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How Celebrity Designer Sarah Richardson Designed her Own Success

Sarah Richardson, HGTV Host, Designer and Entrepreneur, shares what’s behind the scenes: authenticity, creativity and concrete guiding principles

BY CAROLYN LAWRENCE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON BARRE

Sarah Richardson is widely known for her fresh-faced design show successes including Design Inc., Sarah’s House, and Sarah’s Cottage. Now her brand is expanding to the next level, with the launch of custom paint colours, fabric lines and a book-inprogress. In the offices of Sarah Richardson Design Inc., Women of Influence President and CEO, Carolyn Lawrence, discovers Sarah’s approach to work is just as refreshing as her designs, and 100% authentic.


CAROLYN LAWRENCE: IN YOUR DESIGN SHOWS, YOU OFTEN MENTION A “JUMPING OFF POINT” TO START THE CREATIVE PROCESS. WHAT WAS THE JUMPING OFF POINT FOR YOUR CAREER?
SARAH RICHARDSON: My jumping off point comes from different sources. First I have to acknowledge that it was somewhat organic; I grew up surrounded by art and architecture and design. My dad is a retired professor of art history and architecture so I got to visit churches and historical buildings, [creating] a strong foundation in art and architecture more through osmosis than strict academic processes at university. My mom was a director of parks, planning and design for the city [of Toronto]. She was interested in gardening, and got more interested in design and interiors, which led to my appreciation for fabrics. Learning how to sew at an early age was probably step one for me.

CL: WE WERE DELIGHTED TO HAVE YOU SPEAK ON INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY FOR THE DELOITTE WOMEN OF INFLUENCE LUNCHEON SERIES. IN YOUR SPEECH, YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN QUITE ENTREPRENEURIAL. WERE YOU SELF-AWARE OF THAT ASPECT OF YOUR PERSONALITY?
SR: I think my entrepreneurial spirit was something that I did without realizing; it was more natural as opposed to focused. There weren’t any entrepreneurs around me that I would have been inspired by; everybody worked for a company. But I was an industrious and very busy kid, and ultimately I liked the independence of making my own money.

CL: YOU ALSO MENTIONED, IN YOUR SPEECH THE VALUE OF YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK IN BEING ESSENTIAL TO YOUR EARLY SUCCESS. DO YOU APPROACH NETWORKING THE SAME TODAY AS YOU DID WHEN YOU WERE STARTING OUT?
SR: I realized early on at Western that if I didn’t do something to help me branch out, I would leave knowing the exact same people that I had come in knowing. One of my fundamental drivers is that I am always interested in meeting and engaging with new people. I was the social coordinator of my sorority; it was a natural thing for me to do. It was always a natural process. I’m lucky – my job is so social, I don’t need to be at every event and I choose my events carefully. I can be doing a lot less [external] activities because I’m surrounded by 12 people in my office that I adore.

CL: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT?
SR: It is a very convivial, sharing, close-knit family that we’ve built here. It’s a casual workplace and my crew is the same. While there is focus, a real demand and level of stress to what we need to achieve each and every day, there is also a lot of light-hearted moments. The fact that we can solve a problem and the next minute everybody is having a good laugh – I find [that] so fulfilling.

CL: YOU HAVE MENTIONED THAT YOUR MOM WAS A BIG MENTOR TO YOU. HAVE YOU HAD ANY MORE ROLE MODELS ALONG THE WAY THAT HAVE INSPIRED YOUR SPECIFIC CAREER?
SR: You absolutely have to give credit to Martha Stewart. I think it’s too bad that people have put on this filter of what she did wrong and we’ve lost sight of the groundbreaking work that she did as a woman, as an entrepreneur in all types of media, in terms of running her destiny, setting the bar so high. There is no way that you can dismiss [her influence]. In the very earliest days, I remember saying [to my mom], “I’d like to work for Martha Stewart.” And then I thought that was never going to happen because I’m in Toronto, I don’t have any experience, forget it. It will never happen. Through that, this incredible process started from a really grassroots level. Somehow I lucked into these opportunities to start working in the business.

CL: DID HER INSPIRATION EVER HELP YOU THROUGH CHALLENGING MOMENTS?
SR: The omnipresence of the Martha empire was informative for me and a driver in how I decided I wanted to make my show. My first series, Room Service, was just me on camera and I found that it was developing into something where I would be approached and people would only acknowledge me. I would feel so awkward because I had someone [else] standing right beside me, who was the backbone, who enabled me to do what I do, and it was like they didn’t exist. I wanted them to be acknowledged for their contribution as well as mine. I realized that the success of the Martha brand was also a big part of the downfall. And that was what led me to want to create Design Inc., which is about sharing the pitfalls and the challenges and the things that go wrong. [I wanted to] show proof that there are challenges, triumphs, pitfalls and then there are solutions. There has to be humour and [show that] there is a light in the tunnel and a collaborative spirit. I think that as a team we are far more powerful. So much of it still comes back to my name and my brand, but I hope that in the future, I will be regarded as somebody who helped showcase that the talents of many are better than the success of one.

