So, Martha Stewart (BC ’62)—yes, that Martha Stewart—came to Barnard yesterday. She talked about her life, her work, living her brand, and what it means to be a woman in business. Bwoggers Mary Welsh and Levi Cohen slid into their reserved press seating (fourth row baby!) to hear her out. And maybe also to hear about her friendship with Snoop Dogg.
Yesterday in the Diana Event Oval, the Speaking Fellows of Barnard College hosted a moderated Q&A with Martha Stewart— who, in case you don’t know, holds the distinction of being the first self-made female billionaire in America. She’s also a Barnard alum (’62) who, Barnard President Sian Beilock claims, perfectly embodies that bold, beautiful spirit of the famous dancing bear. You could say she has an impressive resume: entrepreneur, business-woman, former stockbroker, lifestyle personality, prison inmate (only for a bit!). In essence, “Martha Stewart” has become a household name whose brand is synonymous with a universal standard of excellence and beauty.
On stage, Martha Stewart, dressed in a white button up and puffy black vest, was far more approachable than one might expect and came armed with a sharp sense of humor. Stewart’s career has led her into many unexpected places that have forced her to adapt. She pointed to her adoption of new social media platforms and her growing and changing with her audience as examples of that changeability. As such, she has presumed various titles— such as her prison name “M. Diddy,” that gives her an in “with the rappers and smokers.” This group includes her new best friend Snoop Dogg, who introduced her to movies like Straight Outta Compton and whose second-hand smoke got her “totally zonked” when they were both on the 2015 Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber (an experience which she called both “horrific” and “horrible”). Another fun Snoop-related aside: she said, somewhat to herself, that “Snoop made some good investments.”
As to Stewart’s general success, she cites many of the lessons she’s learned as ones imparted by her parents, who encouraged her to study and master everything that she could— hence her renaissance lady quality. Stewart has even come up with her own version of the 5Ps of Marketing (well, 4Ps and a B): persistence, perseverance, passion, “put” up with a lot, and believe. Make your own road map; know thyself, Stewart says.
While Stewart’s advice is certainly sound, it’s nothing groundbreaking. Gems like “learn constantly,” “surround yourself with interesting and like-minded people,” or “cultivate your own ideas” are platitudes that most of the audience surely has heard before. Furthermore, very little of the moderated Q&A session— as in, the audience was not allowed to ask questions— was specific to Barnard, or to the struggles women might face in the workplace.
Stewart touched several times on her experiences as a woman in male-dominated spaces, with one potent story from her modeling career: she described a “Mad Men times 10” atmosphere of advertising executives wanting her to show off her body in a bikini, despite a bikini not appearing in the ad. Stewart’s response? She walked out. Other than that, though, much of Stewart’s discussion of male-dominated spaces could be summed up as “I toughed it out.” (She attributed her toughness to growing up with three brothers.) But that simply might not be an option for some women who need the paycheck. For Stewart, choices like that are somewhat black and white. If you’re intimidated by a job, Stewart argues, don’t take it.
A moment where Stewart did get candid was when she discussed what she had to give up for her career. She talked openly about her divorce, saying plainly, “I had to give up a husband.” Essentially, Stewart said, her love of her career and his own work got in the way, they drifted apart, and it resulted in a nasty divorce. She also regretted not having “enough” children. This was one of the more powerful moments of the event; Stewart was honest about how her brand consumed her life. “Who knew that Martha the person would become Martha the brand,” she said, reflecting just how immersed she has become. It was a risk she took that financially paid off; but later in the talk, Stewart also warned to “take risks, not stupid chances.”
Perhaps the only time throughout the Q&A when Stewart truly connected with her audience, which is surprising considering that relatability is supposed to be her brand, was when she offered her support in the legalization of marijuana. She reflects upon her time at Federal Prison Camp, Alderson, also known as “Camp Cupcake,” where she served five months for insider stock trading from 2004 to 2005. She described this penitentiary, somewhat derisively, as a “vacation home.” Many of the women there, Stewart recalled, had been sentenced to 20+ years for crimes such as not squealing on their boyfriends and minor possessions. Stewart wisely said, “You can overdo anything, but you can’t overdo smoking one joint.” To further show her support of legalization, Stewart is even dreaming up the perfect recipe for marijuana cookies after a cannabis company contacted her in pursuit of a potential partnership.
While these remarks earned Martha Stewart lots of applause and snaps, some of her other anecdotes and pieces of advice were hardly relatable. When asked about how individuals could be more environmentally friendly considering the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Stewart talked about her new Tesla, her three gardens and greenhouse in Maine, her 186 chickens, and her dedication to purely organic farming. She got a wolf-whistle of appreciation when she mentioned vegetarianism, though. Another unrelatable moment was her conviction that millennials should be buying more houses—she called out an employee, Heather, for having not yet invested in a house.
When asked about keeping healthy, she described luxury fitness options, like having a personal trainer, regularly going to the chiropractor, and riding one of her six (!) horses once a week. She also gave a recipe for a green juice– if you care to liquify your veggies à la Martha Stewart: spinach, mint, cucumber, celery, parsley, dill, and either pomegranate seeds, papaya, or green pear for some sweetness. But no kale! “It makes me burp,” Stewart said.
Event poster via the Speaking Fellows of Barnard College