Lindsay Stewart CEO of Zuri Model and Talent Agency Talks Taking Calculated Risks & Projecting Confidence
Stereotypes abound when it comes to the worlds of modeling and casting, but it’s likely few would ring true in at least one case. Lindsay Stewart, President and CEO of Zuri Model and Talent, has a business acumen that flies in the face of most of the (let’s be honest) negative ideas we have about the world of modeling agencies. Intensely private and genuinely humble, Stewart is a dedicated family-first mom working to balance the demands of a running a bi-coastal business with the demands that come with kindergarten twins. And though her clients are predominantly children, her approach is something that can teach us all a thing or two about what’s really important when it come to the image we project every day in our own lives.
A Model Global Citizen
With offices in Los Angeles and New York, representing approximately 1,300 models, and a client list that read like a who’s who of fashion, retail and entertainment (think J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, Target, Gap, Disney, Mattel, H&M, and more), it would seem easy to be swept up in the glamour and jet-set image of her business. Stewart, however, keeps her feet firmly planted on the ground. How? “I’ve worked very hard to get where I am and I’ve put in extraordinarily long hours, but things can change on a dime. So, I focus on living life being grateful for what I have and hope that I can be super-successful, but (know) someone can come along and take it all away too.”
While in college studying to become a teacher – the “safe” route her family hoped for her — Stewart interned at modeling agencies. After only one year of teaching, she knew she had to pursue her dream and return to the model management world. She left her teaching job in California and moved to New York, where among other experience, she worked in the children’s division at Wilhelmina Models. Returning to her California home in 2000 with the expertise garnered from her tenure at Wilhelmina, Stewart joined a San Diego area agency and launched their children’s division, catapulting it to be the leading kids’ agency in the U.S. by 2008. At the same time, Stewart became involved with a non-profit organization, Nomad Charities, doing work in Africa, operating free medical and dental clinics as well as an orphanage. The experience was powerful and ignited in Stewart not only a passion for the culture there, but also helped provide focus in her life, personally and professionally. In the fall of 2008, Stewart ventured out on her own, creating her own model and talent agency and naming it Zuri, a Swahili word she says translates to “beautiful, kind or good.”
How does she reconcile her African experience with the splashy world of modeling? It’s an ongoing struggle, she admits. However, “In my personal life, it’s led me to be much more grateful for the basic things that I have.” Her effort to stay committed to the important things in life extends to her clients. Stewart founded her own charitable group, Zuri Love, encouraging her models and their families to get involved in various charity projects. “Four times a year we do a focus on various causes, whether it’s bullying, kids’ cancer, backpacks for underprivileged kids, etc. We host different events in support of these causes, and a lot of our models always show up. It’s a good way to re-focus and see a bigger picture than what we’re doing on a daily basis,” says Stewart. She works to impress these values upon her own kids as well as her clients. “It’s so hard! I get frustrated even with my own children because they’re so fortunate. So I try and redirect them constantly, and I know that eventually it’s going to click.”
Numerous elements factor into her perspective and philosophy: A conservative, traditional family upbringing, her experiences in Africa, and “a lot of little stuff along the way,” but in the end, she says, “I think it’s just the way I was made.” Stewart’s humble perspective bridges the gap between the glamorous fantasy world of modeling and the real world, and her approach offers valuable insights from which we can all benefit.
Taking Calculated Risks
When Stewart was assessing her career next-step options prior to launching Zuri, “I had to make a decision if I just wanted to make a lateral move and be safe, or take the risk and start my own agency. I knew I could always go back and work for someone else if I needed to, but took the chance on building my own company,” she recalls. And while she felt external circumstances “dictated the timing to me, and pushed me to do it when I was letting fear block my path,” she is grateful that she had the courage to take the leap, and managed her fear of the unknown by setting reasonable goals and creating a fall-back plan. “When I started Zuri NY, I said I would give it two years, and if it wasn’t successful, then we would stick to LA. Financially it wasn’t a huge risk, so I felt that it was meant to be. Fortunately, it has gone extremely well.”
The Preservation of Privacy
Though it’s difficult to get Stewart to talk about herself, the one thing she readily opens up about is…privacy. And her commitment to preserving her own. “My business life and my personal life are pretty separate, and I try to keep it that way. Because of the amount of interactions (I have) with many people, all with an opinion and judgment, I have learned the hard way to keep my private life private.” Creating separation between a professional and personal life can help to make the personal side all the more of an oasis — especially when you need it most – and spare your personal life from being impacted at the professional level, or vice versa.
We all hear about confidence, confidence, confidence. But oftentimes, people take that confidence too far and plunge deeper into the ugly world of arrogance. What’s the line between the two? “People who aren’t over the top or trying too hard can become arrogant. Confidence is silent. You don’t need to be out there telling everyone how great you are if you have inner confidence. Quiet confidence,” says Stewart.
She’s quick to follow up about the tie between confidence and real beauty. “The most attractive people to me are nowhere near models. They carry themselves well without being too serious; people who have an openness to them, eye contact and a smile,” she says, “not perfectly manicured nails and hair or designer handbags. Maybe that’s why I enjoy working with kids – they are people in their raw form.”
More Than How You Look On The ‘Book’
A big contributor to those inflated egos? Look no further than Facebook or YouTube. An 800+ friend roster or a cute selfie with loads of “likes” does not make a star. “This is a problem we’re dealing with a lot right now, because of the rise of social media. Everyone thinks they can be ‘famous,’” she explains. Fortunately, perhaps because of some perceived and growing anti-social media sentiment, she is optimistic that can shift. “I’m seeing a transition back to more humility.”
It’s also important to remember that online profiles aren’t as private as we may want to believe. As we’ve so often heard, employers (and potential employers) are definitely checking out your online profile, so make sure it’s an accurate reflection of yourself. “You need to be careful about what you put out there, because anything you put out there, people are going to judge in some way, shape or form, so make sure that it’s good,” she warns.
One of the links that ties so many successful people together is the ongoing pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement. For Stewart, reading – and re-reading – Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How The Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead has provided ongoing insight for her. “I think that what I have gotten from reading Brené Brown’s books is just about being as vulnerable as possible in how I live. Being as authentic of a human being as possible is a constant yearning for me: to live my true life, not what society expects.”21