How Eileen Fisher, 66, Went From $350 In Startup Money To $300 Million

Photo by Joao Canziani

Photo by Joao Canziani

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg: What would you say a young female entrepreneur who wants to build a rocking business and have a family at the same time?

Eileen Fisher: I would say, do things to anchor yourself and to keep your priorities straight. Make sure your most important relationships stay on top. And take care of yourself. When I didn't do that, it was chaos. I would also say, be present where you are. When you're with your kids, be with your kids. I've become practiced at it. People talk about quality time, but I think it's bigger than quality. It's about the quality of the presence we bring.

MCH: How did you find this balance at your growing company?

EF: When my kids were in middle school, I started coming home at 3 p.m. three days a week. I realized that I could get the most important things done between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day. I would guard my time. This conversation is going on too long. I can delegate this or that. What's the big picture here, what do I need to decide? I sorted my priorities and organized my time better.

MCH: Could you have been this crisp in the startup years? Even if your head had been there, could you have limited your time this way? Or are there some phases in the life of a business when it always wins?

EF: That's a great question. In my case, the business did win in the early years. But I think it is possible to have a family in a healthy way and create a really thriving business at the same time. It takes a certain kind of energy. There will be times you have to throw yourself into the business. It's important to have a good support system for those times, have a supportive partner, and be aware of when you have to let go. There were key times--weeks--when the line had to come together. If I had just given myself to the business during those times, but remembered my priorities the other times, that would have made all the difference. The problem was, I couldn't find that line between passion and obsession. Business is addicting. The addicting part is not what makes it good. The passion is what makes it good. It's like love. Love is a good thing, but when it turns into obsession--when you have to be with that person all the time--it's not healthy.

MCH: Work challenges are concrete. The rewards of giving yourself at home are harder to define, and society doesn't offer the same respect for that. It's easy to be confused about what's important. And it's hard for women to forgive ourselves for that confusion.

EF: A lot of friends tell me that I have to forgive myself for those early years. Women do punish themselves, but also they have a willingness to look at what's past and reflect, "What can I do now?" It sounds like I'm beating myself up. But I'm also looking at it differently. I behave differently now. Attending to your kids in their 20s still has a huge impact on their lives. With my ex-husband, too--our relationship has healed. I reflect not so much on what might have been, but more on what were the pieces that didn't line up right. What didn't get put in place that can be put in place now? I have another chance with my kids, and I'm on it.

Interview via Inc.