Build a strong relationship between your company and customers. This is absolutely essential in e-commerce. Branding, marketing, public relations, the “face” of your company: these facets work hand-in-hand, and they’re all about building a relationship with an audience. By earning your audience’s knowledge, trust, and admiration, you turn them into loyal, long-time customers.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Mary Hood.
Mary Hood is the Founder and CEO of Hollywood Sensation, an online jewelry store that offers beautiful, responsibly-sourced jewelry that creates a red carpet sensation without the red carpet price, so every woman can feel confident, inspired, and empowered. Mary Hood began her business with 500 dollars in the kitchen of the home she shared with her husband — with a baby on the way! Now Hollywood Sensation is a nationally recognized brand featured on television shows like The Talk, The Real, and Hollywood Live Today, and on QVC.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in Iran in a close and supportive family. Dad was a successful real estate developer, and Mom stayed at home with me and my older sister. My parents’ love for each other gave me deep confidence in our home and family. I was lucky to have a culturally rich background, with grandparents from Russia. My parents were quite open-minded and took us traveling throughout Europe. While my mother encouraged me to pursue a career, my father took me with him to his trade shows. The different cultures and technologies I saw fascinated me. The entire enterprise of business felt exciting.
I went to college in Iran to get my bachelor’s degree in business. During that time, I took a job with the second largest oil company in the Middle East, beginning as an assistant. As time passed, I was promoted through the ranks to general manager. In Iran, it is fairly unusual for a woman to hold a position of power. That job taught me confidence and toughness, and I used the opportunity to gain as many skills and certifications as I could.
I knew from an early age that I didn’t want to stay in Iran, sensing the limits of remaining in a male-dominated place. I dreamed of going to the United States. Often I watched videos of different cultures around the world. Glamorous red carpet events captivated me with their pageantry and fashion, and of course I noticed how these powerful, confident women were able to take certain classic pieces of jewelry and shine even more brightly. I immigrated to the United States with plans to be a part of that industry.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
My fascination with red carpet glamour made me even more aware of my own money situation. Here I was, an immigrant with limited English. I didn’t have the resources to spend money on diamonds, yet I wanted a piece of that empowerment for myself. So, I did the research until I found high-quality jewelry at an affordable price, and I bought it. I received so many compliments on the piece. People asked me questions like, “Where did you get that? How can I find something like that?” I replied, “I can certainly get one for you!” That’s how I got started. I realized I could sell these things. I could even create my own designs.
Soon afterward, I was pregnant, and due to health issues was assigned to bedrest. There I was at home anyway, with all this time on my hands. I watched some episodes of Shark Tank, and felt inspired by those business entrepreneurs, particularly Lori Greiner. I had the opportunity to take online classes in jewelry making, and plenty of time to research crafting and promotion. With 500 dollars seed money, I literally started Hollywood Sensation in our kitchen. I started building and buying, putting it all together. With that 500 dollars investment, I purchased earrings, which sold very well in forums like Groupon and LivingSocial. Suddenly it was happening. I was in business.
I found that I have a talent for spotting trends and jumping on them. Trends are bit unreliable, and they don’t usually last very long, but they make a lot of money in a short period of time. I took that knack and focused on mediating it with sustainability, striking a happy medium between knowing “what’s hot now” and “what is timeless.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In early days of my company, I relied on a third party website to sell my jewelry. We had an established relationship and they paid me every thirty days for the items sold. What this meant, however, is that by the time they had my products, I already invested in all the costs, like acquisition, labor, and shipping. Then, thirty days later, I would receive a deposit for the sales from that month. For a time, those deposits were great. They made some healthy additions to my bank account and things were going quite well.
Then suddenly, the monthly payment didn’t come. A month turned into eight weeks, then three months, and suddenly my seller declared bankruptcy. Anything I had invested in the product was gone, as well as any potential profits. Everything seemed to go down at once. It was major setback.
Luckily, I had been smart with my money. When Hollywood Sensation became profitable, rather than buying myself a sportscar, I put substantial funds into savings. While the losses from the bankruptcy were significant, I never lost so much that I was forced to close down. Hollywood Sensation recovered from the loss. This experience reinforced the wisdom of having a backup-plan, and it taught me the value of diversification. Now, I make more connections and minimize the company’s risks. Planning and perseverance let me come through with a more solid business model and better opportunities.
