Anja Kahn

The She-Suite Magazine: Anja Kahn

Anya Kahn is the CEO of White Gold LLC and a chairperson on the board for ELLE UK Group. As she and her team explained when chatting with The She-Suite, connecting with people is top priority, and her personal identity and name pronunciation hold a special level of significance for her and her sense of purpose. Anya is an entrepreneur with an ability to identify and create visionary fit-for-purpose solutions for society’s needs while always aiming to exceed expectations.

Kahn’s entrepreneurial spirit has always been present and continues to help her thrive as a leader to this very day. As she explained, “From a very young age, I had a tendency to step up and lead in whatever situation I was in, despite others in the room possibly having seniority in knowledge, or experience, or even age. Over the years, this compulsion has mellowed and matured to some extent and been replaced with a desire to observe how others face the challenges—albeit there is still the instinctive urge to ‘take charge and drive the solution!’” This drive likely stems from being one of nine siblings all with strong characters—and an entrepreneur father to match.

However, no matter where the passion stems from, the results are clear and highly inspiring for other women leaders looking to stand tall and make a difference. One of the biggest elements to this continual success is Kahn’s ability to accept her identity and constantly advance and improve her brand, network, and business achievements. As she describes it, “I believe in continuous improvement, and never feel I have achieved the best I can. So, I continue to seek insight to hone my leadership abilities, to encourage more empowerment in others, to champion self-accountability, and to build an environment in both my professional and personal life which cultivates visionary thinking and a ‘can do’ culture.”

Part of this sense of purpose and drive to build a visionary environment is what led Kahn to also turn something dark into a vision of light and hope during the pandemic. As COVID-19 significantly affected her eCommerce business operations, she and her team chose to pivot and develop masks that could benefit the masses. These masks are continually being developed and transformed to be more effective for first responders. They’re also expanding this technology, and developing a range of patent pending anti-viral hospitality and healthcare linens, as well as cleaning solutions.

Kahn’s ability to pivot with purpose has benefitted plus size women as well by celebrating their inner and outer beauty through the development of her Ms. Shape hosiery line. “If we as women can see the beauty in ourselves in whatever shape or color we are, I think it’s a great foundation for the confidence to realize our visions—and, for some, to break glass ceilings—to take our rightful place alongside our male counterparts as equals, without compromise.”

As a determined business leader, Anya continues to strive for the development of unique and perfected products. Seeking and making progress is something she is very familiar with and attributes to her success as an entrepreneur and product development lead.

But through it all, she says she never forgets to practice self-care to define her sense of purpose, once more allowing her to stay focused and motivated, “Horse riding, hiking, being a part of nature—that is my decompression method, my motivation, and my inspiration for the way I live my life, to play my part to the fullest. It’s at those times when I see the beauty in humanity, when creativity tends to flow better, and I can ‘reset’ and block out the noise.”

Full Interview

1. How do you define your personal leadership style and the purpose it brings in your life?

I very much believe my leadership style comes from within—from my values, my integrity, my spiritual belief — all bundled up into guiding principles I try and live by.

From a very young age, I had a tendency to step up and lead in whatever situation I was in, despite others in the room possibly having seniority in knowledge, or experience, or even age. Over the years, this compulsion has mellowed and matured to some extent and been replaced with a desire to observe how others face the challenges—albeit there is still the instinctive urge to ‘take charge and drive the solution!’

I always have a vison, I find the purpose, and then, my innate sense of justice, respect for others, and a strong self-discipline naturally seems to manifest into a leadership style which is effective in both my work environment and in my personal life. 

I am the third child out of nine, and despite not being the oldest and my family being full of strong characters—and egos—I rule the roost. And it’s been easy to do that, as natural strengths of fairness, respect, communication, and mine being the best solution for the situation (obviously!) never gets questioned. 

Well, that’s the case for everyone except my father that is; a distinguished entrepreneur whose leadership could never be challenged, although I’ve pushed at the boundaries many a time—and been ‘zapped’ for my daring!

