Learn, learn, learn — and then implement what you’ve learned. I read constantly and look for angles in the practices of my competitors and other successes stories. There are vast resources of free and/or inexpensive knowledge available out there. You never know where your next brilliant inspiration could be hiding.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Hood.
Mary Hood is the Founder and CEO of Hollywood Sensation, an online jewelry store that offers beautiful, responsibly-sourced jewelry that creates a red carpet sensation without the red carpet price, so every woman can feel confident, inspired, and empowered. Mary Hood began her business with 500 dollars in the kitchen of the home she shared with her husband — with a baby on the way! Now Hollywood Sensation is a nationally recognized brand featured on television shows like The Talk, The Real, and Hollywood Live Today, and on QVC.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my business career working at the second-largest oil company in my native country of Iran. I began as an assistant and eventually was promoted to manager. The culture in Iran is extremely male-dominated, so this was a real opportunity for me to gain the skills and insight I needed to thrive in such an arena as a woman.
Glamor absolutely fascinated me. I was dazzled by televised red carpet events. I especially noticed fantastic pieces of jewelry, which could make such a bold yet feminine statement. Eventually I immigrated to the United States with my sites set on the fashion industry.
I had a problem, though. I was just starting out, and I wanted a piece of that glamor but wasn’t able to afford it yet. Then I thought, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to look like I spent one. I found myself a high-quality, gorgeous, but affordable piece of jewelry. When I wore it, I got so many compliments, and so many people asked where they could find a piece for themselves, that I realized I had hit upon a great business idea.
Soon afterward, I was confined to bedrest because of some health concerns during my pregnancy. That gave me time to watch Shark Tank. Those business entrepreneurs, particularly Lori Greiner, really inspired me. I took online classes in jewelry making, and researched crafting, marketing, and promotion. I started Hollywood Sensation in our kitchen with 500 dollars seed money, which I used to purchase earrings to sell on online forums. Just like that, I was in business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Yes, and this is a story that can apply to anyone branding and selling their services in the online community. I quickly learned the incredible power of the customer review. Customers have a direct line of contact in e-commerce, so we have to pay attention to what they are saying. At first, my company was small and fairly unknown, so our outlets were distributors like Groupon and Living Social. Through those outlets, I was able to gain many outstanding reviews for quality, pricing, and customer service and satisfaction.
Reviews are a priceless commodity in e-commerce, where everything else can seem sort of nebulous. I didn’t have a storefront, a warehouse, or employees. I just had this proof that my customers were delighted. I was able to take these great reviews as both a confidence builder and a solid piece of evidence for Hollywood Sensation’s success, and present them to huge sellers like Walmart, QVC and Zulily. It definitely got their attention. One good channel can start the ball rolling.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One mistake that strikes me as funny now was a shopping trip for office supplies. Since I started my business at my kitchen table, I had a very simple little printer, and it didn’t do labels. I did all the packing and shipping myself. What I would do is print out the customer’s address on paper, cut it out, and tape it to the package before taking all the packages to the post office.
One day I went to Staples for supplies and bought myself several new pairs of scissors. Mine had grown dull from all the labels I was cutting out. A while later, it occurred to me — why did I buy scissors? Why didn’t I buy a printer that could handle labels? The lesson to take away is that just because “this is the way I’ve always done it” doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way — and yes, I did buy a new printer after that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband has been a key part of my success. Not only is he a constant source of humor and morale, but he was absolutely essential in the early days. My English was not yet fluent when I began Hollywood Sensation, and I literally needed him to help me with communications. Starting a business is hard enough. Starting one in an unfamiliar language presents a completely separate set of challenges. I was so fortunate that he was able to step in as a translator. My English has gotten so much better — but I still keep him around for the eye candy.
Just joking! He’s incredible. Throughout every step of the journey, he has been my sounding board, a wise advisor, and my number-one cheerleader.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Funding is a major issue. It seems to be much easier for men to get financial support, whether from banks or investors. Male founders seem to inspire a confidence that female founders don’t — and that’s a real problem. I see men get millions of dollars in backing, whereas women founders are offered amounts in the tens of thousands, if they’re lucky. I couldn’t begin to explain why women are considered a less trustworthy investment; it’s a long-standing prejudice that I hope is changing.
Also, women personally can have trouble taking on multiple roles, particularly if those roles are in different arenas. We can love being mothers, and we can love being founders, but for some reason, being successful at one role makes us believe we are neglecting the other. This has been a double standard for far too long. Men generally don’t have as much trouble with reconciling being a great dad and a great founder at the same time.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
I think there are a couple of things that could really help here. First, women need to be educated, and to educate themselves, in finance and business. I’m a huge believer in the power of knowledge, so I’d advise all women out there: if you think you’re not getting the same education as your male peers, don’t wait for it to be handed to you. Information is available — go get it. Arm yourself. I hope that eventually the education system will catch up with what we need in order to achieve STEM skills, and higher education without incurring a lifetime of debt, regardless of gender.
