In the beginning. I was trying to do everything “right” and all at once, and I had to learn some hard lessons that it simply was not the best for me or my startup. This is why I now create major and minor focuses throughout the day. I prioritize 2–3 major issues and 2–3 minor issues, and if I don’t get through all of the smaller issues, then that is okay because I have taken care of the most urgent ones first.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mitali Saxena. In 2015, fed up with the disparity between fashion industry beauty standards and the needs of real women, she left her engineering career to found Fashom. Mitali Saxena is the Chief Executive Officer of Fashom., a style-centered online community. Within a year, Fashom expanded into the body-positive focused personal styling service. Core to Fashom’s mission is offering cruelty-free, vegan fashion shipped in recyclable packaging. In line with Fashom’s ethos, one dollar from every Fashom box goes directly to Second Chance Rescue in NYC. Growing a data-driven team, Mitali has created a shopping experience that allows the members of the Fashom community to feel good inside and out. In her previous role as North American sales manager for a telecom software company, Mitali led both large general and special project-focused teams on a regular basis. It is from this experience that she has grown into the leader that she is today as the CEO of Fashom where she has helmed a smaller but hyper-driven team to the success the company has achieved in such a short period of time.
Mitali holds both a B.S. degree in Computer Engineering and an M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology.
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?
Of course! Thank you so much for this opportunity. My “backstory” behind what led me down this particular career path is probably a bit different than the usual executive story but it has helped build me into the person I am today. After completing my master’s degree, I took a job with a telecommunications company and was deep into the more traditionally corporate trenches, which is simply where I thought I would be for the majority of my professional career. One weekend after my meditation, I had a strong feeling that I had to do something that had a bigger impact and on how people view themselves. After a few months of research, I found how photoshopped images in magazines and adverts alone can deeply impact someone’s self-image. So many people are left feeling inadequate or unworthy or un-loveable even before they can discover who they are beyond their adolescence when their body is only just starting to change, and that stays with them for the rest of their lives. This gave me the spark to make body positivity and self-love the focus of the brand I was about to create. Hence, Fashom was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As strange as it may sound, the most interesting story that has happened since I began leading my company was the massively unexpected growth source for us that has been YouTube. A few months into this entire venture when the whole operation was still being run out of my apartment, a friend of mine called me at an absurd hour in the morning to tell me Fashom was popping up on both YouTube quite a bit. I was confused for a moment because we had not done any marketing hardly anywhere yet, least of all there, but when I went to check for myself….there we were with unboxing review after unboxing review after unboxing review. I had heard of these types of reviews before but never realized just important they could ever be in my life. Within barely 2 months of existing (no website online, just an app), we had over 50+ unboxing reviews on YouTube and the requests would flood our queue after so many of them were posted. I have always loved the idea of organic growth but I never expected that to happen without me even knowing about it. However, it is because of this organic sense of growth, I feel, that we have been able to build this very natural, community-focused dynamic with our audience. They have heard about us from voices they know and love, and truly value their honest opinion that came about without me even knowing it was happening.
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?
When anyone first starts out on a big venture, I think they always have that one story that becomes legendary amongst friends and family alike — this is mine. So, a full year into the company existing and me accompanying our buying team on ‘shopping’ sprees, I found myself alone in L.A. after a few flight delays and in a cab on my way to an address that the driver looked out twice with a quirked brow. We arrived outside of a meat-market late in the afternoon that was, for lack of a better word, simply shady in appearance. The cab driver turns around and asks if I’m sure I want to get out right here. I nodded and thanked him for the concern…and then proceeded to text my marketing head, asking her to please text me if she doesn’t hear from me in 2 hours — just in case. Once I exit the car, I follow the address into this semi-open area where there are literally butchered carcasses on racks moving between buildings (as a vegetarian, this was especially wonderful for me) when my contact comes out to greet me. I was then taken into a back room away from the heavier meet odors and that is where I was finally presented with the clothes we had initially come to see.
This is when I learned, first-hand, part of what the truth is behind so much of the unethical side of the industry.
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?
