Design Icon Diane von Furstenberg Talks Entrepreneurship at NYU

Last night, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg shared some frank insights on her early challenges building a business—and being heard—when she gave the keynote address for the Women Entrepreneurs Festival held at New York University.

In a fireside chat, von Furstenberg spoke with New York-based angel investor Joanne Wilson, who cofounded the two-day event.

Von Furstenberg is known for her signature wrap dress, which in the 1970s made a name for her in fashion and led to a luxury brand known around the world.

The annual Women Entrepreneurs Festival, now in its fifth year, continues on Thursday with panels that will feature women entrepreneurs such as Meghan Conroy, CEO of Captureproof, and investors such as Wilson; Shanna Tellerman, partner with Google Ventures; and Shana Fisher, managing partner with High Line Venture Partners.

The event is an example of the ongoing effort to encourage more women to pursue entrepreneurship.

Among the audience were PowerToFly co-founders Katherine Zaleski and Milena Berry, whose platform connects women with tech jobs they can do remotely.

Zaleski chatted briefly with me and said the festival brings together women entrepreneurs with serious interest in finding new ways to grow their businesses. “People here are not being funded by a big company,” she said. Zaleski also said she appreciated the candor of last night’s keynote chat.

Von Furstenberg said that her mother, who survived the Holocaust, taught her to face her fears. “If I was afraid of the dark, she would lock me in the closet,” von Furstenberg said. “After ten minutes, it’s no longer dark and you realize, ‘why should I be afraid of the dark?’”

Driven by a desire to be financially independent, while also raising a family, she learned about fabrics and fashion design first as in intern with a factory in Italy, then began creating dress samples that eventually led to her splash in the apparel world.

“I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be,” she said. Not long after her dresses created a stir, in 1976 von Furstenberg appeared on the cover of Newsweek at the age of 28.

Despite such early media attention, she still had to deal with gender bias. At the same time she was in Newsweek, von Furstenberg was also featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Regardless, while she was on a flight that week with a copy of the newspaper, a male passenger had asked, “Why does a girl like you read The Wall Street Journal?”

Von Furstenberg said diving into entrepreneurship early meant she could explore different ideas, and even stumble along the way. “It’s good when you have success very young, because it allows you to have a few failures afterward,” she said.

When she became an entrepreneur, von Furstenberg said, she had some backing from family, however she still had to find her own way. “My father gave me some money, but I had spent it before I got started,” von Furstenberg said.

In setting up her business plan to design and sell dresses, she secured terms that allowed her to get paid before she paid the Italian factory she worked with. “That’s really what financed me,” she said.

For up-and-coming entrepreneurs today, von Furstenberg said micro-financing offers opportunities, especially for women founders to get off the ground.

Now, von Furstenberg said her focus is on structuring her brand to last as a legacy. (There have been rumors recently of a possible IPO). “I put the company in the name of my children; they own it, I just work for them,” she said.

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