“Taste the deliciousness of the moment” — this is one of my favorite quotes and to me, it means to feel gratitude for the little things and enjoy the journey. So often we’re focused on the end result we forget to live in the moment. I also feel it is important to communicate your gratitude to help others savor the moments as well.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Agnieszka Wilk.
Agnieszka is the co-founder and CEO of Decorilla, an online interior design service that connects customers with vetted professional interior designers who create curated 3D and VR spaces based on customer style preferences and budget. Decorilla also serves clients in-home in 20 major cities across the US for 80% less than traditional interior design.
With a team of over 300 interior designers and over 70 furniture partners, Agnieszka has led the company to be the first interior design firm to offer virtual reality to clients. She is a thought leader in the world of tech-meets-interior design, with work published in top magazines such as Inc. and TechCrunch. A love of helping others makes Agnieszka extremely in-tune with people’s unique needs. Moreover, her passion for design drives her to relentlessly explore how technology can make interior design more accessible and engaging.
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?
I immigrated from Poland to Canada when I was seven and I watched how hard my parents worked to learn a new language and establish a comfortable life for my brother and I. They told us that nothing in life is easy, so you must work hard to achieve great things, and I took that to heart. My first job was at a very young age. I delivered local newspapers and Sears catalogs in Canada where we often had four feet of snow or more! After high school, I decided to work to save enough money to put myself through college and buy my first house at the age of 23.
Later in life, a relocation to Seoul inspired by my (then) partner’s job, and also influenced my path. My finance background did not bode well in South Korea’s male-dominated industry. Being both a woman and a foreigner, I was offered an HR job, a position not in line with what I wanted.
Instead, I decided to turn my energy towards decorating our new apartment. I ran into several problems like making trial-and-error decisions that cost lots of time and money. Through this experience, I saw the lack of useful online interior decorating resources as a business opportunity.
I’ve always had a little voice inside telling me to be an entrepreneur, and it was at this time that I listened. I took that leap and now I run an international online interior design company. Getting to where I am today was not a straightforward path, but I think many of the different experiences and environments have shaped me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Every day brings interesting and fun challenges. I feel really grateful for where I am. The most interesting thing to me is early on in the company’s life when I began spending time researching how to, and trying to, fundraise. I wasn’t very good at it. We didn’t end up raising capital from the beginning and this curse turned out to be a blessing in the end.
I have seen several competitors in the space with tens of millions in funding go under because they were trying to grow too fast without getting the product right. From the beginning, we have had to focus on profitability, service, and providing a product consumers really want. We are constantly assessing our product, testing options, and improving. But, we do this with a full sense of responsibility to reflect our values, manage our cash flow, and hold ourselves accountable. It’s a tricky balance trying to manage our incredible organic growth with other options, but because of this experience, it’s taught me to slow down, focus, take appropriate and responsible risks, and build a product that is ready to scale.
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?
Early on when I started Decorilla a lot of people asked me for design advice, especially when I was taking my first sales calls with clients. There would sometimes be an awkward pause or I would try to research answers for them. This took me far too long because I’m not a designer and I hope I gave the right advice! I learned how to properly answer their questions and refer them to the right people. I don’t have a background in design, and as a business professional, I’m the last one that should be giving out design advice, so I learned not to spend time on something that isn’t a strength of mine.
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?
Initially, I wasn’t attracted to the CEO position and I had a hard time calling myself the Chief Executive when we were starting the company. It took about a year and a lot of persuasion from my colleagues to take up that title. I think it was a mix of gaining confidence, personal, and company growth that helped me to step into that role. I really believe in the company and my team so I feel a personal commitment to continue growing it and seeing us all grow together.
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?
CEOs have to develop a continuous strategy. You have to evolve, be flexible, and adapt to new conditions. At the same time, you have a responsibility to inspire others, to lead a team and ensure that people are genuinely committed to the vision and product. Beyond that you also serve as a mentor (or at least you should). For me, part of being a CEO is paving the way for others to follow suit — I recognize all my hard work getting here and I want to let others know that they too have the capability to lead a business. Tying into that, a CEO has to build a culture, that’s the DNA of any company and is what makes a business unique. Culture feeds into how a product is designed, built, delivered, and scaled; being a CEO means curating that culture, actively living it, all while juggling the roles of strategist, mentor, and executive.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I’m amazed daily watching the culture at Decorilla grow stronger and stronger. I particularly love to see the responsibilities that each employee takes on and how keen they are to discover new and personal strengths.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
One of the biggest drawbacks is also one of the biggest perks. You get attached to your team, it’s natural. But you ultimately end up feeling very responsible for every person at your organization. You want the best for them and for them to give their best at work, but sometimes it’s hard to switch off from conversations when you return home in the evening.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that CEOs have all the answers, which simply isn’t true. I think it’s more important that CEOs hire the right top people and train them well in the culture and practices of the company. By having specialized experts, CEOs are reassured that the company can run smoothly without the need for their constant input.
