Jelina Saliu: “Think people, not customers”

Think people, not customers. Make products that’ll solve problems and make people’s lives easier. Don’t get so wrapped up in customer profiles. As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jelina Saliu. Jelina Saliu is CEO of The Laundress, a premium lifestyle brand that specializes in eco-friendly […]

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Think people, not customers. Make products that’ll solve problems and make people’s lives easier. Don’t get so wrapped up in customer profiles.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jelina Saliu. Jelina Saliu is CEO of The Laundress, a premium lifestyle brand that specializes in eco-friendly laundry detergent, fabric care, and home cleaning products. She is also the founder of Accounting Management Inc., a boutique specialized services firm that provides CFO and COO services, tax planning and accounting, and payroll and bookkeeping services.

After 11 years of working with The Laundress, Jelina stepped in as COO in 2017 to prepare the company for acquisition. In 2019, the company sold to Unilever. Jelina was appointed CEO in 2020.

At Accounting Management Inc., Jelina has a singular mission: to support entrepreneurs in achieving their dreams. With a specialty in growth-stage consumer and consumable goods businesses, Jelina works in partnership with company founders as they identify their personal and professional goals and creates a roadmap to achieve them. She has positioned clients for strategic acquisition and sustainable, long-term value creation.

Jelina graduated from the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College with a BBA in Finance. She lives with her family in New York.

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

I was appointed The Laundress CEO in January 2020 right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. Before we could close Q1 we had to pivot our 2020 plan to include remote work, supply chain management under a global pandemic, and major shifting of content. It’s been a year of firsts. Agility and a solid team make all the difference.

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?

We’ve made lots of funny mistakes along the way and still do! Mistakes will always happen. Instead of harping on them, I like to identify what we can learn, then move forward with those learnings in mind. Also, you can always find a way.

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?

I have been a part of The Laundress brand for 12 years and each November I update our 5-year projections. In January 2019, we sold The Laundress to Unilever. Being so deeply invested in the brand, I wanted to see our realized projects through — team members growing into leadership roles, achieving sales goals, and producing millions of units of the product while maintaining a harmonious EBITDA. Chief among them, I wholeheartedly believe in The Laundress story, their product, and their mission and this is what attracted me to the CEO role the most. There has to be a lot of emotional resonance for the company you are leading.

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?

A great leader must be mission and vision-driven. A clear, long-term, and actionable vision is critical to success. You also have to be a brand holder, constantly shaping and molding brand objectives while at the same time maintaining consistency.

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

Leading with enthusiasm and watching my team grow, prosper, and perform at their best.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

At the end of the day, you cannot make everyone happy. There are always going to be people that don’t agree with you or the decisions you make, even if they are ultimately for the greater good of the company.

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

  1. CEOs are a “one-woman show.” As CEO, you rely on your team to help you brainstorm, come to decisions, and keep the business running smoothly. Behind every successful entrepreneur, there is a team that’s in sync.
  2. That they are unapproachable. You have to check your ego at the door and treat your team and community as humans — with kindness and respect. Show gratitude. They are what keeps the engine running.

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

There is certainly more pressure on women to do it all and do it right when it comes to work, home, family, and friends. You have to find balance, establish boundaries, and manage expectations.

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

A big portion of my job is managing and protecting The Laundress brand, particularly the brand’s ethos. Ensuring that our values and positioning stays true to the origin and founders’ visions.

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?

Enthusiasm, authenticity, and high energy are great traits to possess as an entrepreneur, but that’s not to say that these are non-negotiables. Each leader really does lead differently.

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

Have open meetings with your whole team and be available to them. This creates an environment where employees can be more engaged, inspired, and learn from each other.

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 get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The Laundress founders, Lindsey Boyd and Gwen Whiting trusted me with their business at a very young stage and taught me to always have the determination to succeed, no matter the obstacles.

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

I launched the Dream Numbers program to funnel my passion for teaching. The program provides young and aspiring female entrepreneurs the fundamentals, from accounting systems to supply chains. By connecting them to The Laundress, I’ve also been able to empower them with coaching and community.

During COVID-19, Dream Numbers was able to utilize the Laundress community to raise and donate 3,000 meals that went to healthcare professionals on the frontlines.

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

  1. Take your time to make decisions, especially ones that may have long term consequences. Running a business should be a marathon, not a sprint.
  2. It’s okay to pace work and opportunities. When time permits, this allows for more flawless execution with fewer mistakes, which saves you time down the line.
  3. Do what you do best and hire for the rest. This one was so important as we started hiring. Also, be sure to trust your employees’ expertise.
  4. Think people, not customers. Make products that’ll solve problems and make people’s lives easier. Don’t get so wrapped up in customer profiles.
  5. Do what you do well. No amount of advertising or PR will work if your product doesn’t work.

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 wholeheartedly believe in access to higher education for everyone. At the end of the day, education can be an equalizer. It gives people the empowerment to think outside the box and nurture talent and skills and inspires confidence and opportunities.

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

This isn’t a quote per se, but I’m enamored by the Bill Gates docuseries, Inside Bill’s Brain. It hones in on the way time is a commodity that you can’t buy. Each and every one of us gets 24 hours in a day, but we can increase the value of time through management techniques. How you manage your time determines success.

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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I look up to British-Iranian journalist Christiane Amanpour. She was one of the leading war reporters of the 20th and 21st centuries and her job has taken her into really uncomfortable, high-conflict areas of the world. I admire how fearless and strong she is. She’s never been afraid to roll up her sleeves and her passion for what she does is steadfast.

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

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