Lillian Vernon

Lillian Vernon
"Toughness is good. Yet it is considered good only in men. When a woman is tough, men can’t stand it. I like being tough. Tough and smart."
- Lillian Vernon

Induction Category:
Business & Labor

Born: 1929

Died: 2015

Inducted: 1998

Town: Greenwich

In 1951, when a newly wed and four months pregnant Lillian Hochberg told her husband and friends that she was going to start her own retail business from home, many looked at her in disbelief. But five years later, she launched the first Lillian Vernon catalog with sixteen pages of products. By 1965, she had formed the Lillian Vernon Corporation and posted one million dollars in sales five years later. The next milestone was in 1987, when she took the company public on the American Stock Exchange, becoming the first woman to found a company traded on the exchange. By the 1990s, one out of every four American households received Lillian Vernon catalogs, resulting in approximately five million orders and $240 million in annual sales.

Lilly Menasche was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1929. In 1933, her family fled to Amsterdam to escape the dangerous climate for Jews in Germany. Four years later, the Menasches fled again to New York City as the Nazi threat escalated. Lilly learned about running a business and about merchandising from her father, who established a leather goods company when he immigrated to the U.S.  When she was old enough, her father sent her on shopping errands, a chore she very much enjoyed. She began her working life at the age of fourteen, taking a job in a candy store and later as a movie theater usherette. While working in the theaters, she was exposed to American films that greatly helped her develop her English.

In 1949, shortly after enrolling in New York University, Lilly married Samuel Hochberg and became pregnant with their first child. She left school and began developing her business plan. With $2,000 of wedding money, she began manufacturing merchandise and purchased ad space in Seventeen magazine, advertising a leather bag and belt she had designed. Though others were incredulous, her father stood by her side and even helped her manufacture her wares. The $495 ad resulted in $32,000 in orders and Vernon Specialties, named after Vernon, N.Y., where Lillian was living at the time, was launched.  She adopted the last name Vernon in the 1990s after growing the company and shepherding it to enormous success. Vernon retired in 2003, at the age of seventy-five, and sold the company for $60.5 million. She maintains a stake in the company.

Vernon recognizes that launching such a successful business was no easy task for a woman in the 1950s. In 1966, she published an autobiography, An Eye for Winners: How I Built One of America's Greatest Direct-Mail Businesses, in which she describes her personal struggle to become a leading businesswoman and role model in a predominantly male industry. The book also details the role she has played in every aspect of her company’s growth and management. In an interview with Business Know How, Vernon acknowledged the hurdles women have historically faced and explained, “At Lillian Vernon Corporation, I am proud to say that women are given every opportunity to advance and are an integral part of my senior management team.”

Vernon has received numerous awards including induction into the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, Big Brother/Big Sisters National Hero Awards, and the Gannett Newspapers Business Leadership Award. In 2011, she was honored with the Project Sunshine Award for Philanthropic Leadership. She supports countless charities and non-profit organizations such as the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., and This Close for Cancer Research in Woodbridge, Conn. The Lillian Vernon Foundation has endowed a chair for entrepreneurship at New York University and has funded arts programs, medical research and services for the elderly. Vernon is a member of several boards including those of Lincoln Center, the Virginia Opera, and the Kennedy Center National Committee for the Performing Arts. She currently resides in Greenwich, Conn.

During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times