INTERVIEW

Q&A With Designer Rachel Roy

On her new lip balm collection, what Tyra taught her and how being a mom inspires her management decisions.

11.03.14 5:30 PM ET

Known for her travel-inspired style and her striking, feminine pieces, iconic fashion designer Rachel Roy also constantly strives to assist women and children around the world.

Roy has worked with organizations like Piece & Co., Born Free Africa and charity:water over the past few years, and on Monday she’ll be attending the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Dinner in New York City to champion new designers. Her luscious, limited edition certified organic EOS lip balms are also available at drugstores nationwide for the holiday season.

We spoke with the mother of two and recent California transplant about fusing charitable work with a hectic career.

Women in the World: Could you describe what a typical day is like for you?

Roy: I try to set an intent every morning and take time to think about whatever I hope to achieve that day. I’ve learned that there’s never going to be enough time to do anything. It’s never going to be a perfect day, and I’m at a point in my life where my children are more important than work. Work is still important to me though, and I love what I do. Everyone should work; it’s good for the soul. My tasks vary from marketing to writing a page for a magazine. We have weekly Monday meetings, but every day is different, from attending meetings to giving design directions, on and on. I also do yoga 2 or 3 days a week. 

WITW: How does being a mom affect your management style at work?

Roy: I am definitely a person who supports mothers. We’re a company that believes in having children. Maternity leave and all that stuff is super important to me. In terms of one-on-one with employees, being a mom helps me ground my roots to humanity. When someone is going through a personal issue, I can keep it on a human level. It’s important to look people in the eye and have direct conversations. I actually have a rule that if an issue takes more than five sentences to explain it, don’t send an email. Pick up the phone instead, because it’ll take less time to resolve it. 

WITW: How much help do you have raising your daughters?

Roy: I have a babysitter/housekeeper who’s not a live-in, and her hours depend on my day. My mom also lives in northern California, and she comes to help me a lot. My older daughter is fourteen and my younger daughter is six, so the older one can take care of my younger one now, but not for long periods of time. 

WITW: How do you strike the balance between your work and your home life? 

Roy: It’s something that I have to work on every single day. That’s why I start every morning with an intent. I put my children first, but I always keep my obligations or my commitments. You really have to do some internal work to know yourself, know what you’re capable of. See how many meetings you can take a day or how much work you can get through in a day. Give it lots of proper time and respect, but also give yourself the respect of having your downtime, whether that means yoga, pilates, a meditation class, or a cooking class. Give yourself time to work on your dream. If you want to start a stationery company or if you want to start an Internet site… Whatever it is, pick the thing that you love, and allot the time, but know and value the downtime as well.

WITW: How did your brand evolve and what were the important elements to building it? Was there anything that didn’t work out?

Roy: When I first started my own company about ten years ago, I was working at another job so I started it on the side. I didn’t have a business plan or a business model. I simply started making clothes that I loved because I was working for another company that sells clothes that weren’t my aesthetic. If I had known back then every trial and tribulation, I don’t know if I would have started it. There’s a beauty in that innocence that comes from not knowing. It allowed me to take a lot of risks and I took them because I chose a company in a field that I love. So for me, it didn’t even feel like working.

If you really want success in life, it’s two-fold. You want to be able to take care of yourself and take care of yourself well, but there’s the other side in which you want to be able to take care of yourself so that you’re a happy person, so that you’re passing those qualities and those tools onto your children. If anything happens to me, I hope that I would’ve raised my children in a way that they know how to take care of themselves. I want them to know how to make themselves happy. It’s important to work in a field that you absolutely love so that even when problems arise, you love what you do.

WITW: You work with a lot of charities like Born Free Africa, GlobalGiving, and UNICEF. How did you figure out what to hitch your brand to and what do you look for in a charity to partner with? 

Roy: It’s the same advice that I have with life: Choose something that you’re passionate about. So for me, that’s creating jobs for women who don’t have a voice. I would like to be their voice until they’re strong enough and on their feet to have their own and really be heard. The way that I can do that is not necessarily by hand-outs, because my hand-outs wouldn’t be great enough to really affect change. It’s by providing jobs.

Every season, I make sure that I produce something in a third world country instead of producing it in my factories in China and Peru. I specifically look for artisans to produce my clothing and hopefully get bigger and bigger each year. Last year, I went to India with my daughter who was thirteen at the time to meet some artisans. I was doing a project with Lauren Bush Lauren and I wanted to meet them, and just really hear and see what they’re going through. It’s so encouraging to know that the same way I send pieces and cuts off to a factory, I can do that with a mini, tiny, micro-factory.

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I have a great organization I work with to do that called Piece & Co. Let’s say there’s a big disaster in Mali or wherever country you want to help at that moment. Piece & Co. will then seamlessly source the artisans and be your liaison for collaboration. I’ve worked with so many different companies, and when you work with third world countries, it’s normally hard to stick to your production schedule, but Piece & Co. has made it so simple for me. They explain where I can get my materials and what to do next, so it becomes easy for me to make products that will employ men and women that don’t have the capacity to work. People around the world just want self-respect. They want to take care of themselves, they want to pay for their own bills, they want to take care of their families.

