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“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Jillian Ryan, CEO of Marie Mae Company

You will not be the same person. The grit and perseverance required to build a business changes you. You can either let the stress crush you or strengthen you as a person. It will mold you into a better leader if you let it. There are times where I want to just shut down and […]


You will not be the same person. The grit and perseverance required to build a business changes you. You can either let the stress crush you or strengthen you as a person. It will mold you into a better leader if you let it. There are times where I want to just shut down and hide, but then I remember how many people are counting on me to figure this out — and you just have to figure out the next step. Not all of them. Just the next one. And do it.


As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jillian Ryan. Jillian is the founder and CEO of Marie Mae Company, a professional lifestyle brand that gives back. Coming from a background of advising Fortune 100 companies on facilitating responsible investments in Africa, Jillian decided to combine her experience and love of fine paper products. Thus, Marie Mae Company was launched in October 2014. With a passion for making a difference in the world, Jillian set out to create polished products that were always professional, yet never boring. In the process of building her company, she soon realized that there were many things that she wished she had been taught in business school to help her succeed in the entrepreneurial world. It was from this realization that the Marie Mae Business School was developed and brought to life. Focusing on providing practical business training, the Marie Mae Business School seeks out teachers who have started businesses of their own, giving them first-hand experience to pass on. Jillian holds a B.S. in Economics and a minor in Business from Texas A&M, as well as a Masters in International Business from George Mason University; all of which have paved the way to the eco-conscious standards she uses when sourcing and producing Marie Mae Company’s paper products. In addition to working with artisans around the globe to find recycled elements and vegetable-tanned leather, all the paper products are made in the U.S. on eco-friendly paper. Jillian Ryan is based in Plano, Texas where she resides with her Labradoodle, Maggie.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Jillian! What is it about the position of CEO the most attracted you to it?

There’s something about being in charge of your own destiny that made it attractive to me, as well as terrifying!

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

In my mind, a CEO’s job is to ensure everyone else has what they need to perform their best to continue moving the company forward.

What were your biggest struggles throughout your professional life and how did you overcome them?

My biggest struggle in my career has always been self-confidence and feeling like a fraud. It was difficult to overcome in my consulting career, but thankfully as an entrepreneur/CEO, you simply don’t have the time to worry about what others think of you. You have too many people counting on you and too many things to do, so you don’t have time to overthink things beforehand — which actually helps!

What are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I really think it’s the mental struggle to feel like you know what you are doing and to have the self-confidence to trust yourself to choose the next step. We are our own worst enemies! Once I realized no one else knows what they are doing either, things got much better 🙂

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?

No two days are ever alike.

What are the downsides of being a CEO?

Never being able to stop thinking about work and how you can improve things.

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

When we received our first large-scale order. I quickly had to go from producing 100–200 of something to figuring out how to produce 300,000 units of something! A much different beast.

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?

Oh there are so many! The lesson I learned from all of them — as well as from talking to other CEOs — is that none of us actually know what we are doing. We learn, we adapt, we take our best guess — but there is no manual.

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

People are looking to you for guidance and certainty, and I thought that would naturally come with the position. But no. It’s figuring out how to project confidence and certainty — while staying approachable, moldable, and humble — that is the difficult part.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a CEO, what specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful CEO and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be a CEO?

If you are looking for security and are risk averse, I don’t think you would be happy as a CEO. You have to be able to compartmentalize the stress, otherwise it will overtake your life.

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

Empower your people with the responsibility and tools to really own their positions. Be the cheerleader that you wish you had.

It’s all about communication and systems. The larger your team gets, the more you can’t rely on being able to verbally keep everyone in the loop. Getting a solid project management system in place has really helped keep all of us on the same page.

Who inspired/inspires you and why?

My previous boss Brent Scowcroft. He is one of the world’s greatest national security/diplomatic minds that I’ve ever seen, and yet the most humble man I’ve ever met. He was never above taking the subway to a meeting, and was always the first one in and last one out of the office. He was a true leader that inspired you by his actions and work ethic.

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?

There are so many. The only times I haven’t been successful were when I tried to do it on my own. Lean into people, and build your circle.

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

Our business was built on making sure we not only had a sustainable business, but also that all of our products were ethically made and provided a positive social impact. For each product or gift bundle we sell, we provide an hour of business school for one person through the Marie Mae Business School. We currently are working with a non-profit in Dallas with trafficking survivors to empower them with the knowledge, skills and resources to successfully build a career.

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

  1. It will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and you have no idea just how hard when you start. But it will be worth it. I’ve never worked at something so hard in my life for such little pay! But you have to wake up each day knowing you are building something valuable for you, your team, your customers, and your business school students. That’s what keeps driving you. Everything else will come if you keep that perspective.
  2. Perseverance will be the greatest indicator of your success. Everything else can be learned. When we received our first significant order, I had zero clue how we were going to finance the order or produce the order. But I knew I could learn how to do those things if I kept at it.
  3. No one knows what they are doing either. You get in there and figure it out. (See above)
  4. Build a team. Don’t try to do everything yourself. I spent the first 3 years of building my business too scared to hire anyone for a full time roll. I would utilize freelancers where I could, but never a full time employee. I always thought one day our revenues would be steady enough to where I would feel comfortable hiring someone, but it ended up being the other way around. I needed to be brave enough to invest in building a team, and together, we got our revenues to where they needed to be. You can’t do everything yourself.
  5. You will not be the same person. The grit and perseverance required to build a business changes you. You can either let the stress crush you or strengthen you as a person. It will mold you into a better leader if you let it. There are times where I want to just shut down and hide, but then I remember how many people are counting on me to figure this out — and you just have to figure out the next step. Not all of them. Just the next one. And do it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

To holistically do good with your business. Don’t set money aside for a charity, and then have all of your products made in unlivable conditions. Think through your whole supply chain and how your business affects all of your stakeholders, and try to do good throughout the business — versus just adding in a charitable component.

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

At the moment, it’s the wise words from Finding Nemo 🙂 Just keep swimming. Just keep figuring out the next right step. Just keep going.

Some of the biggest 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

Mark Cuban — I LOVE hearing stories from his early days.

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

— — — — — —

About the author:

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrust Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com

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