Elizabeth Grojean: “Don’t place faith in gurus”

Don’t place faith in gurus. Proactively seek advice and diverse points of view, read and listen to podcasts, online forums, or other sources of information, but don’t underestimate how much you know about your business; you’re the expert. As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Grojean. She […]

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Don’t place faith in gurus. Proactively seek advice and diverse points of view, read and listen to podcasts, online forums, or other sources of information, but don’t underestimate how much you know about your business; you’re the expert.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Grojean. She is the Founder and CEO of Baloo Living, a sleep and wellness company whose mission is to support people in reconnecting mind and body for restorative rest and relaxation. Elizabeth launched Baloo after taking a year-long sabbatical to Bali where she was transformed by the opportunity to find stillness and connect with nature. Now back in New York, Baloo is in its third year and experiencing strong growth through product and brand expansion.

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 have a story that I think many can relate to: as a young adult I felt compelled to do what I thought society expected, but I struggled when my choices didn’t bring me satisfaction. After a succession of corporate positions, I was longing for something more. I decided to leave my job and New York City and head to Bali on a one-way ticket with a little bit of savings, but not much. It was a moment of standing up for myself and choosing to listen to my intuition that told me I had to go, to trust myself even though I didn’t have a plan. That process of letting go of the illusion of control and safety in doing things the “right way” put me on my true path and changed my relationship to my life forever. I ended up spending 13 months in Bali and found a community of heart-based entrepreneurs, many of whom were instrumental in my discovery of weighted blankets and the creation of Baloo, which I launched from Bali less than a year later.

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

Just a few months ago we were facing a conundrum — our sales had increased and we were about to run out of our best-selling weighted blankets. We wanted to find a product that we’d be excited to share with our community just as much as our weighted blankets, but we weren’t sure what that would be!

Our Director of Operations had recently purchased a set of meditation speakers which we’d been using in the mornings before starting work, and we absolutely love them. Jen set up a call with the brand, and we discovered the most aligned, mission-driven, and copacetic creators — the husband and wife team behind the NOW. Tone Therapy System by Solu. Solu is equally selective about their partnerships but Michael and Ruane felt the same way about us! It was effortless, aligned, and we were so excited to share this new product which launched soon after and will be a permanent offering in our store.

The NOW Tone Therapy System by Solu is a pair of palm-sized speakers that work in harmony to provide a 3-minute session of dual tones designed to calm your mind and provide a quiet, grounding moment. Three minutes twice a day provides the same benefits as 30 minutes of meditation. These unassuming speakers have been used to improve sleep disorders, lower blood pressure, reduce the need for medications, and manage PTSD and anxiety so they are a perfect companion for the Baloo blanket.

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?

Our first Christmas we launched our linen duvet covers in five different colors. The factory made a mistake and mixed up the labels on the cartons, so the warehouse shipped the wrong item to about half of our customers. As soon as we noticed we prepared new shipments with the right items, and hand wrote notes to put inside each box, apologizing for the mix-up, and asked everyone to send their original items back to us. All but TWO of the original items were returned to us, and one woman wrote the sweetest note back on kitty cat stationery. It was so encouraging to see how many people went out of their way to send our merchandise back, and the handwritten notes back were the best!

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?

My favorite thing about running a business is the fact that every day is different, and there’s so much freedom to create each day, and my life. I definitely work more and work harder than ever before, but the work of building a business doesn’t feel like work — it’s more like freedom of self-expression. As a founder, I believe that the values we support through our companies, the products we sell, and the way we engage and relate to customers and the market are all an extension of the CEO, which I find incredibly intense and exciting. It means that every day I’m doing my best to grow and expand, and the results I see in the business are my immediate and unfiltered feedback. I can internalize that to find new ways to evolve and improve as a leader. I’ve never had a role that gave me as much judgment-free feedback — positive or negative — as immediately and clearly as I do as a CEO.

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?

