Quick, how many women entrepreneurs do you know who’ve led companies to $100 million or more? Or even male CEOs for that matter? For private companies, especially, the list would be short (although I am proud to note that our own chairman, Harry Lay, accomplished that feat as President/CFO of the architectural firm that oversaw Walmart’s U.S. buildouts from 1990-96).
According to reports, the list would include Caroline Davis, of Nashville, Tenn., creator and cofounder of luxury fashion company Worth New York. Now in her mid 70’s, Davis cofounded The Worth Collection, Ltd. in 1991 and continues to serve as the company’s co-chair from her current location in Nashville. Prior to Worth she also founded apparel company Carlisle (The Connaught Group) in 1981 and sold that business in 1990, after an initial 17 years in the sales and management of fashion.
In all, Worth New York cofounder Caroline Davis has been an entrepreneur for more than 50 years.
With sales exceeding $95 million, the company that marks the pinnacle of Davis’ career, the 25-year-old luxury brand Worth New York (and its “W, by Worth” counterpart) is typically pegged as the high-end contender in the sales by associates sector that also includes Carlisle (her former company) and Doncaster.
Worth clothing is not available in retail. The company employs 750 associates who show the company’s collections four times a year. Customers purchase the designs by appointment in private homes, in showings that mirror the tradition of high-end couture in which select clientele purchase luxury clothing by appointment in the stylist’s own homes.
The company’s New York design team has gained a reputation for classic lines and impeccable detailing using luxury fabrics from the world’s highest-end mills. The pieces are not inexpensive: prices range from $200 to approximately $1,500 for apparel items from the Worth collection, with W by Worth representing a slightly more fashion-forward vision at a lower price point.
From its outcome, Worth would appear to be a dream come true, and Davis’ professional life a charmed existence. However, Davis acknowledges that her greatest skills were born from humble beginnings, and her greatest lessons learned occurred during conditions of strife.
Great things emerge from simple beginnings.
Davis began her career in fashion from her home, during her 20s, as a selling agent for Doncaster. At age 39, she began her own first company of women, for women. She was determined to chart her course in her new company without pulling away any of the sales associates she’d worked with in her prior position. Her professional network, then, was simply her wedding list. That set of connections, paired with contacts she’d made through Junior League and other community roles became her mailing list. “I’m starting a business in women’s fashion. Would you like to do this with me?”
You can learn to do hard things.
Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. Then she suffered cancer again in 2008. Within the first five years of Worth’s existence, the company’s third founder, who’d begun the new venture with Davis and Cofounder Jay Rosenberg, tragically died. Through all of these circumstances, Davis’ work ethic and resilience was steadfast.
Betrayals can be stunning.
At a low point in the history of her first company, Carlisle, Davis experienced an all-out coming apart with the company’s other founder, an individual who had been not only her partner in business, but also a personal friend.
“It was a very difficult moment,” she acknowledges. “I have a friend in New York who has an expression ‘When in trouble; when in doubt; run in circles; scream and shout.’ I had to make the decision whether to do that, or to pull up my socks and move forward.”
“It was an extremely hard decision to hire a team of lawyers in New York and throw literally every cent I had in the world, to bet the entire ranch, that my contract had been breached,” Davis recalls. (The case and its outcome is documented here. She prevailed.)
The trial was arduous, Davis recalls. The judge was an exacting individual, Miriam Cederbaum, the same judge who later declared Martha Stewart guilty of insider trading in July of 2004.
“Going through that year was a very lonely time in which my attorneys told me I had to go to the office and show my face even though no one spoke to me for nine months,” she recalls. The experience was searing enough that she recalls the date of the judgement to this day. It was July 16, 1990.
“In going through an experience like that, you learn that you do have the inner resources to succeed,” she maintains. “If you are honest and honorable and if you have an idea or a concept that is real, that is worth doing, you can come through the bad times and do it all over again. That’s the essence of entrepreneurship.”
It’s the way you deal with hard trials that defines you.
After the grueling battle in court, multiple of Davis’ associates asked, “How could you turn around and compete with the company you started?” Davis’ response was simple: “Because I won the case.”
Her code of ethics, however, is strict: In launching Worth, she recruited an entirely new sales force.
“My moral compass will not allow me to go out and raid sellers from other companies,” she said. “If your company is strong enough and has the kind of product people will want to buy, you shouldn’t raid other’s teams. This is extremely important to me. You don’t climb to success on the backs of anyone else. It’s the quality of your product and of the company you have that will help you succeed.”
For Davis, the embodiment of these attributes has come together in Worth.
“I recognized in the early 80s there was a need for flexible career options,” she said. “Women were looking for income that was their own, that they could earn while balancing their commitments to community and family as well, while getting the chance to work with a participatory management in a way that would allow them to use their talents to build successful businesses.”
“Women are natural storytellers and sharers of experience,” Davis says. “Males network and share, but they do it in a different way. Women network on a very personal level. That’s what advances their businesses, and it’s also what gets you through. The women in Worth are a natural support group that participants get to work with coast to coast.”
“Through these 25 years they’ve been there for me, and I’ve also tried to be there for them.”
Beginning in 1997, Davis created Worth’s “Women of Worth Program,” granted annually to celebrate outstanding customers of Worth who’ve achieved extraordinary success in their own professional pursuits and who have also worked to empower other women in achieving their own personal and professional goals. Today, officially, Davis is retired. She continues to serve as an officer of the company and on its board, but moved from New York City to Tennessee four years ago.
However, her network of professional women is still going strong. The week before our interview she’d gathered a group of new Worth managers from around the country who went out together for cocktails and dinner, strengthening their bonds as women and peers. “These people are far younger than me, but I want them to bond with one another. That bonding is what is so special about the world of Worth.”
Meanwhile, she is proud to report that her 16-year-old granddaughter—her namesake—has developed an eye for fashion. The eldest of Davis’ two grown daughters has been with Worth since she was pregnant with the first grandchild. As a young mother with three little boys under three years old, her daughter has sold Worth since 1992 and is one of the top sellers in the country.
Fashion is forever, Davis noted. And entrepreneurship prevails.
Cheryl Snapp Conner is an entrepreneur and communications expert from Salt Lake City, founder of Snapp Conner PR, and author of Beyond PR: Communicate Like A Champ The Digital Age. I am also a frequent author and speaker on Business Communication.
Originally published here on Forbes.com.