Philanthropist Kay Unger: “How to be an impactful philanthropist”

In life and in work, I wish someone had explained that I needed to understand the financial side of business (accounting, spreadsheets, etc.) and that creatives actually have that side of their brain, and it should be developed and encouraged. Looking back, I realize I was very capable, but I never believed I could manage […]

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In life and in work, I wish someone had explained that I needed to understand the financial side of business (accounting, spreadsheets, etc.) and that creatives actually have that side of their brain, and it should be developed and encouraged. Looking back, I realize I was very capable, but I never believed I could manage those kinds of activities because no one said it. You must learn how. It’s critical that everyone — but especially women — learn to understand and manage finances, as well as know how and when to ask for help.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kay Unger.

Kay Unger is a fashion designer, entrepreneur and philanthropist based in New York. For more than forty years, her flattering, feminine looks have made her one of America’s most popular designers for first ladies, anchorwomen, businesswomen, partygoers and bridal parties.

After graduating from Parsons School of Design, Kay entered the fashion world in 1968 as a design assistant to Geoffrey Beene. Two years later, she founded her own dress firm, Kay Unger — the first of several successful global fashion concerns she both founded and managed, including The Gillian Group, A.J. Bari, Kay Unger New York, Kay J’s Pajamas and Phoebe Couture. In 2012, she formed Kay Unger Design as a means of focusing her boundless energy on unique design projects that benefit from her creative and leadership skills. Kay currently consults for Line in the Sand, a protective and active waterwear company committed to donating 100% of their profits to ocean and cancer organizations.

Kay serves as Trustee of The New School and Chair Emerita of Parsons School of Design, her alma mater. She has been a member of the Parsons School of Design Board of Governors since 2006 where Kay enthusiastically served as Chairman from 2013 to 2020.

In 2010, Kay founded her own foundation, The Kay Unger Family Foundation, where she now serves as chief executive officer. The Kay Unger Family Foundation primarily provides scholarships and educational opportunities for underserved children talented in the arts. The Kay Unger Family Foundation also supports already existing foundations for cancer care and research. Kay is also Co-Chair of Fashion for the Front Lines, a New York City based task force that was created in response to COVID-19 with the singular goal to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline medical workers.

Kay currently serves on the Board of Directors for The New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) and the Executive Board for Retailers United. She is actively involved as a project champion and board member for the Promise Project, a longtime board member of The New East End Chapter/Jeanne Kaye League, the New York City based volunteer fundraising group for the City of Hope. Additional service activities include President of Fashion Group International, member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, founding member of C200, first woman on The Boys and Girls Club of America’s Board of Directors. Kay was the recipient of the City of Hope’s Spirit of Life® Award in 2019, Girls Inc.’s first She Knows Where She’s Going Award in 1985 and the Human Relations Award for the Women’s Campaign for American Jewish Committee in 1996.

Born and raised in Chicago, Kay has lived in New York throughout her career; she currently lives in SoHo with her partner, David Rubin. She has two sons and six grandchildren.

In her latest chapter, Kay has embarked on a new journey to use the ageless power of art to inspire and support emerging artists.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised in Chicago and have always been a creative — whether it was painting or sewing or drawing, art was always my favorite language. My father was a successful businessman and my parents loved to collect art and to entertain. They were also very philanthropic.

When I was four, my seven-year-old brother was out with his friends, fell through the ice and drowned. It changed everything. My brother loved music and so my father set up the Stephen David Epstein Fine Arts Foundation as part of the Boys Clubs of America to give help to underserved boys talented in the arts and music. I eventually took over my father’s seat on the board at a fairly young age and have continued to focus on philanthropy and giving back throughout my life and career.

I was lucky to be raised wearing beautiful clothing, but when I got to college, I realized not everyone could afford to dress this way, so I wanted to level the playing field. And I think I really accomplished that based on the reactions that I still get from women who have worn my clothes sharing stories of putting on a bold brightly colored Kay Unger suit and feeling like a million bucks — often as the only woman in the room. It was always important to me to make women feel great no matter what!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You’re never a success until you see the bottom and have had to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. When you’re back at the top, you’ll never fear the bottom again because you’ll know you can get through it.”

