Model-turned-CEO Kathy Ireland brings message of faith, success to Padua students


Dialog reporter


WILMINGTON – When Kathy Ireland was gracing the covers of magazines during her career as a supermodel, she was used to hearing one particular instruction over and over: “Shut up and pose.”

Ireland vowed that would be the last time she’d be without a voice, and on April 16, during a visit to Padua Academy in Wilmington, she told the student body of more than 660 girls how she has made herself heard as a businesswoman and philanthropist in the years after her modeling career ended.

“Don’t let anyone put you in a box,” Ireland said. “And please don’t let anyone silence you.”

She drew these words of advice from Proverbs, chapter 31, which describes the ideal woman as seen through her activity as a wife. The 26th verse reads, “She opens her mouth in wisdom; kindly instruction is on her tongue.”

Kathy Ireland, who is the chief executive officer of the company bearing her name, speaks to Padua Academy students on April 16. (The Dialog/Mike Lang)
Kathy Ireland, who is the chief executive officer of the company bearing her name, speaks to Padua Academy students on April 16. (The Dialog/Mike Lang)

“As I was thinking about these girls, and I was thinking about the work they’re doing and the work they’re doing to fight against human trafficking, it’s hard,” Ireland said in an interview after her talk. “Thinking about the challenges they’re going to face as young women, there are going to be people who want to dismiss them and people want to silence them. My goal was to share that Scripture with them, to encourage them not to let anyone silence them.”

Ireland was in Delaware as the honored guest at Padua Academy’s sixth annual Dinner in Honor of Women’s Achievement. She spoke that night at a sold-out event at the Chase Center on the Riverfront.

She told the students she had always considered herself a businesswoman, dating back to her days delivering newspapers in southern California as a pre-teen girl. She spoke about the obstacles she faced in that job as a girl and of those that arose as she built kathy ireland Worldwide, her marketing and design company with annual sales of $2 billion.

In addition to her business, Ireland, 52, is devoted to her humanitarian work. She has battled human trafficking, is fervently pro-life, and she called herself “passionate” about Christian education. She sits on the board of a Christian college-prep school in California, where she lives with her husband. They have three children. Motherhood, she said, “is the best career there is.”


Padua’s beliefs match her own

Ireland told the crowd at Padua she did her research about the school and was thrilled with what she discovered. She said the “vision and the mission of the school” help separate Padua from other institutions. Padua teaches its students to think critically, and its students look to make an impact in and out of the classroom.

“What I love is a school that doesn’t teach students what to think, but how to think,” she said.

Ireland said she researches any organization that invites her to speak, and Padua was no different. As she found out more about the school, she was excited for the opportunity to address the students.

Ireland greets a student as she is introduced. (The Dialog/Mike Lang)
Ireland greets a student as she is introduced. (The Dialog/Mike Lang)

“It’s not often that I get invited to speak at schools, and I love young people,” she explained. “As I began researching the school, I fell in love with it, the work and the mission. Oftentimes, I’m asked to speak about microfibers or stain- and soil-resistance treatments if we’re talking about flooring.

“When I can connect with young people, particularly at a school like Padua, where they’re receiving such an extraordinary education, such opportunity here, that’s really exciting.”

The religious atmosphere at Padua ties in with her own beliefs, she said. “The foundation, from everything I’ve experienced here, the foundation is Jesus Christ. So when you have him as a foundation, it’s going to bear much great fruit, and that’s what I’m seeing in these girls. They’re amazing.”

Ireland offered the students advice on succeeding in business and in life. “We are all a brand,” she said, but we need to think about what kind of brand we want to be. She told the girls to “be intentional,” that is, to think about what they want. And she encouraged them to “ask powerful questions.”

Her faith plays a central role in her personal and professional life. She tells people that the priorities in her life begin with God, her family and service to others.

“Keep your eyes on the Lord. He’ll carry you through every storm,” she said.

As a young girl, Ireland believed in God but was not much into religion. That changed when she was 18 years old and traveled to Paris alone to begin her modeling career. Her mother, who had just become a Christian, slipped a Bible into her luggage. She was living in a house where she didn’t feel comfortable.

“It was jetlag, it was the middle of the night. It was 1981, and we didn’t have cell phones or the Internet. It was sheer boredom. I just picked it up and opened up to Matthew, and as I read, I knew what I was holding was the inerrant word of God,” she recalled.

That has guided her life ever since.

Ireland said she was humbled to join the list of women who have been honored at previous Padua dinners. They include Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide; Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican; Liz Murray, who went from being homeless to graduating from Harvard University; former First Lady Laura Bush; and Leigh Ann Tuohy, the inspiration behind the movie “The Blind Side.”