Today leaders are going through the most challenging global initiations, in a world of complexity that’s been described as a whitewater world. Like a kayaker, a leader must navigate the currents of uncertainty. What lies ahead is unknown and unpredictable. Nothing in a whitewater world (people, culture, company, industry) stays the same. It’s a dynamic environment. Everything is interconnected and constantly changing.
In a whitewater world, we don’t know what problems to solve until they’re upon us. It calls on our imagination to “design for emergence.”
Today we need to embody the heart and spirit of an entrepreneur to reimagine what’s possible and create a new normal to meet a new world. That’s what entrepreneurs do – envision what’s possible; design for what’s emerging; execute on their ideas to make it a reality. They set the trends other companies follow. In the past, an entrepreneurial approach was a competitive advantage. Today, it may just be a survival skill. It’s why the most successful are never satisfied with what they know and always looking for that extra edge.
So how does one develop the gifts needed to become a leader in a world where nothing is predictable? There’s no better entrepreneur to learn from than my client, Kimberly Camarella-Khanbeigi, CEO and Passionate Founder of Kiyonna Clothing, Inc.
KIM KHANBEGI – AN ENTREPRENEUR FOR THIS CENTURY
Kim and I met in 2010, when she received the prestigious honor of “Entrepreneur of the Year” by our alma mater, University of Southern California. Just 14 years after starting Kiyonna in 1996, she was recognized and celebrated for her entrepreneurial spirit and its power to transform society.
Today, 24 years later, Kiyonna’s styles for plus size women are sold throughout the world. They’ve graced the pages of Glamour, InStyle, and “O” The Oprah Magazine and can be found in retailers such as David’s Bridal, Macys, Nordstrom and more. Her vision to address an underserved niche with sexy and feminine styles that celebrate the curvy customer helped to transform an industry and forged a pathway companies follow today.
In 1996, ecommerce was in its infancy. People bought at stores. Kim’s courage to sell online; use her imagination to design a business for emergence is why she is a changemaker that changes lives. Even in this pandemic, Kim pivoted her company to also create Masker-AID™ – quality designed face coverings that meet CDC recommendations.
I was privileged to coach Kim and her senior leaders for 7 years. Even though she was winning awards, she knew there’s always room for improvement. That’s how visionary leaders think. Kim embodied what she learned into transforming herself into the kind of 21st century leader needed – a “Sawubona Leader” – one who cultivates a community of leaders and customers so they feel seen and accepted for who they are. And in being who they are, Kim and her people have demonstrated that everything is possible. Here’s some of Kim’s gifts we need to develop within ourselves as leaders. It’s critical if we’re to prosper in a whitewater world.
KIM’S GIFTS – REIMAGINING A NEW NORMAL TO MEET A NEW WORLD
CURIOSITY – Observe with open curiosity; ask questions; listen; notice openings; research it out.
Curiosity is the portal to imagination.
Curiosity uncovered the idea that launched Kiyonna in 1996. A student majoring in entrepreneurship at USC, Kim noticed when on vacation with her best friend that some of her clothing had no labels. Curious, she learned that her mother made her clothes because there were few choices available for curvy women. In this lightbulb moment Kim saw an opportunity. Doing research, she discovered over 60% of the U.S. population was size 14 or larger. At the malls, looking at store directories, she found there was one designated store out of 40 listed for plus size women. Asking women questions, it became clear, something needed to change.
As Kim led her company, curiosity has been essential. Analyzing numbers, noticing patterns, trends, gaps, solving challenges in unique ways and observing her people – all helped Kim lead her organization to unprecedented success. She sees her people’s gifts. This inspires them to be their best; develop into leaders; trust their gifts to meet goals and create a culture of belonging.
PASSION FOR HELPING OTHERS – Find ways for you and your people to give back and help others get what they need.
When people feel a part of something greater than themselves, they’re inspired to imagine new ways to innovate the company forward.
Kim’s interest was not in fashion. Her passion was helping people get what they need; in changing lives. When she saw how plus size women were being overlooked and given few choices, her passion ignited. She was committed to help these women feel sexy, confident, and pretty.
Throughout Kiyonna’s years in business, Kim has created a culture of belonging. The causes Kiyonna supports have created a stronger bond between the company, the team, and customers.
Supporting causes like Sandy Hook Promise allows Kiyonna to create a stronger bond with customers as well as the Kiyonna team.
When the pandemic hit, the purchase of their Masker-AID™ masks help Kiyonna to provide aid to Orange County’s homeless population.
RISK-TAKING – Get comfortable with uncertainty by letting go of little things; trust others; delegate.
INTUITIVE KNOWING – Make decisions through external facts and your intuition.
PERSEVERANCE – Failure is the opportunity to begin again, only more intelligently.
Living your values and higher purpose guides you when nothing seems possible.
When Kim started in 1996, she knew she had an uphill climb as she wasn’t plus size and didn’t know how to sew. Yet, her gut instinct said there was a need and a driving purpose to help women of all shapes and sizes feel amazing.
In 1999, she decided to do business differently. She launched her website, seeing an opportunity to connect directly with her core customer (25-45 years) by selling online. With ecommerce being new and customers unfamiliar with shopping online, she innovated ways so they’d feel comfortable. Through the years, her quality designs and innovative marketing (e.g. buy two; try it on; return the other) have created loyal customers and raving fans. Today 80% of Kiyonna’s business is online.
VISION AND FORESIGHT – Use your imagination to envision what’s possible; design for emergence.
INNOVATION – Think not just outside-the-box but where there is no box.
It’s in the state of wonderment, of not knowing that we’re the most innovative.
Kim has designed for emergence all her career.
1996: Fresh out of college, when most are looking for jobs, Kim started her own business. Today, there are 30.7 million U.S. small businesses creating 1.5 million jobs annually.
1996: She had a vision to ignite the underserved plus size market that was being overlooked. In 2019, this market was valued at 9.8 billion U.S. dollars.
1999: She launched her website to sell directly to her customers with ecommerce in its infancy. In 2019, ecommerce was responsible for $3.5 trillion in sales.
Selling online with a personal touch was challenging. Kim knew what we wear affects how we feel. Out of this came a mission to “make plus size women look and feel beautiful every day.” It’s something her people live from beautiful designs to caring customer service. It’s an innovative way to provide that personal touch that’s created loyal Kiyonna customers.
With the pandemic, Kim creatively pivoted Kiyonna to also produce Masker-AID™, reversible designer masks with the quality and fit Kiyonna is known for while also meeting CDC recommendations.
COMPASSION FOR OTHERS – Care about the well-being of another; walk in another person’s shoes.
Love and Compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them Humanity cannot survive.
Opening her heart in everything she does, her community flourishes. She surrounds herself with amazing talent; each, she’ll announce is better than her in their position, inspiring her with their passion to make things happen!
Her compassion for her customer disrupted the stereotypes of curvy women through Kiyonna’s styles – designed to fit and flatter a curvy body, not grade up from smaller sizes.
Her compassion for humanity, is the reason all of Kiyonna’s products are 100% Made in the USA. She believes it’s not your ability but your choices that define you. All have helped in fulfilling her life which means “family is a priority.” Spending time with family becomes possible when you decide to make it a priority and support people you trust to do their best.
In developing the qualities of an entrepreneur like Kim, you can develop these qualities in your people too. No leader can do it alone. You need a village supporting you on this journey. When you and your people learn to navigate the rapids of this whitewater world where nothing is predictable, reimagining a new normal to create a better world becomes possible.
* Sawubona: A Zulu greeting meaning “I see you.”