Heather VandenbergheFounder and CEO of Vandenberghe & CoNew York City, New YorkPhotography by Lauri LevenfeldStory by Lauri Levenfeld
What do you do when a dream job or opportunity comes along and you’re not quite ready for it on paper (maybe the proper experience or perfect credentials don’t exist yet)? If you are Heather Vandenberghe (in her younger years)- you bluff. You go for it with your head held high and make everyone believe that not only are you ready for this gig, but you are ready to offer something more special and more expansive than was ever dreamed of. It is this positive outlook and confident attitude (and of course, Heather packs some mean marketing skills) that led Heather through the most prestigious doors and into the most coveted jobs early in her career. It also led her to a high stress and unbalanced lifestyle where she wasn’t managing her personal time and time for her daughters in the way she wanted. It was at this time, in her most frustrated and anxious moment, Vandenberghe faced the most unimaginable hardship-her daughter’s accident, a moment that changed everything and gave her the will and the strength to live better and find more desirable work.
I will write this in the order of how I define my self, which is something I have thought a lot about lately. I am the mother of Lila (11) and Elle (8). I am an advocate for pedestrian safety and the impetus for Elle’s Law, which was passed by New York state and signed into law in 2010 following my daughter Elle being struck by a car driven by a reckless driver. I am a brand builder, who has worked in fashion because I love fashion, but could just as easily work for any exciting, forward moving, game changing brand. I am a single mother, which when someone first called me that after my divorce (when my kids were 1 and 3), it sounded like I had gotten knocked up in the back of a Chevy in the 1950s with few options available. This is not me. I am single by choice, and happily so, and have created an amazing family unit with my two daughters in our apartment with light lavender walls and zebra print carpets, and in our quiet little home in Southampton. I am happy.
My life’s work is bringing balance, creativity, generosity and a positive outlook to everything I do. What I learn as a parent makes me a better businesswoman, and things I have learned in business have made me a better parent.
This is how I started…When I attended Stanford graduate school for International Policy Studies I had every intention of becoming the next Dee Dee Myers (the first female press secretary to the President of the United States). Instead, after a few business school courses I found that I had a knack for marketing. After school I worked in high tech PR for a nanosecond, where I learned quickly that I am only good at marketing when I can 1) understand the product (duh) 2) believe in it and ideally 3) be a consumer of it. Motorola semiconductors just didn’t grab me, so I spent my free time wandering Stanford Shopping Center thinking about what did. The answer was right in front of me (and on my Amex bill).
I cold called Manny Mashouf, founder and CEO of bebe stores, inc, and told him I was a communication consultant who could change his business if he just evolved his marketing approach. I told him that I would write a plan for FREE (“I would normally charge $10,000 for this”, I bluffed) and he agreed that if he liked the plan he would meet me in person. To this day, that plan is one of the best things I have ever written, as it laid out how to put bebe on the map. Manny met me soon after, and hired me on the spot as a freelancer for 3 months, with a budget of $10k. I used that money to fly to LA and meet with costume designers for this new show called Ally McBeal and convinced them to use our suits on air; then did the same thing with another hit Melrose Place. Soon the short, colorful bebe suit was the must-have look for the 20-something working girl and we were on the map – and I became the company’s first Director of Marketing. Four years later bebe reached sales of $250M and executed a successful IPO. Manny gave me my first break, and never once asked to see a resume or inquired if I had any fashion experience (I didn’t) – he hired me purely on what I could bring to his business, and I will forever be grateful to him for that.
Shortly after the bebe IPO another CEO gave me an opportunity that would take me to New York and completely change my path. Fred Wilson and I met when he was running eluxury in San Francisco and I had interviewed to work there. In the end the job available was not interesting to me, and with total arrogance I declined, saying I only wanted the #1 spot. Two years later when my husband and I decided to move to Paris, I got back in touch with LVMH (which owned eluxury) and asked if I could interview there. The HR told me that first I needed to connect with the head of LVMH Fashion Group in the US.
