“You can’t do it all on your own. So you have to learn to invest in those around you and release control. Most people thrive if they are given freedom to do what they do best. My Father used to always tell me, “You are only as good as those around you.” I take that with me everyday and prioritize investing in those I have chosen to stand with me on this entrepreneurial journey.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Houston’s favorite handbag designer, Elaine Turner, Co-Founder, President, and Creative Director of her 20-year-old, eponymous fashion brand Elaine Turner. In case you’re not already familiar, Elaine is a powerhouse female founder, known nationally for her stylish lifestyle collections for women, and has owned stores in New York, Tennessee, and Texas. She’s also known for her incredible charitable contributions, which over the past four years exceed $450,000, and benefitted numerous charities, including Dress for Success, Texas Children’s Hospital, and Autism Rescue Angels. We recently interviewed Elaine to learn what’s served as the guiding light all these years, and to get her take on the “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I grew up in Texas and come from a family of entrepreneurs. My Mother Marlaine is my muse and instilled in me a strong sense of style, and even more importantly, she also instilled in me a strong appreciation for fashion and honored it as an art form. She was always encouraging me and my gift for fashion. She took note of how much I loved it and knew to push me toward pursuing my dreams. She would often say to me growing up, that fashion was our “visual language to the world”. Also, my father Ken was my business idol. He was the one encouraging me to start my own company from the very beginning, and whispering in my ear to “go for it” as I navigated my career in the fashion industry. I guess you’d call my father a “maverick” of sorts.
I went to the University of Texas in Austin and majored in advertising and marketing. I got my first job out of school in Dallas in the fashion industry, then after three and half years I headed to The Big Apple and worked for several large private label companies. That’s where I learned about fashion from a broader perspective. I was expertly trained in how to create fashion that could appeal to all types of women, and when I was least expecting it I met my husband Jim. Together, we eventually moved back to Houston, Texas and founded my fashion label, Elaine Turner.
The company launched in 2000, the same year I became pregnant with my oldest child Harrison (not sure what i was thinking!). Initially, we only offered handbags, and subsequently grew into shoes, jewelry, and apparel. Today, our national footprint covers eight stores across Texas, a direct-to-consumer national stylist division, and an ecommerce business. Together, with my husband and team, we’ve built Elaine Turner into a head-to-toe luxury lifestyle brand.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One funny story that happened spontaneously a couple of years ago, was my VP of Marketing at the time, took a picture of me in front of one of my stores right after we opened it. I was jumping up in the air in pure joy and laughing because I was so happy it was finally open! Well, we didn’t think much of it, and immediately posted the photo on our social media accounts. But, we didn’t realize my spanx were showing! We received an unexpected positive reaction from so many women applauding me that I wear Spanx (don’t ever leave home without them), and it was our number one most-liked post ever. I guess the moral of the story is BE REAL and get over yourself!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think it’s many things, but if I had to name one, it’s our commitment to serving our customers from the HEART. Through our focus on luxury craftsmanship, our exclusive designs, and our desire to impact others through giving back, I believe we have created a brand that is much more than just fashion. We are a journey of expression, empowerment, and like I said, HEART.
In the last 5 years, we’ve donated more than $450,000 to non-profits across the nation through our Glamorous Giving program. Each product purchased from Elaine Turner creates more opportunity to impact others.
Also, supporting and helping women specifically is at the cornerstone of our brand and it’s an integral part of our DNA. We are committed to making a difference by bringing women together for a common cause and making a difference in our communities. We believe women are our greatest assets and by investing in one woman, we can ultimately impact all women. From the products we create to the causes we support, we are giving women a platform and voice to come together and change the world.
What advice would you give to other founders to help their employees to thrive?
Creating a culture of transparency, accountability, trust and flexibility. We are a business primarily made up of women, so we go out of our way to manage and lead with the complexities of a woman’s life in mind. This takes into account that the multitude of roles a modern day, working woman assumes is almost impossible to achieve, therefore we have do our very best to create a culture that is built on the individual and their needs.
