04 Nov This Woman CEO Is Changing The Rules And Building An Empire

Stacey Bendet, CEO and Creative Director of Alice and Olivia, breastfeeding daughter Athena at her office.

Stacey Bendet, CEO and Creative Director of Alice and Olivia, breastfeeding daughter Athena at her office.

When Stacey Bendet returned to work just six days after giving birth to her third child, it wasn’t at all what you might think. As with most newborns, Bendet’s slept almost all day long. So on the Monday that she returned, Bendet arrived at the office after dropping her two daughters at school, worked for a few hours, breastfed her baby during her lunch hour and returned home at around 1 or 2 pm. This is the life of a CEO. This is the life of an entrepreneur. This is a life. It doesn’t need to be your life, but Bendet asks that you not judge her for it being hers.

I interviewed the Alice and Olivia CEO and Creative Director at her office 12 days after she had her baby. It was only months after Marissa Mayer was publicly flogged for announcing that she planned to return to the office weeks after she will have her twins rather than taking the full paid two months offered by Yahoo. We seem to have become confused; since when did fighting for parental leave go hand in hand with insisting that all women take the same leave or handle their post pregnancy lives in the same manner?

We don’t all use our vacation or sick days the same way, so why are we suddenly criticizing each other for how we take parental leave? We all parent differently, love differently, and manage our careers differently. So why should we insist that all women have the same experience after they give birth?

Back to Bendet. When she posted photos of herself back at work so soon after her C-section, the critics emerged on social media but Bendet was nonplussed. She feels strongly that, “as a mom it is really important to recognize who you are and what makes you feel happy because that’s what makes you be the best mother. I like to be busy. I like to create things. That’s who I am.”

Alice and Olivia offers employees eight weeks of maternity leave but Bendet is focused on employee retention and believes that maintaining a flexible approach to the policy is critical: “We organize things around people.” Bendet points to an employee who has Fridays off and she is open to employees doing what she did – returning to work quickly and working part time for five months instead of taking eight straight weeks off. “You have to learn what works best for them,” she emphasizes. Bendet is proud that 93% of her employees who have had babies return after to Alice and Olivia after their leave. She boasts that even her fit model returned after giving birth to her second child. As for her own choices, she explains:

“I could have taken a month off, I could have taken two months off, but the thing is I would rather come in, work a little bit everyday, have the baby come here (to the office), breastfeed her here, and stay on top of everything than be like, ‘I am going to disappear and be mom for two months and then come in and be crazy in here until 10 o’clock every night catching up.”

Bendet has always been this way. When she was in college she liked to finish studying by 6 pm the day before an exam rather than pull an all-nighter, and now, when Bendet is preparing for Fashion Week, she is not one of the designers who stays up until 4 am finishing a collection. Instead, she makes sure her team wraps up early and can make it home in time for dinner. It is this personality that led her film producer husband Eric Eisner to affectionately call her the “A Pluser” and when a nurse drew Bendet’s blood in the hospital and assessed that she was A Positive, he teased her, “A plus. Shocking.”

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This work ethic has taken Bendet from a pair of pants in 2002 to a veritable fashion empire in 2015. Alice and Olivia now has 32 retail stores worldwide, more than 400 employees and annual revenue of 200 million dollars. In the last three years, profitability has grown 400 percent and retail sales have grown by 132%. So who owns Alice and Olivia? The private company is majority owned by Bendet and her business partner Andrew Rosen, who founded Theory. As Bendet tells it, she was out of college and designing web sites in Flash and she met with Andrew to talk about designing the Theory site. He passed on the technology but liked her, so he asked her to keep in touch. When Bendet designed her first pair of pants (which led to her nickname and email signature “Staceypants”) she had a “little fashion show” and invited Andrew. They have been business partners ever since.

Bendet dreams of building a global brand that empowers women to look and feel their best and she has similar dreams for her family: “I would feel like a failure in life if I didn’t raise three girls who are strong and confident and happy with themselves.”

Bendet describes a quintessential morning a week ago where she was breastfeeding her baby, French braiding her older daughter’s hair and making smoothies for breakfast. She loves her chaotic home life but when asked about what it would be like to take a straight eight weeks of leave she says, “I would go crazy. Some people like to veg out and sit in bed with their baby and watch movies all day but that’s just not me.”

Bendet wants to be a role model for the women who work at Alice and Olivia: “As a female CEO I want to create an environment where women can be mom and president or vice president. They can have a career that they are proud of and fulfilled by, and it makes them better moms.”

Bendet describes finding her own role model in Deana Berkely, the President of Alice and Olivia: “Just as she is tough in business and intense and the fiercest negotiator you’ve ever met, she is also an amazing mom. And I was like ‘I want to be like that.’ When I am here breastfeeding my baby during a shoe meeting, I am showing everyone that if you have a baby and you need to feed here, do it. Or if you need to go upstairs and pump, that’s ok.”

Bendet worked up until the day she had her baby and she still marvels at the reaction she received, “People would be like, ‘Oh my God, you are still working?’ and I am like, ‘I’m pregnant. I am not an invalid.’ I feel like women need to understand that a lot of times working and being busy is a much better way to go through your pregnancy than focusing on every ache and pain that you have.”

When asked about the post pregnancy expectations for women, Bendet says, “It is a personal choice. Just as it is great that companies are being more accommodating toward women I think sometimes it helps for women to actually think, ‘Is this the type of leave I want or do I want to create my own leave where I am working part time so that I’m not falling out of the loop on what is going on?’ If you are a teacher it is different than if you are a corporate executive or a lawyer but the whole concept of maternity leave should be up to the mother and not judged by other mothers.”

To read this article on Forbes, please click here.

Samantha Ettus is a bestselling author & corporate speaker. The Pie Life: A Guilt-Free Recipe for Success and Satisfaction will be released in September.