[Rachel partnered with Piece & Co on a Holiday 2013 capsule collection - 6 items - that created employment for artisans in developing countries. Even small collections have a big impact on artisan lives, as 42 artisans and 275 dependents in Guatemala and 35 artisans and 136 dependents in India benefited from the project. Rachel has plans to partner on an on-going basis with Piece & Co.] 

I started something called “Kindness is Always Fashionable.” [“Kindness is Always Fashionable” is a platform designed to activate Rachel’s philosophy that giving back to communities in need is an important part of our daily lives.] I believe that it doesn’t matter where you work or what you have access to because anything can help. If you’re working in an ice cream shop, you can ask your boss if you can give away twenty ice cream cones to an organization every Friday afternoon. It’s really interesting to see what people are willing to help you with if you can make it easy for them. When I met with Deepak Chopra, instead of asking him for something, I offered something. You can always think of things that are not really any costs to you that still have a huge benefit. I asked if I could design some items for him, and then if all the proceeds could go to any charity of his choice. My intent was to expose him to a lot of my younger customers, especially my Macy’s customers, who have never heard of him since he has been so helpful to me. Together, we made hand chains and a lot of fun accessories, so that if my customers feel inspired by these items, they might look him up and find a similar sort of peace through his teachings.

I’m always trying to think of ways to provide jobs and money through what I’m already doing. Charity can be overwhelming, and some people think you have to be Bill Gates to really make a difference momentarily or you have to be Mother Theresa and give up Western life, but you can just incorporate it into your everyday life.

WITW: What do you think women should look for in a partner, in business and in life? 

Roy: When looking for a partner, definitely find someone who has shared values. Really talk to them about what their values are, what their goals are, and how they wish to achieve those goals. Problems always do arise, but when a problem arises with someone who shares your values, you’ll know that you’ll want to attack that problem in the same way.

WITW: Who are some of your role models?

Roy: I have so much respect for Anna Wintour’s work ethic, her dedication, her sense of wanting to change American fashion, and really doing something about it through the CFDA, which is an organization that she started. It’s one of the most helpful tools for me in business. I also get a lot of advice from Tyra Banks on business. She went to Harvard Business School a few years ago, and she taught me about taking control of your company. It’s great to have a CEO or a COO, but it’s important to actually know every single check that’s signed, why it’s signed and what it’s for, the art of downsizing, and really doing as much as you can yourself, especially where money is concerned.

WITW: What do you do when you really want to treat yourself?

Roy: My greatest peace is at the ocean, which was part of my decision to move out of Manhattan. A real treat is a trip to the beach. One of my favorites is Capri, and I love Mexico, but no matter where it is, it’s really difficult to be in a bad mood when you’re sitting on the sand, listening to the ocean.

WITW: What are some other tips you have for our readers?

Roy: I love the idea of women taking control of their money. [The founder of the leading financial media company for women DailyWorth] Amanda Steinberg really helped me take control of my own finances. It’s something that many women are not familiar with, but it’s crucial. Similar to how Tyra taught me that I must know every aspect of my company, I must know every aspect of my personal finances. Managing your money will help you make your money work for you. One tool that has been helpful for me is Mint.com. It’s so simple, especially for those who aren’t financially savvy. It tells me whenever I go over my budgets. I have 2 credit cards, one strictly personal and one strictly business, and Mint.com has helped me stay within my limits for both of them.

WITW: What are you excited about?

Roy: I’m really excited about our lip balm collaboration with EOS. Most of the requests that I get on social media are personal. People always ask me what color lipstick I wear, or what I do for my hair. This lip balm with EOS was based on travel, and the idea that I’m always inspiring people to travel. Traveling teaches us that we’re all the same. Some of us just encounter more opportunities.

The lip balm’s gluten free, and I’m gluten free as much as I can be. When I travel and kids run up to me, all that the girls want to do is look in my purse and put on my lip glosses and chapsticks. And the joy of seeing them put those on… That’s the aspect of beauty that I want to be a part of. EOS carries the idea that it’s for anyone and so affordable, and yet so modern and chic.

WITW: What advice do you have for young women who are starting their own businesses?

Roy: If you can, start it while you’re working another job so that your bills get paid. Choose something that you love, so that when you’re exhausted when you come home from work, you’re actually looking forward to your 3 hours every night that you can apply to your business, either after your kids go to sleep or while they’re watching TV or while they’re doing their homework, however you can budget your time. Instead of a chore, choose something you love so you absolutely look forward to it.

Women are not taught to get a massage or do anything for ourselves because it makes us feel extraordinarily guilty. But the more we can fill ourselves up with things that make us happy, the happier we’ll be, the happier our children will be, the more we have to give, and the more loving we’ll be. Choosing a job or business is the same thing. I’m not the best one to advise someone how to make billions of dollars; I don’t know how to do that. But what I do know is how to create something that you love, and once you do that, you will have success. You just will because you’ll love working on it, and anything truly authentic, the universe blesses.

Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.