From the May 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

Oprah Winfrey has an entertainment empire. So does Madonna. Jennifer Lopez has added clothing and perfume to her numerous ventures. As celebrities continue to branch out into new lines of business, what lessons can noncelebrity business owners learn from them?

"I've learned many things from observing Oprah," says Alison Glander, 42, president and CEO of PowerPact LLC, a marketing agency in Midlothian, Virginia, with revenues of $17 million. "She puts herself out there, and people respond." Glander says typical management wisdom encourages company leaders to be stoic, invincible and untouchable; but Oprah has taught her you can let people in, and they'll pull for you. "The bonds between people in [your] company grow even stronger and more personal. And that's a proven way to reduce turnover--when people feel connected, like a family."

Another lesson Glander has learned from Oprah is not to be afraid to promote yourself. "It's a female thing--a temptation to hide in the shadows and thrust others into the spotlight," she admits, but Glander has realized a business needs its CEO to be "famous." Promotions that show a company has a strong leader attract more customers, says Glander.

For Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx Inc., a $12 million high-end hosiery, legwear and apparel company in Atlanta, Madonna has been a role model for years. "Seeing Madonna's courage in herself gave me a lot of strength," says Blakely, 32. When facing challenges starting her business, Blakely looked for inspiration. "I remembered reading stories about Madonna believing in herself when no one else did. I believed in my idea [for footless pantyhose] and knew it was up to me to make my product a reality."


"Seeing Madonna's courage in herself gave me a lot of strength."

In Blakely's opinion, Madonna is a marketing genius. "Part of her genius is doing things that are risky or edgy. When I decided to name my product 'Spanx,' I took a big gulp and thought 'Am I really going to try to sell a product with this name to a high-end, ultraconservative retail space like Neiman Marcus?'" She decided to take a marketing risk, with positive results.

Relying on gut instinct is another trait Blakely sees in the Material Girl. "I believe Madonna trusts her gut in her decisions," says Blakely. "I've had no formal business classes or training, but I launched this business, built the brand, expanded my line and hired an amazing team. When I have to make a big decision, I rely on my team. But in the end, it's a serious gut check--and I don't let anyone mess with that."

While some celebrities become entrepreneurs, there are also entrepreneurs who become celebrities by virtue of their public images--like designer Cynthia Rowley, who has expanded from fashion into housewares, books and more. That made Rowley a perfect role model for Laura Eisman, 37, CEO and creative director of New York City-based Girlshop Inc., an online retailer of independent designer clothing for women, men and children that grossed $4 million in 2003. "I always loved Cynthia Rowley's designs," Eisman says. "Fashion is a competitive business, but Cynthia rose above the rest with offshoots of her brand, such as Swell, and smart partnerships [such as the one with] Target." As Eisman embarks on expanding the Girlshop brand into retail stores and TV, she says she's following Rowley's example.

Eisman sees Rowley's foray into writing as co-author of Swell: A Girl's Guide to the Good Life (Warner Books) as yet another creative way to extend her brand. And she gives high marks to Rowley's approach, which she summarizes as "being relatable. Everyone listens to the girl next door. Be familiar. Talk to your market, not at them. This gives you more power."


Aliza Pilar Sherman (www.mediaegg.com) is an author, freelance writer and speaker specializing in women's issues.