Last night, I attended an excellent panel called Secrets of Start-Up Queens at the 92Y. The panel was hosted by Glamour magazine and included successful female entrepreneurs such as Dylan Lauren, founder of Dylan’s Candy Bar; Piera Gelardi, co-founder and creative director of Refinery 29; Elizabeth Cutler, co-founder of SoulCycle; and model and social media guru Coco Rocha. Of all the inspiring women on the panel, Coco Rocha was the one who resonated with me the most. Not only does Rocha give Iman, who has a loud personality, a run for her money in terms of noise levels, but she also doesn’t technically own a business like the rest of these women (though that is probably going to change soon). She has significant brand power and a career plan that will ensure she will be employed for years.

At only 25, Rocha has the maturity and wisdom of someone much older. “I started [working as a model] when it was the backlash of supermodels. Now models all kind of look alike; no one knows our names,” she said. Supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Linda Evangelista were household names in the early ’90s. They were well-known for their looks of course, but also because of their personalities and brand power. Consider how tremendously successful Crawford was with branding; she was the face of Pepsi for years as well as dozens of other major companies. However, by the late 1990’s it became more fashionable to feature an actress on the cover of a high fashion magazine than a model. It is actresses who have cosmetic company contracts now–not supermodels.

Despite her many accolades, Rocha knew that she needed to do more than just be a pretty face if she wanted to succeed in the competitive modeling industry. She had to take control of her narrative or else the media would spin it in a way that benefited them. She wanted to have a voice like Crawford and Iman had. “You don’t know the ladies [of modeling today] or a few seasons back, and I thought I need to change this for me to have a more successful career,” she told moderator Cindi Lieve, the Editor-in-chief of Glamour.

Rocha started a blog to express herself, mostly for her family and friends. If anybody else read it, she figured that was a bonus. She also tried out Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram when they were all in their early stages–before anyone knew how successful they would become. “No one was on it. I figured I’ll play around with it. If it doesn’t work, who cares? My goal is always to be the first. It is a great way of boosting your numbers.”

Rocha’s persistence in being an early adopter of social media paid off. At a time when no one in the fashion industry was using social media, Rocha stood out by building a following that now spans 13 platforms and millions of people and was ”the first model to surpass 1 million followers on Google+.” This week, Rocha became a contributing editor for PCMag. Although this is an excellent career achievement, Rocha says that the negative backlash was tough to manage. She has four million followers in China and remains active on Vine. “I still don’t get taken seriously. People say you’re just a model. You’re just pretty. Sadly, the stereotype of women who look pretty in photos can’t talk about other things. Don’t be negative nancies, be positive!”

She has also been very vocal about the relationship between models and health issues. A few years ago, she teamed up with Victoria’s Secret model Doutzen Kroes to start a campaign raising awareness for the unrealistic beauty standards put on models in the fashion industry. Rocha made it known to the fashion industry and the general public that she would not stay silent on pressing issues when she started giving speeches on these topics. This gained her a lot of traction, particularly when she was featured on the cover of the New York Post with the headline “Is She Too Fat to Be a Runway Model?” “I have a voice I can use for myself, for my industry, and my peers,” she told the audience.

This woman is savvy. She also speaks in a relatable way that makes you feel like she’s just a normal person. The first thing she said last night was that she felt like she didn’t measure up to the rest of the powerful women on the panel. And, like many of us, she had to learn how to be in control of her career most times through difficult experiences.

Rocha began modeling at a young age, and she said that blindly trusted everybody around her. Unfortunately, the business of modeling is notoriously tough–especially for young women–and Rocha was no exception. Remembering one particular shoot in Asia when she was only fifteen years old, Editors threatened to send her packing and make her pay for everything out of pocket if she refused to do some nude shots; eventually, they compromised by allowing semi-nudity instead. She then realized the importance of contractual agreements, namely having everything you want in writing and bringing a signed copy with you everywhere. Rocha likely has more contract clauses than most people, but she admits that this is due to her high standards. (“If there are boys, they better be dressed and not making out with me!”). Despite being accused of diva-like behavior, Rocha says, “What’s it all about? Making the big career and being successful, or doing what you believe in? I think people are respected in any industry if they stand up for what they believe.”

In an ongoing learning process, Rocha recently criticized Elle Brazil. The reasoning was that they edited a photo to make her appear naked when in reality she had worn a bodysuit for the shoot. “It took me much longer than it should have to realize I didn’t need to do everything people told me if it’s what I wanted from my career,” she wrote on her Tumblr site.

Last night, she told the audience that “It’s essential to have a fear of contracts or anything with paper and signatures when signing them. I learned the hard way that if it wasn’t in writing, they didn’t care.” Even before last night’s event, she had two of her agents look at the clause she was about to sign.

Lastly, she noted not to be afraid of asking people for help because most likely they will say yes. Also, for all you high school students out there reading this, make an effort to get to know that girl who always seems alone or different than everyone else; she could turn out to be extremely successful one day like Savannah did. “Just look at where I am now,” she said as encouragement while gesturing towards the panel’s other attendees.

We eagerly anticipate this woman’s future success, whether she is strutting down a runway or taking over the latest social media platform.

What do you think supermodels have the power to do for the greater good? Tell us in the comments!

Ask Lauren Millian Bias, Founding Partner and Managing Director of Gen Y Capital Partners, how modeling has helped her career as an entrepreneur!

Join Forces of Women Professionals

Stay empowered, inspired, and connected with a network of incredible women. Subscribe to our email updates today and be part of a vibrant community driving change together. Don’t miss out on exclusive content, events, and opportunities. Together, we’re more vital! Subscribe now!