Whether she knows it or not, Marilee Holmes is an inspiration.
As the Vice President of Operations and General Counsel for Wilhelmina Models, Marilee puts in the work to evolve into the successful woman she is today and the game changer she has become. Originally focusing on immigration while working at big law firms, she now is the force of a healthy, creative, and effective group of employees at Wilhelmina. From executives to the young, fresh faces beginning their modeling journey, she thrives all the while still efficiently litigating and negotiating major business deals.
In addition to being an incredible attorney, Marilee is a seasoned leader who exudes warmth and responsibility to those she looks over. She carries the positive impact she creates at work to her home where she diligently puts in her best effort to achieve balance with her family. The ultimate goal for Marilee is to use her role to uplift and support young women’s battles with image and confidence.
Marilee spoke with Her Agenda on her endeavor to achieve balance, what inspires her each day, and the crucial advice millennial women need to hear.
Her Agenda: What does work life balance mean to you?
Marilee Holmes: Work life balance to me means, working on setting boundaries. I say working on it because because coming from a big law firm background which is what I have – I still really struggle with it. I’m used to always being accessible and reading and responding to emails at all hours. I think the beauty of being in house, and also with Wilhelmina, is for the most part I’ve been able to achieve that balance more so than ever.
It helps that I have a great legal team and a great HR team to help me with work and the deadlines that we have. I also have a great management team that respects the fact that, I do have a home life. I think like for many lawyers and parents in all fields, it is still a work in progress and obviously I have my moments where I doubt myself and question whether or not something is being compromised. I guess sometimes you just have to remind yourself that you are doing the best you can and sometimes it has to be good enough.
Her Agenda: Having come from a law firm, what is it like to work at Wilhelmina?
Marilee Holmes: I don’t know if you’ve ever stepped foot in a modeling agency but it’s really exciting! Everyday is different, it’s full of energy and creative individuals. Agents are creative in developing careers and mindsets, and dreams essentially. It’s cool to have that daily interaction with agents and learn that skill set, and understand how you develop a vision for somebody and see it come to fruition. Typically a model starts their career at 14 [years old], and remains a model for many many years. To watch that development and how at 14 an agent has the sensibility to know what they need to structure that path is really fascinating.
In my role I still have to focus on the business side and maintain structure and meet deadlines, so there is a business sensibility that my role really comes with. It is not always about the creativity that’s happening around me, but the energy is always lively. There is always music, there is always talking, and there is always laughter – so the great thing is even though [I am] pushing the business needs, it is still in the midst of that chaos and fun.
Her Agenda: What is your favorite part of your specific position?
Marilee Holmes: I think my favorite part is probably the people component. In my role I manage the HR division as well as the company’s business and visa needs. I’m personally involved in the short term and long term needs of our personnel and talent. It’s about having that personal impact that I value and enjoy.
Her Agenda: What are some of your future goals?
Marilee Holmes: Something else I think I’d like to do, and here at Wilhelmina the conversations will continue, I hope to find some sort of pro-bono collaboration with an organization that will allow us work with young women as it relates to image and confidence. I think we as a modeling agency of this stature, a collaboration with that type of organization would be amazing to be able to do.
Her Agenda: What made you become an attorney and when you first started, did you ever think this would be a path you would land on?
Marilee Holmes: Absolutely not! If I can be honest, I never really wanted to be an attorney. I really wanted to go into international relations and diplomacy. But like other people, I was aware of the need to financially get myself through school and ultimately support myself. So, law school seemed like a practical place to start. But even in my first year of law school I started plotting early in that first year of how I was going to merge my interests of an international, global component with the career I had chosen, to go into law.
That is why I first focused on the immigration field. I felt that it allowed me to be an attorney and be financially able to support myself and stay somewhat true to my love of that international and people element. Early on in my career, I knew I couldn’t picture myself in a big law firm long term. Even though I was there for quite some time, I knew at some point I knew I’d want to go into an area that was more related to women and children, trafficking, and more of the pro bono elements.
When I got the call from the CEO of Wilhelmina, to look at this position, I was kind of taken a back. That is when I started learning about the fashion industry and particularly a modeling agency the size of Wilhelmina. You have models coming into the US constantly and also abroad – so I do both inbound and outbound visas. Even though it is different than where I saw myself taking my immigration skills – ultimately it worked out really really well. I’m able to work with models from all over the world – and a lot of them are young women. I help them navigate the immigration world which is really complicated to someone who does understand all the laws in our system and often times is really scary.
Her Agenda: What advice would you give to other young women trying to figure out how to brainstorm their career path and put together all the different pieces?
Marilee Holmes: Whenever I am asked this question, I typically have a response that sometimes young women don’t want to hear but I think it’s critical. If you have an interest in law or business, even if you see yourself in a role or position that is not really in the traditional corporate space, my advice, would still be to spend sometime in the corporate world and to develop that training to which those types of companies have the resources to develop. In-house positions need players who can dive right in. You need to be comfortable wearing different hats and being extremely resourceful in getting a lot done.
Her Agenda: Young women face immense pressure to get to the top position by the time we are 25 years old. It’s knowing that, ‘I can spend a few years here and a few years there, and still be okay.’
Marilee Holmes: Absolutely! I think it is leaning in, putting in those hours, and putting in that hard work when you are able. It’s going to pay off in the end. My entire 20s and the majority of my 30s was understanding that putting in the work was okay. Being patient at the fact that it wasn’t going to be in my first year out of law school, or my second, or even my fifth! I had the patience it understand it, to know it was going to be necessary and that’s how it was going to work. We are so quick to assume it’s all going to happen over night. Life is a journey. Part of the journey is understanding you may not end up in that right position your first job out of school.
Her Agenda: Who or what has influenced you most?
Marilee Holmes: My biggest influencer would be my mother. She really wanted us to be educated and achieve success, and particularly for my sister and me. This is because she was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and we were all born there as well. She lacked the types of opportunities we are privileged to have here in the US. I have always wanted to make her proud and show her the sacrifices she made for us in the US are not taken for granted. Throughout my education and career, she has been a motivating factor because I can appreciate what she gave up. That all really plays out into what my mother really wanted for particularly for my sister and I. To be able to do what we wanted to do career wise, and achieve success at it.
Her Agenda: How is it having a husband who has his own successful career and high profile position? How do you maintain a balance within your relationship?
Marilee Holmes: That is a really good question, and I think similar to work life balance – we are still working on that too. I will say that no longer being at a big firm has been easier. In the past I spent a lot of time in the evenings and weekends working. Now that I don’t have that, when I get home, we can actually sit and talk. Our weekends are devoted to us as a family. We make conscious decisions, not to spend as much time with our friends – even when we wanted, because we feel like the focus really needs to be on us, sharing our time as a family together.
Her Agenda: Do have any specific quotes or a motto that you always think back to?
Marilee Holmes: I think most of my friends or family members have often heard me say, ‘It is what it is.’ It is a simple reminder for me that sometimes you just can’t sweat the small stuff.
[Editor's note: This interview published on November 20, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.]