Mentorship has played a crucial role in Kathy Ireland’s life, in large part because she’s been mentored by some of the most influential minds of the past century, including Warren Buffett and Elizabeth Taylor.
Although she admires her mentors greatly, Ireland says it’s always good to remember that we’re all capable of making mistakes. “It’s so important that we don’t put our mentors on a pedestal,” she says. “We’re all failed humans.”
Here are Ireland’s top mentors:
When asked about Elizabeth Taylor, Ireland is on the brink of speechlessness. “What a gift to be mentored by Elizabeth,” she says after a long pause. “She became family.”
Taylor inspired and mentored Ireland in many ways—she even gave her one of her Oscars, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. But one profound impact the former actress had on Ireland was in the world of philanthropy. Taylor made giving back a priority—she founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to raise both awareness and money for HIV/AIDS during a time when many people were turning a blind eye.
“I loved Elizabeth’s tenacity,” Ireland says. “She fought through, she battled and she had conviction for her beliefs.”
Ireland’s private nature may come partly from Taylor, who quietly sold off many of her expensive diamonds to finance medical care to people in Africa. “She did so much quietly,” Ireland remembers.
Ireland has followed in Taylor’s footsteps, with philanthropic efforts in nearly every facet of women’s health and beyond. UCLA recently named Ireland one of the top 10 leading health advocates for women. She’s also an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation; has opened several neonatal intensive care units in the U.S.; and is the only layperson to be a member of the American Society of Gastroenterologists.
Irv Blumkin, the CEO of Nebraska Furniture Mart, was Ireland’s first customer when she entered the retail furniture business. (Blumkin also introduced Ireland to another mentor of hers: Warren Buffett.)
“Irv was tough, he was really tough,” Ireland says. “He made sure I knew our products. But my goodness, we got to know each other, and we’ve become family.”
The feeling is mutual.
“She’s a very energetic, engaging and authentic person—what you see is what you get,” Blumkin says. “She’s coming from the heart. She tells it honestly like it is, and she has unbelievable integrity. I felt that from the very beginning. You could tell she cared and she had the passion and the focus to want to be successful.”
Entrepreneurs like Ireland could spend days listing the lessons they’ve learned from someone as influential as Warren Buffett. Ireland’s favorite lesson from the famed investor at the head of Berkshire Hathaway? Do 10 things for someone before you ask them for something.
“I think that’s something we can all learn from,” Ireland says. “So often, people can get a little bit greedy and they just want, want, want.”
Ireland says it might seem counterintuitive, but kiWW always considers how they can help potential partners—not the other way around.
“When we’re looking at a professional relationship, the first question we ask ourselves is, ‘This partner or this person or this company—how will we elevate them and help them?’ ” Ireland says. “They’re wonderful already, how will we help them grow even more? What can we bring to the table?”
But that doesn’t mean she’s willing to risk her bottom line in order to help someone else.
“Of course, we need to be successful too,” she says. “We need that for sustainability. I’ve learned when we do things for the right reasons, when we do them well and our eyes are not on ourselves, but on others, the money comes.”
John and Barbara Ireland
Ireland’s father, John, worked in labor relations with people like Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta, with his daughter picketing alongside them as a girl. The experience has influenced Ireland as a business owner. Not only did it make avoiding blood diamonds in the jewelry she sells a priority, but it also led to a decades-long emphasis on making sure all kiWW workers are treated fairly.
“That was something that was in my heart and mind when we began this work, because of growing up as a child with my dad working in labor relations,” she says. “[We took] many trips to Tijuana as kids, and seeing firsthand the exploitation of human beings really shaped the way I approached business.”
On a simpler level, she says her father was just downright supportive—the kind of father every young child hopes to have.
“He just always believed in me and my sisters and that we could do anything,” Ireland says. “When I had a paper route, he told me, ‘Give 110 percent to the customer. They expect the paper on the driveway; put it on the front porch.’ That was the foundation of my learning to under-promise and over-deliver.”
Ireland also says her mother, Barbara, was a great role model.
“Mom—the ultimate entrepreneur,” Ireland says with admiration teeming in her voice. Her mother did everything from manage her own day care and housekeeping business to design her own dresses to sell at fairs.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.