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Living Legend

Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the June 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

As I went into my monthly last-minute "I have nothing to write about" panic searching for something to say to inspire you, I read (one of my methods is to pretend I'm not thinking about a column topic and distract myself with Web surfing) about someone who has long inspired me. And I can't let the moment pass without acknowledging her many contributions to the entrepreneurial world.

Lillian Vernon, founder of the catalog company that bears her name, just sold her business in mid-April to a private investment group. While she's not retiring, Vernon is relinquishing daily control of the business, though she will still be the company's non-executive chairman as well as spokesperson.

Why am I telling you this? Well, Lillian Vernon is one of a handful of business owners who can rightfully bear the title Legendary Entrepreneur. She founded the business literally from her kitchen 52 years ago. Her initial $2,000 investment (money she received as wedding presents) grew into a $260 million company. Vernon has said the highlight of her career was taking her company public in 1987, when Lillian Vernon became the first firm founded by a woman to be publicly listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Obviously, Vernon far surpassed her original goal of "paying a few household bills." But she's done far more than that. I'm talking about all the time and energy Vernon has devoted to helping promote women entrepreneurs. She is truly a pioneer, opening doors for millions of entrepreneurial women who have followed in her footsteps. But Vernon also showed the world that big businesses can be born at a kitchen table, and that anyone, men or women, whose ideas may seem very "small" at the start can parlay any concept (in Vernon's case, personalized purses) into multimillion-dollar enterprises.

I've met too many people (bankers, marketers, etc.) who immediately dismiss certain business owners as "too small to be concerned about." I'm sure Lillian Vernon often encountered this kind of attitude over the years. That's why it's important we all realize (and spread the gospel wherever we go) that entrepreneurs come in all guises. What seems a tiny and inconsequential "hobby" can grow into a large business. If you're still on the path to growing your company (and if you're reading Entrepreneur, I assume you are), take inspiration from Lillian Vernon, who once said, "I never thought that I would achieve such success as an immigrant to America, but I was thankful for the opportunity to achieve my dreams."

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