How Tyra Banks went from catwalk to boardroom: 'I was a triple minority'

The supermodel-turned-entrepreneur spoke at the Forbes 30/50 Summit at Louvre Abu Dhabi on Monday

Tyra Banks speaks at the Forbes 30/50 Summit at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Ruel Pableo for The National
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Tyra Banks seems to be settling into Abu Dhabi just fine. “My first night here I downloaded Talabat and I got 15 pints of ice cream to see how it was tasting over here,” she said on stage during a talk at the Forbes 30/50 Summit, held at Louvre Abu Dhabi on Monday.

It wasn’t purely indulgence for the supermodel-turned-entrepreneur, it was product testing to suss out her competition, as she plans to launch her latest venture, Smize Cream, in the UAE.

Early in my career, when I would do talks like this, they would ask me about challenges of being a woman
Tyra Banks

Turning her “obsession” with ice cream into a business was a natural progression, Banks, 48, told Moira Forbes, executive vice president of Forbes Media, during a candid conversation that covered everything from her days as a Victoria’s Secret model to her biggest lessons in business.

“Try to do what you love, I know that’s not always easy,” she said. “When I was a model, I didn’t like taking pictures — it was all right, but I was like, ‘OK I am going to do this because I have to’, but that runway was everything to me. It made me so happy.”

In 1991, Banks made history, booking 25 shows at Paris Fashion Week — more than any other model had walked in a season at the time. But that accomplishment didn’t happen by chance.

“Two weeks before the first day of school I get discovered to go to Paris and I had to make a decision — am I going to go to school or am I going to go to Paris?”

After her school said they would hold her place, she decided to take the leap and head to Europe. But her mother had a condition: she had to continue her studies.

“I went to the fashion library that I found in the Yellow Pages — for all you young people, the Yellow Pages was a book, before the internet. I mean, it was like a weapon, it was just so big,” she said. “The librarian showed me all of these tapes — Chanel, YSL, Dior, all the French fashion houses. I studied the videos of how they walked and then I took that home.

Not only was I fighting against being a fashion model ... I was also fighting with being a woman in a man’s world, and on top of that, being a black woman
Tyra Banks

“I noticed that, for YSL, they walked very classy, had their hair in a chignon and red lipstick, and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel was always playful and happy. So then when I went to Paris, every single time I had an audition or a casting, I changed my hair and make-up in the alley in the back and I walked specifically for how those designers presented their collections.”

It was also Banks’s mother's advice that helped her decide the right time to leave modelling behind.

“She made a point one season in Paris, she said: ‘Look around Ty, where’s the model who was the talk of the season three seasons ago, or the one that was hot two seasons ago, where are they? One day that will be you’,” she said.

While it was a hard pill to swallow for Banks at the time, it was the advice that gave her the kick to think about life after modelling, an industry that undoubtedly has a shelf life.

"I thought my mumma was hating," she joked. "But I took a step back and realised it was tough love."

After secretly taking singing lessons for six years in the hope of breaking the music industry, Banks realised her voice was better used elsewhere.

“I had access to some of the biggest talents in the world,” she said. “I did a song with Wyclef [Jean], Pharrell [Williams] wrote a song for me, but I would get in the studio, and I couldn’t get the words out. I think it was a combination of just nerves and ability.

“I don’t have that gift. I can fake it, I can do auto-tune in the studio, but I am authentic and I live my truth, and that is not my gift. My gift is my voice, but not singing, so I put that on the shelf for ever and said ‘I am going to do a talk show’.”

As well as her talk show, The Tyra Banks Show, for which she won a Daytime Emmy Award in 2008, Banks also hosted America’s Next Top Model, one of the most successful reality television shows yet made.

But despite her more than impressive credentials, being taken seriously in the world of business has not always been easy.

“Early in my career, when I would do talks like this, they would ask me about challenges of being a woman, and I honestly could not answer that question because in the fashion industry, a female model at the time was making 10 to 20 times more than a male model was, so we were the powers that be,” she said.

“When I transitioned to business, it was a totally different thing. Not only was I fighting against being a fashion model, which they thought was vapid and dumb and all of my success was luck, I was also fighting with being a woman in a man’s world, and on top of that, being a black woman, so I was a triple minority. And to this day, it’s still not easy.

“But I am glad that I am living that now,” she said. “I am glad, because I am fighting so that you guys don’t have to fight as hard. I always say as a black model, I was getting the cuts, I was getting the scraps, I was getting all that pain, and now I see other black models walking through that door easier because of that pain. And I see that now, too, with the doors I am opening as a former fashion model black female entrepreneur.”

After attending Harvard Business School 10 years ago, Banks has gone from student to teacher, now guest lecturing business students at Stanford University on personal brand.

On the first day of my class, I tell my students that different is better than better
Tyra Banks

"On the first day of my class, I tell my students that different is better than better. When you are different, that is an open sea that you are then creating and that’s how you stand out in the marketplace, and if you can’t make it different, then go back to that drawing board," she said.

"When I think about my own career, that’s what made me stand out. It wasn’t just studying how to walk for Karl Lagerfeld or studying how to walk for YSL. I studied and then I did it my way. Sometimes I got in trouble because I did a little too much on the runway, but it was always my differentiation that helped me break through."

Updated: March 08, 2022, 3:34 AM