Since I joined the Entrepreneur’s Organization, EODC Chapter, I have been striving to instill a ‘non-judgmental’ aspect to my personal leadership style, and I believe this has opened a new depth to my interactions. I believe in continuous improvement, and never feel I have achieved the best I can, so I continue to seek insight to hone my leadership abilities, to encourage more empowerment in others, to champion self-accountability and to build an environment in both my professional and personal life which cultivates visionary thinking and a ‘can do’ culture.

2. If you could write your own headline, what would you want the article to say about you and your accomplishments? 

An entrepreneur with an ability to identify and create visionary fit for purpose solutions for society’s needs, always aiming to exceed expectations.

3. Why did you name your company ATOM Compression Wear, Ms. Shape, and how did you choose your brand’s tone and mission? 

The umbrella for the various companies is ELLE UK Group, and the name really originated from my first (and most successful) foray into luxury branding with the acquisition of the ELLE brand in the 90’s. However, the expansion in the US, and the White Gold LLC name, originates from the work I was doing with milk fiber for apparel manufacturing, subject of 4 patent applications. Milk fiber is a luxurious, and rather expensive, fiber that is often referred to in the industry as ‘white gold,’ and it seemed very apt to take that up as the US corporate nomenclature.

The brands themselves; our group owns about 20 or so brands, some more globally recognized than others; ELLE, Panache, Biki, Ugo Correani, Atom, 2p1e, Ms. Shape, Edward Molyneux, and Mockingjay Realty, to name a few of the active ones. 

Brand development for me is a very personal journey. I have to feel the life the brand will take, its character, and its audience. It has to resonate with me, talk to me, inspire me to the extent I can’t think about anything else. 

Established or historical brands which I have acquired have had a reputation and a history which I felt a connection to, and I strive to continue the characteristics with a modern approach, oft using science and technology to add benefits beyond the mere esthetics. 

For new brands we have created, I like to play with words, meanings, roots of words—as an example, Atom was a new brand created from scratch in 2016, and reflective of the scientific nature of the products we were developing for manufacture, which was medical grade compression wear using milk fiber. 

The atom, a building block in physics, word root from the Greek ‘indivisible’ or ‘undivided,’ sounds apropos. Add in some atomic philosophy, and you have the beginning of an interesting conversation—and that is what our aim was; to not only have a product which could be used to treat medical conditions but to open a conversation, a dialogue, and encourage the public in preventative health measures whilst wearing an everyday item. 

Beyond this, all the usual considerations of being short and memorable, of being distinctive, easy to spell, trademarkable are always evaluated. Unfortunately, the consideration to ensure the .com is available is not such an easy thing to do anymore, so for Atom, with the .com not being available, we managed to obtain the domain, which actually was more appropriate for our audience.

We are very much an ‘all ideas onboard’ culture, and the brand 2p1e was an inspiration from one of our Covid Response Team in 2020; again, a play on words—PPE, having 2Ps and 1E! Short, fun, memorable—I loved it and rewarded the ingenuity!

We look very closely at our marketplace too when deciding to create a new brand. In the plus size category in Europe, we manufacture under the ELLE brand. However, in the US, we didn’t feel the luxury image of ELLE, which seemed to fit more into fashion’s stereotyping of the female shape, was what we wanted to promote to our target audience. We were aiming at uniting all women! We spent months researching and bouncing ideas off one another for what would really connect with our marketplace, and Ms. Shape was born out of a very energetic, vibrant, and very engaged, global crowdsourcing competition! 

The name is one thing, but the identity of the brand is the most crucial part. I look at it as though it’s a living character, and once that identity takes form in my mind, it becomes quite easy to build the tone and messaging. Ms. Shape is every woman, and yes, the brand specializes in manufacturing plus sizes, however all our product ranges cover the full set of sizes from 2 to 32. So, it’s inclusive as we didn’t particularly want the message to be we were dividing out plus size women or excluding smaller sizes. We are aiming for unity—sisterhood! And it could be brotherhood too as we have a growing clientele of men who wear tights for warmth and sleek fit under slim-fitting clothing. There’s a reason men in the military, on oil rigs, and in the fishing industry have always sworn by tights as the ideal underclothing legwear! 