Now, from a broader viewpoint, I feel like the government could do a great deal more when it comes to family support. The United States needs to accommodate women in the workplace by mandating far better parental leave policies and childcare policies. I feel like any money contributed to those causes would be more than balanced out by the economic boom of women (and men too) who don’t have to choose between their children and their career aspirations.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
We are more detail-oriented. We’re generally more compassionate and nurturing — perhaps naturally, or perhaps because men are discouraged from acting that way! We build strong teams because we’re quite focused on interactions between individuals. I believe also that we are less threatened by the thought of listening to other people’s input.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Here are some that myths I find particularly troublesome.
Myth: Founders just sit back and give orders.
Truth: We have to work ten times harder, and usually we’re fine with doing that because we have a great passion for our work.
Myth: Founders don’t take responsibility for errors.
Truth: We have to own our mistakes — and we do make mistakes — and fix them fast. Here’s a conundrum: when a decision goes well, the company gets the credit. When a decision goes wrong, the founder takes the blame.
Myth: Founders are motivated by money.
Truth: Money is one very clinical way to measure success, and money is nice to have, but it’s not often what a founder is thinking about. Founders are inspired by our passion. If money was all that interested me, I could have found much easier ways to make it than founding a business.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
No, not everyone is cut out for it, and that’s fine. Founding a business or organization is not the only way to find immense satisfaction in life, and skilled, trustworthy employees are essential to success. Founders need them, and vice-versa.
Traits that will certainly aid in a founder’s success are
- A talent for spotting an opening or opportunity
- Being open to (but prepared for) risk,
- Having the persistence to keep trying even when a hundred doors have been slammed in your face
- Willingness to work long and thankless hours, often alone, if it serves the “why”
- Having an extremely thick skin
You may find, however, that those same traits are needed to follow any big dream. Those traits can be summoned when a “why” is present. Women will put incredible effort into the things that are important to us.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Learn, learn, learn — and then implement what you’ve learned. I read constantly and look for angles in the practices of my competitors and other successes stories. There are vast resources of free and/or inexpensive knowledge available out there. You never know where your next brilliant inspiration could be hiding.
- Keep your focus! Business can be full of shiny distractions, tech, trends, fads and passing fancies. If you have something that is working, double down on it. You need not chase every new thing. You’ll be more clear-headed and recognize the new things that could really enhance your business if you remained focused. I have a knack for spotting trends, which can make a lot of money in the short-term; I also feel like I know when to stick with the classics that work.
- Define your “brand.” This is the face of your company, the spirit behind your “why.” In e-commerce, you must have this. It can definitely include the fact that you are a woman-owned business, or that you have a majority of women employees. I serve as the face of my company, and that is pretty typical in the fashion industry. I am proud to be a woman founder. I never hide that, and I never make it an excuse, either. Become the example of the woman you want to see more of in the next generation.
- Emphasize marketing and public relations. This goes hand in hand with branding. Once you have a brand, get it out there and build a reputation. In e-commerce, this is essential. If you don’t grab the public’s attention, someone else will. If you can develop strong public relations, you’ll have loyal customers and the best kind of marketing — positive word of mouth.
- Stop brainstorming and start borrowing. Find those who are successful in your market, look at what they’re doing, and model those practices. Whether it is their strategy, social platforming, or the content they put out, modeling from proven success is one of the easiest and most crucial ways to grow your business. While COVID-19 caused many businesses to struggle, I took a page from those that successfully pivoted their products, such as liquor companies producing hand sanitizer. I pivoted our jewelry line to fulfill a need springing from the isolation women felt from their loved ones; we began making engraved jewelry to express unbreakable connections. It helped Hollywood Sensation survive and made our customers feel better too.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Of course, I enjoyed success, but I didn’t really feel lasting satisfaction until I began using that success to help others. Hollywood Sensation donates money and products charities such as the Elton John AIDS Foundation and to Breast Cancer Awareness. During the COVID-19 crisis, we lowered prices and offered free shipping to ease our customers’ burden. In day to day life, I make a special effort to hire and support women employees.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think we’d solve many problems quickly if we could all make the effort to express kindness toward each other. You can never know what someone else has been through before or what they are enduring now. Empathy, courtesy, and patience are free, but also priceless.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet Donatella Versace! She’s an inspirational character, and an amazing fashion designer. I would love to soak up her aura of success and speak to her about her “why.”
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.