Love what you do — I believe how we think impacts how we feel. It would be great if everyone worked in an industry they love, with products or services they feel passionate about from the start. Don’t let a bad day color an entire experience. Remember the passion, talent, or skills that got you started. Refocus on that, and, as you guessed, move on, move forward.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Toby Cohen.
Toby Cohen is co-founder and CEO of VCNY Home, one of the top 10 home textiles companies in the U.S. today. A pioneering force in the home goods industry, Toby and his brother Joe came to America as young immigrants from Syria seeking safety, determined to build a solid future for their family. Today, top brands turn to VCNY Home to manufacture everything from bedding and curtains to pillows, plush toys, and shower curtains. The world’s biggest retailers trust VCNY Home to deliver exceptional quality and décor solutions for every room and lifestyle.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Today, VCNY Home is one of the top 10 home textiles manufacturers in the country. We make bedding, pillows, blankets, curtains, and other home goods for some of the most famous brands in the world, including Tahari, Bearpaw, Refinery29, Beverly Hills Polo Club, and Perry Ellis. We have also recently launched our own brands like Olivia & Finn for kids and Jade + Oake for young adults. I could probably tell an interesting story or takeaway that I’ve learned from every day of my career, but I’ll share a story from one of the early years.
About 30 years ago, when I was getting started in the textile business, I walked into a store and started speaking to the owner who I really wanted as a customer. We had a great conversation, looked at the products he was selling, talked about his customers and my business and my vision. When I asked if he’d like to see the samples I had brought, he said no. I was surprised and disappointed until he told me that what he wanted me to do instead was fill out an order for whichever products I thought would do well in his store at whatever price I thought was right. I was shocked.
“There are two possible outcomes,” he said. “Either you’ll choose the right products based on what you know of the market and my customers, and people will love the products … or nothing will sell, which will mean you don’t know your business or understand mine. But I think you do. Let’s see what happens.”
That man was, and is, a true visionary. He made a judgment call based on his ability to see people for who they are and what they have to offer. I am still honored he gave me that opportunity. I can tell you that the products sold very, very well. It was a success, and I learned the value of trusting your gut, giving people a chance, betting on the people you can believe in.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are focused on every area of the value chain, but ultimately, we never forget the individual who is buying our products. We understand that the consumer must feel at home with our products.
I will tell you a story that demonstrates how our decision-making is consumer-focused. We were recently looking at a new line launch and had some beautiful patterns, fabrics, and cuts laid out before the team. Our merchandising and design teams were weighing in on which direction to go with the collection. Everyone loved a particularly unique set of patterns — everyone except for the merchandising team. They have an eye on trends and design, but their feet are firmly planted on the in-store consumer experience. Our director of merchandising said, “That set of patterns is beautiful, but it is not practical for this consumer.” Merchandising’s call proved right. That line was a huge success in store. Merchandising will always win out because focusing on what the consumer wants and will love in their home is what makes VCNY Home special.
None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Although I never knew him, my grandfather has had a tremendous impact on my life and career. We have been textile merchants for generations beginning with my great grandfather in Syria. I remember sitting next to an older man at a community event as a young child. The man asked if I was Elyihau’s grandson. When I answered “yes,” he told me that his family was also in the textile business. He told me that when he was a boy, his father would send him to my grandfather’s store in Aleppo to learn about the latest trends in textiles, see the best in fabrics, and study what my grandfather had in store. The man, 90 at the time we spoke, still remembered the quality and the expertise associated with my grandfather. I like to think that I have absorbed some of that, and it inspires me every day.
Thank you for that story. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I came to the United States from a third-world country. Even difficult times here are a pleasure compared to what my family experienced in Syria, what we have been through, what we have seen. Resilience is really about a way of thinking. Real difficulty is not generally what you encounter day-to-day in business. It’s important to put things in perspective — look at the positive side and push back against the inclination to see obstacles as insurmountable. There is always another route or another way to succeed. Resilience means learning how to meet challenges.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
It is possible to be courageous or brave without thinking. Risks should be calculated. You have to pick your opportunity, know what you are trying to accomplish so that if you don’t succeed initially or if something changes, you know which direction you are heading and why you are heading there. Bravery is getting started, but resilience is about moving forward. Resilience is about the “Why.” Ask yourself for the “Why” all the time and know what you are trying to accomplish. Resilience comes more easily when you know where you are headed.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My mother is by far the most resilient person I know. My father, Yomtob Cohen, was a successful textiles merchant in Syria and a loving family man. But in 1948, it became very unsafe for our family to remain in Syria. My father helped many people escape to safety, often with only the clothes on their backs. To this day, I often hear about the deep gratitude so many families have for my father. When he married my mother in 1956, he found a woman whose determination matched his. Unfortunately, Yomtob was killed in a car accident in 1963. My mother was pregnant with me at the time. Somehow during the following years, she managed to take care of me and my siblings — to see that we were fed, cared for, and loved, until one by one, we made our way to America in the 1980s. We didn’t speak the language or understand the culture, but we had a work ethic handed down to us from our parents and their parents. Our mother showed us that nothing is impossible if we believe in ourselves.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Yes, many times. When someone tells me something is impossible, I think twice before giving up. During the pandemic, we managed to increase our business by more than 50%. We did this by examining trends and keeping focused on consumer needs. After long months of isolation — even during isolation — people were thinking about redecorating their homes. We figured out ways to adapt to the changing situation — to offer new products, different products but most importantly, how to get great products to retailers so consumers could purchase them. You can listen to people who say something can’t be done, but sometimes it can be done — just in a different way. It takes vision and foresight.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Early on, I had developed a great business relationship with one supplier. He represented about 70% of my sourcing, and business was thriving. But then he started to change his model and take advantage of me. I was so trusting and so pleased with the success we had. I was very surprised and even hurt. But I realized he too was doing business, and I was too dependent on him. I quickly introduced additional suppliers, and he continued to be a valued business relationship. I was fortunate to learn the importance of a diverse supply chain early on in my career. That knowledge has played a role in our long-term success and our ability to continue to be a trusted manufacturer these past two years.
