Rebecca Minkoff: ‘I Never Set Out to Be a Rule Breaker’

UPDATED: April 2, 2022
PUBLISHED: August 26, 2021
Rebecca Minkoff: 'I Never Set Out to Be a Rule Breaker'

I never set out to be a rule breaker. It’s just that the old rules weren’t really working for me, so I had to go out and make my own.

If I had taken the safe route and always done as I was told, when I was told, where I was told, I’m pretty sure I would still be answering the phones at my father’s office in Florida. There’s nothing wrong with working for my dad or answering phones; it’s just not what I’m meant to do. I find much more joy being a fashion designer and serial entrepreneur.

Two decades ago, I designed a shirt—we soon started calling it “The Shirt”—that mixed ideas from my favorite tourist-destination T-shirts to create an ode to my favorite city: New York City. An actress wore it on The Tonight Show, and the next day people everywhere knew my name. It’s the kind of story that, looking in from the outside, makes it seem like it just takes a little luck to become an overnight success. In actuality, I had been living in New York, in a tiny walk-up shoebox advertised as an apartment, and working long hours for little more than minimum wage in the fashion industry for two years before this moment. There was nothing overnight about it. It would take another four years, when I designed my first handbag, the Morning After Bag, before my business started to take off.

Today, after years of early mornings, late nights and hard work, there is Rebecca Minkoff, the brand. As the founder, I get to be the chief creative officer of a global company with a range of apparel, handbags, footwear, jewelry and accessories that are all available online and through more than 900 retailers around the world. I also host a podcast called Superwomen and created the business network, Female Founder Collective.

Along the way, I realized that the world around me often dictated what should be done, as well as where, how and why I should do it. I tried to follow the rules, to go about getting things done in the conventional ways and to fall in step with the pack. It just never worked out the way I thought it would or should. Eventually, I stopped seeing the point. So then I did it my way, piecing things together as I went. Mostly, even when it would have been much easier just to go with the flow, I’ve done my own thing. I’ve made my own rules and been successful. If that’s rebellion, then call me a rebel. It’s not about the labels for me; it’s about getting stuff done. 

Throughout these years of hard work and discovery, I learned some things, some rules—life lessons that have helped me shape the way I approach situations. They are the small truths that push me forward when things feel scary or impossible—even when it feels like game over.

In the past 15 years, my company achieved over $100 million in sales. My clothing and accessories have been spotted on the most stylish women around the world and across social media. As a company, we’ve been heralded as a place where true innovation happens, and we’ve been lauded as an example for others across the fashion and technology industries to follow. When I stop to compare the young woman I once was—with two old suitcases and nowhere to live—to the woman I am today—an award- winning, globally recognized designer with a successful brand known the world over—yes, I can honestly say it’s been worth it.

I’m not bragging when I tell you this. I want you to know that if I can do it, you can too.

We’re living in a time of immediate gratification, so hearing that overnight success is a myth is a real drag. Social media shows us what it’s supposed to look like when we wake up in a perfect house, eat a perfect breakfast, put on a perfect outfit and broadcast all the amazing things that seem to happen every day. Why can’t it be as easy as it looks? Why can’t it happen as fast as it seems like it should? Because creating a dynamic life isn’t simple, and building lasting success doesn’t happen fast.

My hope is that these ideas will help you to feel more empowered and courageous, allow you to feel more creative in thinking and problem-solving, and inspire you to find out what success really means to you, not everybody else.

So here are some of my new rules. Take them or break them; it’s up to you. The beginning is now.

Purpose Over Payout

Remember when you were little and one of your parents’ friends asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, and you said a ballerina cat? Or maybe a super queen or a baby doctor? Your purpose was so simple. You wanted to spread joy through movement. You wanted to be a leader and parade around in a beautiful sparkly cape or care for living things smaller than you. No one sat you down and told you being a ballerina cat doesn’t pay.

We often shy away from following our dreams because we feel like they won’t be able to support us. But when we come from a place of purpose, no matter what we are doing, we walk away full and satisfied.

