CEO, Nina McLemore, LCC
Who Is She?
Nina McLemore is the CEO of Nina McLemore, LLC, a company that designs, creates and sells clothing for successful, stylish women. She is also managing partner and founder of Regent Capital Partners, a private equity investment firm with $35 million invested in small to medium sized companies. Before starting her own company, McLemore founded Liz Claiborne Accessories, leading it to generate $165 million in revenue and become a highly profitable division of Liz Claiborne, Inc. She serves as a director and advisor to numerous companies and plays leadership roles within prestigious organizations such as the Center for Women’s Business Research and the Committee of 200.
Making Women Look Smart
“The primary mission behind Nina McLemore is to create a collection of clothes that makes women look smart, elegant, not like sex objects. If you study many of the fashion magazines, the clothes are all about sexual provocation. I design clothes for women who want to be appreciated for their brains, skills and style.”
“Our customers are successful executives and leaders in their communities. They need clothes that are oriented toward meetings, trips to interesting destinations and special occasions. We use luxurious fabrics that provide rich texture, flattering colors, and simple, clean, modern lines.”
Creating Opportunities for Women
“Our second mission is to create income opportunities for women. We have commission-based sales representatives who show the collection four times per year, develop a customer base and sell to that base. Women can generate significant income for themselves. The role is perfect for someone who has been in corporate life and now wants greater flexibility or someone who has been active in the community and wants to earn her own income.”
Starting Out in a Small Town
“I was born in the same house as my father in a town of 3,000 people in Mississippi. I was majoring in French to become a teacher, but decided to go into the apparel industry since it combined my sewing abilities – I made most of my own clothes as a young person – with my language skills. I started out in retailing at the better specialty store in New Orleans.”
Becoming Entrepreneur Material
“At 29, I moved from New Orleans to New York to take a job that I thought would be the equivalent of an MBA in retailing, the vice president of the import division of May Department Stores. It was incredible training and involved extensive international travel. I realized however that a highly corporate structure was not for me… management was very top down and I was a creative, entrepreneurial thinker. So I chose to move from a $120 million division to turn around an unknown accessory company with $3 million in sales and half a million in losses. Within three months, the company had signed a license with Liz Claiborne and we developed a business that grew to $165 million with the highest ROI in Liz Claiborne.”
Becoming a 48-Year-Old Grad Student
“At 48, I decided I wanted to start my own business, so I enrolled in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business and received my MBA in finance. One of my major messages to women is that they must learn finance in order to get to the top.”
After graduate school, I started Regent Capital with two investment bankers and realized I much preferred running a business to being a minority investor. I began hearing women complain about the clothes that are available in stores today – that there isn’t much choice, and even though I had decided to retire, became inspired to start my own line.”
“I financed the business with my own money, and at 58 years old invested a significant part of my net worth. That’s pretty risky, but I wanted to get the business up and running. Women-owned businesses receive less than six percent of venture capital in part because high tech and biotech companies receive over 65 percent of all private equity. The risk is high, so the reward has to be high as well.”
“We launched the business in 2003 and the first year brought in a million dollars in revenues. We plan to almost triple that this year. The approach I took was to develop a really strong product and then expand the business. I wanted to make sure we could deliver the best quality and fit.”
Building the Right Network
“I knew the industry and had the network – those are the most important things. Growing up in a small town in Mississippi, I did not come from a highly connected background. You don’t have to go to Harvard or start with access to well connected people to be successful. Developing your network is critical – it’s who you know first and then what you know. A life-changing event for me was joining the Committee of 200, an organization of pre-eminent businesswomen, and the Young Presidents’ Organization because they expanded my network dramatically.”
“At 58, I am a newlywed. My husband, an anti-trust lawyer, lives in Washington and I live in New York. We both love what we do and wouldn’t dream of giving up our careers. It is important to make the time we have together very special. I enjoy skiing, exploring the outdoors, cooking, entertaining and reading.”
Words of Advice
“If you think you want to start a business, you must first do something you never dreamed you could do, like climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Building a successful business will be more difficult and take much longer than getting to the top of the highest peak in Africa.” The Lesson: You can do anything: Just breathe deeply and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” McLemore climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 1997.
For more information on Nina McLemore and to browse her collection, visit www.ninamclemore.com.