“Coco” Chanel – Causing a disturbance long before it was fashionable


Born into poverty, orphaned at seven and looking up at a “glass ceiling” that was virtually opaque, Gabrielle “Coco” Bonheur Chanel (1883-1971) became one of the 20th century’s great entrepreneurs and innovators. She was a resilient businesswoman who climbed the ladder of success. And when times were tough, she found a way to turn problems into opportunities. Today, the House of Chanel is a multi-billion dollar empire and the brand, Chanel is valued at over $6 billion.

The post-Victorian era was not conducive to women causing a disturbance, especially in France where they didn’t pass women’s suffrage laws until 1944. But that did not deter the young Coco Chanel. From the time she opened her first hat shop in 1909, she began to revolutionize women’s fashion by innately understanding what women wanted and needed. She saw the improbability of the status quo, knowing that corsets, frills, fuss and lace were all about pleasing men, not women. She saw through the glass ceiling and knew that beyond the “expected and accepted,” there was an opportunity to create clothes that delighted the women, not the men. She said, “I want women to have the possibility to laugh and eat, without necessarily having to faint.” Thirty years before women had the right to vote, she gave them the right to wear jackets, pants and comfortable, practical clothes. Initially, her ideas were considered outrageous and yet, she was outrageously successful. Coco Chanel didn’t simply buck a trend; she disrupted social norms, changed cultural customs and allowed women to enjoy what they had never before imagined.

WWI brought hardship and tough economic times but rather than focusing on the problems, the budding entrepreneur found opportunity where others saw setbacks. During the war women had to work more so she designed practical wear for them. And because Spain was neutral during the war, it was a playground for the rich so she opened a hugely successful shop in nearby Biarritz, France to serve wealthy clients. By the end of the war she had created the iconic Chanel brand – casual chic, liberating, sporty – the epitome of haute couture. Then she introduced Chanel No. 5, and as they say, the rest is history.

What Coco Chanel did is not rooted in genius or luck; it’s about thinking like an innovator and acting like an entrepreneur. She built an empire on principles that are as fundamental today as they were a hundred years ago.

I categorize them as: 1) Recognizing what will delight your customers; 2) Creating an ongoing conversation 3) Seeing beyond “what is” to “what can be;” 4) Turning problems into opportunities; and 5) Being ready to cause a disturbance in the marketplace.

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Use big ideas to get your mojo back

Originally published as a Special to Globe and Mail Update on March 21, 2012

the globe and mail canada

Mea culpa.

As a relentless cheerleader for innovation, I have harped on its importance as a stimulus for competitive advantage and organic growth. What I may have forgotten to tell business owners is that innovation is also fun.

It’s the coconut-cream pie after dinner. It’s the trip to the toy department after buying socks and underwear.

Spending time with entrepreneurs has taught me that they share a desire to create something new. An essential strand in their DNA compels them to cause a disturbance by shaking up their marketplace and filling a void. But my sense is that some entrepreneurs tend to lose that killer instinct as their role evolves from disruptor to operator and manager. They spend more time and energy doing what they have to do rather than what they are wired to do.

Instead of guilting business owners into embracing innovation, I’m going to remind them that their instinct for discovery and disruption is the reason they became entrepreneurs in the first place. Big ideas made them happy. And big ideas can put the bounce back into their step, and the rev in their revenue statements.

It’s never a bad idea to do what you’re best at, and what you love to do.

To all the entrepreneurs chained to their desks and baffled by their own bureaucracy, my suggestion is simple: offload a bunch of operational responsibilities onto someone who loves them, and focus your passion on the next epiphany or invention that’s pinging around in your right brain.

Even if an idea doesn’t turn into a full-fledged profit centre, the discovery process will energize you and infect the people around you. Once you reassert yourself as your company’s chief innovation officer, you’ll inspire your team to start thinking about possibilities, rather than simply punching in and out.

We all know what innovative cultures can do. You’ve seen companies such as Google, Apple and Virgin thrive and grow under the leadership of original thinkers. You’ve seen upstarts such as Under Armour and Spanx shake up the stodgy underwear industry, with the leaders of both companies recently vaulting onto the latest Forbes magazine “billionaire’s list.”

Give yourself and your people permission to imagine and explore new ideas – even if they’re only process improvements. Questioning the status quo is always beneficial. By rediscovering your own eureka muscles, you can lift the spirits of your people and your business’s bottom line.

You’ll have more fun and your people will feel more invested in the company.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Ken Tencer Interviewed on Dresser After Dark

Ken Tencer was interviewed on July 26, 2011, on Dresser After Dark, With Michael Ray Dresser, on BBS Radio. The Interview was based upon The 90% Rule Book and how entrepreneurial thinking can inspire, innovative and create sustainable growth in your organization.

Listen to the Interview with Ken Tencer

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