Your new memoir is called Good Morning, Beautiful Business. Why tell your story now?
I actually started the book eight years ago. The publisher approached me about telling the story of the White Dog, but I was so busy at the time that I didn’t make much progress in the writing. I was finally able to finish it because I retired from business—just in the nick of time before I forgot everything, because I’m 65.
The book feels at once pro-business and anti-business.
Using business in a way that serves the common good, while also protecting the environment, is the most powerful tool we have for making a better world. But I also see that business has been used as an instrument of greed and exploitation. Separating profit from doing good has caused most of the world’s problems.
You were a tomboy as a kid.
Girls growing up in the ’50s were marginalized. My favorite activity was playing baseball, and I wasn’t allowed to play because I was a girl. My hobby was building forts in the woods, and I was dying to take shop so I could learn how to use tools. But again, I was denied this because I was a girl.
Would your life be different if you grew up now, when there are more opportunities for girls?
What we’re really talking about here is a healthy balance of masculine and feminine energy. Today, the imbalance is worse than when I was growing up. Even though it’s against the law to discriminate against girls and women, that hasn’t really changed the problem of repressing feminine energy and supporting masculine energy. It’s just that now girls are encouraged to demonstrate their masculine energy. Masculine energy isn’t bad—the economy wouldn’t be anywhere without it. But we have to balance the masculine, which is about efficiency, with the feminine, which is about nurturing.
In 1970, you and your first husband, Dick Hayne, launched the Free People’s Store in West Philly, which after your divorce grew into Urban Outfitters. What did you learn about business from that?
Dick and I were very reluctant businesspeople, and we thought that profit was a dirty word. But we began to see that profit was necessary for the health of the business and that it could be used for many important things, including making contributions to community and being able to expand the business and increase the wages for the employees. If you don’t have a profit, you can’t grow.
By the ’90s, you thought White Dog had grown enough physically, and you looked to grow in other ways. Is that a trap businesses fall into—only seeing one way to keep growing?
Absolutely. In the corporate world, a CEO is fired if they don’t produce more profits, have more sales, use more resources. But this is a faulty premise, because the Earth cannot sustain that. So we’re destroying our home because of our obsession with material growth. That’s not only true for businesspeople—it’s also true for consumers.
You’re now focused on building a new economic system—one made of sustainable, interconnected local economies rather than a corporate-driven global one. Does that feel daunting?
Yes, but I see no alternative. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s about changing the direction that we’re going. I realize that the shit might hit the fan—we may well have an implosion of the current economy within my lifetime. My goal is to try and build an infrastructure of an alternative economy that people can turn to, so there’s not chaos.
Enough about business. What are your favorite restaurants these days?
I like Fork very much. I like Vedge. I like Zahav. Is that enough?
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.