Story by Lia Aprile and Photography by Claudia Lucia

My mom is the youngest 68-year old I know. She’s an adventurer and a nature-lover, and she modeled for me what it meant to be a woman in charge, and to lead with heart. She makes my life possible. My mom is as kind as she is beautiful, and when it comes to inspiring women...she is top of my list.

- Rachel Pally

[Words and Story by Lia Aprile]

Rachel credits seeing you and your husband, Donny, run your own business as her inspiration for becoming an entrepreneur. How did you find your way to that?

We fell into it.  I got a degree in filmmaking and tried that for a while.  It just wasn’t me.  Then I went back to school to become a teacher and got a teaching credential, and got pregnant at the same time.  Donny had been a teacher, he’d been a camp director, and he’d been a musician. Our good friend, Joan Barnes, who started Gymboree said, “You guys, with your background in early childhood education and music, would be the perfect people to bring Gymboree from Northern California to Southern California.” It was just a little tiny program at the time.  And we said, “Well, we don’t really know anything about business!” But we knew we were good with families and children. The idea of working for ourselves and still being able to be home with our family—to have some kind of balance—sounded just fantastic.  So we ventured in. 

Nobody had heard of Gymboree.  Early childhood programs for kids under preschool age didn’t exist at that time. There might have been a little Mommy and Me, but it wasn’t what it is now.  So we took this chance.  My mother-in-law loaned us some money and we bought the franchise for the San Fernando Valley.  It evolved for us.  We learned as we went along.

Do you feel the benefits of being your own boss outweigh the other challenges of running a business?

If I could do it over again, I would do it exactly the same way. I think the benefits far outweigh the problems, but it isn’t easy. Someone asked me the other day “Was it ever hard for you?”  And I said, “When I was in my thirties I would get in the shower every day and cry!” Because balancing a big business, a demanding business, and two little children that need your attention is hard. Anyone who says it isn’t, needs to wake up.

Your mom worked for you, correct?

Yes, she did, at Gymboree.

Now you and your husband work at Rachel Pally.  What is that like?

What a fabulous thing that Donny and I work for our daughter! We don’t work directly with her, we’re behind the scenes.  We try to do what we can to help the business run. We come from a different background, obviously, not fashion. But any way we can contribute, it’s joyful. And we still manage to travel a lot.  We have a cabin, and we have a lot of friends.  It’s a balancing act and every day is kind of full.  Some days I just want to stay in bed! But we feel very complimented that Rachel wants us to be a part of things.  She’s very inclusive and if she got that from us, we did a great job!

Yeah, you and Rachel seem to have one of those really special mother/daughter relationships that has both intimacy and clear boundaries. How did you manage that?

I’m going to say Rachel taught me how to do that.

That’s going to make me cry.

Now I’m crying! 

Alright, this might be a tricky question to answer. You and Donny were clearly very successful.  Rachel is very successful.  Your son, Joseph, is a curator at the SF Museum of Modern Art. There is a lot of what people would define as external success in your family.  How do you define success?

I don’t think I would say that financial success is the meter. Donny and I were never very financially successful.  We were comfortable, but we worked hard for that. Our customers were young families and what we hoped to do was help educate them about the importance of parenting, of play, of music.  That was how we succeeded. And those were qualities our own kids grew up with, that sense of really having a home life, a cultured life, a musical life...

This brings me back to the same thing I say any time someone asks me for advice.  It’s boring, but it’s really true, and that is: “roots and wings.”  Giving your children a sense of who they are, a sense of where they came from and a respect for family, and then giving them the ability to spread their wings.

It’s not easy to let them go to do that. You just hope everything they’ve done leads them in a good direction. And that they come back to you.

What is your favorite thing in your closet right now?

I think if you could see my closet, other than jeans and a few t-shirts, everything is Rachel Pally.  Rachel will come into my closet and say, “Mom, you’ve got to get rid of these old Rachel Pally things.”  But, I’m just not ready! I have about six black jumpsuits and whether it is a winter one with long sleeves or a summer one that I can just throw on, they are just “pop on, and go.”  I love that. 

Do you have a morning ritual?

I lay in bed and my husband makes me a latte, and brings it into bed and we watch the news.  That’s an everyday ritual.

What makes you feel your most beautiful?

Being in nature.  Whether it’s a secluded beach or a mountain lake.  Being with friends who love me. 

Last one. I think I probably know the answer to this question, but if you were having either the best day or the worst day of your life, and you only got one phone call...who would you call?

A day is not a day if I don’t talk to my daughter.