Paula Schneider | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Paula Schneider


Paula Schneider, who has built her reputation on turning around troubled companies, is now at the helm of American Apparel. She became CEO in January 2015, just a few months after the board of directors ousted founder and former CEO Dov Charney. After steering the Los Angeles-based company through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Schneider says she's now trying to innovate — including a partnership with the on-demand delivery service Postmates, which allows customers to choose one-hour delivery for their clothes. 

She also highlights American Apparel's recent support of LGBT Pride month, with baseball caps that read "Make America Gay Again," as well as some upcoming campaigns related to gender equality and women's empowerment.

The Mistake: 

I have been a career woman my whole life, and I've worked really hard. The mistake that I made was putting my work life ahead of my personal health. 

Eight or nine years ago, I was working on a massive turnaround plan [at Warnaco] and I felt a lump. I went to the doctor, and I had breast cancer. 

In that moment, I needed about three weeks to finish the turnaround because I had a big team, and we were knee-deep in it. We had to do a reduction in force. We had to create a different business model.  

I said to the doctor, "I'm in the middle of this massive turnaround. … What will happen if I don't do anything for the next three weeks? Will I die?" 

He said, "No, you won't die, but you should probably put your health first." 

That was sort of a course correction for me. In order for you to give 100 percent to your job and your family and your career, you actually have to be healthy.  

When you have your health, you have everything ... when you don't, you have nothing. 

The Lesson: 

When you have your health, you have everything, and you have the opportunity to do everything — and when you don't, you have nothing.  

I've taken the same approach to my personal well-being as I have at any of the businesses I've run. For me, it was about creating a plan. I took all of my business acumen and I created the best strategic plan I could to conquer breast cancer. I had everything from traditional Western medicine to Eastern medicine and Reiki healing and massage and acupuncture.  

I created a great go-forward plan, and ultimately it all worked. But [I learned that] you have to take care of yourself while you're trying to take care of everything and everyone else. You've got to create that balance. This is especially true with women, who often work really hard and put their own personal well-being after both their family and their career. 

I make time for my friends, I make time for my family, I make time to play tennis. It's hard to fit all of that in, but you have to do it. I don't think it's slowing down, and I don't think I'm the type to slow down. I think you just have to prioritize.  

I probably sweated smaller stuff prior to having cancer. Now, I’m extremely calm. There can be fires burning all around me, and I'll just decide which fire we're going to put out first and why. Especially in a turnaround, leadership has to stay calm.  

Follow American Apparel on Twitter at @americanapparel.

Pictured: Paula Schneider. | Photo courtesy of American Apparel. 

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's.