CL: WHAT ARE SOME OF TTHE OTHER CHALLENGES YOU’VE HAD TO FACE AS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
SR: I guess one of the biggest challenges for me has been to separate the business from [the person] when you are the brand. It can be difficult to separate.

CL: HOW DID YOU LEARN THAT? AND WHAT ADJUSTMENTS DID YOU MAKE TO HOW YOU OPERATE TO MAKE THE DISTINCTION?
SR: I’ve become more resilient as a result, and I’ve had to remove the emotion out of what I do, when [the brand] is about me. It is not a corporation; it is not how I run Sarah Richardson Design. I face challenges all the time whether it’s contracts or negotiations. What I learned is the only way to succeed, for me, is to have the conviction to walk away. That is a metaphor that could be used for a lot of women in a lot of situations. If you have the power and the conviction to walk away, then you are in a better place because that was your decision. Being willing to do that has made all the difference, professionally. Because by being willing to walk away, people around me have learned that I have strength of character, and if I say I’m not going to do [something], then I’m not going to do it. I’ve learned from those experiences, and as hard as it has been to say “I’m closing that door,” it was worth it.

Sarah_Richardson2012CL: WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR OTHER STRENGTHS?
SR: I am passionate about creativity; it is not about wanting to be a designer or producer. I didn’t set out with a goal to be ‘something’; it is my passion. I do what I am passionate about. I wanted to be accountable and take responsibility and have a voice in anything and everything I did. I never signed on to let somebody determine my destiny. It led me to become more confident in my voice [and] in knowing what was best for my brand. Yes to collaboration, but at the end of the day, everything that I do is built on what I believe in, how I see things. What makes it possible to do the number of things I do, is that I am not a perfectionist. I don’t sweat about it, or have to keep going back; I am very efficient. “Yes to that, no to that, next!” Make a decision. Accept the consequences of whatever decisions you make and keep on going. I’ve become a really good delegator, but there are certain things that I will never let go of; I will always need to be in charge of things that are most important.

CL: CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF THOSE THINGS?
SR: When I’m in production, I’m not doing client work. That is what I have come to delegate. The interior design part of this business is shared by people I’ve worked with for 10 years.
I can still be involved in those projects and I still collaborate, but on a daily basis I’m not worrying about what is happening [there] because I am working on 14 projects for the television show. What I don’t delegate is writing. I write the Globe and Mail column. I don’t use a ghostwriter; I do it all. I also need to have the overall first vision and design concept for a room – that always comes from me. And anything about the product lines.

CL: ARE YOU GOING KEEP UP YOUR CURRENT INCREDIBLE PACE?
SR: This is an exciting time for me. I’m feeling like what I did was to really focus on the engine of the shows, [and] it seems like it is all happening at once. It’s sort of exploding. I’ve taken a very long view to my career. I wanted to get my brand to the point where it was appreciated and valued by others, so that I could do bigger and better things with it.

CL: HOW BIG IS YOUR VISION?
SR: I’ll keep doing TV, but at some point that’s a finite thing. It is pretty gruelling and not an easy schedule, [especially] when you have little kids. I want to be able to, as far as products go, make what I do, what I like and what I am passionate about available to everyone. I have a line of fabrics coming out in fall 2013, and a book hopefully in spring 2013. It still depends how quickly I write it but it is coming! And there are a few other product lines that are in development. I don’t feel the need to put my stamp on everything. If I am not super interested or passionate about it, then I am not going to do it. But the more I talk and think about [my vision], the list gets longer.

CL: WITH SO MANY ACCOMPLISHMENTS TO DATE, WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
SR: Being able to have a happy relationship, kids and a career that I love is without a doubt the most rewarding. I cannot imagine any one without the others. If my family were suffering, I’d walk away from my business today. I don’t ever want to be portrayed as someone who is all about work. I am so busy, but I am home to put my kids to bed every night, I’m there for breakfast and I drop them off at school. I tend to be in the office from 9:30am, after I drop the kids off, until 5:45pm – and I don’t work on weekends, ever. I will go back to work [a couple nights a week] if I have to, but I won’t give up the time that I have with them. [It’s] a discipline that is lacking for a lot of people – defining the boundaries of how you work and when you work. Don’t apologize. You are not available 24 hours, seven days a week, and there is nothing wrong with turning off or being unavailable. The world will take as much as you are willing to give.

CL: WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE WITH OUR READERS TO HELP THEM ON THEIR JOURNEY TO SUCCESS?
SR: It’s just important to follow your passion and do what you want to do. Knowing what you’re good at is key to success. I won’t ever lie and tell people that it is easy, but my theme song is Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” You have to never lose sight, always be focused. Women’s focus and drive [often] get confused with some unpleasant characteristics, and I think the lesson I would like to leave people with is it is possible to be friendly, it is possible to be a warm, nice person and still be successful. Make sure that you’re always being honest and truthful in everything you do. It’s just me, basically, and that’s how you build an authentic brand.