That Saturday (I remember it well, sitting there in my robe and bunny slippers) I picked up the phone and heard a familiar voice: “Heather, it’s Fred Wilson”. He was now the CEO of LVMH Americas. “I know you think you want to go to Paris, but you are not.” I was devastated; I thought he had liked me as a candidate? “I need you in New York, we have an opening for Vice President of Marketing and Communication at Louis Vuitton.” I knew it was a longshot that I would get this job, not to mention I hated New York. When my husband and I were dating we drew on cocktail napkins what cities we would live in, with only 2 crossovers: San Francisco and Paris. He had New York; I had LA. He had Hong Kong; I had DC. 12 interviews later when I was offered the job at LV, becoming the youngest VP in the organization, my husband was thrilled, and we picked up and moved to NYC.
I spent 10 years at LV and the role taught me so much about brand building, leadership, retail and customer service – and about work life balance. In short, I had none. I worked, I traveled, I rushed home to steal a few hours here and there with my young daughters. I was anxious, rushed, and frustrated all the time. I look back at Lila’s early childhood and regret that I remember so little of it. When I divorced my husband of 12 years in 2007 I was sad but also a bit relieved, as I felt I had one less thing pulling at me. But it was Elle’s accident in 2009 that changed everything, and made me realize that every day is precious, that every choice has a consequence, and that I needed to change things and just live better.
Elle was 3 years old when she was struck by a reckless driver on her way to preschool in NYC (she was with her nanny, inside the crosswalk). The day after the collision her injuries caused a stroke that destroyed 2/3 of the left side of her brain, and left her paralyzed and in a coma. Over the next 9 months she would endure a total of 10 brain surgeries, including the installment of a prosthetic skull that today covers 1/3 of her head.
Elle was in pediatric ICU for 4 months, and I took a leave of absence from LV and spent every single day with her. Her father stayed the nights, so I could go home to Lila. When she left ICU and moved to a rehab hospital in Westchester 45 minutes away, I was forced to return to work or risk losing the generous insurance that was covering our nearly $3 million in medical bills. I worked 9-5 and then rented a car and drove to Westchester at night to see her, trading days on the weekend with her father who did the same. The great thing about being divorced during a crisis like this is that one of us was always available for our other daughter Lila. When Elle came home for good in 2010, I knew I had to make a change so that I could be the mother she and Lila needed. By the fall of 2010 all of the medical bills were paid, so I left my job and took a year off.
That year was wonderful because I got to be a stay at home mom and enjoy every minute of it, knowing the clock was ticking because I would ultimately have to return to work. I took the girls to school and to after school activities, to play-dates and birthday parties. I got to know their friends, and convinced Lila to try zucchini (a monumental feat). I started to write a book. And when it was time to go back, I was sure to make a choice that was less about me and my resume and career, and more about work-life balance and enjoying where I spend my time 8-10 hours a day when I am not with my girls. I don’t agree with the Lean In philosophy – sometimes, it is ok not to lean in so heavily to your career so you can lean into other areas of your life. With several choices available to me, I decided to go to work for Tommy Hilfiger as EVP of Marketing and Communication for the Americas – it was a brand that needed attention, and a company with an inclusive, fun, easygoing culture, and where family and work-life balance are valued.
And now, this month, I start my next journey – the ultimate fantasy in work/life balance, and what I hope will yield new knowledge, experience and excitement: I am launching my own consulting business, Vandenberghe & Co to build and develop brands and help them achieve their strategic vision. I am beyond excited about this next step in my career and my life.
Where does your inspiration come from?
1.Elle. She is the strongest, most driven and headstrong person I have ever met. And one of the funniest. She is my hero.
2.Lila. She is the kindest, most generous, dedicated girl I know, and I admire her strength and compassion. She is my rock.