This was something my father said to me, and this quote really helped me through everything I went through from my experience with bankruptcy, having a business partner who embezzled, divorce, cancer, etc. Now that I’ve bounced back from these hardships and am back “on top” I can see that what my father shared with me is true.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Not being afraid of hard work: To be a designer, its 3% talent and 97% hard work, a lesson I learned while a student at Parsons. There were other students with much more creativity and talent than me, but my ability to work hard really made a difference and set me apart, ultimately leading to my success.
  2. Being courteous, kind & respectful: You never know what role someone will play in your life so treat everyone you meet with kindness and respect. In my own experience, the people who used to deliver my clothing samples or fetch coffee during meetings went on to become fashion editors or department store buyers etc. and it served me well that when they went on to become people with power and influence in my field, they remembered me as someone who was respectful to them long before they had the power to make or break my business.
  3. Positivity: Remaining hopeful and positive, especially in the face of really demoralizing situations, allowed me to bounce back from the failures and obstacles and continue to push through.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second — and in this case — Third Chapter?

In my first life I was an entrepreneur and a fashion designer. It was about growing my business and my brand and making women look and feel beautiful. In my next chapter, I focused on giving back. I have been a member of the Parsons School of Design Board of Governors since 2006 and served as Chairman from 2013 to 2020. In 2010 I founded the Kay Unger Family Foundation to continue my family’s legacy of supporting underserved youth talented in the arts as well as by supporting already existing foundations for cancer care and research. During this time I also served on the board of Fashion Group International and C200, the preeminent global organization for women business leaders, publicly recognized for making a profound impact on the advancement of women in business. This chapter isn’t closed, but it has evolved into where I am now: creating a lasting legacy for and with my family through our Kay Unger Family Foundation and by investing in young, emerging and undiscovered artists.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in each of these Chapters?

When I sold the shares in my company, I needed to decide on my next phase — I was no longer going to be a designer and what I knew was that I wanted to support and help others. I had been involved with philanthropy in some capacity all of my life, and after taking dozens of coffee and dinner meetings with people trying to figure out what my next chapter should be, it dawned on me that I should really pursue philanthropy because it was something that I was already passionate about and already doing, so it was authentic to me.

This is the advice that I give to people who are looking to reinvent themselves or start a “new chapter” — start with something that you are already doing (your passion, hobby, side project, etc.) and follow that authentic curiosity.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

When I was approached to be the chairman of the Parsons board, I realized that I didn’t have the faintest idea of what this role would entail. Again, I followed my curiosity — and it led me to learn more about the school, the students, the board, its supporters, and through that knowledge and those relationships I realized I was ready to take on this new role.

Now my curiosity — and the curiosity of my children and grandchildren — is leading me into new arenas of fashion and art. I’m involved with a company called Line In the Sand, a line of active waterwear and thoughtful accessories that protect women from the sun and gives back to ocean and cancer organizations. I had never made leggings or activewear before and here I am learning and advising and helping to create in a whole new realm of fashion. Same with the art world — getting to experience art from all over the world, from different perspectives and influences, and exploring what great art looks like from the perspective of multiple generations in our family.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

My partner always says that I will try and master anything, whether I know anything about it or not, and I think it’s that internal motivation and determination that has helped me find new skillsets inside of myself time and time again. It has also been critical to have the encouragement and persuasion of people who believe in me — like my father, who always respected my artistic ability and urged to me pursue business, even at a time when being a woman in business was far from the norm — even at times when I didn’t believe in myself.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

We recently sold a number of works from my art collection, passed down from mother and father, at Sotheby’s. A portion of the sales will go to the Kay Unger Family Foundation to further the legacy of supporting underserved youth talented in the arts and providing them with the confidence and tools they need to pursue the their natural talents. We will also reinvest these funds into creating a new collection of art focusing on emerging and overlooked artists, all while keeping diversity at the forefront.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I think so much of my success is because my father always believed in me. He always said that I was going to do something special so I believed that I could. He supported me just as much as my brothers, which was unusual at the time, and encouraged me to go to school and to follow my dreams.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

It’s been amazing to see how supportive people are and how thrilled they are that I am making this change. Even for my children, this auction with Sotheby’s and the way I’m using the proceeds from the sale is a great point of pride, despite the fact that the sale means that they won’t inherit these pieces.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

You may be surprised to learn that this still happens every single day, ha! But fear is actually a wonderful catalyst for change and action.