The position of CEO didn’t just simply call to me on its own necessarily — it came initially more so from starting my own company and growing into the position as the business grew. I am currently tilted as the CEO and Founder of Fashom but, as a start-up, I have to do so much more than just that because we are a relatively smaller team compared to that of our competition. Some days I’m running data or managing returns or flying to L.A. to help with our buying trips or even helping run boxes over to USPS when our usual mail carrier is on holiday. We’re only two years old right now and so there are still a lot of moments when the title of ‘executive’ is mainly spiritual in leading my team rather than having the perks of a larger company that would entitle me to my on en-suite shower or priority parking space. What brought me into the world of being a CEO was the pull and passion I felt for my mission of creating an impact that has motivating me every single day.
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?
The responsibilities of a CEO compared to other leaders of smaller teams within companies goes beyond just having great leadership skills and good ideas — it’s becoming a leader for a brand, a mission, all the team leaders in the company, everyone in the company, the health of the company, and the overall direction of the company. You are the ship captain and not just a first mate. If something goes wrong with a different department head, you can’t simply blame it on them or someone on their team alone because you take on a sense of a responsibility, big or small when something does not go exactly according to a plan that affects the image or integrity of the brand since both fall onto your shoulders ultimately. You are the face of the brand and, truthfully, as a female of color in a still male-dominated position across fields, your setbacks and failures can mean so much more long-term for both your own credibility and success and that of other female executives in the same or similar positions. Being a CEO is being something bigger than yourself.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
The one thing I do enjoy most about being an executive is that my decisions make a bigger impact and can help create a bigger change. Fashom has been a mission-driven company since its inception and creating large, body-positive change has been my goal in this entire venture. As CEO of a start-up now, I do not at this point have a board to contend with, which helps in the sense that I can get out the messages I truly want to see in the world at this tie through our marketing team. My decision can be the pebble that just might help create ripples of change throughout the world.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
There are many pros and cons that come along with this position but I have to say the largest downside is without a doubt the fact you carry the responsibility for the entire team on your shoulders. As a leader, you have the responsibility of making sure the company values are as important to other members as they are to you. However, this is not something I believe any CEO should complain about because this is an automatic acceptance when you take on a position that appoints you as captain of a ship.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think one of the biggest myths that I can dispel right now about being a CEO or in almost any executive position is that, honestly, education does not matter — intuitiveness and passion go so much farther. Yes, sometimes education can help get your foot into the door of the building but it is hardly the driving reason someone should be in charge of others. I believe that success doesn’t depend on an Ivy League degree.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There are quite a few of these if I am being quite honest, however, the most predominant one I have faced is truthfully that of more ego-driven males executives that almost have a hard time comprehending that a woman is in the same seat as them. Being a woman of color with a tech background, I had a lot of challenges as this field is notorious for being saturated with former ivy-league male candidates. When it comes to fundraising, so many statistics say that only 3% of women-led ventures get funded. I was once told by a VC “If I give you the money, you might go shopping for yourself!”. In the technology sector, women can often-times be viewed as inadequate simply based on our gender. It still takes a lot of extra effort sometimes to get a point across to a tech team who is not used to taking orders from a female leader.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Although I underestimated the work that was required, I actually really love what I do. It would be hard for me to say that what I had imagined is very different from what I’m actually doing. There have been several challenges including the recent pandemic but I take them as opportunities to grow.
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?
Based on my experience from both what I have seen and what I have experienced, I would say that those who should and those who should not aspire to be in executive roles can be broken up by two key factors; those who understand compassion and those who are not afraid of responsibility, both in taking it on and giving it out. You must have compassion for those working with you because sometimes a teammate might be having a rough day that affects them, and therefore their performance, and might need more understanding in a specific situation. I am not saying this should be done for everyone, all the time because they, of course, are going to try to take advantage of that but being able to recognize when it’s needed and how best to give it is a critical factor for those looking to take on an executive role.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
To other women who are considering making a big change in their lives such as starting a business from scratch or taking the helm of a high executive position, my advice would be to make sure you are truly passionate about what you are doing before you take the leap into guiding others. Try to build a team to surround yourself with that consists of people who share that same passion and values in the process of building something bigger together because no one can do anything alone on such a huge scale.
