Conversation with Eileen Fisher
At the 2015 Global Philanthropists Circle Members Meeting
Eileen Fisher is designer and founder of Eileen Fisher, Inc. Here she talks with Peggy Dulany about the value of mindfulness and reflection on a personal level and with her company.
PEGGY DULANY: So Eileen and I met by phone about a week ago. And, well, I can only speak for myself, but I fell in love. This is going to be an easy and joyful conversation. And I hope that once you get into it any nervousness you might be feeling just disappears. So I think a place to start might be how you came into mindfulness because those of us who are still struggling with that need, need an entry point. So if you can tell us a little bit about your personal history that would be great.
EILEEN FISHER: Good. Okay, thank you. First of all, I want to say I have a couple of pretty hard acts to follow. So I’m a, I’m a pretty shy person so this is very hard for me but I’m trying so bear with me. So how I got into mindfulness myself, I think I came in more or less through the doorway of yoga. When I was in my late 20’s I, I did yoga and I’m actually, don’t actually know how I got into mindfulness because I had seemed to come in through a lot of doorways. I’ve always been a, a seeker and a self-help junkie, and read all of those books and so it’s, whether it’s Jack Kornfield, or Jon Kabat-Zinn, or Thich Nhat Hanh, or the Dalai Lama, Dan Goleman, Dan Siegel, I, you know, Emotional Intelligence, all of it, everything, I love it all.
I just, you know, want to be a better person. I don’t know, maybe somewhere inside I don’t think I’m okay enough. I don’t know what, where that comes from but so, but anyway, I actually started, I’m trying to think. I’m going to say when I started doing yoga more regularly about 15 years ago was when I started meditating regularly. And then I ended up at the Chopra Center I’m going to say maybe ten years ago and that really kind of anchored my daily practice.
DULANY: And, so, this may be too personal, and you can decline to answer, but a lot of us consciously or unconsciously don’t feel we’re good enough. Are there stories from your life where you kind of suddenly got aware that you didn’t feel good enough?
FISHER: I think it’s been ongoing. I was a kid with cross eyes. And I was just a pretty uncomfortable kid so I had trouble connecting. I had trouble being comfortable. So I always feel not good enough so.
DULANY: Can I see a show of hands of people who have felt that at some point in their lives?
FISHER: Oh, great. I’m not alone.
DULANY: No, definitely not. Yeah. But the amazing thing. I mean many people start to practice mindfulness but you’ve managed to bring it into your business. Can you tell a little bit about that?
FISHER: Yes. Well, I think it was ten years ago also around then. We ended up at a company offsite visioning the future of the company. And I had been, of course, into mindfulness for a while at that point and doing yoga and things like that. And, and one of our priorities came out of that meeting and it was presence was the priority for the company, being present, that all of us could be present ’cause we thought we would just do better work if we were all more present. So, one of our business leaders heard this idea that you could have a moment of silence before meetings and so she actually introduced the idea, which was better than me because I was the creative sort of it wasn’t that I was flaky but, you know, being creative and being into all this kind of spiritual stuff, you know, I had tried to bring dance, and yoga, and other things into the company.
And though we did that and with our wellness benefit in terms of bringing it into meetings and, you know, into another level like that I think it took somebody who was more in the business, more kind of respected from a business standpoint. So she introduced it and actually it really took hold. We ring a bell and we have at least a minute of silence before most meetings. Some departments still don’t buy into this idea, but we try-
DULANY: Which departments are those?
FISHER: Um, ooh, let’s see. Um, that’s a good question. I think I better not name the department.
DULANY: Okay. That’s all right. Even though you’re not being recorded it’s okay. And how did-, you have investors in the company, right?
DULANY: We have, we’re an ESOP, 40% employee owned. So we don’t actually have outside investors, although I considered going public at one point. And I was told my growth plan wasn’t aggressive enough but I actually realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do in the process of thinking about it and that I guess when I thought about what would happen when I passed on I wasn’t so sure I just wanted a lot of strangers who didn’t care about the work we were doing to be holding the business. And so it seemed to make more sense to sell to the employees. So that was sort of a win-win. I would’ve made probably twice as much money or more times, who knows, if I had gone public or sold to a venture capitalist or something. I decided not to do that.
DULANY: Well, that in itself is a value statement, right? Yeah. So, I was going to ask how the investors might have felt about your bringing mindfulness in but the relevant thing is how did the employees feel?
FISHER: Yeah. I think the employees some were very mixed at first. And now most people just like appreciate it’s just a little break. It’s just a moment. And in fact we have these consultants that we use and they love the idea so much that they take it out to the different organizations that they work with. And they don’t call it “meditation” or even “mindfulness.” They call it “a moment of pause” because everyone needs a little break to transition from meeting to meeting just to have a little space.