I believe in myself more every day, but I really rely on research as a way to build up confidence. For example, right now I am really interested in learning about NFT’s, particularly as they relate to art and fashion. I don’t understand much yet, but the more I research, the more confident I feel that I can wrap my head around this idea and figure out how to use it to benefit the brands I consult with and the students and philanthropic organizations I work with.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

I am lucky to have the support of C200 to lean on. I was a founding member in 1982 when there were so few visible women succeeding at a high level in business and am still active within the organization. In addition to our mission to advance both corporate and entrepreneurial women from the classroom to the boardroom, C200 members are invited to join a Council — an intimate cohort that serves as a peer advisory group for one another. In the past, for example, when my former partner was embezzling money from our company, I wasn’t brave enough to ask this group for help. But I learned my lesson! With this project to auction a portion my family’s art collection and fund a new vision for supporting unknown or underrepresented artists, I came to them first and asked how they handled their estate situations, who their lawyers were, etc. Their insights and introductions were absolutely instrumental in my success navigating the deaccession process and beyond.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

Though I had been involved in philanthropy all my life, my true philanthropy-focused chapter was only possible because of my experience when I was asked to be chair of the board at Parsons. At first, I declined the offer because I felt that this wasn’t my forte and I was really intimidated by the idea of having all these students’ lives and futures in my hands, as well as the fact that this role would require me to lead a board of mostly men. My contacts at Parsons pushed back and told me I was a natural and a perfect fit for the position, but I still wasn’t convinced. So, I decided to do the 2 things that have helped me push myself out of my comfort zone ever since — research extensively and ask for help. I started by arranging to shadow the then-departing chair whose role I was asked to take over to get a better understanding of the job. I also turned to my fellow C200 members for advice and began reaching out to my network to gather as much insight as possible into the skills I would need to excel. One of the people who turned out to be among my greatest resources as I researched was actually my hairdresser! As it turned out, she had a client who was chair of a board and this woman ended up teaching me some of the most valuable skills I have when it comes to running a board and being involved with a foundation.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. In life and in work, I wish someone had explained that I needed to understand the financial side of business (accounting, spreadsheets, etc.) and that creatives actually have that side of their brain, and it should be developed and encouraged. Looking back, I realize I was very capable, but I never believed I could manage those kinds of activities because no one said it. You must learn how. It’s critical that everyone — but especially women — learn to understand and manage finances, as well as know how and when to ask for help.
  2. You can do it yourself. I wish that when I started my first business that I realized I could do it myself. I had been running the company by myself for less than a year when I was approached by someone who wanted to be my partner in the business. I agreed because I wanted to get back to being a designer and turn all my focus to those aspects of the work while handing off the other parts to someone else, but I didn’t realize you could just hire someone (vs. making them partner) and find out whether or not they are the right fit for you.
  3. How to say no. I wish I had learned long ago how to say no to more things so I can say yes to more of my passions and more of the activities, events, etc. that really matter to me. For starters, I would like to have more time to talk to the many amazing people I’ve met throughout my many chapters and roles, not just when there is something timely happening like a Sotheby’s auction of my collection or a fundraising event, but in the casual every day time too, when I can really get a chance to get deeper with these individuals and find out about their world and the things they do etc.
  4. The importance of naming your company after yourself and promoting your own name. Early in my career I had decided that I just wanted to do the work of designing and let the work speak for itself rather than the branding, but looking back, I wish I had named my second company Kay Unger because that would have contributed to building a larger, longer lasting empire for my brand and I could have used the licensing to continue growing my company.
  5. How to be an impactful philanthropist. With philanthropy, I had always given money, but something that I had to learn for myself was how to find and identify worthwhile movements, organizations, groups, etc. I wish someone had told me how to sort through all of the causes and people and organizations asking for help in order to find the right ones to support that best aligned with my values — and that also made the best use of the money. For example, how to spot the organizations that spend the bulk of the donations actually helping the recipients of the funds vs. spending the money on running the organization itself. This was something I had to learn through trial and error over many years.

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?

Philanthropy for arts education! That’s the goal of my current effort with Sotheby’s and something I am deeply passionate about. I want to reach young kids and expose them to the arts (which includes music, fashion, film, etc.) because I know how impactful it can be on their development overall. Whether they become artists or not, the confidence you give kids early on through art and music can change people’s lives and give them the power and motivation they need to do anything.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

Taylor Swift or Michelle Obama!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Instagram: @kayungerdesign

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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