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 to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been so many people that have helped and supported me throughout my entire journey with Fashom but I have to say that I could not have done this at all without my family, which includes my fur baby Chewy, being there for me since day one. Beyond just moral support, my entire family has stepped up to help me even at times where I didn’t initially want to admit I needed it, which was a massive lesson for me in and of itself. They have been there every step of the way whether it be helping me look at color swatches to being my wake-up calls reminding me not to miss my red-eye to even my parents and husband helping me pack boxes from my living room until 3 am when everything was still based out my apartment. Without them, I might have passed out from hunger after forgetting to eat more than once but, truthfully, it is their constant and unwavering support that has helped both me and my company reach the height we have today.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The entire purpose and mission behind Fashom was born from wanting to help make the portrayal of people more ‘real’ and that we are all beautiful exactly as we are. In every element of my company, I have tried to make sure that we use our platform to push for diversity, inclusivity, female empowerment, self-love, and that beauty is not defined by one set of standards because no one individual on this planet fits the one same set of standards. I have also been lucky enough to be able to help another cause close to my heart, that of trying to make this planet a better place for everyone, including our furry friends. Aside from refusing to carry any products that are not cruelty-free and vegan, we also donate 1 dollar for every styled box to a non-profit in NYC that rescues stray animals.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- How to manage a warehouse — I wish I had done a crash course on supply chain and operations because that is a job all on its own!
- To focus on a few things at a time — In the beginning. I was trying to do everything “right” and all at once, and I had to learn some hard lessons that it simply was not the best for me or my startup. This is why I now create major and minor focuses throughout the day. I prioritize 2–3 major issues and 2–3 minor issues, and if I don’t get through all of the smaller issues, then that is okay because I have taken care of the most urgent ones first.
- Managing millennials — Although I’m on the cusp of being a millennial, when it came to managing a team of fresh college students it was definitely a challenge. I truthfully have spent hours listening to Youtube videos to understand how they think and how I could help them in a new work environment.
- Hire quality over quantity — When we first started, I went for hiring more instead of hiring the best because I thought that could help us expand quicker. I learned the hard way that this is by far not the best strategy in the world. Now, I would much rather have a smaller team with a massive amount of dedication than a massive team with a smaller amount of dedication.
- Listen to your intuition — I wish I had learned to trust my intuition for all decisions from the start and not let fears and pressures from outside sources weigh so heavily on some of my choices. If you keep thinking about what everyone else is doing you will eventually start to lose focus on your path.
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.
The movement I want to inspire is the one that we have been working towards since I first had the idea for Fashom — to help people love themselves, whether it be again or for the first time, and help them believe that they are truly beautiful exactly as they are. We are finally at a point within our society where we have started to speak up about the weight mental health can bring upon someone. A sense of shame in how you look, constantly feeling inadequate to images telling you how beautiful you can only but if you look like this, and trying to achieve a sense of self-worth that matches the images around by extreme measures are all things millions of people sadly go through because of what we have been shown and told by companies for decades now. This quarantine period has brought light to so many things but one large aspect I have noticed has been on social media and how so many were initially trying to avoid the “quarantine 15”, which was apparently in reference to the fact people are not going out as much and some have been gaining more weight because they have been at home. From this though, I have recently been seeing a lot of counter-content on social media, Fashom’s own account included, that is trying to help remind people that you should not love your body any less because of the numbers on a scale. My team and I are fully dedicated to promoting self-love in all aspects.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Stillness is where creativity and solutions to problems are found” by Eckhart Tolle. At a time when everything is so overwhelming, I try to take time out of my day every day to meditate and connect within. In my personal experience, I tend to find that things progress faster when you are not struggling to make them happen. Instead, allow things to happen for you.
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
Sarah Blakely. Honestly, I am one of Sara Blakley’s biggest fans, especially in how she grew her business without almost any external support. I have learned so much from her thus far and there have been a few uncanny coincidences such as I’ve always had a red backpack and similar views on spirituality. She may very well be my future bestie, she doesn’t know it yet 🙂
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.