I’ve heard it said that CEO stands for “Chief Reminding Officer,” which I think is very true! As the leader, it’s the CEO’s job to set the course and then stay focused on that vision but more importantly, make sure that the organization keeps moving in that direction. Since Baloo is still a small and young company, in my role as CEO I’m very closely connected to every area from planning new products and launches, production and inventory, cash flow and accounting, customer service, marketing and PR, hiring and firing, partnerships, and brand building. Plus, developing strategy for each of these areas, or identifying the people or teams to lean on to develop certain areas. But what makes the role of CEO different from any other is that ultimately the CEO is one hundred percent accountable for the overall success or failure of the business.

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

Working in an eCommerce business that sells directly to customers gives us immediacy and closeness with people that I love. We can innovate and change things much more quickly than a traditional brand with longer lead times for production and planning.

This year has been a roller coaster, and just as one challenge is managed, another pops up. Finding creative ways to adapt sometimes feels like surfing — don’t get sucked under the wave but have a relationship with it so it can carry you forward — which I find thrilling.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

It can get lonely being the one person accountable for the decisions that chart the course for the company. Decisions are part of leading and they can’t be outsourced or delegated. There are days when they feel relentless — where to focus resources, what to prioritize, how to optimize; even small things like which images and copy to use are important because they’re at the heart of how we connect with people and our community, and it means everything to be authentic to our brand.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I used to think that being a CEO meant someone had gone to a certain school or had a certain education or even access to certain connections for funding through their inherited network. What I’ve found is that there are so many ways to start a business and find funding, and the most important qualities to have are commitment, passion, dedication, flexibility, and resourcefulness. That has nothing to do with a special background or pedigree and everything to do with seeing a way to make the world a better place, and the commitment to making a vision become a reality.

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

Early in my career, I had a difficult time getting past administrative roles, even though I had a marketing degree from a top business school. I would honestly say that I was as responsible for that as anyone because I was waiting to be invited to step up, rather than advocating for my own leadership. After I made the decision to live by trusting myself and my own intuition outside of my limiting definition of what “success” meant, I found my voice and my leadership within, from a source that has zero to do with external validation. As soon as I started living from my heart instead of my head, I started to experience that almost anything I could think of would manifest itself, often immediately and effortlessly. Creating is in the domain of the feminine, and I believe that as women when we embrace our feminine nature, we can access very real power which transcends the more masculine world of conventional business and leads to miraculous seeming outcomes.

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

I never knew how much there would be to do! From the day of our first sale until now, the business has been growing faster than I ever would have anticipated. With the growing business comes growing complexity. I’ll give away how naïve I was in the beginning — I thought I would be able to run the company without hiring employees! I resisted hiring and worked only with freelancers for the first year, but eventually, I came to see that if we were going to realize our potential I would need to invite in and trust others to be full time in the business with me. It has made it more impractical to base myself in Bali as a result of having a US team, but that was a small sacrifice to make to be able to spend my days building a business that I love.

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 think it’s important to be clear about your values; to be willing and able to confront difficult or uncomfortable situations and people constructively; being able to move forward even with uncertainty or incomplete information, and being accountable while still being flexible are all skills or strengths that will help someone in an executive-level role. It’s okay to be unsure and not know the answers, but having an open and curious mind, and the ability to act in spite of all of the above, can make someone a strong leader. Conversely, someone who relishes feeling like they’re in control of situations or routines, or who struggles with second-guessing their decisions after they’re made will have a hard time in an executive position within a startup.

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

The more we nurture ourselves, the better, wiser, more grounded leaders we can be for our teams. One thing that has been invaluable to me has been the listening ear of other women leaders. I spend time with female founders each week and the conversations, empathy, and insights in those relationships fill my cup all the way up. I believe that as women we bring so much of our whole selves to our businesses and other women understand that everything is connected — our mental health and relationships affect our performance and our leadership.

I find that recognizing people publicly when someone does a great job brings us together as a team, and is so meaningful for the person being recognized. I also think that having clear expectations for team members is important — as is honest and immediate feedback whenever there may be some uncertainty about performance or expectations. I think it’s also important to be honest with someone when it’s not working out, after a good faith attempt to find a fit. That decision to let someone go is extremely difficult, but I believe it’s healthy for both parties to separate if the employee and the business or the role aren’t in alignment.

