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TV’s Tim Gunn Mentors Emerson Students on Leading with Empathy

Tim Gunn on Zoom screen
Fashion consultant and TV host Tim Gunn spoke to Emerson students, faculty, and staff on Tuesday, February 9.

Last fall, as the country wrestled with a toxic presidential election, an escalating pandemic, and its own racial injustices, Marketing Communication faculty member Sharon Topper and her colleagues began thinking about how the College and the industry could “rise out of the chaos” and envision a better way of doing things.  

“There was a whole new atmosphere after January, and it really took a more positive direction, which is really leaning into this equity, integrity, and how it will make us all better in all aspects of what we do,” said Topper.

What arose was Rethinking Consumer Engagement: Leading with Empathy, Equity, and Integrity, a speaker series that explores this new direction with a wide variety of industry leaders. The series launched on Tuesday, February 9, with Tim Gunn, fashion consultant, actor, author, Project Runway mentor and co-host of Making the Cut.

Bonus Round: Proust Questionnaire, Emerson-style

Gunn, who also taught for many years at the Parsons School of Design, was perfect to kick off the series, Topper said, because so much of his popularity is rooted in his integrity, honesty, and authenticity.

“He started out as consultant with Project Runway, really, [working behind the scenes] with designers to be a mentor. I think the reason he got so much screen time is he is so genuine,” Topper said.

In a wide-ranging interview and Q&A, Gunn talked about his career trajectory, innovation in television, and his newfound love of fencing, and answered a very Emersonian Proust questionnaire. He also gave advice to more than 300 Emersonians on how to fashion a career and a life based on integrity and empathy.

“May we today make it our commitment to hear and see one another in ways we may never have seen or heard one another,” Marketing Communication Chair Brent Smith said in opening remarks. “May we show evidence we are truly seeing and hearing each other.”

Here is an even 11 tips for living and working, courtesy of Tim Gunn:

Embrace the unexpected:

“A message I want to send to the entire Emerson community is life’s path is very serendipitous, you never know where it’s going to take you. … I hated school – I loved learning, I loved absorbing knowledge, but I hated the social aspects. So to become a teacher was the furthest thing from what I imagined.”

You need a brand:

“You’re nothing as a designer … as any creative person, without a brand. You need to very succinctly express what that brand is, define it, and never stray from it. It can certainly evolve, [but] if you’re a fashion designer, and you’re designing beautiful clothes, my hat off to you, but what are you going to do with these clothes, how do you see yourself in the greater rubric…who’s your customer, who’s next to you on the rack?

Problems are your friends:

“I think there’s nothing less creative than a blank slate. The more problems we have to solve, the more creative we can be.”

Be curious:

“I believe curiosity is one of the best characteristics we can possess. Curiosity leads you to a portal, and that portal takes you to places you couldn’t imagine.

“I became an avid fencer five years ago, at age 62. Fencing wasn’t in my vocabulary, I didn’t know what it was, and now, en garde! It’s not only a workout for the body, it’s a workout for the mind.”

Be the bearer of empathetic messages:

“[While teaching at Parsons] I learned very quickly, if you’re too blunt an instrument without somehow putting a velvet glove on it, students don’t listen to you, they just shut down. … If you’re not thinking empathetically about how the individual is going to receive the information you’re about to deliver, you’re putting yourself at risk in terms of their perception of you and your own integrity.”

Corollary: Guide, don’t prescribe

“I believe in pummeling students and designers with questions. I can’t even offer any sort of critical analysis unless I have many questions answered for me. As an educator and as a mentor in the design studio, the greatest gift is when the person with whom I’m interacting reveals to me what’s happening: what’s working and what isn’t working. It’s like a mind meld.

“While we hold our own beliefs within us … we need to leave our aesthetic and many of our beliefs at our doorsteps. It’s really about listening. It’s about truth-telling. It’s about empathy, and it’s also about letting go, stepping away.”

Corollary #2: Be your own test case

“[I ask myself] How would I respond to those words being spoken to me – to these words, with this intonation, this letter, this email communication? If I’m squirmy and uneasy and feel uncomfortable about it, it needs to be amended or revised. I use myself as a laboratory.”

Be a ‘discerning sponge’

“I never cease to be inspired by everything around me. If you feel there’s a lull, go to a museum – you have fabulous museums in Boston. Inspiration for me is everywhere, and you never know what the truly creative nugget is going to be that catapults you to a place you never dreamed of. … There are so many sources of inspiration, and they’re just a glance away.”

Authenticity can stand in for confidence:

“I have to say, I’m by nature not a confident person at all. By nature, I want to basically dig a hole and bury myself in it. It was teaching that taught me I need to act as if I’m in charge … act with self-confidence.

“If you are always true to that person that you are, you don’t have to worry about any interaction. I’m a wreck when I go on talk shows, for instance, but then I relax into it and say, ‘Just be yourself and don’t have any guards up, and it will be alright.’”

Passion, or it doesn’t happen:

“[Success] requires a tremendous amount of tenacity and also passion. If you don’t love it, you’re not going to be able to sustain it. It’s not necessarily the case that we should keep moving forward with the career we’re currently in.

“I’m deeply respectful of money and compensation and budgets. You still have to put food on the table. There are times … you move forward with something you’re not happy with because you need a paycheck, but you keep your antenna up for possibilities.”

If you have to ask the question…

“I was coveting this pair of waxed denim jeans. I held them up in front of me, looked at the sales clerk and said ‘Am I too old [to wear] these?’” (Sales clerk answered in the affirmative.)

“When you ask yourself that question, you’ve already answered it. ‘Am I too old to wear this?’ ‘Is this right for me?’”

Topper, Gunn, Hebshie and daughter on zoom
Natalie Hebshie, Instructional Technology Group associate director, and her daughter, Mariam, talk to Tim Gunn about his role as the voice of Baileywick in the Disney Junior show, ‘Sofia the First’.

More in the Rethinking Consumer Engagement Series:

Women in Business Leadership: Wednesday, February 17, 3:00 pm

Reset Buttons: How Today’s Consumers Are Showing Us What Really Matters: Wednesday, February 24, 11:00 am

A Conversation with Jay Francis, VP of Current Series and Diversity, Walt Disney Co.: Wednesday, March 3, 12:00 pm

For full descriptions and speakers, visit

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