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Natalia Bednarek: “It takes a long time to build brand awareness”

As a CEO of a startup you’re responsible for everything. You need to be knowledgeable enough to communicate with people in many diverse fields of the business. Ultimately, you’re the person that connects all the dots. You have to track operations across the entire company — in my case from the chemists in our lab, ingredient suppliers […]

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As a CEO of a startup you’re responsible for everything. You need to be knowledgeable enough to communicate with people in many diverse fields of the business. Ultimately, you’re the person that connects all the dots. You have to track operations across the entire company — in my case from the chemists in our lab, ingredient suppliers to web developers, digital marketers and warehouse inventory management. Continuous learning is something embedded in every CEO’s tenure.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalia Bednarek of HERLA Beauty.

A young millennial and aspiring entrepreneur, Natalia is passionate about travel, beauty, and friendship. She’s a courageous type A, and a fierce supporter of women and the freedom of choice. She oversees the marketing and e-commerce side of Herla in New York.


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 “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was always very passionate about beauty and skincare. I’ve always been aware that that taking care of your skin is something you must do. My grandmother Krystyna, my mom and my sister were role models who taught me that beauty starts with great skin. My grandmother has always been especially passionate about her skin because she didn’t wear much makeup. So, since a very early age I had a skincare routine that I strictly followed. It was something all women in my family were paying attention to.

HERLA Beauty was inspired by my grandmother’s travels. My grandmother is a world traveler with a passion for nature and beauty. She loves to explore different cultures and has always been curious about the lifestyles of women in different countries. Over many years of traveling she explored ingredients and techniques that women around the world developed to take care of their skin. Oftentimes these beauty secrets had been passed down from generations of women, just as my grandmother brought them home to share with me. Our goal at HERLA is to democratize natural skincare and ensure that these beauty secrets from around the world are accessible to all. We want all women to love their skin regardless of age. We want to help women achieve their best skin ever — in a natural and smart way.

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

Kakadu Plum is one of the collections in our portfolio. A lot of people don’t really know this fruit — it’s a small yellow-green plum that grows only in Australia. What is so unique about it is that it’s the world’s richest natural source of vitamin C (it has 100x more vitamin C than oranges). What I didn’t realize was how difficult it was to actually import a kakadu plum to Europe for the product photoshoot. It was impossible and there was no way to buy it in Europe or the US other than in its powder form. So we came up with an alternative solution to create wooden models of the plum. I found a model maker in the UK that does this kind of work and in a few weeks the Kakadu plum models were delivered to us. They looked amazing and very realistic.

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?

After a few months of launching facial skincare products we came up with our first body product — the Illuminating Body Oil with 24k Gold. We manufacture our products in Poland (where I’m originally from) and my grandmother lives in Poland where she oversees our lab and our office. As we were sourcing the packaging from Italy, one of our employees in Poland made a mistake when placing an order that cost us a lot of nerves. We ordered the glass bottles and dispensers but instead of the pump dispensers we received spray dispensers. Turns out the word “pump” can mean different things to different people. The lesson is to always order by the model number not by the description of goods. It seems obvious but neither my grandmother nor me were clear enough when delegating this task and we didn’t double check everything. Even though I’m based in the US, I now triple check every single thing when it comes to sourcing and manufacturing. Meanwhile, we have several boxes of unused spray pumps in our warehouse.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I moved to the US about 6 years ago and 2 years later I graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a Masters in Branding degree. What I loved most about it was the professional mentorship program for every student. I got matched with a wonderful mentor for the entire semester — Siobhan Lonergan, former SVP of Sterling Brands and former VP of Brand at Thinx. Throughout my Masters I was working very closely with Siobhan, and after I graduated I was working with her at the branding and design agency Sterling Brands. This relationship predates the thought of HERLA as a brand. Being an immigrant herself and achieving so much in the states, she was instrumental in giving me confidence and encouragement to start HERLA in the US. Siobhan is today one of my best friends and my mentor for life.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

When it comes to making important decisions, I always say it’s looking at data as a first step, at things we know and things we don’t know. I find it instrumental to take time to analyze the situation we’re in, make different hypotheses and consult with other people beforehand (including my grandmother who is my business partner). Ultimately, the driving question is “how is this going to help our business”?

