Worldwide, launched in 1993. As co-founder and chair emeritus, Ms. Ireland took feedback extremely seriously, “taking marching orders from [women],” listening to their needs and coming up with solutions to make moms’ lives better.

She expanded her customer base and diversified the industries she worked in. After developing her line of socks, she went into home furnishings on the advice of Warren Buffett, who told her that home products enjoyed more stability than fashion. These were followed by office furniture, event planning, jewelry (Elizabeth Taylor mentored her), apparel, and real estate, among other industries.

Ms. Ireland’s name now lends its Midas touch to over 17,000 products and services. Those include partnerships with MainStreetChamber Holdings, Your Home Digital, BMG, and Philip Stein Watches; and with retailers spanning from HSN, Camping World, and Nebraska Furniture Mart, to Bed, Bath & Beyond,, Macy’s Backstage, and many more.

Because kathy ireland Worldwide is a private company, owned solely by Ms. Ireland, business numbers aren’t shared publicly. Forbes estimated it generated $3.1 billion in retail sales in 2021. In 2022, Ms. Ireland was inducted into the Licensing Hall of Fame.

As she expanded into various fields, she met with plenty of skeptics and naysayers. “I never liked limits,” she said.

“People said fintech was also an area that we couldn’t move into though nobody had a good reason why, so today we work in the area of credit card processing.”

What makes ireland Pay different from other such services, though, is that 51 percent of the company’s revenue goes to nonprofit causes.

Making a commitment to nonprofit causes is a requirement for any company that kathy ireland Worldwide partners with.

“Something that we do insist upon is that you’re giving back, and we have a list of 10 initiatives that cover everything from supporting our military veterans and their families, fighting human trafficking, working to eradicate disease, hunger, and poverty, [as well as] environmental issues.” It doesn’t need to be a financial contribution, Ms. Ireland explained, but could be a commitment to spread awareness or volunteer staff time.

“We just want to know that if we’re going to invest the time and resources to work together, that we will honor our vision statement—to teach, inspire, empower, and make our world better.”

Ms. Ireland foresees significant growth in the next few years, focusing on products “that might not necessarily have the biggest profit margins but [are] more frequently purchased.

“As we’re learning about the needs and daily struggles that people have,” she’s asking: “How can we make a difference here?”

“Even though we’ve been in business for a very long time, I really feel we’re a baby business,” she said. “We’re just getting started.”

Ms. Ireland and businessman Warren Buffett at the annual newspaper-throwing contest at a Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting. “He’s got a few years on me, but he’s really good,” Ms. Ireland said. Both had newspaper delivery jobs when they were young. (Courtesy of Jon Carrasco)

Guiding Principles

Faith is always first for Ms. Ireland. From it, she derives her stamina and perseverance. It also underlined for her the need to consider others more important than herself.

Her philanthropy is extensive, supporting the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation as International Youth Chair; the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation; the Fallen Outdoors, which organizes outdoor adventures for veterans; and Hardwired Global, which advocates freedom of conscience, religion, and belief; among many others.

Ms. Ireland learned a great deal about philanthropy from one of her mentors, actress Elizabeth Taylor. “Her life was big. Her heart was bigger,” Ms. Ireland said. Her philanthropy “had a laser focus.” From her, she learned that “when you work in the area of nonprofit, it’s much like a public company, because you’re responsible for other people’s money.”

When asked about the legacy she wants to leave, Ms. Ireland was incredibly humble. Her simplicity and wisdom shone through as she spoke.

“Well, there’s a song I really like. It says, ‘I don’t want to leave a legacy. I don’t care if they remember me. Only Jesus.’”

“So I hope my life can point others to the love of the Lord. Not everybody on my team shares the same faith. But my faith is most important to me. I don’t really need anybody to remember me, but if they do, that’s what I would like them to know.”

(Courtesy of Jon Carrasco)

4 Questions for Kathy Ireland

American Essence: You’re such a confident woman. Where do your confidence and your fearlessness come from?

Kathy Ireland: I was the most awkward, shy kid. I couldn’t make eye contact. I love getting older, I really do. I hope I stay healthy. The things that I used to be concerned about, I’m not concerned about [anymore]. I’m not concerned about other people’s opinions of me. I don’t feel like I have to impress anybody, and there’s a lot of freedom in that. It really comes from my faith. In my favorite book, it says over 500 times, “Don’t be afraid. Have courage.” I believe the Lord tells us that because he knows that we can struggle with it. That doesn’t mean that things aren’t hard. We have good days and bad days. Life can be really intense. But I don’t have fear. One of the scriptures that I love is, “If He is with us, who can be against us?”

AE: What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment in life? What are you proudest of?

Ms. Ireland: Our children. I can’t take credit for that, but it’s more [that] it’s such an honor to be their mom. They’re grown now. We have three kids, Erik, Lily, and Chloe. Erik is married to Bethany, [whom] we love. We claim her, too, but we have to share her with her parents. And we have two grandbabies.

AE: You’ll have been married for 36 years this year. What are your secrets to a long, happy marriage?

Ms. Ireland: [My husband] Greg is amazing. But, it is really looking at marriage not as a contract, but as a covenant with God. When we have the days when maybe I’m not being so lovable, or he’s not being so lovable, we remember it’s OK, it’s not just a promise we made to each other. We made a promise to God as well, that He’s at the center of it. … We need that so that we can see each other through God’s eyes, even when the person isn’t being lovable. He gives us supernatural strength to love the unlovable. And that’s really how we have managed to get through, because every marriage has its ups and downs and challenges and struggles. I think also as you get older, you learn how to change your expectations, not lower them—that takes away respect—but change and recognize that you’ve got two failed people coming together. So you know, how are we going to make this work? And you get in your solution mode.

I’m grateful because He’s solid. He’s not a quitter, and I’m not either. Another scripture that I love is, “Consider others as more important than yourself.” And that is true, whether it’s life or business.

AE: What do you love about America?

Ms. Ireland: Having had the privilege of traveling the world and experiencing wonderful places, I really appreciate the freedom that we have in this country and the Judeo-Christian values that it was founded upon, which promises freedom to everyone regardless of their faith—including those who have no faith at all. Those freedoms are for everyone, and I love that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

From May Issue, Volume IV