4. How have you weathered COVID as an ecommerce business leader?

Covid, wow, what a week that was in March 2020! Suffice to say, as global leaders made lockdown announcements, our world came to a standstill. Every retail and wholesale order was cancelled, and ecommerce went to zero. I sat staring at my computer screen, feeling sure, but praying, this was a short-term business hiccup, reassuring myself we’d weathered many a storm in my 30 years in business and ‘we’d be okay’ and survive like we always did.

But then, the horrors of what the world was facing started to come forth. All our manufacturing is in Italy, and they were on the frontline being hit in a devastating way. It was at this point that I knew, with a driving compulsion, I had to be part of the solution to ease the suffering. This was my opportunity to do something meaningful for our communities.

Over the last 30 years, I have built an expertise in specialist fibers, yarns, and textile manufacturing techniques. I also have worked extensively with organic, cosmetic grade solutions which add benefits to apparel (anti-microbial, moisture wicking, nano-particle infusions, etc.) and fibers such as silver were already in use in many of our product lines.

A core team of members from the US, UK, and Italy was established and mobilized; we created mini ‘bubbles’ when the word bubble wasn’t thought of in the frame of what we know it to be now. The fantastic skillsets in our Covid Response team were phenomenal, and I am so proud of their achievements. We had IT, logistics, and manufacturing all mapped out within days, and we started to manufacture face masks using silver fiber technology, anti-microbial solutions, and splash resistant coatings initially designed to be as effective as medical grade masks and to be supplied to the general public to alleviate the pressure on medical masks. We are always conscious of the environment, so being washable and reusable was a priority. 

To not exploit the crisis, we did the project as not for profit. The first masks were available on 4 of our ecommerce sites within a couple of weeks of the initial pandemic announcements. The challenges were there – global logistics had come to a grinding halt, however, our operations director and his team sourced couriers and routes which were able to avoid and bypass the bottlenecks. As a result, we were able to deliver ecommerce orders next-day about 98% of the time.  

Our standard advertising channels such as Google, Facebook, and Instagram were blocking any PPE advertising, so we went back to the basics (PR and printed press). To reach the old and vulnerable who may struggle with online purchasing, we added a phone number—wow, what an underestimation the addition of the phone number was—dealing with 3 time zones, our phones were ringing 24/7 with calls routed to next available team member’s cell phones in their homes. Even those who normally have nothing to do with customer service were handling calls in the high hundreds per day.

My aim is always to find a solution which is fit for purpose. So once the Mark I mask was flowing on the market, I looked at the issue again, to evaluate what further adaptation or innovation was needed—in the simplest definition, the need was for a mask to stop SARS-COV-2 from being able to infect the wearer. I had heard a few years earlier of some scientists working on the original SARS virus, and there was some talk that they had found a way to deactivate it. I contacted them to see if their research could be effective against SARS-COV-2 and be adapted to apply to face masks. The end result was a global first; a mask with physical properties exceeding N95 and Type IIR medical masks using a silver/microfiber yarn mix, washable at low temperatures, a hypoallergenic barrier, splash resistance, and a tested ability to deactivate SARS-COV-02 and 99.9% self-sanitize its own surface within 30 seconds of impact of SARS-COV-2—or any enveloped virus. This was such a phenomenal mask, we were requested by a UK NHS trust to supply them for their medics, support staff, patients, and visitors.

So, suffice to say, COVID-19 did not stop our business from operating. However, in our post-COVID (if there is such a reality) world, we are facing renewed challenges getting core product lines back to pre-covid levels; the uncertainties of work patterns, the perceived prospects of an economic downturn, and rising inflation has affected our marketplace, but we continue the hard slog!

5. How are you overcoming creating change and transition in your career and life?

The poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote:

Like the winds of the sea are the winds of time,
As we journey along through life;
‘Tis the set of the soul that determines the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.

I believe my inner self directs where I journey, and I am not pushed by the ups and downs in either my personal life nor business towards directions which are not in harmony with my goals and visions. I have never felt constrained by being a woman or ethnic minority and have always managed to find direction by focusing on the important points and not worrying about ‘noise’ which can often distract us into losing focus and the purpose that has been set.