I want to be a better person because of my girls. I want to set a good example. I want to show them that as a woman you can be anything you want to be, that there are no boundaries. I want to teach them to look toward the light for inspiration, not to the dark. After the man who hit Elle escaped with a ticket of only $138 and I was advised by the NYPD to sue him in civil court, it took all my strength to not go to the dark side. Instead, I realized that ruining his life would not make ours better – and I took all of that negative energy and instead applied it to something positive: changing the law so that other families hopefully would not endure the same injustice. I did it for Elle and for Lila, to set an example of how to conduct yourself in the face of unimaginable hardship, and to show that even as individuals we can make a difference.
“The best advice I have been given was from my dad: This too shall pass. “
His words kept me grounded during the darkest days in the hospital: each morning I would tell myself to just get through the next 17 hours, that’s all I had to do. And then this too shall pass. From a business school professor whose advice I have appropriated and adopted as my own: good decisions come from good options. I use this in everything I do, personal and professional. It is my mantra in the office and I have happily heard other people using it as theirs now too.
My biggest change as a mom has been really recognizing that it is no longer just about me. That took a while to figure out. And now I am grappling with the realization that it also can’t be just about them – that I need to find balance. But truth be told, with any decision I face, my first thought it always how will it impact the girls? What’s best for them? Other changes: I am taking better care of myself, partly because as I get deeper into my 40s I have to work harder to keep things up (literally) and also because I want to inspire my girls to be active and healthy. I also have cultivated some awesome friends who happen to be moms, and they are great fun and also act as a healthy compass to keep me on track.
My greatest gift from the girls has been learning patience. I had none until I had kids (my ex husband will attest to this); now it is plentiful.
My childrens’ favorite things:
–Elle: her bunny and Boo, the stuffed animals that comfort her at night.
–Lila: any device with a screen and the letter i, because these i-things answer any question on demand, connect her to the tween universe (namely her friends), keep her occupied (games, music) and teach her things like how to play guitar and how to train our new puppy
– Both: our new puppy, Gracie Gold (named for their favorite ice skater).
Their regime is easy now: Lila gets herself ready in the morning and wears a dress code for school, so I am constantly on the lookout for cute gray and navy items (there are many: current obsession is H & M). Elle is my fashion plate with a twist, she is currently obsessed with all things leopard print and with (fur) vests, but appreciates that I treat her like a Barbie doll and lets me dress her in the morning because it brings me such joy. Favorite kids products: Johnson baby wash (still) and lavender lotion to calm them before bed. H&M kids, which is amazing. Zappos for shoes. Best surprise: Zara for kids fashion. Yes, I do all of my shopping online – after 20 years in retail, I have no time or interest in shopping in stores!
For me…I pretty much dress west coast ease meets NYC fashion exec.
My regime is pretty easy as I too have dressed in uniform (jeans and blazer, heels) for about 2 years now while at Tommy and am just now coming out of that rut. Blonde hair requires a weekly blowout, which can last 5 days (unless SoulCycle regime is kept up then 3 days and a healthy dose of dry shampoo). Skincare: I wash my face with nothing except warm water and a white washcloth. Hair-care secret: Shu Uemera oil. Shoe obsession: aside from the usual suspects (Choo, Louboutin) new discovery is Schutz from Brazil for fun, fashion shoes; also Isa Tapia and Gianvito Rossi. Bag: Celine. Jeans: only AG. Everything else: lots of Rag & Bone, Vince, Thomas Pink crisp white shirts, all mixed with vintage LV pieces collected over 10 years, and occasionally mixing in H&M (seriously, and no one can tell). Favorite store: Curve (LA, NYC, SF, Miami). Currently wearing: leather jeans from Curve, Isa Tapia booties and anything from an H&M Tshirt or Vince sweater on top, to a pin striped vintage Dior blazer. Also reviving my dress collection, since I had forgotten how fast your morning prep goes when you just throw on a dress.
An icon? I don’t have any. …Is that bad?