Susan Sokol is the president and COO of J. Mendel, a fur-focused fashion line. Her impressive career has included stints at Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Vera Wang, among others. She’s also a philanthropist and former breast cancer sufferer, and is set to receive City of Hope’s Spirit of Life award in May in honor of her work against women’s cancers. GoGirl Finance recently spoke with Sokol, and we loved the lessons we picked up from her long career.
Don’t be afraid to clear your head. After more than 20 years at Calvin Klein, Sokol took a year off in the mid-1990s. She says she was burned out and wanted to spend more time with her family. “When I came back to work, I had a lot more perspective on life, and what I wanted to do.”
Listen to your instincts. Sokol was raised in New York, and her father was a textile merchant. “I was always surrounded by fashion at home, but I also had a real love for clothing. I was glued to fashion magazines, and I loved to dress up,” she says. She majored in English, thinking she would be a teacher, but her original passion won out. “Fashion was my first love, and it’s where I ended up.”
Don’t let work/family balance stress pull you out of the workforce. Sokol was a brand-new mom when she became president of the Calvin Klein Collection. “I found myself really conflicted about it, because I’m the type of person who gives 1,000 percent to everything I do,” she tells the website. “I was so torn for so many years trying to balance work and my family to my standards. But I’m so grateful I kept my career. I have an incredible partner in my husband, who is so supportive, and helps me to balance my life. I eventually learned to prioritize quality over length of time. If I came home at 7pm, I would spend the two hours with my son before he went to bed really focusing on him. We would do a project together, or just spend time reading.”
Success isn’t all about individual achievement. “It’s not who you are as an individual that makes you successful,” Sokol says. “It’s how you work within a group. It’s the people whom you decide to surround yourself with. I try to hire people who have strengths that I don’t have. I want them to be comfortable, and happy. I want them to be able to ask me for advice. I try to be understanding, and to give them the best advice I can based on my years of experience.”