The Power of Networking. If there is nothing else from what I’ve learned as a CEO, it’s the importance of keeping in contact with people you know. How important it is to stay in touch — the check-in email with friends and colleagues that you thought, at the time, would never help you at a later date or you thought nothing of losing touch with. That is so short-sighted. Everyone you meet in business is a valuable tool that you will never know when you might need it again or need to call on again. Keep those connections, keep in touch — even when you need nothing. My success comes from a well cared for Rolodex of people I can call upon from my high school days to clients I had from last year. The extra effort of staying in touch will serve you well throughout your career.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Samantha Martin. Samantha launched Media Maison over 14 years ago, and as the firm’s Founder and CEO, she considers herself an entrepreneur before a publicist. Her business-oriented thinking means that she not only knows the in’s and out’s of PR, marketing and branding but can also use her entrepreneurial expertise to assist her clients in many ways not offered by traditional PR firms. Often called the “6-month CEO”, Samantha launched Media Maison’s sister firm — Metier Maison in 2017 to help build businesses from concept through branding and production to retail launches in record time. Born and raised in Hong Kong and fluent in Cantonese, Samantha comes from generations of toy industry inventors and manufacturers. A graduate of Emerson College, Samantha started her PR career at Burson Marsteller. Seven years later, she left her senior-level executive position and founded Media Maison, which today has offices in New York City, Hong Kong, and employees in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. Believing that in order to maintain success you must give it back, Samantha founded The KELY Organization a Hong Kong-based non-profit dedicated to working with addicted teens and the prevention of substance abuse. She is on the Board of several charities including animal rescue, children with a terminal illness, adults with substance abuse and the Lupus Foundation.
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 was the grandchild of two generations of toy industry entrepreneurs. I was the granddaughter of a man who manufactured the first battery-operated toy and the daughter of a woman who was one of the only women in a heavily male-dominated industry and who was infamous in the toy industry as tough, the best in the business. I was constantly referred to as “Angela’s daughter” or asked, “when are you joining the family business?”. I was in the shadow of two very dominant, successful people and felt I would always have “that” to live up to. It was intimidating and I believed that the only way to find my own path was to walk out the door of the family business. It was a scary decision, as I could have played it very safe and stuck with a business I knew — the one I grew up around.
I found public relations after college and decided to utilize my knowledge of the toy industry and all the players to my advantage. Which is why when I started my own PR firm, it was with a niche in the toy industry.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was diagnosed with Lupus about 8 years ago when my company was at its peak and we were at the top of our game. It was life-changing for me and I wasn’t sure how it would affect my life, my business, and my employees. It caused me to take a significant amount of time off, to work from home and was in and out of doctor appointments. I was scared to tell anyone I was sick. I was afraid of what it would mean to my employees — would they be afraid we would close? Or think they would no longer be employed? Would it instill fear in our clients that the “captain of the ship” was not well and would I ever be at the top of my game again?
I made a decision that hiding my illness was more stressful than being honest. So I was.
I found that if I took care of myself first — everything would follow. I didn’t try and hide anything from our clients or my employees. I was open and honest and what I got back in return was support, not people looking to jump ship as I thought they would. I was still me and I was still as fearless and even more of a warrior than I had been before my diagnosis.
Today, I have learned to live with this illness and devote a lot of my time to fundraise for a cure. It made me a better leader, it made me more transparent and more human. I wasn’t going to allow this disease to define me or define the course of my life.
The freedom I felt in the honesty of my story was more than I ever expected. Being sick doesn’t mean you are incapable of doing your job and being honest about having flaws doesn’t make you weak. If anything, it has encouraged others around me to step up, to take an oar and row a little harder or faster while I was down. It showed me who was a team player and it taught me to trust my clients.
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?
Every entrepreneur makes mistakes and the goal is to learn from them. There is no book teaching us how to avoid all the pitfalls, so it’s inevitable that we all should have novels of mistakes.
For me — it was the trapping of wanting to seem big and falling for the aesthetics. I started my business in my apartment with a computer and one client. However, I longed for a beautiful office — with glass doors, a receptionist and a big staff. I wanted to be in the “right” zip code and the “right” address. I put money into overhead that was silly and short-sighted. I rented an office space I could barely afford. I thought THAT was what would make clients trust me — that this would secure them into thinking that we were successful. I learned quickly that none of that matters. If I learned anything, it was that I should have stayed in my apartment longer. I should have kept my overhead as low as possible and put the money into important things, such as staffing, technology, and networking with potential clients.
As a publicist, we have clients all over the world. Many of them I have never seen in person or met face to face; we conference call or SKYPE. 90% of my clients have never seen my office or my desk because I go to them. What I thought was so important, the thing that would make or break my career, ended up being a giant waste of money that only fed my ego.