Today we hear a lot about supply chain struggles due to the pandemic, yet our business has grown these past two years by more than 50%. Like everyone else, we started getting slapped with additional, significant costs on shipping. I had a choice to pay the fees, get our products in and meet the demands of customers counting on us, or to keep the status quo and hope for the best. For me, trust is the most important aspect of any business relationship. We paid the fees to ensure our products would arrive, and we worked smarter to bring in more and different products to meet our consumers’ needs. We have suppliers around the globe. If shipments from one country are having a hard time coming in, we can shift more of the supply to another country to ensure we can meet demands. Recently there was a backlog in China, so we switched to suppliers in India. It has to do with a willingness to think about what can be done and then do it.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
The fact that I am named after my father has set the standard for resilience from as early as I can remember. I grew up knowing that my father made difficult decisions not just in business, but in life. He was the second of nine children. When his father died young, he took on the responsibility to care for his mother and siblings. Through the years, I have heard numerous stories about his trustworthiness. He raised money for people trying to leave Syria for safety. He served as an unofficial liaison between the government and his religious community. He felt an obligation to give his all to whatever task he set for himself. He is a hard act to follow. I hope that I am doing his name justice.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Try Again — Most “successful people” will tell you that resilience is more about failure than it is about winning. It is the willingness to fail so that you can try again. Early in the business, I went into stores trying to make sales. I had my mind set on securing this one customer. I went 13 times. The first 12 times, the answer was a firm “no.” It might sound crazy to try the same target more than a dozen times, but on that 13th time, I got a “yes,” and it turned out to be a very successful endeavor for us both. The key is to move on, move forward.
- Appreciate — If you are fortunate enough to be trying to build a business, you are fortunate. If you are alive and well enough to try, you are fortunate. I came to America as a teenager to escape a dangerous place and build a better and safer future. Appreciating what you have on a daily basis is a critical component of resilience and will empower you to move on, move forward.
- Time Management –This is not what you think. Others will talk about managing every moment to the max, waking up early, and hyper-scheduling for efficiency. Those are great tips. However, maybe more important is deciding what to do with your time after a “no” or a failure. Learn something from the “no” but do not get stuck in it. Instead, move on, move forward.
- Careful where you get your advice — If your glass is always half full, make sure you listen to the glass-half-empty types, but filter what they say through a different lens. Most naysayers will have a point worth considering. But when you believe in something, focus on taking guidance from those who believe in you. While it’s important to listen to those who offer critical feedback, you should also think about the motives and meaningfulness of that feedback and move on, move forward.
- Love what you do — I believe how we think impacts how we feel. It would be great if everyone worked in an industry they love, with products or services they feel passionate about from the start. Don’t let a bad day color an entire experience. Remember the passion, talent, or skills that got you started. Refocus on that, and, as you guessed, move on, move forward.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My family and I are passionate about the importance of caring for those who are sick. We have set up volunteer systems in my neighborhood and community to ensure those who feel unwell are well fed, kept company, and well cared for. While our country has medical professionals in abundance, sometimes it is the small things, a warm blanket, a pot of chicken soup, a conversation, that can help heal. Our country has learned a lot about the value of human connection in recovery over the past year. We understand what it means to feel isolated. Let’s not forget that feeling and do everything we can to ensure those who are less well are lifted by those who can lend a caring hand.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
For me, while there are many living leaders I admire, those I really look to are long gone. I am fascinated by the people who dedicated their careers and lives in service of those who were not yet born. Founding fathers like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were leading for their own generations, but more so for those that would follow. That takes foresight, humility, and the ability to lay the groundwork, often despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, resistance, and failures. I try in my professional and personal life to look ahead, not just to trends around the corner, but how the way I operate in the world might benefit generations to come.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!