Remember that not everything comes in a book or in the classroom. Some of the most difficult days or challenging problems are learning opportunities, but you must be open to them. I feel that 90% of business savvy can’t be learned in a classroom anyway; it’s something you must pick up from real life experience, from listening and attention and the willingness to admit, “This didn’t work, so next time I can do it differently.”
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?
- Persistence. Persistence was absolutely essential. I started out small and my company wasn’t a major name in the game. I knocked on one door after another and got a hundred “no” answers for every single elusive “yes.” Without persistence I would never have had the strength to knock just one more time. Everyone has setbacks and nobody’s life is perfect. The question is whether you let those setbacks define you or even stop you, or whether you treat them as lessons and opportunities to grow. Persistence doesn’t mean relentlessly bashing your head against the wall; true persistence helps find a better way to accomplish what you want.
- Passion. I’ve always had a real passion for my business. It was so much easier to keep going forward on the rough days because I believed in what I was doing. Passion made me brave and inspired me to new heights. I got through the unexpected bankruptcy of my distributor with a combination of persistence and passion; I refused to give up because I could see that I had a real niche in the jewelry market. I could give women the chance to feel wonderful about themselves.
- Discipline. This was extremely important! I truly learned this skill by being my own boss. If no one is watching over your shoulder, it’s fairly easy to be tempted away from what needs to be done and there are simply distractions everywhere. I told myself that I would sit at my kitchen table, that I would not leave until the day’s work was done, and I stuck that promise to myself. Being able to assert self-discipline is a skill that can transfer well into every area of your life.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
I’m afraid the elephant is always in the room. I do think this is changing for the better. I’m lucky in that I do not often feel discounted for my sex. You see, I was fortunate to have had an extremely strong proving ground. Working as a female executive in the Middle East was a test that hardened my armor considerably and gave me great confidence. Confidence is key: if you believe that you belong in the room, in the conversation, or at the head of the table, then you do belong there. Move over, elephant!
Often I worry that as women, we feel uncomfortable with our own strength. We are fed a lot of conflicting information about what is “right,” how we should act, and how much we should be able to accomplish. It’s not easy to ignore all of that noise, especially under stressful circumstances in which anyone might wonder if she has what it takes to succeed. Believe that you have a right to be there — or at least act like you believe it (fake it until you make it!). Believe that your knowledge and experience are unique and valuable.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
Yes, sometimes even now, I can encounter a systemic sexism when dealing with the moving parts of business, particularly if I must deal with a situation that seems more traditionally masculine. For example, when I talk to a male manager about a warehousing facility, I can get the feeling that because warehousing seems like a masculine job, that he will discount my ability to have this discussion. It isn’t even necessarily aggressive, but it can be quite dismissive. I might have the experience of being treated like the “dumb blonde,” in her “cute little outfit.” That face-to-face interaction can be really daunting. I can almost hear this guy thinking, “Where is her husband?”
What’s really amazing is that these people can check into me and my business ahead of time. They can research my company, credit history, successes, and find out everything about me before we ever meet. And after all that, face-to-face, I can still get this attitude of, “It’s okay, honey…we’ll do business when your husband gets here.”
So, what do I do about it? I admit, I pick my battles. There are only so many hours in the day, and I have real work to do. Going toe to toe with people determined to judge you based on your sex alone can become overwhelming, so I don’t fight every fight. I have developed an extremely thick skin and I let many things roll off my back so I can get on with my life. Many of these “guy” types who don’t think I can handle talking about shipping or warehousing have no idea what it’s like to be a woman manager in a Middle Eastern corporation. I want to tell them, “Just try and scare me. You don’t stand a chance.”
In the end, everybody is in business to make a profit, and once they find that my company can earn money for them, the dynamic does change.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
Don’t compromise your standards but be kind. Kindness is not weakness. Instead, it is a way to deal with each other on a level of honesty and integrity without making unfair assumptions or engaging in the boardroom equivalent of bullying. I think if we could all practice increased kindness toward each other, we’d move easily past uneasiness and into acceptance.