I have been in my industry for over 30 years now, and while there are day-to-day challenges in the various brands, in the last year or so, I have felt the lack of new challenge and a desire to explore new horizons. We are working further with using antiviral solutions for addressing ongoing needs in a world where co-existence with not only COVID-19 but new horrors such as monkeypox are impacting our way of life, and I envisage this becoming a significant area for the business.

My role in the business is transitioning from day-to-day hands-on ‘in’ the company to the more strategic ‘on’ the company Chairman of the Board position, permitting scope for creativity and identification of new needs in the marketplace.

As an entrepreneur, my main industry has been branded apparel and accessories, with niche specializations in hosiery and medical grade compression. However, we have brands in bespoke couture wear, perfumes, custom-made Italian leather handbags, and luggage. Many years ago, I co-founded a development in a SAAS for digital pathology solutions, I have been involved in the establishment of medically-led weight loss clinics, and we are in the midst of an ongoing development of a men’s formal wear made to measure using a customization app with a virtual depiction of the finished outfits as worn on an avatar. The metaverse and NFTs are an exciting area to delve further into for our organization, and a real estate and property development business is under way, with a portion of the income stream to be aimed at enabling philanthropy work. 

Transitioning to the position of chairman of the board means I can spend more time to pursue entrepreneurial passions with more scope to develop innovative solutions for some of society’s overlooked issues, and that is the area which most ignites my passion—the new startup, the creativity, the birth of something innovative, the ongoing day to day mundaneness—I could easily walk away from those days!

6. What does it take to create bold moves? 

A certain measure of belief in one’s infallibility. A degree of tolerance for risk, and a knowledge that personal experience has proven the ability to drive an agenda to success, despite the downsides. That’s the mindset required, and then it’s up to the alignment of key factors, such as the right time, a viable financial position, and the key component of vision. In short, it’s an overwhelming level of confidence in one’s ability to create and drive success!

7. Why is legacy important and when did you really start to think about it as a primary driver for your career and life?

To be frank, I’d not thought about legacy until recently. I’m a very practical kind of person and have taken the achievements in my life as par for the course, not really seeing them as legacy-building. Running a business with multiple brands, working across two continents, two kids and now two granddaughters pretty much filled—and still fills—the day!  

I think a combination of three rather unique events became the catalyst to looking afresh at my life; firstly, COVID-19 hit, and so many in both my professional and personal life suffered, with some closely related deaths. Then, towards the end of 2020, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor, blessedly benign, but still had to undergo brain surgery in the midst of the pressure on hospitals with the rising pandemic numbers. For the first time, I became very aware of the fragility of life. 

However, there was a beam of sunshine when I was awarded the right for permanent residency in the US on the basis of a National Interest Waiver, i.e., being recognized as a person in the national interest of America and her people, this was an overwhelmingly humbling moment, and has inspired and motivated me to do more!

The reflection and self-acknowledgement that in my career, I had indeed managed to create some outstandingly innovative and global leading products to meet the needs of society, led to thinking about ensuring continuity beyond my time.

A legacy based on brands reflecting my values, principals, and vision being able to stand the test of time—as well as having an income generating vehicle for continued philanthropic purpose? That is a legacy I would be proud to have achieved.

8. Your slogan is ‘unthinking the status quo.’ What does this mean for female representation and creating products that do good and fit for a purpose?

‘Unthinking the Status Quo’ is a state of mind I use in all aspects of my life, both personal and professional. Just because something is doesn’t mean it has to be such. It is on us to challenge what exists to find better solutions and to not be complacent and put up with products, services, or standards which fall short of our expectations and values. 

A vast array of products on the market fall short of their potential goal, and consumers get conditioned to accept a product or service which does not meet their needs in full. I say we challenge this and not be accepting of something which isn’t ‘fit for purpose.’

ELLE emphasizes that it is ‘for everyone.’ What role do you play in ensuring that your products are inclusive and supportive of all femme-presenting individuals? How can this be applied to other industries/markets?

We as women are under constant scrutiny, be it for our looks, the way we dress, our viewpoints, or our abilities as effective contributors in the workplace. This brings about certain pressures (starting with the first impact we make visually) and if we don’t fit within a spectrum of expectation, it can feel as though we are not seen, dismissed, or assumed to be ‘lacking.’ This leads to an impact in the confidence we attain in order to strive to fulfill our potential in life.