Keep yourself as small as possible for as long as possible and put your money into the things that actually DO matter.
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 grew up as the child of entrepreneurs and no one in my family had ever worked for anyone else. So I knew I was destined to own my own business. My childhood was watching my parents have incredible business highs, incredible lows, and how they managed to overcome the difficulties. I never wanted to be the one who had to wait for a promotion, work strictly on salary or be limited to a glass ceiling. I was never a 9–5 person — my brain was on 24 hours a day and I never knew fear. I was always someone who jumped first and looked later. There was no job that was going to ever allow me to do that. There would always be someone to make me stop-look-check and check again— I would never have the freedom to just make something happen. If I was the CEO of my own firm, then there was no ceiling and no limitations.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO 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 CEO is different because we are the Chief Everything Officer. There is nothing that a CEO cannot be willing to do for the best of the company. It requires making difficult decisions, taking risks with the lives of employees, having the stress of knowing that there are people who rely on you for a paycheck every two weeks. You are in charge of everything from clients, employees and if you are large enough, shareholders. Your job is to make sure the lights stay on. To motivate when you are unmotivated. There is no such thing as time when you have a title — not at night, the weekend or when on vacation.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
That I have no limitations as to how successful we can be as a company. I have the ability to raise the ceiling for others and to mentor those who want to learn.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
There is never time to truly “turn off” and let yourself or your guard down. You are either all in or you are not CEO material.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Being a great CEO doesn’t mean you have to be great at everything. A great CEO, in my opinion, surrounds themselves with great people — who are in many areas smarter, more experienced than they are. No one can know everything and no CEO can know it all. To be great your team needs to be better.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
So many. It’s sad that in 2019 women cannot act or behave the same way as men and get treated the same way. Being a bold man equals a bossy woman. Being a decisive man means a hard-ass woman. Asking for help as a man means you are open to ideas and for women you are inexperienced.
Being tough is viewed as totally different if you are a man or a woman. Women are viewed as more emotional and therefore that is viewed as a downfall when the emotions of a woman actually make us great leaders.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I am not sure there is a striking difference — I knew to start and lead my own firm would be challenging, exhausting, rewarding, scary, exhilarating and a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week 365 job. It has been all of that and much more. I have learned from my mistakes and I have not allowed them to define me.
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?
In my opinion, if you are inquisitive, fearless, can stand criticism, can admit you are wrong, are willing to not only think outside the box but outside the room, if you handle challenges with grace, if you are never satisfied but always looking for more, if you are always hungry, if you take pride in mentoring and watching others grow, if you are always looking for ways to grow your business and take risks then you have a lot of what you will need.
If you are cautious, always second-guessing yourself, over-analyzing everything, lack vision, care what others think, lack staying power, like the safety of a paycheck and someone else to worry about how the lights stay on — then this might not be the career path for you.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Trust your gut! Look for the employees who show great potential and mentor them. Take that time to invest in people. If you treat them like family, they will treat your business like it is their own. Celebrate their success — big or small. Allow them the freedom to make mistakes, but let them know you will have their backs. Allow them the freedom to speak their minds. Give them insight into what it takes to run your business so they feel they know how important their role is. Every member of the team no matter how small or large owns an oar in the boat rowing your company. If they know their value they will want to contribute more and be the best they can be.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Hands down my mother. She was raised and worked in a male-dominated industry and never allowed the behavior — and back then it was very “Madmenesque” to intimidate her. She never had fear and she always had faith. She taught me how to never waiver, no matter how tough times got.
Every child wants a “cookies and milk” mother; one who is there after school to greet them, and that was not my mother. What I learned was that if I wanted to be a CEO and entrepreneur, I needed the mother I got and I needed her for much longer than the kid in me who needed the “cookies and milk” mom. My mom walked through fires that would kill most with grace and with determination to either rebuild or rebrand or reinvent, but giving up was never an option.
When I was a kid, my parents made a doll that I wanted. So I asked for it — thinking that because they made it, they would just bring one home for free. Instead, I was met with “it costs money and do you have any?” At the age of 10, I did not. A few days later my mom came home with cards that said “Samantha’s Toy Store” on one side and “Sale Saturday 12–3 p.m.” on the other with a cute Hello Kitty Logo. I was instructed to put those postcards in the mailboxes of all the kids in my building. I was told that my parents would bring home less expensive toys and gifts and let’s see how well I could sell them to make the money for the doll. I was so excited and ran around all day putting cards everywhere I could. To my surprise, on that Saturday when I opened the door, there was a line of parents and kids waiting for me to open. I was told to sell each item for $1.00. The hours went by and I sold my little heart out. When the sale was over, I had made $56.00 and with a doll that only cost around $30.00. I was so happy, thinking of all the additional accessories I would be able to “purchase” from my parents. That was until they sat me down….
