Rachel Roy Talks Leadership, Risk Taking, and How to Get What You Want

Some business leaders achieve success by the book: Armed with an MBA, they develop a meticulous business plan and follow a pointed trajectory.

Others, like fashion designer Rachel Roy, make their own path. Roy learned to manage from the ground up, using outside-the-box ideas to build a tremendously successful company — and rack up countless accomplishments.

Rachel Roy
Courtesy Rachel Roy

She’s been named a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and one of Mattel’s 10 Women to Watch. She earned a spot on Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed List and received numerous awards from organizations like the Accessories Council, AdWeekMedia, and the La Jolla Fashion Film Festival. A featured columnist for InStyle magazine, contributor to Yahoo and the Huffington Post and a panelist for the Democratic National Committee, Rachel Roy dresses everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama to Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s also an outspoken advocate for creating sustainable employment opportunities for artisans in developing nations.

We sat down with Roy to talk about her approach to leadership, how to tap into your intuition, and what techniques to use to get what you want — even if all you keep hearing is “no.”

What does leadership mean to you?
Essentially, it’s to inspire people to be risk takers. A business will be so much more successful when authentic risk is taken — by that I mean risk you actually believe in, that inspires you personally. If you shut your eyes and don’t talk or think but simply feel, what does that inner voice tell you?

I inspire my staff to take risks through my actions. For example, providing jobs is very important for me, so I outsource certain styles to artisans simply because I would rather hire them than a huge factory in Asia. When I first started doing that, years ago, I had to pave the way because in the Third World they are not taught manufacturing. But because of my perseverance — or what some might call stubbornness — I made those programs possible.

How did you learn to be an effective manager?
In the beginning, I thought all I needed was to check the boxes for things that had to be done daily. I thought I had to keep the ship running, and that the buck stopped with me. I would take ownership of every single thing in the business, from the voice we have on our answering machine to deciding what time we are going to start shipping.

I never took management courses in school, but I’ve always been curious about leadership and am fascinated by very charming speakers, like Steve Jobs and Arianna Huffington. They have a gift that I will probably never have, but I enjoy being the student in those situations. I like listening, learning, and applying what I have learned to my life and my business.

My role as a leader is setting the story, the script, the tone, the standards, the core values, the mission — what are we doing besides just making clothes? — and then living it.

I also try to hire people with like-minded core values who are good at what they do. Even if you’re a kid just out of college, I’ll hire you if I see talent in you, a willingness to work, and a really happy energy. I will pass on someone super talented if their attitude and energy level doesn’t reflect someone I want to spend my incredibly long days and weeks with.

When did you know you were a leader?
When I looked around and saw that loved ones, acquaintances, customers, and strangers would not be willing to do things that I was willing to do. Being a leader takes risk, bravery, perseverance, hardship, confidence, kindness, and patience. Some people don’t want to call that kind of havoc into their life, and others really want to push for change.

I’m always willing to fight for what I believe in, even at the risk of losing my job or of people not liking me, or of having an uncomfortable confrontation day after day until what I believe is right begins to be implemented.

I realized that’s the real difference between a leader and someone who would rather live a quiet, simple existence — and that’s fine.

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