Most of our brands are in the luxury apparel and accessories category, so there has always been this constant presence of the expected look and shape of a ‘desirable’ woman, and I was just as guilty as the rest by selecting slim models for our photoshoots, photoshopping any minor imperfections in skin or hair. Our products were mainly geared at the center bracket of sizes, with hardly anything in plus size, and it wasn’t until a few years ago when I really found myself respecting the beauty of celebrities such as Adele and Hayley Hasselhoff that I decided to explore plus size further. This led to the specialized development in hosiery—specifically, tights, pantyhose, and leggings for plus size women. In hosiery to date, there had only been a ‘one size’ and then a large, which was the one size with an added panel in the panty portion, making it look like a diaper!

So, if I was to do plus size then—like everything we develop—it had to be fit for purpose and it had to be designed and manufactured for each size. It had to work for the whole aspect of the garment from the foot, along the length of the leg, all the way to the panty and waist. Easy to imagine and design, but not so easy to manufacture as all hosiery knitting machines in the world make a standard uniform tube. What we needed was a graduated wideness along the leg, and the ability to knit different widths on the panty without the addition of unsightly panels. Took a while, but our manufacturing team in Italy managed the unthinkable, and were able to knit hosiery for whatever measurement in width and length needed at any point along the leg or panty, with extra features such as comfort ‘non-roll’ waist bands, flat seams, and a great durability.

During this process, my outlook on the female shape dramatically changed. I passionately started championing the cause for acceptance of the wonderful shapes we come in, and to celebrate the beauty of diversity. We started recruiting models in all sizes, and actually, our very first shoot for the plus size consumer base wasn’t even made up of models, but rather employees and friends in Italy who were quite emotional when it came to what we were trying to do.

I still recall our youngest ‘model,’ an employee at our factory, almost in tears as her Instagram post was liked and complimented when she posted her images in the plus size tights; her grandfather posted such a wonderful message of his happiness to see her so happy and accepting for the first time in the way she looked that it was a humbling experience for me. I think this moment gave me much more depth and insight into acceptance of humanity in all our wonderful, glorious differences, and I committed to try and ensure there wouldn’t again be a standard ‘one size fits all’ product in our portfolios. We would strive to use models of all sizes and not push anyone into conformity. It changed how I felt about myself as well. I am so happy in my plus size shape at last. If I lose a few pounds, great, if not, then no worries. I am still the confident woman I have always been!

If we as women can see the beauty in ourselves in whatever shape or color we are, I think it’s a great foundation for the confidence to realize our visions—and, for some, to break glass ceilings—to take our rightful place alongside our male counterparts as equals, without compromise.

9. You’ve previously stated that you love horseback riding. How did you get into riding horses and what are other ways you decompress from the demands of your career?

Nature has always been my stress reliever, probably from my early childhood when my best friend and I would spend the whole summer in the woods behind our homes armed with a loaf of bread and some water so we could disappear for the day. Unfortunately, with the horrors in the world, later in life, it was never something I was able to let my kids do, and when I reflect back, I think we were blissfully ignorant as children and our parents were too trusting of the world around us. Those woods I talk about—the ones where two little girls would have adventures in dense wooded areas by old derelict abandoned farmhouses—were the same woods the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliff, committed some of his horrendous attacks and murders within during the same era as us running wild ‘Amazons and Swallows’ style! 

In my adult life, hobbies such as hiking were always the ‘off-grid’ I craved after a full week, and it was around the time when the kids were a few years old that we developed an interest in horseback riding. What started as a few fun lessons for them became a passion for all of us as a family; cross-country competitive riding, polocrosse, or just gentle (and sometimes, not so gentle) rides along the beach. We even bought a racehorse— our beautiful, Resplendent Ace—which was quite a champion on the circuits.

So, horse riding, hiking, being a part of nature—that is my decompression method, my motivation, and my inspiration for the way I live my life, to play my part to the fullest. It’s at those times when I see the beauty in humanity when creativity tends to flow better, and I can ‘reset’ and block out the noise