Sometimes, it’s just really, really hard
I never thought we would live through a global pandemic. Nor could I possibly have anticipated the magnitude a global pandemic would have on my business, my people and my own personal mental health. No one could. But it’s just an example of how life and business can blindside you in ways you could never have fathomed. Accept the fact that you will have some really challenging times. At some point, things will go off the rails. Don’t panic. Instead, take a deep breath, keep your composure, use your resources, lean on colleagues, and press on. Eventually, you’ll get through it.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eve Kolakowski, Owner, CEO and President of Rymax, Inc. — a leading loyalty marketing and rewards provider. In addition to spearheading all strategic planning and company growth strategies, Kolakowski plays an integral role in the quality and quantity of Rymax’s brand partnerships. She has fostered relationships with nearly 450 best-in-class brands to offer customers more than 17,000 reward options across a wide array of product categories. Kolakowski also oversees the company’s bi-costal fulfillment arm, Brainstorm Logistics and worked to broaden the company’s technology capabilities, delivering one of the industry’s finest reward and recognition platforms. She is one of N.J.’s most powerful women and has received numerous accolades, including being recognized by Incentive Magazine as one of the industry’s “25 Most Influential People”. In addition to leading Rymax and Brainstorm Logistics into the future, Kolakowski also Co-founded Pai-Shau, a high-end haircare company that sells tea-infused products. Meaning, “passion for life”, all Pai-Shau products are cruelty free, vegan friendly, color safe, Keratin safe, gluten free, paraben free, sulfate free, phosphate free, and have no added sodium chloride.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in NJ and attended Seton Hall University. I started with Rymax in my early 20’s and began to mold the business into what it has become. I purchased the company from the founder in 2019 and took over as President and Owner. Spearheading an incentive and product fulfillment company, I am always focused on engaging and motivating employees and customers through the power of product rewards. A trending merchandise expert and lover of luxury goods, I recently invested in Pai-Shau, a high-end haircare company that manufactures tea-infused hair products in North America. As owner of multiple companies all centered around aspirational products, my expertise lies not only in the product themselves, but how to identify rising trends, maximizing distribution channels and boosting brands’ bottom lines.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Rymax was formed out of necessity because corporations had points and miles programs but needed a cost-effective way to burned them off of their balance sheets. And out of that, Rymax solutions was formed.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Failure is not an option for me. I’m too determined. I’ve definitely faced challenges and there were definitely days where I felt defeated or discouraged, but I never allowed myself to really even consider giving up. Call it stubbornness. Call it optimism. Call it blind faith. Either way, it’s what carried me.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
2020 and the pandemic challenged us in ways we can never have imagined. But we came through it and are now stronger as an organization. I believe I’m a stronger leader as a result as well. Again, I think my refusal to give up on myself and my ambitions, drove our success.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The variety and breadth of our rewards collection differentiates us from our competitors. No one offers a portfolio of brands and rewards as vast and as impressive as Rymax. We have over 17,000 SKU’s of trending products from more than 400 of today’s most popular brands. This has always been, and will always remain, the heart of our organization and what makes us experts in loyalty, recognition and incentive programs. We have exclusive access in our industry 100 brands — which means that anyone who wants to sell merchandise in the incentive and loyalty channel have to do so through Rymax. Clients come to us because they know they will be able to deliver their audience more options with us than any other incentive and rewards provider.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made when I started was thinking that I knew everything. I thought I had all the answers. It’s funny how quickly you realize you actually don’t. I learned how important it was (and is) to have a good team of people around you to count on, to exchange ideas and help navigate new roads with you.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
That’s a tough one. I’ve received a lot of advice over the years. Some of it I followed, and some of it I didn’t. Some of it was helpful, and some I probably should have disregarded. I guess my biggest tip here would be, trust your gut. If someone tells you something and it doesn’t “feel” right to you…listen to yourself. Don’t always just assume that the advice you’re given is automatically the best advice because the source is older or more experienced. Take it as it comes and make decisions based on each circumstance at hand.
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?
