Women in Business Q&A: Gwen DeVoe, Founder of Full Figured Fashion Week

Gwendolyn DeVoe is a former plus model who now specializes in plus model training, development and management. Gwen has been a longtime advocate and supporter of increasing the visibility of fuller figures on fashion runways.

In 1998 she successfully opened The Plus Academy, one of New York's first training programs exclusively for aspiring plus models. She is also the creator of Full Figured & Fabulous™, the largest plus model runway competition on the East Coast.

Always willing to share the gift of empowerment with other women of size, Gwen is a highly sought-after motivational speaker on the topics of body image, plus modeling and fashion consultation for plus size women and teens. Her television credits include the nationally syndicated Ricki Lake Show, Fox 5's Good Day New York morning show, Insider's Edition and New York 1 News.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
A few years ago I attended a designer showcase during standard Fashion Week. Although could see myself in some of the styles I saw on the runway, many were not available to me because they did not come in my size. I decided these designers were missing out on a huge market by not including plus sizes in their collections. At that moment, I was inspired to produce Full Figured Fashion Week, and the rest is history!

My mom always said I was a good leader as a child. I lead my church's youth choir, and founded and managed several social clubs in high school. I am grateful for these leadership experiences in my younger years that have played a huge role in shaping the leader I am today.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Full Figured Fashion Week?
I have always been employed in administrative support positions, assisting high powered executives with the execution of daily business functions. During my tenure at these positions, I was often given additional responsibilities outside of what I was actually hired to do. This afforded me an opportunity to experience various levels of business management and ultimately provided the much needed framework and expertise that I now use to produce Fit for Me Full Figured Fashion Week.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Full Figured Fashion Week?
One of my most memorable moments is when, after producing what I thought was going to be the final Full Figured Fashion Week last year, I was at a speaking engagement out of town and I received the call that Fruit of the Loom wanted to partner with me to bring the event back in 2015. I was amazed, stunned and a little apprehensive because I had just "retired" the event 3 weeks prior. It is such a rewarding feeling to know that your work has caught the attention of a major brand and they take the time to seek you out to form a partnership. This was definitely a defining moment for me personally.

One of the challenges I still face putting a value on my time. I am frequently booked as a public speaker, called upon to assist others in their projects or to host events and conduct workshops. I have a hard time saying no and it often compromises my schedule. I also have difficulty in selecting a compensation range for my services. A lot of events in the plus industry are not yet generating revenue. Since I "grew up" in this industry, I am sensitive to the financial plights of event planners.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Owning a business is a challenging yet rewarding task. You absolutely have to have a business plan for the success of your business. It is also very important for you to understand the financial responsibilities of owning and managing a business.

Mentorship is also another helpful tool. Finding someone who has successfully navigated through the various pitfalls of starting a business and is willing to share those experiences with you can be extremely helpful. I have never worked for anyone in the fashion industry, but many of my former employers, who were mentors to me, taught me quite a bit about running a small business. The industries may have been different, but the business practices are often the same.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Maintaining a work/life balance has consistently been a challenge for me because I work full time for an employer and I conduct my own business part time. In this age of 24/7 communication, most are used to being on-call at least 15-18 hours a day. Consequently, I find myself rushing home most evenings to have conference calls with potential event sponsors and my team. However, I make every effort to unplug and make time for myself at least twice a month. Making time for myself can range from something as simple as a spa day to taking short trips out of the city.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Work/life balance continues to be an issue for women in the workplace. Many of us have a hard time juggling the demands of balancing work and family or outside interests. Our attempts to figure out what is necessary to maintain a physically and emotionally healthy lifestyle can be stressful as well, but it is important that we figure it out.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been very fortunate to have several high powered female executives in my life as mentors. They have been instrumental in both my professional and personal growth which is one of the reasons why I routinely offer mentorship to young women who want to become entrepreneurs. Having access to the experiences and wisdom of women who have successfully navigated through similar professional challenges and are willing to guide you through your own challenges is priceless.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I am inspired by many female leaders; however, I am most impressed by women who are in leadership roles while raising children. Considering the challenges that I face as a non-parent, I think that being able to successfully run a business while raising children is an extraordinary accomplishment.

What do you want Figured Fashion Week to accomplish in the next year?
I want Fit for Me Full Figured Fashion Week to continue to grow and hopefully become a household name in the plus community as the number one resource for fashion and/or products and services for the community. I would also very much like to enhance our attendee's experience by attracting more involvement and support from the greater fashion community, ranging from luxury brands to mass market. Leveraging the brand as an industry expert in an effort to increase the overall experience for guests at Fit for Me Full Figured Fashion Week is something that we continue to work on.