“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Bette Lissak of Paradigm Trends

An Interview with Phil La Duke

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My advice for other female leaders is to be ambitious, have tenacity, and be ready to take risks when needed. It is easier to thrive in a business when you have the money to back you up. Forging good relationships is also key.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bette Lissak.In 1984, Bette Lissak, a mother of three small children, launched Paradigm Trends — a premier lifestyle brand that provides luxurious quality décor with accessible pricing. Paradigm Trends offers a consistently evolving library of bath, bar, furniture and guest room accessories to its clientele. In an era of fast fading trend styles, this woman-founded family business has flourished. Paradigm Trends’ products can be found in a variety of hotels worldwide, as well as for sale online and throughout retail stores around the globe.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

This is a special year for me because we’re celebrating our 35th anniversary in business. In 1984, I launched my own company Paradigm Trends — a premier lifestyle brand that has provided luxurious quality décor with accessible pricing — while I was a mother of three small children. Paradigm Trends offers a consistently evolving library of bath, bar, furniture and guest room accessories to our clientele. We have been wholesaling to retailers since 1984 and started in hospitality around 1998. Once I understood the business model for the hospitality industry, around 2004, I saw opportunities for Paradigm Trends. At that time, I made the decision to trust my intuition and put most of our investment in hospitality. I was aware of our changing world, and I wanted to be ready to adapt. I truly believe that continuing success in business is dependent on change. Now, Paradigm Trends’ products can be found in hotels worldwide, as well as online retail.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

My connections from the inception of the business were with India. Though it was very difficult to be a woman while starting a business, my tenacity helped me see paths to take. Setting up India as the manufacturing base of my company was both a challenge and a major accomplishment. It was a very difficult to work in a country where there were no women in the industry. I could easily have pushed Thailand and China as the main manufacturing centers; however, I saw unique opportunities in India. India had a rich history of manufacturing designs and natural materials. India has also always had a wealth of experts in the handicraft sector. The quality and assortment of product that I imported from India made the effort worthwhile. The Paradigm Trends motto was and is, “good design for a good price”. India could help me achieve this goal! I can certainly see that following my intuition paid off.

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?

When I started the business, there were no sophisticated computers for design in my office. That meant the cost was very high to obtain a professional graphic designer for business cards, stationary, photographs, and printing images of my product. I was quoted $65,000 for this service at the time. I found someone who was willing to offer package for $35,000, which I thought was a bargain! After exhibiting at my first trade show, we only sold two collections. I couldn’t use that marketing material anymore because I needed to come up with new products and ideas. The investment of the packaging was expensive for just those two collections and I felt like I wasted all that money. What did I learn? It’s OK to make mistakes as long as you can afford them.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

Having an outlet for creativity and the independence of running my own business.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Being a CEO requires you to be a problem solver. I believe that being the leader of the company therefore means you lead the direction of the company and set the culture. However, much of the culture at Paradigm Trends come from each of my employees as they do a great job of representing the Paradigm Trends brand. What’s interesting is that all my employees come from different backgrounds, which brings a different perspective to the table and the culture at Paradigm. When interviewing candidates, I strongly emphasize that every employee has a vital role to the team whether you’re doing sales, operations, marketing, or shipping. The answer to the question about working as a team is extremely important because I believe that a big part of our company culture is how you work together to build the Paradigm Trends business. I encourage a cohesive and supportive culture for my employees to grow and bounce ideas off one another.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I enjoy seeing the company grow in ways that I never expected them too. My children, Jeanne and Seth, brought different working backgrounds that have lifted Paradigm to a more sophisticated company, opening doors to a variety of opportunities. When they first joined forces, Paradigm Trends’ position as a hospitality business was in its infancy stages, but through their combined efforts, the hospitality sector is Paradigm’s largest segment. Trips overseas have become a family affair. The family unit is committed to maintaining and enhancing Paradigm Trends’ traditions and will continue to position the company as a thought leader in the industry, as a brand that began well before it became a worldwide operation.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

– A lot of the responsibility falls on you

– Always being the problem solver

– Steering the company in the right direction

– Facing competition as a small business

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

People’s expectations of women are different than men. It has changed a bit over time, particularly as our business has grown, but men are still put on a higher pedestal. As a woman working in India, I learned of the vast differences in cultures, but nonetheless would not let that stand in my way. I eventually developed working relationships with those individuals would have to accept the fact that I was a woman and had every intention to do what it took to move my brand forward. I trusted that everything would fall into place and, more than that, I wouldn’t let myself fail. In times like these, I had to dig in and dig deep to uncover my next step. I’m proud of my interactions with the Indian market, learning what was important to factory owners, how they ticked, and the culture itself, which fostered the strong relationships built on new-found mutual respect. With the same suppliers for more than 20 years, loyalties were established and Paradigm grew stronger.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Prior to starting Paradigm Trends, I was finishing up my MBA, and my final thesis was on setting up an import/export business. Despite all my studying in business school, I would have never fully understood competition, how to judge order quantities, as well as the importance of marketing and a good sales team without becoming an entrepreneur myself.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I’m a 1960’s girl and I was told that I could become a teacher or a nurse, but never a doctor or a lawyer. If someone wants to increase the likelihood of becoming a successful executive, I think that person needs to have a strong desire to take ownership of their lives and decide they want to be an executive — despite what others may say they can or cannot be. On the other hand, if you are someone who needs stability, needs to be told what to do and when to do it, or needs to know when a paycheck is coming, then I would recommend that person avoids aspiring to be an executive!

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

My advice for other female leaders is to be ambitious, have tenacity, and be ready to take risks when needed. It is easier to thrive in a business when you have the money to back you up. Forging good relationships is also key.

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?

I’m truly proud of my son and daughter who have helped build this company. Instead of just one Lissak, we have three, and because of that Paradigm Trends continues to evolve steadily and powerfully. I knew naming my company ‘Paradigm’ was so fitting as its meaning gives me the opportunity to explore any option imaginable.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

First, we strive to use sustainable or recycled materials to create our products when possible. We primarily source mango wood, stainless steel, and faux leather from India. The mango wood is Indian grown and is a sustainable wood. The stainless steel is sourced from recycled steel. We are proud to use only recycled steel. The faux leather is sourced both in India and China. In India, we are fortunate to partner with manufacturers that work with natural products. We seek to source products that enhance the handicraft industry in India. In becoming more aware of our responsibility to combat the carbon footprint, we are insisting that we receive a certificate showing that any product containing MDF has used no carbon. By only manufacturing recycled stainless steel, we ensure that we are not adding to the carbon footprint. A recent initiative is that we are testing all of our products to ensure they are non toxic and eco-friendly. To comply with requirements, we have begun to source faux leather that is manufactured with these requirements. The remainder of our products already comply.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. The constant need to adapt and introduce new product.
  2. The importance of new technology in running a company.
  3. Put in the time and effort into your work to gain positive results.
  4. Have a good understanding of marketing and sales.
  5. The importance of fostering strong business relationships.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is: “We all get some gifts in life, you have to realize, acknowledge and make the most of them.” Intuition has played a pivotal role in all areas of Paradigm Trends. My original plan, after receiving my MBA, was to set up a business providing pension fund services for physicians. However, when the opportunity arose to start an import / wholesale company my intuition said go for it. No one in the industry had any knowledge of my thinking.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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