Women in Business Q&A: Ann Mashburn

07/08/2017 11:28 am ET

Ann’s career in fashion began in editorial at Conde Nast, where she served as an assistant to famed Vogue fashion editor and stylist Polly Mellen, and worked alongside such visionary greats as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Steven Meisel. Following her time at Vogue, Ann was then named fashion editor of Glamour and then went on to style at J.Crew, where she and Sid worked together. This began their lifelong creative partnership.          

In 2007, Sid, Ann & their five daughters moved to Atlanta to pursue his own line. Inspired by the beauty and attention to detail of shops in Tokyo & Milan, as well as the end-to-end service tradition of old-school American haberdashers, Sid & Ann opened a single men's shop, SID MASHBURN, on the West Side of Atlanta in 2007. The concept was simple: a combination of their own designed-and-produced tailored clothing, sportswear, footwear, and accessories, alongside their favorite classic, iconic, and hard-to-find pieces, all in a space designed to feel as beautiful, cool, and welcoming as possible. In 2010, they expanded the business with a full women’s Ann Mashburn line and shop.

Mashburn launched e-commerce sites in 2011 to serve the brand’s ever-expanding customer base outside of Atlanta. The shops have been celebrated as premier retail destinations by national fashion, lifestyle, and luxury publications, and Sid & Ann as consummate lifestyle tastemakers. Flagship SID and ANN shops opened in Houston in winter 2013, and opened their 3rd and 4th retail locations in D.C and Dallas in the fall of 2015.

How has your experience made you the leader you are today?

My first real job was at VOGUE — I worked for Polly Mellen in the 80s. At the time, she held the title of fashion editor and I was very much the Anne Hathaway character in The Devil Wears Prada.

I was surrounded by older, confident women who had a few things figured out – and I became very acquainted with the feeling of not having it figured out yet. I ran instead of walked, bit my nails til they bled, and did what I was told, and triple-checked it all because I was terrified of being yelled at. I knew what it was like to feel clueless and out of place. (Once she flat-out asked me why I couldn’t just dress the way I had in my interview.) 18 months of feeling that way can make you very strong and very determined to not feel that way again — and not to make others feel that way, either.

There is a lot of emphasis these days on individuality and being true to yourself and building your own “personal brand”. But there is a lot to be learned, at least in the beginning of your career, by listening and observing and being one of the pack. Being the lowest one on the totem pole – and aware of it! – is a powerful experience because you are forced to just shut up and listen and watch. I got to observe the best and worst in other women, and slowly learned to emulate the best parts.

How has your previous employment experience aided your leadership at Mashburn?

This may be my longest answer — I think every single second of my past experience has made its way (good and bad) into the way I help run our company.

I worked almost exclusively with women at Conde Nast in the 80s and into the 90s. The best side of this was that it was all incredibly collaborative, creative and communicative...

I worked for this amazing, super low-key senior fashion editor at Glamour, Xanthipi Johannides. She had this great way of compartmentalizing her life between work-husband-family — she came from this big Greek family & her parents lived with them in Connecticut. That kind of work-life balance felt very uncommon during that era, and I found it very cool. Everywhere, but especially in the fashion world, there is a lot of competition and comparison, and she was a real outlier in this — she just did her thing and went home at the end of the day. She kept her friends and family close, and knew that her job was to CREATE & make the pages happen. She wasn’t overly caught up in herself, there was no ego, she just clearly loved what she did. Watching her made me see that clawing your way to the top isn’t always the road for everyone. It’s about the work itself, and making the best, most beautiful thing you can — in our case, in the magazine world, it was pictures and pages. And if you come into it with that mindset, the next job or the next title or the next accolade isn’t as important as doing the best work you can.

I try really hard to compliment people when they do a great job, even on (and actually, especially on) little things. It was always very important for us to create an environment and work culture where we celebrate a job well done and people feel like they can do their best work. (And then go home at the end of the day!) In our company, that might be in the warehouse or on the sales floor or behind a computer screen manipulating numbers or in the photo studio or design studio. To me, being a great leader means creating and fostering that kind of environment for the people who work for you — that’s how you get the best out of people! Feeling like you did your best work or made something great is satisfying on a couple of levels — it’s personally fulfilling, but you also feel connected to something bigger, like you’re making a tangible contribution. It is a great way to go to bed every night.

What have the highlights and challenges been since Ann Mashburn’s launch?

The challenge is feeding the beast. We have grown a lot, and quite quickly. It isn’t like having a big family — which I do, and I think I manage that reasonably well — it’s more of everything. I wouldn’t go back, but the reality of 18-hour days is humbling.

