No one can tell you in advance how hard it is to start a business, or make decisions for thousands of people, or give you solutions where they don’t yet exist. It’s about learning on-the-job one day at a time. For women, I think our toughest challenge is developing what I call “emotional muscle.” That is learning how to protect ourselves from the emotional toll of having to make really hard decisions. We’re used to solving problems where everyone wins, like sharing two cookies between three kids. In business that’s not always possible and it takes time to get comfortable with that.
Joni Rogers-Kante knows a thing or two about beauty products. Armed with a vision and a business “education” working at Sav-On Corporation and Mary Kay Cosmetics, Joni pursued her dream of becoming an entrepreneur. In 1999, the Oklahoma native founded the beauty brand SeneGence® International and was the driving force behind the company’s vision — overseeing new product development and marketing, as well as establishing distributor training programs. Today, SeneGence is a billion dollar network marketing company and international industry leader in luxury cosmetics.
Thank you so much for joining us Joni! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I spent the first 15 years of life on a farm in the small town of Sapulpa in Oklahoma. My first job was at age 16 in California with Sav-On Drugs. Being something of a girly-girl, I loved the magic and sparkle of the cosmetic aisle most of all! I earned several promotions within the chain store, but I knew the corporate life was not right for me. A friend introduced me to Mary Kay Cosmetics and it all came together. Selling products I loved, with the freedom to work hard, the sky was the limit. Eventually, having a son and working from home direct sells was the perfect venue to provide for him and me. From there, starting SeneGence was a big, but inevitable leap. Based on two simple ideas: to offer women products that really work and to offer careers that really work by selling those products, I can honestly say it is as true today as it was twenty years ago.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened since you began leading the company?
No pun intended, but the one that pops into mind is the saga of the “popper stoppers!”. We’d been in business about five years. Ever on the lookout for cost efficiencies, our CFO took it upon himself to switch our lip color tube manufacturer. What followed was an avalanche of customer complaints about lip color leakage ruining clothing, along with Armani and Louis Vuitton purses! We went full tilt into damage control, ditching six months of inventory (literally millions of tubes), calling every affected customer and, of course, compensating them. We also kept our distributors fully informed on the corrective actions we were taking and it was this transparency that helped maintain their loyalty. Of course, we survived it, but the 1 cent saved on different lip color tubes didn’t come close to the 10 million dollars the “popper stoppers” caper cost us.
P.S. It was an honest mistake; we didn’t fire the CFO!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you make when you were first starting? What lesson did you learn from that?
Every entrepreneur makes them, but there are no funny mistakes when you’re trying to start a company. Money, resources and time are so tight, every mis-step hinders progress and deflects attention from where you need to get. The learning is to “keep going.” If you believe in what you’re doing, there is no other option.
What is about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it? What is the one thing you like most about being an executive.
Actually, I was forced into the role of CEO. My original plan was to buy in that expertise while I would travel the country building and training our distributor base. After three failed attempts at finding a CEO who truly bought into our SeneGence culture, I understood that serving as CEO was my job. At SeneGence we say, “Choose to live life in love and abundance — then work hard for it.’’ Without a doubt, providing the pathway for our growing SeneGence family to achieve success for themselves and their families is the very best part of my job.
What are the downsides of being an Executive (CEO)?
The buck stops here!
What are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
This question goes to the heart of why I started SeneGence. For many of us, family is a big part of our lives and wanting to spend time with kids or perhaps aging parents shouldn’t be considered a privilege. For women who work outside of the home, juggling work and family is a tougher act than for men, simply because the role of nurturer and caretaker falls to us, naturally. With SeneGence I want to continue leveling the playing field so that more women — and also men — can design the work schedule they need so they don’t have to trade-off income for time with the family.
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 believe all personality types can make great leaders. They may have different leadership styles, but if they aspire to that, they should be encouraged to fulfill their potential.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their teams thrive?
Focus on each member’s success and the whole team will thrive.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you get to where you are?
I have to name four. First, my Dad, William (Bill) Hayes. As a tiny child he would constantly say to me, “Baby girl, you can do anything you want.” I guess it stuck. Even today in times of stress I still hear his voice. Second, my step-dad, Jerry Hight. A senior executive with Sav-On Drugs, Dad Jerry taught me about business. As I lived on a farm, I understood well when we had business conversations and he would remind me that the most important thing was “to take care of the horses.” Third, was Mary Kay Ash. A true pioneer and trailblazer. She gave me the opportunity to enter the cosmetics business and the inspiration to start my own company. Thank you, Mary Ash! And finally, my friend, lover, and the man who eventually became my partner, my husband Ben Kante who ran the operations and has walked every step of this journey with me from the first year we opened.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Giving back is at the forefront of all we do and 17 years ago we founded the Make Sense Foundation, dedicated to assisting women and children in crisis through the fundraising efforts of our distributors and sales from selected products. Organizations are nominated by our distributors and the funds are donated to the many wonderful non-profits selected by them to support worthy causes within their own local communities.
What are your “5 things” I wish someone told me before I started and why?
No one can tell you in advance how hard it is to start a business, or make decisions for thousands of people, or give you solutions where they don’t yet exist. It’s about learning on-the-job one day at a time.
For women, I think our toughest challenge is developing what I call “emotional muscle.” That is learning how to protect ourselves from the emotional toll of having to make really hard decisions. We’re used to solving problems where everyone wins, like sharing two cookies between three kids. In business that’s not always possible and it takes time to get comfortable with that.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be?
I’ve become concerned about the plight of incarcerated women, specifically in my home State of Oklahoma where there are more women behind bars than in any other state. That these women are separated from their kids and family is heartbreaking to me. Right now, I’m educating myself on the issue to see how we might help these women have a better, productive life.
Please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life.
“Choose to live life in love and abundance — and then work for it!” It is the guiding principle on which I built my company and it will always be so.
“Who would you love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Gwen Stefani and Kristin Chenoweth, call me; we have much to discuss!