DULANY: Yeah. Just following up on that, why is it that we need that so much ’cause I totally agree that we do?
FISHER: Oh, that’s very good. I think that, I think it helps us to get to more clarity, to make better decisions, to come into the moment. Like we’re all carrying baggage. We were talking about baggage. For me it’s family stuff, or it’s whatever that we carry into the meetings. Or we just carry the last meeting into this meeting and our minds are going a mile a minute. So if we just can stop when we come into the meeting then we, we have more chance of making more conscious choices. And what we’ve seen that’s actually been very interesting is a real sort of deepening of the work, and more caring, and more seeing the opportunities from where each different person sits about what they can do to make difference through the company. So it’s been very interesting. We’ve had people just totally light up around sustainability.
We have massive efforts in the company to change the way we do business from our dye houses, to organic cotton, and organic linen, and chlorine-free wool, I mean just all those levels. People see how they can treat each other differently. People see how we can work together better, just so many different opportunities.
DULANY: And do you ever mention breathing before these pauses?
FISHER: We do actually. I know I have to work on that one myself ’cause I breathe a little too shallowly. But we do and actually that, you hit a point that’s really interesting to me because what I’m playing with now is actually beyond, even more for me than breathing is the whole idea of embodiment. I’ve been working with, around somatic work, somatic experiencing work and finding. And I think coming out of being a clothing designer and coming at this through yoga, and movement, and that kind of thing I’m finding that the idea of getting into our bodies. So, in the moment of silence we’re playing with we haven’t brought this part too much into the company, we do it a little bit but we’re playing with it on the side in our learning lab around the idea of taking that minute of silence and actually using it as a way to bring ourselves into our bodies because our bodies are a way to access our intuition.
In our company it matter-, it’s around creativity, intuition, our instincts about what, what’s going on here, what’s going on underneath, all of that. I think the more embodied we are the more conscious, and mindful, and more enlivened, and the more hopefully joy, gratitude, all those things come along with it.
DULANY: And so many practices and research supports that. So, first of all, if we don’t breathe we don’t kind of open up our system. And if we don’t move, if we have fear or stuck places it gets stuck somewhere in the body.
FISHER: Right. That’s right.
DULANY: So sometimes we think yeah.
FISHER: It’s really good.
DULANY: So sometimes we think we have to think our way through it, which probably stops our breathing even more and makes us sit even stiller ’cause we’re so tense. And so somehow getting up, even just raising your arms up. Anybody who feels like doing it do it right now and take a big, deep breath. And just even one breath like that can have quite an amazing effect. So I’m really glad you’re doing that.
FISHER: That’s so great. Are you familiar with Peter Levine?
DULANY: No. No, but I’m going to write it down when I go back there.
FISHER: Oh, Peter Levine does work around fear. And he talks about an-, with animals when they’re afraid they go into fight-flight-or freeze mode. They shut down. And actually we have a nerve in our body called the polyvagal nerve that connects up everything in our body. And when we go into fear mode it shuts down. And so for animals, they play dead and that’s what happens to us when we’re afraid. And so our minds go blank. Our digestion might shut down. Our, you know, our capacity to engage and connect stops. So for me I live in fear and so I recognized this idea right away that, especially, and that’s why I struggle with public speaking because of fear. It’s so extreme. And I heard that it’s not just me. I heard that people are in general more afraid of public speaking than they are of death.
So that explains why I’m terrified up here. Isn’t that crazy? But actually, read Peter Levine’s book, or Diane Poole Heller. She’s-anyway, I’m not going to advertise my favorite people.
DULANY: No, who’s the other one?
FISHER: Oh, this woman Diane Poole Heller. She does somatic work. She doesn’t have a book but she has DVDs, which helps with, you know, we were talking about that family stuff, and kindness, and how difficult it is to be kind and with your family. And, well, maybe I’m going to go off here but I want to tell a quick story about, we were talking about triggers. And so with family what happens is, I find not just with family but often with family, particularly with family, that I get triggered. You know, like somebody says something and it triggers something from the past. And so I’ve been doing this work, this somatic work this woman Diane Poole Heller. And she has this set of DVDs. And so I followed along on one of her DVDs. I had this situation-I’m not sure if this is on topic but-it was with my ex-husband and every time I would hear his voice I would shut down, just my brain would stop working. And so I started following along in these DVDs. I came to understand this shut down thing that happened to me and I didn’t do anything in particular. I followed along this DVD with one exercise and then two days later I saw my ex-husband and went for dinner with my son and daughter. And afterwards they both said, “What was different, Mom? You were talking. You know, you were so engaged. You know, the room felt so different.” And I realized that I was no longer triggered, that I was free of the, of this emotional impact from the past that would shut me down and make me freeze. So I’m praying for the day that that’ll happen when I’m in front of a room.
