“Boundless Energy For the Work” – A Conversation with Gail Robinson
I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with one of my Career Girl role models (and first boss) Gail Robinson. Robinson had reached out to me with an announcement of a new venture, the Failure Fixer, a multi platform diet and exercise consulting business. The announcement of Robinson’s new endeavor came as no surprise, as she is closing in on almost seven decades of entrepreneurial success.
In 1984, working in her home kitchen with her two daughters, Robinson founded Mrs. Prindable’s Carmel Apples. The project was no naïve home-cook-makes-it-big success story. A savvy business-woman rather than a chef, Robinson foresaw the beginnings of the fine-foods trend of the 1980s, and identified a notable lack in the market place. She describes sitting in the library for “three months straight” researching recipes and cooking over 150 trial batches of caramel until she settled on her winning mix. The investment paid off. At its peak, Mrs. Prindable’s employed 300 people in two facilities, crafting hand-dipped treats for the international market. The family company was a hit on the home shopping channel QVC, and became a household name. In 1999, Robinson sold the business to Chicago gourmet apple company Affy Tapple, which continue to produce the brand today. Gail Robinson’s next project, a gourmet chocolate store and corporate gift service, found success from 2000 to 2005 before being sold to a major American confectionery company. Robinson describes herself as a “serial entrepreneur,” and I am impressed by the way in which she is able to envision her market opportunities and also engineer seamless (and often lucrative) conclusions to her business ventures.
On the phone from Failure Fixer headquarters in Arizona I asked Robinson about achieving her long career.
On getting an early start
“It’s in my blood. I sold my school photos in kindergarten to my family and friends. 10 cents a photo!”
On identifying role models:
In the late 1950s, at 17 years old, Robinson went to work for a fabric company in Skokie, IL. She vividly remembers the experience of seeing a woman who worked in management for the company, smartly dressed in a men’s suit, briefcase, and hat. The woman was a striking visual that Robinson kept in her mind throughout her life. “I wanted to be her. Tough, strong, independent.” Robinson suggests that young women allow themselves to be inspired by one another. “Join women’s organizations, she suggests, “Find someone you want to become.”
On the Woman’s Movement:
As daughter of a working woman of the 1940s, Robinson describes the deep influence of the women’s movement on her thinking. In the early 60’s she brought her own young daughters out to march for women’s equality. Early on, Robinson decided her own contribution to the movement would be personal –she would educate her traditional husband about a woman’s abilities – and to do so she would claim a spot for herself in the workplace. (The plan worked, as Robinson and her husband have celebrated over 50 years of partnership in marriage and business.)
On Moving Up
One of Robinson’s first jobs was as a food broker for Nieman Marcus, and she is proud to say that she was the first women hired by the company for such a high-level position. After much success, she asked “What’s next?” and was informed by her bosses that “There is no next for you.” At the time, there was no vehicle for promotion– no additional level that they were prepared to place a woman. She rightly walked out. Robinson advises women today to articulate clearly to their management “I need to do more than you expect of me.”
On Starting a Business
Robinson resolved that she would be a business owner, that she could avoid being blocked by others if she served as her own boss. Though she did not yet know what her business would be, she opened her own office. “You make a commitment,” she advises young women, “even if you don’t know to what… other than yourself. I said, ‘I am investing in Gail’ and I just printed business cards.”
When I worked with Robinson in 2002-2003, I found her to be the most inspiring marketer and promoter I had ever met. She effortlessly garnered press and struck a rapport with everyone in her store. I wondered, what is her take on the social marketing revolution of the last decade? “Its not really a new world.” she assures me “These are simply the tools of the time. You use every tool that the times offer. There will be more tools in the future, and we’ll all use those too. Personal involvement and a clear personal voice wins out. Its the ideas that are everything.”
Advice to Young Entrepreneurs:
Robinson cautions young entrepreneurs to help one another without giving their ideas away. “Keep it close to the vest. There are people out there who will invest in you. Ideas are the commodity, and companies have proven time-and-time-again that they have more money than ideas. Robinson encourages young women to brave through rejection. “I prove to myself that my ideas are great ideas, that they have value and I do not allow myself to get blocked by others. I’ve found I have boundless energy for the work itself. Whatever you are going to do, as long as you put in the work – it will have value.”