You don’t have to start your own business or run your own company to think this way. It comes down to knowing what you are all about at your core, and then asking yourself if the opportunities that come your way align with your purpose. Maybe you’re someone who can talk to anyone and you’re the best listener in your friend group. Should you be an accountant and crunch numbers all day because it will pay your bills, or should you look for a customer service job that will put your gift of gab front and center?

When you design your purpose and not your paycheck, your life becomes about being able to do what you love, not about getting to some arbitrary number in your bank account. Things don’t always feel or look the way you thought they would when you get there. A big win at work doesn’t mean you’re going to quit and spend the rest of your life eating ice cream for breakfast in bed. If you’re lucky, you still have to—you still get to—wake up and go to work the next day. If you have a successful company, that company does not stop the moment it hits the metrics you’ve deemed markers of success. That’s just the beginning, and it’s when things start to get fun. The work is the reward.

Love It and Leave It

If there’s one aspect of your life, work or project that seems like it’s really working, pay attention. It might not be the obvious one or the one that you always imagined it would be, but if it’s working and working for you, focus on it. See where it goes.

Today, it’s so common for an entrepreneur or a company to change direction that it’s just called pivoting. It’s not seen as a bad thing. It’s seen as a smart move. It means that whoever is in charge is paying enough attention to know what’s working and what’s not—it means that their ego isn’t too wrapped up in the business and they are capable of being objective. Big tech companies now have failure funnels. They come up with ideas, build them and test them out. What works keeps going and what doesn’t goes in the trash. There’s no feeling of sadness. They don’t berate themselves. The ideas are experiments. They learn from them and move on. It’s OK if they don’t work out. On to the next. You can do that too.

Don’t take it personally if something doesn’t work. Don’t beat yourself up if you decide you need to go in a different direction. Acknowledge the reality of the situation and take the emotion out of it. Every minute you spend stuck on the hamster wheel of why something didn’t go exactly as you had planned is a minute you could be spending on creating something new.

Skip the Shortcuts

There are shortcuts in life, but they are never what you want them to be. Take a long, arduous and annoying thing and turn it into something quick and easy? Who wouldn’t love that? My husband says I think about this quite often and lovingly calls it “Becky Math”—I might try really hard to stretch a budget out, but the math just doesn’t add up the way I want it to, or I might somehow calculate that I have earned more parent points than him, though I am always biased in my favor.

The reality is that shortcuts and cutting corners have never paid off for me. Not once. There have been times that I’ve had to get a website up quickly and we’ve used templates and plugins to speed up the process, and of course we eventually have had to rebuild them. I’ve pulled favors for introductions to executives and then realized the person whose help would be the most valuable would be someone who was critically involved in the business’s day-to-day. Even when someone tells me about a back road to avoid traffic, I’m the one who gets trapped behind a garbage truck for an hour and winds up at a dead end in the woods. Same goes for trying to take the shortest or earlier flight home so I can rush back to my kids—you guessed it, there’s always a delay or a canceled flight. This has happened more times than I can count. Just me and a bad airport salad hanging out.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to doing what needs to be done. There are no shortcuts for the 168-hour weeks you will put in. There’s no way around the sacrifices you have to make, whether it’s not having a social life or spending your money on buttons instead of a brunch. You will always have to put your head down and do the work, whether it’s making it happen the first time around or working twice as hard and spending twice as much money to fix a mistake.

Choosing to take shortcuts can actually rob you of valuable experience. You can know Point A, and you can know Point B, but if you have no idea of what goes into getting from one to the other, you’ll never be able to get there on your own or show another person the way. As an entrepreneur and a designer, it has helped that I know how to sew, have put in the grunt work to source fabric and hardware, have dealt with all levels of production and have done almost every job that we hire someone to do at my company.

That’s certainly not to say I was the best at every aspect of this business—the whole goal is to get to a place where you can hire the people to do the jobs you aren’t that good at, or don’t like, so they can do them better than you would do them yourself.

Good things take time. 

Taken from Fearless by Rebecca Minkoff. Copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Minkoff. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Photos by Cass Bird and Ray Katchetorian

REBECCA MINKOFF is the founder of the global handbags, accessories, footwear and apparel brand Rebecca Minkoff and the author of Fearless: The New Rules for Unlocking Creativity, Courage, and Success.