Fashion director Sandra Campos on work, Latina heritage, single motherhood
This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets to know successful business leaders to find out everything from how they got to where they are, what gets them out of bed in the morning. and their daily routines.
For nearly three decades, Sandra Campos has helped build global brands like Diane von Furstenberg, Juicy Couture, and Ralph Lauren – but the question she most often asks has nothing to do with fashion.
This is because she also spent the last 16 years as a single mother, raising three children while moving up the ladder in her career. As Campos tells CNBC Make It, women often ask him, “How did you do it?”
His response: âI had no choice.
In 2018, Campos became Diane von Furstenberg’s very first Latino CEO, a position she held until the company reorganized last year due to the pandemic – a mutual decision, says Campos. Today, she is CEO of retail startup Project Verte and founder of Fashion Launchpad, an online education platform she launched shortly before leaving Diane von Furstenberg.
Campos, a first-generation Mexican-American, did not come out of money, but from an early age she dreamed of becoming the CEO of a fashion company. Her only regret, she says, is not publicly embracing her heritage as she climbed.
Instead, she was engrossed in competing to reach the top, she says – and being a woman competing with men for leadership positions was already enough of a challenge. “[I] I thought it was gonna be another part [of my identity] that wasn’t going to help me, âsays Campos.
But internally, her heritage has always motivated her. When she focuses on her “why,” she says, she remembers the sacrifices her parents and grandparents made when coming to the United States so that she and her siblings could have a better life.
âI never took this for granted,â she says.
Here, Campos talks about working in her family’s tortilla factory, why she hasn’t publicly embraced her earlier heritage and the ups and downs of being a single mom at the top of her field.
Growing up working in a tortilla factory: “My family has always worked hard”
My parents both immigrated from Mexico. My dad was 14 and didn’t go to college or high school. He went straight to work. My mother immigrated at the age of 18. She did not go to college [either]. They had six children.
I was born in California. My dad went to El Paso, Texas to learn the tortilla-making trade from one of his uncles. So we moved in with his uncle, who already had a family of 10 children.
After that, we moved to a suburb of Dallas. My family has always worked hard: after school or on weekends, I worked in our tortilla factory, in the back packing boxes, or on the assembly line.
They were entrepreneurs. I was like, “I don’t want to do this.”
Discovering the industry of her dreams: “I knew I wanted to be in fashion, but I didn’t know what fashion was”
I knew I wanted to be fashionable, but I didn’t know what fashion was. When I was young, I didn’t have any magazines around.
My mom would take me to the fabric store and I would choose fabrics to redecorate our sofa. I made covers, curtains, pillows and cushions. When I went to college, I made clothes for myself, my siblings, and my friends. I thought I wanted to be a designer.
Then I did an internship as a model maker and realized that [being a designer] was way too technical. I wanted a position with more movement and upward mobility, so I focused more on marketing and business.
On strategizing to become a CEO: “I started it at the age of 20 and still do”
I have always had ambition. I knew I didn’t have a back-up plan – I didn’t come from a wealthy family. And I knew I ultimately wanted to be a CEO.
So I developed this roadmap based on the milestones I needed to achieve, in terms of age and income. I wrote the year on the top of the paper and wrote down my goals. I had put what I wanted to do in X period of time – be it having a certain title, salary, or in some cases, a business.
I started it when I was 20 and still do. I usually do [a new one] every two or three years.
For the first few years of my career, it helped me focus and increase my income, but it wasn’t a straight path. I had to rotate several times and rewrite the list.
It is not exactly a perfect science. It is an ideal.
On diversity and identity at work: “Embracing my heritage earlier would have helped me”
I was never one of those people who embraced being a Latina early in my career.
I grew up trying to lighten my hair. I had whiter skin. I was privileged, no one looked at me and said, âOh, she’s Mexicanâ. When I moved to New York, people would say, âYou look Greek, Italian, or Turkish.
Embracing my legacy earlier, I think, would have helped me bring other people along on the journey much sooner. It is obvious to me that the next generation is embracing and proud of its heritage.
Changes are happening all around us. Latinxes make up 18.5% of the population, and that wasn’t the case decades ago. I am so proud to support Latinas who are leading the way, disrupting industries and becoming a more visible force in business. Whatever platform I have, I want to use it to lift others up.
Diane von furstenberg [once] Said to me, “Lift up your heritage, and go out and tell your story before someone else does.” It’s something I still think about every day, because she adopted it. She is truly the epitome of a woman supporting other women and embracing all nationalities and races.
Being the CEO of his company was the first time I had this in my career. It was really a big change.
On being a single mother with three children while moving up the career ladder: “I had no choice”
When people ask me, “How did I do all of this?” I tell them: I had no choice.
I made the decision to get a divorce, have three kids, have a career in New York City, and put my kids in private school. I take these decisions and responsibilities very seriously.
You can’t have it all. You could be a much better parent one day than you are the next, or you could be fully fulfilled at home one day and fully fulfilled at work the next. It is always a juggling act.
I got help. I had a nanny while I was working, and I know a lot of other women out there don’t have that. [But often], I felt extreme guilt at the end of the day.
A [particular] Diane von Furstenburg’s International Women’s Day was a very big day for the company. We had been preparing for months. At noon my oldest daughter called me and said, âWhat are you doing for Luke’s birthday? “
My jaw dropped. I hung up the phone and started crying in my office. I just made the worst mistake of any [parent] could do. I went to see Diane and said, âI can’t stay for tonight’s event. I have to go home for my son’s birthday.
She said, âGo. Go. “
It’s something I’ll never forget: Either way, business doesn’t overcompensate for being a parent and being there for your child.
Fast forward [to] today I hear my children repeating certain things. I will say, âHow do you know what an income statement is? Or, “How do you know about financial reports?” And they’ll say, “Well, I’m your child.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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