The highlight is having created something out of nothing. We started with 3 people other than me & Sid. Now we have 130+ employees and we’ve created these beautiful spaces that people enjoy coming to, and we make all this really fantastic stuff. And we all do it together. 130 people — that’s a lot of people, but also a lot of families. Especially at a time when a lot of businesses were closing (we opened in 2007) we felt like we were creating business and supporting the people who work with & for us. That makes me really proud. It isn’t just about me and Sid anymore, and I like that.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

If you are young, I would tell them the same things I tell my daughters, and this is true for any industry. Get to work earlier, stay later, and work harder. Check your work and check it again. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but make sure you ask them to understand, not to hear your own voice. Don’t be ashamed of your mistakes unless they were the result of laziness or sloppiness. Then just apologize and get on with it.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

Always type in the email address as the very last thing. I have sent a reply rather than a forward and I still go red in the face thinking about it. It was not good. In the age of digital and permanent communication - careful choices are so important. (Boy, do I sound like a mother…) I hate it, but that’s the reality. And spell their name right in that email. It is the tiniest, easiest way to show someone you are paying attention.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I don’t. But I DO try to be in the moment of whatever I am doing. I guess you could call that compartmentalizing. Be where you are. Multitasking is great in theory, but soak up the basketball game while you’re at the basketball game, and be 110% at the meeting when you’re at the conference table. I am 55 and I keep getting better at this — but I think I have always been this way in my heart. I feel an incredible desire not to waste the day or have regret.

When I was working for Polly Mellen, she (in a rare moment of tenderness) told me about taking a dozen or so years off to raise her children. I asked her what I thought would be the perfect young career girl question: “Didn’t you miss work?” Her reply was so spontaneous and sincere: “Are you kidding? Not a minute.” This woman had risen to the top (well, top enough for her…) of the masthead, and had done so despite taking a large amount of time away from her career. And she LOVED her work. But there was just no comparison for her — they were two totally different moments, both totally valid in their own ways, and she committed herself fully to each of them when it was time to. I got to that point myself about 10 years later, and that little exchange gave me the confidence to do it and to not apologize for it. I had five daughters and for awhile, that was all I wanted to do. It was the right thing for me and for us, and I was lucky to be able to do it. I could have kept looking around and wondering, but to use the current vernacular, I “leaned in” to what was in front of me.

Now it’s a little different. I have an all-consuming family business and a 16-year-old at home. We have an interesting, but certainly non-traditional American household, with lots of older sisters coming and going in our house. For me, managing the work-life balance is more about outsourcing some of the motherhood to them. It’s a little bit of a co-parenting situation. One of the sisters said to her, Pauline, you know, you’re really lucky — some girls at your school have one mom, some have two, but you have FIVE!

It’s about the next 24 hours. I can’t think ahead any further than that. But I am open to suggestions! I work with my husband. Our desks are three feet away from each other. Talk about a lack of balance! We are still crazy about each other so we stop just short of murder on a daily basis. One thing that helps is that I happen to adore domesticity as a come-down after a long day. For me, cooking & tidying are just about the most relaxing thing. For me it is something I can control…

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

Childcare. Affordable childcare.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I wish I had had more of a mentor in my early career. I learned a lot from the other women I worked with, but it was more from just being a very careful observer. I could see who I wanted to be, and who I didn’t.

Having a mentor is great, but you don’t need someone actively or explicitly acting as a guide to learn from others. Watching and listening and emulating can get you quite far… You can kind of be your own mentor nowadays when you have Google at your disposal, and there is a real wealth of supersmart business writing about this. In the end, it comes down to asking yourself: how did that conversation go? How did that change the outcome? How did that solve the problem?”

One of my daughters, very early on in her career in our company, said to me in a moment of frustration, “there are just so many PROBLEMS every day!!” I can remember saying, “Yes, duh, that is what business is. SOLVING problems.” I could see a little light bulb go off in her head... and it is a continual challenge each day to look at that fact like a fun challenge, rather than a chore or an insurmountable obstacle. I think I have tried to be a mentor for her and for all the other people at our company. Leading them is the most important thing I do here. They have so much talent. I just need to keep us focused and energized and inspired and we will absolutely kill it.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Actually, Arianna Huffington. I love that she is not afraid to keep reinventing herself - and her enthusiasm for every new endeavor is infectious. I admire this in any leader — my husband is a bit like that, actually. Creatively, anyone who does her own thing is very inspirational to me.

What are your business accomplishments for Ann Mashburn for the next year?

Well, I already said I work in 24 hour intervals…

But we are hoping to open a women’s shop to join our men’s space in Los Angeles. Which I think will be amazing.

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