This is essential in getting the most out of people, by building trust and building a situation that is beneficial to both parties. Also, I would say to never forget to celebrate the small wins along the way.
Business is challenging and is primarily based on problem solving, and as humans we tend to focus on the problems that we are built to fix. But instead, what happens when you spend all your time fixing is you tend to forget the victories even when they are small. Those small victories are worth celebrating. I have to be honest and say we still work with this one on a daily basis. But, we try to build in weekly get togethers, fun celebrations to recognize each other, and remember what we are doing right!!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward, who helped get you to where you are?
There are three people: both of my parents, Ken and Marlaine White, and my husband Jim. They have stood by my side and kept believing in me through all the ups and downs over the years. I can honestly say I couldn’t have done it without them. Businesses aren’t built by individuals alone. They are built by people who come together and share the same vision. This is what the four of us have done for almost 20 years now.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- To always believe in yourself even when things are tough. The most important attribute you can build is GRIT. Business is built on highs and lows and you have to learn to navigate the waves with confidence and patience. Having a sense of resilience is essential in continuing toward your vision. For instance, Jim and I have experienced many challenges over the years while trying to grow our business, from natural disasters (Hurricane Ike, Katrina, Rita and most recently Harvey, which all impacted us), to extreme consumer behavior change, to an up and down economy. We’ve navigated these changes by adapting and reacting swiftly. But, we’ve always kept our cool and tried to approach these struggles as an opportunity rather than a failure. You must believe in your mission and vision first and foremost and you must believe in yourself as a leader to get through the hardship. Developing grit comes with experience and fortunately we’ve built plenty of it.
- It takes time to build something of value. I am naturally hard on myself and expect great things to happen quickly. But, I’ve come to realize that great things are built over time. When I first started out, I thought it would all happen faster than it did. I look back now and realize I needed those early years to stumble, fall, learn and grow to get where I am today, not just as a business person, but as a human being.
- Learn to delegate and invest time and energy into the people you hire. You can’t do it all on your own. So you have to learn to invest in those around you and release control. Most people thrive if they are given freedom to do what they do best. My Father used to always tell me, “You are only as good as those around you.” I take that with me everyday and prioritize investing in those I have chosen to stand with me on this entrepreneurial journey.
- Celebrate your victories no matter how small. This is essential in building your confidence and remaining enthusiastic about your vision, otherwise the challenges take over and all of a sudden you are burnt out and deflated. I experienced burn out in 2016 when I felt like so many things were working against me personally and professionally. We had experienced an unexpected death in our family (my mother in law suddenly died), we closed a couple of poorer performing stores, and the world seemed cruel. I learned through these hardships to celebrate the small stuff, because it’s the small stuff that eventually builds into being the big stuff, and slowly more fulfillment and peace start to creep in.
In our office, we all have little bells on our desks, and when something good happens we ring it. Even if it’s a $50 web order that comes in, you will hear that bell ring, and it brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. You can’t ever underestimate having fun and recognizing the good stuff. You have got to find the joy in what you do! Its essential in growing a great business.
- Never underestimate what you can do. We so often decide we can’t do something, or that what we are dreaming about could never happen. But all that thinking does is limit you and those around you. Jim and I have chosen to think big, and we have grown a business that started with just one handbag into a comprehensive, head-to-toe lifestyle brand with apparel, jewelry, and shoes. I believe 60 percent of the reason I’ve done what I’ve done is because I decided I could.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight- and never stop fighting.” — E.E. Cummings
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I would say Brene Brown. She is from Houston, Texas and so am I. I guess you could say I feel a special kinship with our hometown hero, Brene. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of her work. I’ve read all her books and would love the opportunity to ask her more in depth questions about her journey on studying shame, vulnerability, and wholehearted living. I am in awe over her courage to write about the human condition and our complex nature. She has opened so many eyes toward another way of being and helped us see ourselves through a softer lens, and this ultimately opens the door to positive transformation and improving humanity as a whole. And, probably most importantly, she seems to have a kick ass sense of humor too, so I might want to change the breakfast or lunch to drinks!