Eighteen months ago, Kim Alexis Newton left her corporate job of 20 years after taking a leap of faith — or rather, a push — to fully walk into her purpose. The result: Kim’s Quilts, a line of luxury gift quilts, that Oprah, Viola Davis and Serita Jakes now proudly hang in their homes.
And while many would have been worried about heading back to Corporate America for a stable job, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, for the Fisk and Vanderbilt graduate, this was an opportunity to step into freedom. Because for Black women, long gone are the days where people have to suffer through being unhappy at work. During her two decades at Hallmark she directly influenced global corporate strategy and led transformation across a $4B diversified portfolio of top brands — and now it was time to pour that energy into herself.
Once recognized as a top Black woman in corporate America, Newton joined the ranks of Black women who continue to outperform as the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S., and the quickest economic force in the nation. Which comes as no surprise, as the number of businesses owned by Black women increased by more than 300% over the past two decades.
For ESSENCE, Newton shares how a prayer on the beach in Jamaica gave her the motivation to start Kim’s Quilts, and how a chance encounter with Oprah helped define her calling.
How did you get into quilting?
I literally have been quilting since my grandmother taught me. We’re both in AKA and I lived with her for a summer when I was interning in D.C. and going to college. She taught me how to quilt — the very traditional way — and I learned so much from her, not just about quilting, but just about how to pour yourself into something.
Also, I have been around art all my life. My aunt’s a well-established artist. I grew up in her art studio. My mom definitely wanted me to nurture my creative side, and so I wanted to find my own medium. And I actually ended up integrating art and business in my career, so I was at Hallmark for a really long time, but on the business side, all the way up to the executive ranks.
You were a force to be reckoned with as a Black woman in corporate America. What made you decide to take a leap of faith to start your own quilt business?
I literally prayed three weeks before, while I was in Jamaica watching the sun rise. I said, “God, I need a signal. I need you. I need to know what you want me to do.” And it ended up being a long conversation because I told him, “No I don’t need a signal, because I’m not good with signals. Just make it painfully clear what you want me to do.” And in that prayer, within two weeks, the CEO that I worked for stepped away, a new CEO came in and eliminated my job. I’m sitting there like, “Look at God.”
The first person to be gifted one of your art quilts was Oprah. That’s a great way to start any business.
I ended up sitting down with two of my corporate crushes. One of them was Mindy Grossman, who is the CEO of WW (Weight Watchers). Mindy gave me some amazing advice, and at the end of it, she said, “Did you say you were gonna have an art show?” I didn’t even know you were an artist. And I showed her one of my art quilts that she ended up buying as a gift to Oprah. So her response was, “Kim, this is beautiful. I have to buy this for Oprah.” And I’m like “What? Oh God.” I didn’t tell her I don’t sell my quilts, but because it was Oprah, I ended up selling her that quilt and about a month later, she said, “How about you come with me and meet Oprah?” And that’s how I met Oprah. So I sold my first quilt that was gifted to Oprah.
So how did your art quilts turn into/inspire this new line?
Once the Oprah moment happened I was inspired to follow one of my decade long dreams to start a line of produced quilts celebrating occasions so I could touch more people with my designs. They are soft and meant to be used vs. just hang on a wall like my art quilts. When COVID hit, I thought might as well figure it out. So, in March of this year I launched my first line of “gift” quilts with women, in particular black women, on my mind. So they have designs inspired by my art quilts but also include inspiring words that help celebrate and motivate women. I call them gift quilts because that is what I want them to be – gifts for self or others. Handmade quilts can be expensive and take a lot of time. Quilts with meaning are cherished from generation to generation. I want these quilts to be Spiritual tools for growth (daily warming reminder that they are thought of cared for and loved). And gift them I did. To support my launch I gifted what I call my first fruits (the Bible says if you gift your first fruits your harvest will be plenty) to 50+ women who inspire her – including Viola Davis, Serita Jakes, Tamika Mallory, Tina Knowles, Stacey Abrams, Valerie Montgomery Rice, Roz Brewer just to name a few.
You have been extremely devoted in helping other Black women go after their dreams also — both professionally and personally. Why was this important for you?
I believe that my purpose these past 18 months have crystallized this for me to help support people on their emotional journeys. And I do that through my story, I do it through my quilting, and I also do it through the book I wrote called The Intentional Pause. So while I am chasing my dream, I want to support other women following their dreams. Because in reality, only 36% are following their dreams. And I found that fascinating to me because, I’m like, “How are they like slaying it, you know, but not happy, not fulfilled?” It’s because we, we have this sense of, of needing to achieve for other people and have this ability to not listen to our deepest desires and do that for ourselves.