For the most part, we deal with each other in only one set situation: a boardroom, a business lunch, a phone conference. We do not know what another person has been through in their lifetime, career, education, or experience — we do not even know what might have happened to them that morning or the weekend before. A little bit of mutual understanding makes powerful connections and gives people the chance to realize when they have misjudged you.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
Unfortunately, there is an even darker side to the problem of strong women, worse than the proverbial “working in a man’s world.” Earlier I said that I seldom feel discounted because of my sex. When it does happen, however, I find that men are not the only bad-guys. Sometimes we women try so hard to prove ourselves that we mistakenly resort to unreasonable competition between ourselves, plus we have an uncanny ability to undermine each other’s confidence.
Human nature isn’t always pretty. When we feel tired or anxious, we tend to look for each other’s faults to make ourselves feel better. It helps very much to stop trying to be someone else. We all want to emulate those we admire. But remember, you can only fairly compare yourself to the person you were yesterday. Comparing yourself to other people breeds jealousy and resentment. No one’s life is without struggle, and even when someone presents herself empowered with success and confidence, this doesn’t mean there weren’t difficult times, hard decisions, and endless nights of worry. When you realize that you are your own greatest critic and your own greatest competition, your attitude toward other women and other people in general becomes far more tolerant and supportive toward them — and toward yourself, too.
For the most part, I believe women are learning to build each other up instead of tearing each other down. We will make a lot of progress if we can remember that we women must take each other seriously if expect anyone else to do the same.
As for changing the world from the CEO’s chair, I like to think that I’m doing my part just by being in the game. Women do a tremendous amount of work, much of it unseen, much of it unacknowledged even by us. We need to make ourselves seen and make sure that our contributions are acknowledged and appreciated. Over time, that elephant in the room will shrink — he is already shrinking. Eventually I hope that particular elephant disappears completely.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
High heels! Really, just fashion in general. Women go through an incredible amount of scrutiny, from ourselves and from others, about what we choose to wear or not to wear. Our nails, hair, clothes, makeup, to the way we sit, walk, and speak, all seem to invite public commentary. Particularly in the fashion industry, women are judged on everything from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes.
I seem to have a lot of people interested in the length and color of my hair. I’m a blonde, and I get a lot of the “dumb-blonde” stereotyping which is almost too ridiculous to acknowledge. No, I will not change my hair color to be taken more seriously, and I shouldn’t have to.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There is a trust issue. It seems that for whatever reason, employees and investors alike feel more comfortable having men in charge. If you are a woman in a leadership position, you must prove yourself constantly able to keep the business running. If a man has a bad day, he has had a bad day; if a woman has a bad day, it’s because she’s a woman. I’ve been running my business successfully for twelve years but there are days when I still feel I must prove myself yet again. I doubt that many men run into that feeling.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
As I mentioned earlier, I actually started my jewelry company when I was pregnant and on bedrest. Then, in first few years after our son’s birth, we went through an intensive amount of in-home medical consultation to help him overcome some developmental challenges that he faced. We often had people in the house from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., walking in and out as if our home was the public library. There were days when it seemed like we were living in a clinic and, no, balancing that with my blossoming business was not easy. What’s more, I didn’t yet have an office outside the home, so I was running Hollywood Sensation in the midst of all this chaos.
Emotionally this was incredibly challenging. We were devoted to helping our son in every way we could, and dealing with our own emotions as parents, while I was trying to lift this business off the ground. This is why now, when someone refers to me off-handedly as a “trophy wife,” or as a “dumb blonde,” I think, “You know nothing about me, and nothing about what I’ve been through.” It can hurt a lot, even with this tough shell I’ve built around my skin. This is why I try to take those extra steps to express kindness to everyone I encounter.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
The accomplishments of business success are incredibly satisfying. The moment you feel your efforts paying off, you’re on top of the world. But what I found is that success, in itself, is only a temporary high.