I always make sure to be confident and knowledgeable about the topic I’ll be discussing, and I always do my own research and homework so I know what I’m talking about. This is what all successful entrepreneurs do.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

One of the reasons I moved to the US was the diversity of cultures and openness of people to other cultures. For us at HERLA it is important to be very inclusive because we’re positioning ourselves as a global brand for women of all ages from around the world. It’s crucial to have a diverse team to exchange different perspectives and points of view and ultimately speak to and create products for women of every ethnicity. We also made a deliberate decision to make our lab 100% female. We’re a brand created by women for women and we believe that the best skincare for women is created by women themselves.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

The people I work with are chosen for their abilities, honesty and their attitudes. This is the mindset all company leaders should adopt. It seems obvious, but unfortunately this is not the case in a lot of organizations.

We want to make sure that all women feel represented in our marketing campaigns. Some of the examples are leveraging user-generated content of real women using our products, showcasing product on women of different skin tones and skin colors, and incorporating more African-American women.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?

As a CEO of a startup you’re responsible for everything. You need to be knowledgeable enough to communicate with people in many diverse fields of the business. Ultimately, you’re the person that connects all the dots. You have to track operations across the entire company — in my case from the chemists in our lab, ingredient suppliers to web developers, digital marketers and warehouse inventory management. Continuous learning is something embedded in every CEO’s tenure.

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

The title “CEO” or “Executive” sounds very glamorous and appears that way to many people. But it takes a lot of work and attention to detail to be a great CEO, work that’s not always alluring.

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

It’s actually surprising how many male executives are running beauty and skincare companies whose primary audience are women. The biggest challenge faced by women executives is that they aren’t taken as seriously as men executives. It’s sad that those stereotypes still exist in our society. I myself find it challenging that people take me less seriously because I’m young and I’m a woman. We’ve been noticing this especially in Asia at various tradeshows in health and beauty. We find that males are being treated more seriously than female representatives of the company. Being in business for over 40 years, my grandmother has faced multiples challenges as a female leader of different enterprises, so the problem is deeply embedded in our culture.

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

I didn’t expect I would be so emotionally involved and that I would be on 24 hours a day (I literally have dreams about our business).

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? Can you explain what you mean?

There are a couple of things that make a person a successful CEO. One of them is the ability to build (and keep) a team of people you can trust and who are experts in their field. People are a critical factor when it comes to being successful in business. Giving people freedom and trusting their abilities while exercising control is another skill I had to learn. Keeping your team motivated and driven by the same mission and purpose makes them more productive and driven.

As a CEO, you need to be interested in different areas of the business and brand — you need to know at least a little about everything. You also can’t be a perfectionist and you need to accept the fact that you’ll make mistakes. All entrepreneurs learn from their mistakes.

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

Take your time to find the right people to join your team. You want to work with people that are driven by your company’s mission and who want to grow with you.

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

It’s important for us to give back and support businesses that focus on helping local communities. For instance, we work with The Savannah Fruits Company, a company that empowers rural Ghanaian women, engaging over 18,000 women from local communities to produce hand-crafted shea butter — providing jobs to local villages, securing career opportunities and ensuring cultural and social integrity.

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

  1. You need marketing dollars to bring your product or service to market, nothing happens on its own and nothing happens overnight — even if you have the best and the most innovative product. You need to make people aware that it exists.
  2. It takes a long time to build brand awareness. We’ve been lucky in this area but also made some missteps.
  3. Influencer marketing is overrated. It works if you need social proof and UGC (User Generated Content) for your social media content, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to sales unless advertised.
  4. Coordinating a website, retailers and a warehouse can be more complex than you would hope.
  5. Different marketing and business initiatives are required at different stages of growth. They need to be launched at the appropriate time in order to be successful.

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 would definitely promote the idea of “better skin means less makeup”. We want women to be confident about themselves — let their true beauty shine through and not cover up with lots of makeup. It really holds true for personal confidence.

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

It’s quite simple: “Follow your dreams.” For me personally, moving to the US and graduating with a Masters degree is already an achievement. Starting a brand in a very competitive space and making it work is another achievement that I’m proud of. I’ve always been determined and motivated to follow my life vision — sometimes I wasn’t sure what exactly it would look like, but I had a rough idea of the direction.

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 love to have lunch with will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas. I’ve always been a fan of this musical group since I was a teenager and I’ve been inspired by the music will.i.am has produced. I’m very passionate about music and I think we would have a great conversation.

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

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