On Thursday afternoon, I had lunch with Martha Stewart. Ok, actually I had lunch with 600 strangers while listening to Gabrielle Blair, aka Design Mom, interview Martha Stewart. You totally wish you were there.
Martha Stewart generally elicits one of two responses: she is either the absolute bomb who created an empire based on beautiful pies, elegant parties, and fun crafts or she is a witch with a capital B who has unachievable standards, unethical business practices, and is responsible for the downfall of professional women. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit there on that downfall thing. Whatever. You will be shocked and amazed to find out that I happen to put Martha into the bomb category. Before I walked into Thursday’s luncheon, I thought Martha Stewart was pretty amazing but I was not prepared to be blown over to total fan status. I am here to tell you that Martha Stewart is all that and a bag of chips. No question.
After working on Wall Street, Martha Stewart started catering out of her Connecticut basement. Her first book (she said that she’s written 85!), Entertaining, was published in 1982 and her first magazine issue was published in 1990. According to Martha, her magazine was the first to be designed entirely on the computer. When she started Martha Stewart Living Omninedia, she had a business plan that looked like the solar system (“I was really interested in planets”) and an organization chart made of trees (“I was the beech tree. Not the bitch tree, the beech tree. B-E-E-C-H.”)
I started reading Martha Stewart Living in 1996, the year after I graduated from college. I have made more recipes than I can count from its pages. From Martha, I have learned that it is ok not to follow a recipe when you are cooking (more salt, less onion please, Martha) but that you must follow the recipe to the letter when you are baking (Citrus Poppyseed Cake is one of my favorite cakes ever). I’ve learned that parsnips are amazing, erasers make excellent stamps, homemade biscuits are worth the effort, anything can be used to decorate a Christmas tree, royal frosting is easy to make and fun to use, chicken should be soaked in buttermilk and tabasco overnight before being fried, and anyone can garden. On Thursday, I learned that Martha Stewart is personable, curious, intelligent, gracious, and funny. I learned that she loves invention, she would give up her job for her grandchildren, she does not like cocktail parties, she loves babies, she uses butter only in her pie crusts (except in one particular apple pie, for which she uses cider vinegar, and in certain meat pies, for which she will use butter and lard), and she believes in testing, integrating, and informing. I also learned that Martha believes that her business “is really about teaching, informing, and inspiring.” Spot on. That is exactly how I would describe what her business has done for me over these last eighteen years. I hope I can live up to that same ideal in my own business and life.
Martha did have a few more words of wisdom that I think everyone can benefit from hearing. Since you weren’t lucky enough to be there, let me help you out:
1. On balance: “It’s like really hard.” and “Balance is all about trying to figure it out.”
2. On things that you might not be good at: “Beg and borrow help at all times.” and “Don’t exclude your mothers. They know more than you think.”
3. On inspiring children to be creators (this part, I’m going to have to paraphrase in part, so apologies, Martha, for not getting this down directly): Open the kitchen drawers. Let them touch and feel and taste everything. Let them pull the carrots. Let them know where their food comes from. And books. They need hundreds of books. Seeing wonder and joy in a new generation is great and that wonder and joy should be encouraged.
One more thing. Towards the end of her question and answer session, Martha very casually said, “I have to teach myself something every day.” Those are words that I can live by.
(P.S. Thank you to Alt Summit for making a day pass possible for this event. Thank you also to Justin Hackworth and Brooke Dennis for the amazing photos. If you would like to see more photos of Alt Summit, check here. I understand that Alt Summit is planning to post a video of Gabby Blair's interview with Martha Stewart. I'll let you know when I hear more about that.)