As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Marie Clarke.
Jean Marie Clarke is the founder and CEO of luxury women’s clothing line, Pax Philomena. Clarke’s line fuses her Indian heritage and love of textiles to create unique, one of a kind, pieces with vibrant colors and patterns. When she is not in her atelier, she enjoys spending time with her family in her home in Phoenix, Arizona.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My mother Philomena and necessity led me to my career path. After we emigrated to America from India, we fell upon hard times so my Mother had to sew our clothing. We were a big family so she taught me to sew and design our clothing from the age of six. My passion for fashion was sparked then, as Philomena was not just a seamstress she was an artist! I learned fabric, colour, tailoring, and design hands on. Her talent was innate, and I like to think that it is in my genes as well!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I have a beautiful historic 1927 adobe home in Phoenix which is on the National Register, and it is where I have my atelier. When I first started Pax Philomena, I was trying to drum up publicity of any sort. So I pitched the idea of my home to Phoenix Home & Garden Magazine which is a glorious publication, one that I could only ever have dreamed of being in. I got lucky, as the receptionist for the magazine happened to know and love my home as she drove by it every day on the way to work. So she put me right in touch with the editor who agreed to come out and visit my adobe gem. The editor of course fell in love and said she was going to do a story. I assumed the story was about the home. Well it was, but it was also about me and Pax Philomena! So my modeling career was born on a very hot day in July at 5:00 in the morning as the editor wanted me to model my own clothing! Not only, she had hired a very important fashion photographer to do the shoot. The photos were beautiful and the editor gave us 18 pages in the magazine. From that exposure I gained some very nice recognition across the Southwest and caught the attention of some very chic people in Phoenix who became wonderful Pax Philomena patrons!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Hiring a consultant to tell me how I should launch Pax Philomena was a very funny mistake. This person was a self proclaimed( snobby I may add) fashion expert from LA who came to my showroom in Phoenix at my expense to give me a consult. She basically told me that everything was rubbish and that she could put me in touch with the buyer at Century 21 in NY who might give me $1 a piece for my clothing. The funniest part of it all was when she was leaving she asked if she could buy one of my tunics wholesale as a Christmas gift she took it and never paid for it of course. WOW! I learned then and there that my haters were my motivators! Nothing was going to stop me from succeeding!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Hands down the answer is my Mother Philomena. Indeed my company is named after her, and what a gorgeous name it is! My mother taught me that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. As my father had started his own business and we were struggling, Mom and I started doing batiks at the kitchen table, then we started selling our art and we became a famous mother and daughter artist tea. We sold our batiks in galleries across the southwest. Mom was able to support the family while Dad’s business got established. Mom taught me to aim high, she was keen on me taking advantage of what America had to offer. She insisted that I apply to the top universities, and when I was accepted to Princeton with a scholarship, there was no question that I was going. Despite my parents not having the means at the time, they figured out how to scrounge up their share of tuition and get money for a plane ticket. Mom did not take no for an answer and she taught me to pursue my dreams without inhibitions.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I have a lap pool in my backyard that I heat during the winter. The pool is my salvation! My best ideas come to me when I am swimming. It is the time when I shut down no phones, music, distractions. Also a nice dose of Vitamin D daily is good for the spirits!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I was born in Calcutta, India to parents who are mostly British in blood but we also have Indian blood in us and we were termed as Anglo-Indians when we lived there. So after partition in 1947 we were a displaced culture, not Indian and not British, we were half breeds so to speak. We came to this country when I was three years old. I was used to seeing people of all colours as were my parents. I will say that America was a welcoming place to all of us and I believe that it is the same today. I do not see colour of skin I was not raised to see it, and I believe the day we see people for who they are and not what colour they are will be the day that racism of all forms ends. My team is made up of people of all descents, Indians, Mexicans, and Americans but again I don’t see them for what colour they are, I see them as my team.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I would say the most important thing that an executive does is shoulder responsibility. One has to have very broad shoulders to be an executive! I also believe an executive has to have vision. There must be a dream that is being pursued with passion and energy. A CEO has to problem solve day in and day out — hence I do a lot of swimming as that is when I can think clearly.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think there could be a mean stereotype attached to a female CEO especially, that I believe is not necessary. I think when you grow into a role as I have, I see everything and everyone for how can they help me further my dream. I believe there is no place for power trips as a CEO and so everyone has one goal on my team, that is furthering Pax Philomena everyday in some positive fashion.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Honestly in the fashion world there are a fair amount of women, so I feel like in America the playing field is more level than in Italy for example. I started my career in Italy and work with Italians still today. I have had the utmost respect from the men in the fashion industry with whom I work, However I feel that Italian women have to work much harder to gain respect in their country in the workplace, than we do here, at least in fashion.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Honestly I had no idea that my company would grow as it has. So I wasn’t prepared to be this BUSY!. However I love it!
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Definitely everyone is not cut out to be an executive! You have to want and love responsibility. You have to be driven to work all hours of the day. You have to dream about your job, and you have to be willing to sacrifice. When I leave the office I go home to my home office. But I do it willingly because I love what I do. I believe a CEO has to have that passion and not everyone has it!
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be patient! Everyone has a different skill set so try and draw the positive out of whomever is on your team.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One of the main reasons that I started Pax Philomena was to give back. I am proud that we help Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity here in Phoenix. I was baptized in the church where Mother Teresa started her life in India and was born around the corner from her first Mission, which is called the Mother House. When I started Pax Philomena I went to Kolkata to meet with the Sisters of Charity to ask them how Pax Philomena could help them. They asked me to donate to the Phoenix Mission. These sisters truly work with the poorest of the poor and our donations help support the 40 homeless people that the sisters care for in the poorest and most dangerous part of Phoenix. That is what makes it all worthwhile for me! We started donating when we had nothing to donate, we were operating at a loss however I felt it important to keep that mission front and center for Pax Philomena!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I can sum it up with acronyms:
SEO, FB, and IG
Uggh! I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought you put up a website and people came to purchase. I was what both of my sons called “ severely technology deficient “ when I started Pax Philomena. Today, I can run circles around anyone who wants to discuss Facebook marketing, google ads, SEO I have not quite mastered but I will get there.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe that I have done it and am doing it. The movement is about wearing COLOUR!!! I want people to wear more colour and pattern and brighten up everyone’s day. My clothing makes people smile. I know from being 30 years in the textile industry that colour and pattern make people happy. Grey and black are colours that are not going to bring a smile to anyone’s face. As Mother Teresa said “Peace begins with a smile” Pax Philomena clothing makes people smile and that is how we spread peace “PAX” in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have to repeat the one that I used in my Princeton yearbook from Sir Walter Scott — “ It is unwise to look back when the future lies ahead”
I have had my share of struggles and have my battle scars as well to prove it. I came to a strange country at a young age where I had not one family member outside of my nuclear family. My parents knew no one and had left their families behind. I had economic hardship growing up and watched both of my parents become entrepreneurs, Mom as an artist and Dad as an engineer. We did not have it easy, however the glue that held us together was our faith in God. So I believe that adversity in life can be a good thing — it either gets the better of you or it makes you succeed. But there is no point in focusing on the negative experiences of the past we have to look forward!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Martyn Lawrence Bullard — He is the king of colour and pattern in interior design! He is to home fashion, what Pax Philomena is to fashion. He actually is a Pax Philomena client as well!