The balance comes when you remember to share your good fortune. Through the success of Hollywood Sensation, I have been able to donate jewelry and give financial support to multiple organizations including supporting Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Elton John’s Aids Foundation. Making money, investing, and profits? These are great feelings, but real empowerment comes from the feeling of giving something back, making a difference in things that matter. That feeling of empowerment transfers to every aspect of your life. When you can give back, that good feeling spreads to feeling good about your house, your life, your marriage. Maybe it helps you remember that you’ve worked hard and deserve to be where you are.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
I know very well that my appearance is a major part of my brand. I put 200% effort into it. If I didn’t seem to care about how I looked, I’d already be at a disadvantage. Feeling beautiful is a key element of confidence, while confidence is a key to beauty — these two aspects of a woman can work together in wonderful harmony. I talk about having a thick skin, but in a way I think of my appearance as my battle armor. When I know I look my best, I’m more ready to face challenges.
I don’t see beauty as superficial. There is value in maintaining and caring for yourself. You simply feel better about yourself. We can’t have too many layers of confidence. Of course, with the industry I’m in, that confidence in your appearance is necessary.
How is this similar or different for men?
Men seem to have it easier, don’t they? They just roll out of bed, grab a shower, rub a little bit of product in their hair, and they’re good to go.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Build a strong relationship between your company and customers. This is absolutely essential in e-commerce. Branding, marketing, public relations, the “face” of your company: these facets work hand-in-hand, and they’re all about building a relationship with an audience. By earning your audience’s knowledge, trust, and admiration, you turn them into loyal, long-time customers.
- Read, learn, and implement. Be willing and open to learning opportunities. Never stop gaining new skills, meeting new people, or making new connections in the world and in your own mind. Invest in yourself and leverage what you’ve got! E-commerce is a fast-moving area that is in a constant state of change, and I have found it essential to keep current with the technology. We have a huge advantage, too, because so much of this knowledge is available for free, on Google and YouTube. Remember, too, that it’s not enough just to gain the knowledge — you need to implement it. Learning should lead to action. Study how your competitors are working and see if you need to take a page from their book; model their business if they’ve found a better way. Modeling from proven success, whether it is style, social platforms, or type of content produced, can be a crucial part of growing your business. However, even as you learn and implement…
- Double down on what is working. Yes, I believe that learning and implementation are important, but take care that you stay focused on the core values of your business. Recognize when something is working well so you can promote, fine-tune, and streamline. Get it out to the public that your business does this better than everyone else. Avoid shiny new distractions; there is no need to chase every single trend.
- Prepare yourself. While you’re setting goals for success — which you definitely should do — also set goals for saving, investing, and planning for the future. As Hollywood Sensation has grown, I and my husband have engaged in careful financial planning and investing. Now we know our retirement is secure. Our son’s future is secure. Nothing in life is certain, so I always want to know that things will be taken care of should something strike out of the blue. Setting goals and planning for the unexpected are two ways to relieve stress and set a direction for yourself to follow.
- Have a strong support system. Of course, our family and close friends are critical. But women who move in powerful places need a system in place to provide business support, advice, and mentorship. I found such a system in the Mastermind group I joined, a wonderful society of likeminded people who uplift each other in so many ways. They are extremely successful people, both men and women, who socialize with a purpose — not just networking and charity fundraising, but also ways to connect and find friends and mentors. My group was extremely active, organizing meetings, keynote addresses, classes, and events that let us come together and benefit from each other’s experiences. The entire attitude of the organization was to lift each other up. I highly recommend finding yourself such a group of people to bolster and guide you, even if it’s just a kind ear or a word of advice from someone who has been down the same roads. Look for people who inspire you. We encounter enough criticism in the everyday world; your support group should do exactly what the name implies. It’s a shame that COVID-19 has caused problems for these kinds of gatherings, and I just don’t feel that virtual meetings have the same energy. I truly miss interacting with my group! But I hope that soon things will return to normal.
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.
It would be such a pleasure to meet Lori Greiner from Shark Tank. Years ago, when I pregnant and was on bedrest, I watched a lot of Shark Tank and there she was, this amazing woman who built a glamorous, successful business. In a room full of men, she stood out as powerful and competent. She inspired me to move forward with the plans for my business. Her personality and her success were truly catalysts for me.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.