April 10th, 2018 is this year’s Equal Pay Day, symbolizing how far into the next year the average woman must work just to make the same amount of money a white male earned by December 31st, 2017. This wage gap widens for women of color and women with disabilities, but no woman is exempt — not even if you are the co-founder of one of the most famous women’s fashion brands in the world.
Tamara Mellon is the co-founder and former Chief Creative Officer of Jimmy Choo — the billion dollar shoe and accessory brand worn by celebrities and constantly referenced in popular culture (from music to books to movies) — yet even Mellon’s significant contributions and influence were devalued by Jimmy Choo’s all-male board and male CEO.
After co-founding Jimmy Choo in 1995, a business deal in 2011 revealed that Mellon earned less than the men she worked with.
Mellon’s negotiation attempts were either dismissed or resulted in her getting penalized, so that same year, she had no choice but to walk away from the company she’d poured her heart and soul into for 16 years.
Now, Mellon is continuing her work in fashion with her own namesake shoe brand, Tamara Mellon, and advocating for equal pay and an end to gender discrimination in the workplace.
The Tamara Mellon brand is as focused on designing shoes as it is on fostering transparency and transforming how employees are treated by the companies they work for.
As Mellon says, “We all have an obligation to our employees to pay them the same amount for doing the same job. And we owe it to our customers to be transparent about whether they’re purchasing from a company that practices pay equality or not.”
We got to speak with Mellon about her experiences with pay inequality, how her new company is fighting gender discrimination at work, and ways that all women can demand equal pay, regardless of their position.
HelloGiggles (HG): How did you learn that you were being paid less than your male colleagues?
Tamara Mellon (TM): So at the beginning of Jimmy Choo, I was the CEO and Creative Director, and then five years into it, as we grew [larger], we got a CEO to come in. Then, when we went on to sell the business, I did four private equity deals with the company. I realized that one CEO in 2007 had double the sweat equity I had. [Sweat equity refers to how much a company owner is “worth” based solely on their labor for and contributions to the company.] Then it happened again in 2011 — the CEO had more sweat equity than I had. So, what that really meant was that the all-male board really valued the male contribution to the company more than the female contribution to the company — even though I was the founder of the business.
HG: What was the negotiation process like before you chose to leave Jimmy Choo? What sort of retaliations or penalties did you face?
TM: This is something I wish I’d done earlier — I did some research on what fair market remuneration [fair compensation] was for my position at the company, and for what I’d done with [my role] at the company. I realized by doing that, by talking to my peers at competitive brands or my peers within the industry, that I was really undervalued. During the negotiations, I couldn’t seem to get fair market value. So I decided to leave and then start a new brand, which now I have under my own name, Tamara Mellon. I decided to create a completely different culture where we pay women equally. There’s more transparency in what we do.
HG: Realizing that your best option was to leave your own company because they didn’t value women’s contributions must have been devastating. When did you understand what you needed to do?
TM: It was really after the deal closed. I’d actually commissioned a report from KPMG [a financial advisory service] to show how they could restructure and make things happen. I paid around $50,000 of my own money to commission this report. [The board] kept saying to me, ‘We’ll look at [the report]. Once we close, we’ll look at it.’ Then, once we closed the deal, they were like, ‘We’re not looking at the report.’
HG: Considering what you went through, I’m wondering how you felt when host Catt Sadler left E! News in December 2017 after learning that she wasn’t receiving equal pay?
TM: Well I left Jimmy Choo for the same reason, so I completely understand what she did. In her next negotiation, I really hope she fairs better. I left a billion dollar business that I founded and grew for 16 years for the same reason.
HG: The fact that you experienced this even as a founder of the company points to the pervasiveness of this issue. What is your advice to other women who are negotiating for equal pay in various industries and at different employment levels?
TM: I think researching the pay across your industry, even with different companies, is really important. Data is really the most important thing you have to really assess where you are. So look at competitive companies; look at what other people get paid. I think that’s critical. The advice I would give, if you’re going for your first job, is to try and get as much as you can because that sets the bar for what you’ll be paid for the rest of your life.
What they’ve discovered is that women coming out of college ask for less than men do. Over a career, they could lose up to one million dollars because, obviously, your salary goes up incrementally by percentages. People say, ‘Oh, well, let’s give her a 10% increase.’ But, if you’re starting from a low place, that’s no good.
HG: What advice do you have for women who want to stay at their current jobs but are asking for a raise?
TM: I still think comparisons are incredibly important so that you can show your boss what the fair market value is. I also think it’s always good to approach someone when they can really give you the time that you deserve — so not approaching someone when they’re crazy busy putting a report together or they’re rushing around. Try and actually approach them when they have time for you.
Also, list out the reasons why you think you’re valuable to the company. It doesn’t have to be a giant list of every tiny thing you’ve ever done — but show the reasons that you’re valuable. I think what women tend to do is work themselves to death, hoping to be noticed rather than speaking up. So I think that speaking up is important. Also getting support from the people you work with and having good relationships — people who will support you asking for a raise within the company is important.
HG: Can you speak more about what the Tamara Mellon brand is doing to prioritize equal pay?
TM: From the inception of this new brand, I really decided that brands are not neutral when it comes to expressing views anymore. We really want to be vocal about the things we care about. Our top priority is women. Our top priority is equal pay and [fighting] gender discrimination. Anything to do with women and helping women. Brands used to be afraid to say things or afraid to get involved in big issues like this, but no — I think everyone in the company now really stands up for that.
We’re really talking about things we care about with my new brand, and creating a different culture that’s very respectful and rewards people appropriately. Everybody in my company now has been given equity, so everyone feels very invested in the business. We’re also 90% women at this business. I have a female CEO, which is amazing. I absolutely love having a female CEO. I finally feel like I have a true partner, rather than an arranged marriage (laughs) — which is really good.