I think encouraging team members to grow outside of the company is extremely healthy and productive, by supporting networking groups related to their role, sponsoring seminars, conferences or continuing education; that outside perspective can reinvigorate the team and also helps give people perspective on the value of their role and the position they have to make a difference within the organization. It’s also a way that as the leader you can show that they value someone, by investing in their knowledge and career.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I always thought that being an entrepreneur meant being on your own, but one of the biggest surprises has been just how many people have helped me on this journey. It would be impossible to pick one, but my family has been a tremendous support. The funds to order my first inventory came from a loan from my dad, and my sister helped me stuff envelopes for our product inserts when she came to Bali on vacation. My other sister invested in the business to help us launch our linen duvet covers, and now she’s invaluable as our Director of Operations.

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

Giving back is one of the most beautiful experiences that’s come from our success. First of all, Baloo’s weighted blankets have helped many people feel more peaceful and safe, which right now is more important than ever. Our customers tell us they’re sleeping well for the first time in years, their children are falling right to sleep, their anxiety is greatly diminished and they’re feeling more grounded. I believe this has a ripple effect, not only in their own health and family relationships but in our communities.

Since our launch, we have partnered with the Pajama Program, which gives children and their caregivers tools for building reassuring bedtime routines; and the carbonfund.org Foundation, to offset our carbon footprint.

More recently, we were able to donate 500 blankets to front line health care workers at hospitals all around the country who are treating patients with Coronavirus. In honor of Juneteenth, we donated more than 40 blankets to an organization supporting the Black Lives Movement. We try to support the environment through corporate givebacks, such as giving a percentage of our sales to the Rainforest Alliance and planting trees with SeaTrees to sequester carbon from the environment while supporting local communities.

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

  1. Good things take time. Baloo has been here for just a little over two years so we’re still babies, so this is something I remind myself on a regular basis.
  2. Similar to number 1, don’t try to do everything at once! We can only do one thing at a time, so focus on the one thing in front of you, and do it well. Then move on. This saves time in the long run because try to do too much at once, and nothing of substance gets done. This includes ignoring the bright shiny objects like new marketing hacks or social media channels.
  3. Always listen to your instincts — if something feels slightly off, investigate. That small signal is a hint that could become a bigger flag down the road.
  4. Don’t place faith in gurus. Proactively seek advice and diverse points of view, read and listen to podcasts, online forums, or other sources of information, but don’t underestimate how much you know about your business; you’re the expert.
  5. Hard times always lead to good things! The most challenging and difficult times have taught me the most, and those are lessons I will never forget.

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.

Stress levels have been high for a long time but the challenges we face now are presenting us with more anxiety than ever. It’s a universal human need to feel significant, to feel that we matter and that we’re safe. Anything we can do to help one person feel more connected to their own inner power, to deepen their inner strength, to feel calm, self-confident, and sovereign, the more we change the world. Transformation is possible for all of us, even those who are feeling most disenfranchised and disempowered.

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

“People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”– Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist

This was true for me — I spent fourteen years after college looking inside my own head for answers to my questions, but as soon as I finally gave myself permission to do what I needed to do, to make a change, and that’s when all my dreams started coming true…

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.

Ashley Merrill, founder of sleepwear brand Lunya, and now chairwoman of the board of Outdoor Voices. I admire both of these companies because they have a soul and a community of people who feel passionately about them. This resonates deeply for me because I see Baloo as a company that stands for an idea first, but which is expressed through products. There are so many brands being launched with VC backing and savvy marketers but lacking any soul—that greater purpose for being other than to make money and an exit for the founder and investors. There’s so much more to business than making money. Ashley’s quoted in Vogue as saying, “I’ve always felt an unstated kinship with a lot of female founders because I see us as part of a shared common mission of breaking gender boundaries and living the change we hope to see in the world.” Amen to that!!

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

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