DULANY: How are you feeling right now?
FISHER: I’m feeling pretty good. Thank you. I’m so glad you’re into what I’m into. Anyway, that’s maybe a little off topic but I think the fear is what gets in my way from actually being a better business owner, a better philanthropist, a better speaker, for using my voice, for really, doing what Bobby does and just like getting out there and saying what’s on my mind and making a difference in that way. So, I’m working on fear and I’m working on not being triggered because I and then I want to figure out how to share that with everyone.
DULANY: Well, it sounds like you are actually, I mean with your employees.
FISHER: Yes. We’re trying. We’re trying. We’re actually starting a learning lab because I’m so passionate about this work and getting everyone freed up so that they can make the biggest contributions possible.
DULANY: That is so great.
FISHER: Fear; I’m glad you’re doing a thing on fear this afternoon. I’m staying for it. Who’s doing that?
DULANY: Oh, good. Oh, I am.
FISHER: You’re doing it?
FISHER: So you know this stuff. I’ll help you. Okay, good.
DULANY: I know it so intimately.
FISHER: Great. It’s so intense. Okay, go ahead. What other questions?
DULANY: Yeah, so, I mean I think it’s probably people who don’t get into practicing this and don’t see the connections with everything else but some people say pursuing mindfulness is an elite, or a task, or it’s for the elites, or it’s a luxury. So I’m curious, A, how you feel about that because you now are a leader but you’re making it available to your employees, who presumably aren’t of the elite.
FISHER: Yeah. Well, I think it’s for everyone obviously. I mean I think that maybe we have more time sometimes to go to programs. I’ve been lucky to be able to go to different kind of programs and have access maybe to learn these tools. So I think making those more accessible and I know people are doing that through schools, and through hospitals, all kinds of opportunities so I’m trying to do it through business. So I think it should be available to everyone because actually I think we’re all leaders, and the more we are all able to be present the more we’ll be able to make a difference.
DULANY: So can I give my theory on that?
FISHER: Sure. Yes.
DULANY: First of all, I totally agree that fear is, fear blocks us. It blocks our heart, and secondly that it blocks our ability to listen because we’re so consumed by our own insecurities, or fears, or whatever that we’re, they’re like in the way of our being able to see and hear. And, so it’s by the forms of mindfulness that we practice in any circumstance, I would extend that to war, that we’re able to calm the fears, legitimate as they may be, enough to be able to hear the other person. And, you know, Meng was talking about, about spreading this to the world. I think that’s one of the ways we get to do it. So that’s my philosophy.
FISHER: Well, I like what you’re saying about listening because I think about it as not being able to speak as my mind goes blank. But you’re absolutely right. It’s also about listening.
DULANY: Yeah. And it’s almost the same thing because if you’re so paralyzed with fear about speaking then it’s hard to listen to anybody else.
FISHER: Right. You’re worried about what you’re going to say next rather than trying to hear what they’re saying and connect.
DULANY: Yeah. So, the last question I have actually is you’ve been doing this for 30 years and you’ve been talking about beginning to let go. So, first of all, what does that mean for you? And as a business and philanthropic leader how would you see that process taking shape and, yeah?
FISHER: Oh, that’s a great question. I was thinking of it as letting go and now I’m thinking of it as leaning in and letting go. So, a few things have happened. So over the last five or ten years I’ve been trying to let go and grow other people in the organization to take over. And I was moving into my foundation, and starting a girls’ program, and recycling program, and other initiatives. And then I realized that, whoa, right there in the center of my company I can do a lot. So I found myself back in, in the center doing things like saying yes to the deeper sustainability work and saying yes to a lot of different initiatives and projects, and actually shifting how we use money, looking at how fast we’re growing and how we can think differently about that. Where was I going with this? Bring me back to your question. Leaning in and letting go. So, but now I’m also thinking how-, I guess what I’m really passionate about is I’m realizing that I’m trying to lean in to let go in a new way, in a deeper sort of way. So to make the company something that’s basically, hopefully a new model for a different way of doing business. So it’s not enough to just leave a clothing company intact that feels like a profitable, sustainable business but I see a huge opportunity to just actually create something new and different. And we don’t actually know what the model is yet. We’re playing with it but so that’s where I am.
DULANY: Great. I’m sure there are a lot of people in the room, I know there are a lot of people in the room, who are contemplating letting go themselves. And-
FISHER: It’s a hard one-
DULANY: so, it is a hard one. And we each have to find our own path. But hearing other stories is problem one of the things that, that will inspire us. And I want to say one thing to you as we close this session and go to lunch. What I’ve found is that if one can get over enough fear to allow one’s self to be publicly vulnerable, as you have just been, it is extremely heart opening and it then allows other people to feel safe enough to then become vulnerable. So I’d like to thank you for your vulnerability.