“So you sold 56 toys today — all for $1.00. That is called “inventory” and inventory is not free. We are going to charge you $0.30 for each toy I sold.”. I watched as my $56.00 started to disappear and the tears formed in my eyes.
“And remember those adorable little cards we made for you? That’s called marketing. Marketing costs money,” and from my pile, another $5.00 or $10.00 was taken.
Lastly, they asked “where did you have your sale today?” with now blubbering watered eyes I replied, “In my house”. “Hmmm…” said my mother — “Not your house but our house and that requires rent.” And there went another chunk of my money.
Apparently, I replied, “Next time I am going to have my sale in the street where it’s FREE!”. To which my parents looked at each other and knew I was one of them.
Of course, in the end, I got my doll and all her dresses and her dollhouse, but the lesson was cemented — it costs money to run a business. Nothing in life is ever free. I was 10. I remember it like it was yesterday.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In order to achieve success and keep success, you need to give something back. I founded the Hong Kong-based nonprofit The KELY Group dedicated to helping teens with substance abuse. I am on the board of several organizations including Lupus Awareness, helping the homeless and empowering women of domestic abuse to find their voices again. Also, every holiday, my husband and I seek out families who are having a hard time and we play Santa to their children. We buy, wrap the gifts, write the tags from Santa and deliver them to the trees of families after the kids have long gone to bed. Knowing that they saw an empty tree when they left their cookies and milk out for the night and when they woke in the morning Santa had come, is priceless.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- That the vision I had in my head for what a CEO should be/would be like was not the reality. It’s not all about making decisions from a place of strength. It’s about much more than being a decision-maker.
- That it can be lonely sometimes. Being the boss is hard — it requires you to make decisions that not everyone will agree with or understand. Some days you are alone and have to trust yourself that you know what is the right next move.
- Reading all the books you and listening to all the advice will never trump actually going through it yourself. There is no way around getting the experience yourself. Only when you have been put to the fire or have to rally your team or when you are faced with fears and second guess yourself — and eventually rise back to the surface will you truly know what it means to be a leader.
- The Power of Networking. If there is nothing else from what I’ve learned as a CEO, it’s the importance of keeping in contact with people you know. How important it is to stay in touch — the check-in email with friends and colleagues that you thought, at the time, would never help you at a later date or you thought nothing of losing touch with. That is so short-sighted. Everyone you meet in business is a valuable tool that you will never know when you might need it again or need to call on again. Keep those connections, keep in touch — even when you need nothing. My success comes from a well cared for Rolodex of people I can call upon from my high school days to clients I had from last year. The extra effort of staying in touch will serve you well throughout your career.
- Reputation. Reputation. Reputation. While you can’t expect everyone to love you — you can be someone people respect. Your reputation is everything, and while you cannot make everyone like you or agree with your decisions — be someone that when people think of you, they know you do what you say you will do and be where you say you’ll be. Burning bridges serves no one, especially not yourself. This is not to say that you will go through your career with people who don’t like you or employees who when they leave have disparaging things to say, but if you stand up for your beliefs and are consistent with who you are, your reputation for being someone of their word will follow you.
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 am a big believer in women supporting women — starting as a dinner party several years ago to connect several women, I founded Ladies who Kick Ass. Today, it has grown into a very large group of women who lean on each other. From dog walkers to CEO’s, they have created a network where they can turn to one another.
I believe that women networking, learning and inspiring each other to start their own businesses and encouraging other women to forget there even is a ceiling — let alone a glass ceiling — is crucial.
I find nothing worse than women pitted against each other in a way men never are. Women need each other. They need to learn from their experiences and share their experiences. They are there to give a hand up to where men feel threatened. I want women to be kinder to each other and not look at each other as the “competition” but as strength.
If I could inspire women to mentor each other, lean into each other and help each other, the world would be a much better place to live, work, and start a business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Always look at rejection as the universe’s way of protecting you.”
Every time in my life I have fought so hard for something — trying to squeeze a square into a circle, trying to push something through that didn’t want to happen, desperate to hire someone who turned us down, wanted a client who didn’t end up signing — there was always a reason. The client would end up folding, a better employee would come along who was a better fit. Every time I tried to make something happen that was a struggle — if I just let go, the reasons for why it wasn’t supposed to happen were revealed and usually, it was because it wasn’t supposed to.
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
I would welcome coffee with Christiane Amanpour any day and anytime. She is a wealth of stories and experiences and she has never allowed her femininity to get in the way of doing the most amazing job of asking tough questions. I admire her and have for many years. Just an hour with her would be life-changing.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.