Eileen Fisher started her company in 1984 with four simple shapes and a commitment to making women’s lives better. As the founder and co-CEO of a 1,200-person company, she’s learned a thing or two about leadership, namely that collaboration is key to innovation—and no one thrives alone. After 35 years, Eileen is still working to find new ways to help women reach their full potential. We spoke to her about how this commitment has evolved, and why it matters now.
Why do you think it’s important to bring women together?
Over the years I’ve been trying to help women, myself included, to get dressed and be more comfortable. I wanted to make it simple so they don’t have to fuss or worry so much about clothes. But clothing is really about trying to be comfortable from the outside. And my personal journey has been about trying to help women be comfortable on the inside.
When I started my business there were a lot of women around that made me feel confident I could do it. I had a sense of support. I want to create that same kind of space for women to connect with other women.
You’ve said that when we change, the world around us changes. How does this work, and where do we start?
I think change starts from within. I believe we all have a purpose in life, even if we don’t know what it is yet. Sometimes it emerges as we’re just trying to show up and be present in our lives. Self-reflection and mindfulness have helped me do this, and I want to share that with others. For instance, the moment of silence we take before meetings at the company. It gives me the opportunity to stop and just notice what’s actually presenting itself in front of me.
Our purpose can change from day to day. It’s about feeling the energy—that’s where things are alive. I have a clear memory around focusing the company on sustainability, when we created VISION2020. I just said, “Yes, we have to do this.” I realized that my voice mattered in that moment. I didn’t do the hard work that got us to that point—it’s the people in the company who were out there doing it every day—but saying “yes” made all the difference. What matters is how each of us shows up and brings our unique voice into the moment.
I really believe that everyone has the potential to lead and everyone leads at different times. It’s about finding your voice, knowing that it matters, and having the confidence to share it.
How can business be a force for change—and how can women lead the charge?
Women bring another whole way of looking at things, different skills, energy and gifts to the table. Business has traditionally been done in a goal-oriented, profit-oriented way—and not in a holistic way. I think it’s why there’s been so much damage to the environment and to people. Business needs to be responsible for all of the people who are involved as well as the planet. We know that women think more in the long-term, and are less aggressive in terms of business planning.
Things are changing. The climate crisis has become so intense that corporations are beginning to step up and measure their externalities—how they affect the air and water. And customers care more. Experts say companies with more women on the board are more profitable, and perform better on social responsibility and the environment. It’s time for new business models, and women are bringing that change. Women are intuitive and collaborative in a way that supports this kind of innovation.
You’ve dedicated space for women leaders to come together. Why do you feel that’s so important?
We need the space to get really confident about our own way—that we don’t have to do it the way men do—and that we bring something unique to the table that is needed right now. We have to reconstruct the way business is done so it’s not just with a for-profit motive. Supporting women to first feel confident enough to speak equally in this space is important to making sure their voices are heard, because they bring a different perspective.
This space is also where we can learn that what we’re trying to say is important, even if it doesn’t feel like it fits what everyone else is talking about. But we need support. It’s been shown that when you give money to women in developing countries to run and grow businesses, you have to also give them a support system to truly thrive. We need to find ways to support each other, to lift each other up, to help hear our own voices and to work together to change the world.
You’ve said that the world needs women to show up as our full selves. What do you mean by that—and what do you think holds us back?
I think sometimes we hope for perfection and wait until we get it right. That might be because we don’t want people to see all of us. We want to look good, so people will think we’re smart and that we have it all together. We don’t want people to know that we’re struggling or that we need help with something. And it’s not just women. The perfection thing is pretty deep for a lot of people. But when you see that other people’s lives aren’t perfect either, you know you’re not alone. There are so many universal struggles in life, and hearing them from someone else makes it safe to show up as your authentic self.
We can only help each other if we know the truth. And maybe we can’t fix it, but we can be there and listen. One important practice I’ve learned over the years is generous listening. It means to really be there and just let someone else speak and not try to fix it. Sometimes people just need to feel heard. Sometimes when we speak it out loud and truly feel like someone is listening, we can fix it ourselves.
“Generous listening” ….. what a beautiful tool I will attempt to remember AND incorporate in my daily life!
“Try not to fix it” ….. well a little harder but a goal.
I really liked the conversation about generous listening. Everyone wants to feel heard. To provide that kind of space is rare but needs to become common for the sake of our humanity.
Well said. I support your vision. This is the main reason why I am a frequent shopper at Eileen Fisher.I can shop for beautiful clothing, support a company who’s vision and principles I respect.
Thank you !