Drive. Thick Skin. Tenacity. These three things all sort of work in tandem. From a young age, I was very driven and determined to be successful. I was constantly setting new goals for myself and I was never satisfied with my achievements…I always reached for more. And I refused to quit or give up on myself or my dreams. That’s not to say that my ambitions and achievements were not met with adversity, missteps or naysayers. I’ve had a lot of doors slammed in my face. I’ve heard the word “no” many times. There were days where that little voice of self-doubt started whispering in my ear…but I always quickly shut it down. You have to believe in yourself above all else. Let the adversity and the naysayers fuel your passions, not stifle it.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Remember, you don’t need to have all the answers all of the time. It’s important to acknowledge that you’re not always the smartest person in the room.Just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean you’re all-knowing. It’s ok to ask for help or support. Lean on mentors, peers and team members for their ideas, strategies, and experiences. Similarly, surround yourself with great people, both at work and at play. I have an incredible support system both professionally and personally and it has greatly shaped the person I’ve become and the successes that I’ve experienced.Take time for yourself. This is an obvious one but for some reason everyone needs to be reminded of it. It’s ok and healthy to turn off the phone and the computer every once in a while. Remember that the path to success is not a straight line. You’ll have bad days. Learn to laugh at yourself and just keep going. Learn from your mistakes, correct your course and forge ahead.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I often see CEO’s and founders trying to do too much too fast, and trying to be all things to all people, all the time. You don’t always have to sprint to the finish line. It’s important to pace yourself. Don’t overextend yourself, your staff or your resources.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I cannot overstate the importance of recognizing and rewarding your employees for a job well done. All too often business leaders forget that a simple acknowledgment and “thank you” can go a long way. We may be the north star, but they are the strength of our company.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Sometimes, it’s just really, really hard. I never thought we would live through a global pandemic. Nor could I possibly have anticipated the magnitude a global pandemic would have on my business, my people and my own personal mental health. No one could. But it’s just an example of how life and business can blindside you in ways you could never have fathomed. Accept the fact that you will have some really challenging times. At some point, things will go off the rails. Don’t panic. Instead, take a deep breath, keep your composure, use your resources, lean on colleagues, and press on. Eventually, you’ll get through it.
- Know who you are and trust her (him). The more you know yourself, the easier it is to stay true to who you are and the easier it becomes to navigate challenging situations. It helps you to know where your strengths are and where you may need additional guidance. It helps you to know what matters most to you, which is important when setting goals and objectives as well as focusing your time and your energy. Listen to yourself…nobody knows you better than you.
- Leadership and management are not the same thing…and you must be both. Leadership and management are two different things. Some people are great leaders, but terrible managers…and vice versa. As a business owner, you have to be both. Leaders have a group of people who follow them. Managers have a group of people who work for them. Managers execute a vision through the completion of tasks. They establish goals and enforce processes, standards and guidelines. Leaders affect change. They inspire and move people. They create vision and invoke passions. Being both is hard — but necessary — for your team to be engaged, motivated and successful.
- Operating a woman-owned business is big a deal. When I was building my career, I never really focused on the fact that I was a woman. I always just kept my head down and the did the work. I figured that by doing so, success would come. I was proud that I earned my spot as a leader in a company. I knew it was an impressive achievement, but it was only recently that I started to truly realize the fact that I’m a FEMALE leader of a company. Perhaps I was naïve in realizing the sense of pride and inspiration it would bring to young female entrepreneurs and businesswoman, but it truly is fulfilling to know that my achievements matter to people and bring women a renewed hope that they too can reach such success.
- Learn to Ignore the Haters. No matter how many people you have in your corner cheering you on, and no matter how loud they are cheering, the voices of the naysayers seem to be just a little bit louder. No matter what happens, no matter what they say or how they try to discourage or defeat you, don’t let them derail your ambitions or your plans. I realize this sounds obvious, but you’ll be surprised how often that negativity creeps in and makes you second guess yourself. Fight the urge to give into self-doubt or negative vibes. Remember no matter what happens, always believe in yourself and refuse to quit. It sounds simple, but it will be the backbone of your success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
My fifth lesson, ignore the haters, is a big one for me. I wish I could start a movement that would cancel/mute naysayers. Moreover, I wish I could start a movement that would empower professionals to ignore naysayers and prevent negative people and critics from derailing their success. I can’t tell you how many times a team member has held off on presenting a good idea or a suggestion because they were intimidated or deterred by a naysayer. We work on positive reinforcement and recognizing a job-well done on a regular basis in my organization because I want people to feel appreciated and valued. I also want them to feel confident and comfortable to bring new ideas and knowledge to the team.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Follow me on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eve-kolakowski-b2ba399/ or visit us on social media:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!