Another myth for me is that CEOs are workaholics. Actually, many CEOs (including myself), focus on their health and try to maintain a healthy work/life balance as soon as possible because they know it’s beneficial for the company ultimately.
The final myth for me is that CEOs have lifestyles of the rich and famous — for me at least, this isn’t true. I try to reinvest all my money back into the company because I believe in it. Likewise, CEOs that have to report back to investors have a responsibility to show their own financial commitment to a business.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Underrepresentation. Women don’t have many female role models in many fields like technology, especially in the virtual reality industry. We need to see other women in technical roles (leadership and otherwise). We are bombarded with messages in the media that tech is still for guys and is geeky. Women need to band together, collaborate, and create mentorships that encourage learning, motivation, and support.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Honestly, I never thought I’d be a CEO. I feel extremely lucky to have the support and admiration of my team, and that will always be something I cherish.
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?
Being honest and straightforward with your team is so important. If you’re unclear, people will begin to mistrust you and once that’s gone, it’s incredibly difficult to get it back. At the same time, you need to be a good communicator — if you can’t express yourself well and efficiently, you’ll quickly encounter problems. If you know you’re not a good communicator, I’d highly recommend taking some courses before diving into leading a team.
Positive thinking matters too and has such a huge impact on the people around you. Especially as CEO, positive thinking can motivate people, overcome obstacles, and help with looking at an old problem in a new way. Gratitude also plays a role — remember to always thank people, whatever they contribute to your business. If you’re not humble and recognize people’s work, you’ll swiftly discover that people aren’t willing to do you any favors.
Lastly, being a mentor is a necessary trait. You don’t necessarily need experience as a mentor but you should embrace the opportunity to coach people, draw on your experiences, and give them the tools to grow. Being a CEO comes with big responsibilities, and shaping the path for others to follow in your footsteps is arguably the top one.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Always be wanting to help and speak up. What you have to say is important.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
In my personal life, it’s been, my grandmother. She is 85 years old and has the energy of a 30-year-old. She is always kind, positive, and open-minded. She is not afraid to be different from her peers. Stepping into the realm of entrepreneurship and technology, I feel I challenge conventional standards, so her spirit is much of an inspiration to me.
Professionally, my first boss, Linda Higgins, has been an incredible mentor to me. I worked under her at the City of Windsor (Ontario) and although she was extremely busy, she made time for me and ensured that I felt empowered and able to solve problems myself. If I asked her a question that she thought I could solve, she told me to Google it! This was an important lesson that taught me how to think critically and effectively.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Yes, I make the lives of my team members better by giving them flexibility and support when things come up. Our clients also live better thanks to the Decorilla team, while our professional designers help people live in beauty and comfort.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be persistent — It takes time to get things right, but if you’re persistent you will get it. Just keep going and don’t let setbacks get to you. Likewise, business is a lot of trial and error. It takes time to get things right, but if you’re persistent you will see success.
- “Taste the deliciousness of the moment” — this is one of my favorite quotes and to me, it means to feel gratitude for the little things and enjoy the journey. So often we’re focused on the end result we forget to live in the moment. I also feel it is important to communicate your gratitude to help others savor the moments as well.
- Create a culture — develop the right culture that fits your beliefs, values, and leadership to form the environment of your workplace. Build upon that by hiring team members who fit that culture. I want my team to enjoy their days at work while feeling appreciated, challenged, and supported. In the end, we win together as a team.
- Accept yourself — there’s a lot of pressure to conform, but everyone is different and has their own strengths and weaknesses. I think this is normal and great and is what contributes to a well-rounded team. So don’t be afraid to show your differences because chances are people will embrace and appreciate you for them. You’ll notice this will also create a more open and accepting culture.
- Go on a team retreat, sooner rather than later — this year we met in Costa Rica and our only regret is that we wish we had done it sooner. Being a 100% remote team, we really got the chance to know each other and form relationships. Since the retreat, I’ve noticed a significant increase in my team collaborating on their own without feeling the need to involve me directly.
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’m passionate about eliminating food waste and in turn, getting food to those who need it. I’ve read that the world’s one billion hungry people could be fed on less than a quarter of the food that’s wasted in the US, UK, and Europe.I’m starting small and local, by making a conscious effort to reduce food waste at home and I also volunteer with City Harvest New York City. But I’d love to see more education and efforts fighting against waste and ensuring those in need are being fed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
People break down into two groups, motors, and anchors. You always want to surround yourself by the people who push you forward, not hold you down.
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 admire Oprah for staying true to her ideals despite many challenges. I’m inspired by her persistence to overcome adversity and use her stature to influence positive change and pursue philanthropy.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.