A sense of humor — being a woman in business comes with its ups and downs and is a roller coaster of emotions on a daily basis. Roll with the punches, have a laugh and keep moving forward to achieve your goals!
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Abigail Cook Stone.
Abigail Cook Stone started out as an art buyer for Ralph Lauren, and after traveling the world in search of treasures to adorn the brand’s stores and restaurants, she decided it was time to launch her own new venture. Inspired by her lifelong passion for art and interiors, her moderately healthy obsession with candles, and her family philosophy of finding small ways to elevate everyday life, she founded Otherland — a modern candle brand that transforms your home into an immersive world that never stands still.
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 childhood “backstory”?
Hi all! I’m originally from Watertown, Massachusetts. Growing up, my mom was certainly a Power Woman — she raised me while being the breadwinner and taking care of my dad, who had Parkinson’s disease. Through her I got my lifelong love of art and design, which has carried through to studying art history in college, moving to NYC and working in Art Acquisitions for Ralph Lauren, and finally to Otherland, where we work with different artists for each candle collection to visually express the scent experience and narrative.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
After my first job after college (what I thought was my dream job) turned out to be the opposite of what I’d expected, finding the confidence to move on and try something new — something I’d never done before — was daunting. I had always imagined starting my own company, but I didn’t know anyone who worked at a startup and wasn’t sure how to access that world. Then I found podcasts, I listened to every single one I could find about startups, soaking up the wisdom of my peers and slowly, but confidently, felt ready to enter into a world that was completely new to me. I saw my first opportunity: in my free time outside of work I co-founded Young Folk, the young patrons group of the American Folk Art Museum. Then, I decided to apply to business school to learn the fundamentals of business, to expand my network, to re-brand myself and transition into the startup world. It was in my last semester of Columbia Business School I had my big idea for Otherland!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I never expected to switch career paths several times! For years in high school and college I fantasized about my dream job as a fashion buyer, but when I got there it was a painful realization it wasn’t right for me. I then worked in Art Acquisition at Ralph Lauren but missed the business side. Finally, I discovered my calling as an entrepreneur. You don’t have to be siloed into one industry with your career — with hustle you can reinvent yourself as many times as you need to achieve your goals!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Deep, unshakable conviction in your mission.
- Resilience. You’ll be shut down more times than you can count, told your idea will never work, and worse. You’ll make many mistakes along the way, not get product/marketing/etc. right the first time and need to quickly pivot and iterate. Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster of emotions, and having the resilience to just keep going is key.
- “Being scrappy”. Taking pride in being ultra-resourceful to minimize your costs and stretch the utility of each dollar is an essential part of being a founder as your create and evolve your product to find that product-market fit.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
For as long as I can remember, women have been overlooked in the world of business. Society told us a woman’s place was at home, and now that more and more women are proving they can do it all, it makes some feel uncomfortable with this, albeit positive, change.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
A male friend from business school once said to me, “So how much longer until you give up on candles and get a real job?” While he was “joking,” I haven’t spoken to him since.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
In my fantasy world — exit the context! Find a better context with people around you who are comfortable around strong women. Of course, this isn’t the reality most women face. My mom would always say: be strategic and always keep your goal in mind. Ask yourself, what do you need to accomplish from this interaction so YOU can advance YOUR goals? Focus on doing what you need to do to accomplish your goal while staying true to your authentic self.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
The media should strive to offer more insight into the complete founder story/career path of women in business — to reflect all that they’ve needed to overcome to get to the position they are in today. They should also stop pitting women against other women! The more founders and powerful women can come together (for instance, with brand collaborations, conferences, and even something like our Fireside Chats Instagram & Tik Tok Live series), the better. This approach will help inspire more young women to follow suit, despite these challenges.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
In business school, I often found myself as one of only a few women in the room. During an entrepreneurship and technology course, a male professor once said (and echoing a blog post by a popular male venture capitalist) in analogizing the limitations of engineers in an early-stage startup, “It’s like the 9 women problem: 9 women can’t make a baby in a month.” Let’s keep our reproductive systems out of this, thanks! I can’t imagine a woman ever making this analogy.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women leaders have to answer to a double standard, particularly in the media, where they are expected to be perfect role models and bosses, marketable and public-facing, and embody a cultural ideal of strong women in the workplace. It’s deeply troubling and something women leaders must be careful and cognizant of, as frustrating as it may be.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
I’m lucky to work with my significant other, Sayyid Markar, who is my co-founder and the COO of Otherland. With the long hours, nights, and weekends of building a startup, I’m grateful we have each other. I’m an only child, my parents passed away about 7 months before launching Otherland, so we’ve been through a lot together.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
Obviously, it can be hard to disconnect from work when your personal and professional lives are wrapped into one. It’s something Sayyid and I have to work at — communicating and respecting each other’s boundaries and creating meaningful moments and deliberate breaks to reconnect and keep work off the table. We’re not perfect but keep getting better at it with time!
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
I think the most important thing is to do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable in your own skin, whatever that may be. Certainly, there are societal pressures on women in our culture to look a certain way, but there’s also a counter-current that emphasizes individuality and authenticity. I try to focus more on the latter as best I can. I love to use fashion and beauty to both express my personality and creativity. Also, I try to focus on self-care rituals and routines as foundational elements in my life that help me to feel my best, to feel strong and confidently ‘me,’ so I can be focused on all the other elements of building the business.
How is this similar or different for men?
The societal pressures on men’s appearances are nearly nothing compared to that for women!
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 Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- A great team — Surround yourself with a team of driven, positive people you can trust and rely on (and have fun with!) as you build your business. Delegation here is key!
- A good night’s sleep — Prioritizing sleep self-care is one of the most important things you can do. There are so many pressures and daily tasks for a founder and a decent night’s sleep, for me, has been above all the most important tool to set yourself up for success and to lead your team.
- Resources for your mental health — whether it’s a professional therapist, trustworthy friends and family, or a significant other, having resources to turn to when you’re going through a hard time or just navigating through the daily stresses of being a founder, it’s deeply important to have resources in place to support you and your mental health.
- Ruthless prioritization — With unexpected changes and endless demands, having the ability to sit down each morning and tackle the most important task first (as hard as it may be sometimes!) is critical.
- A sense of humor — being a woman in business comes with its ups and downs and is a roller coaster of emotions on a daily basis. Roll with the punches, have a laugh and keep moving forward to achieve your goals!
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.
Rihanna is an incredible, innovative business, entertainment and cultural leader whom I have deep admiration for. From Fenty Beauty to the groundbreaking Savage x Fenty fashion show to her power as an artist and entertainer, Rihanna isn’t afraid to write her own rules and challenge norms while building massive businesses in the process. I’d be beyond honored to have lunch with her!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.