Rina Gocaj & Floriye Elmazi of SISTERWOULD: “Life doesn’t just happen to you. It’s all about choices and how you respond to every situation”

Floriye: Some of the strategies that I’ve used to optimise my mental wellness include living in the present, focusing on what is in front of me now. To accept and let go of the past because it cannot be changed. To take actions towards making my future easier, rather than stressing about it. Rina: The biggest […]

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Floriye: Some of the strategies that I’ve used to optimise my mental wellness include living in the present, focusing on what is in front of me now. To accept and let go of the past because it cannot be changed. To take actions towards making my future easier, rather than stressing about it.

Rina: The biggest thing for me has been routine, keeping close virtual contact with family, friends and mentors, managing my expectations, taking time out to meditate and enjoy some fresh air and most importantly finding some good bonding time with my husband and my son.

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Co-founder Rina Gocaj of SISTERWOULD.

After the devastating impact of the COVID19 pandemic, young Australian mothers Rina and Floriye were forced to walk away from their previous positions. Deciding to finally conquer their long-lasting dreams of starting a hair care brand, Rina and Floriye saw the pandemic as an opportunity to propel their new venture, SISTERWOULD.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Rina: I was born in Shkoder, Albania. When I was just 3 months old, my parents moved to Greece for what they hoped would be a better life. 8 years later, my parents got approved visas to go to the U.S, therefore, we moved to NY in 1998. I could only speak Albanian and Greek, so it took me a while to learn English. Being a daughter to immigrant parents, there was a lot of pressure on me to be fluent in the English language. It was vital for me to be a key translator for any important information, or within appointments. My brother is 6 years younger than me so there wasn’t much he could do. I had to acculturate to life in America and just when I thought life couldn’t get harder, I lost my father when I was just 13 years old. I got robbed and stabbed in the Bronx, was chased and nearly beaten to death in Fordham Rd, but I still kept going. I watched my mother struggle to raise us as she got a second job and I remember for two years she even got a third because she refused to remove us from the school my father enrolled us in. She didn’t want our lives to change so she worked tirelessly to provide the best life possible for us.

After watching her cry at night and still struggle to pay bills, I decided to start working at a young age. My first job was at a corporate office in New York City working for a major security investigations company as a HR Generalist. I had to lie about my age to get the job. I worked there for nearly 6 years, while in high school and all throughout college. I’d work all day and take classes at night. I guess you could say I had a lot of drive, but really, I just wanted to keep myself busy and help my mother with the bills. Watching my mother struggle and working in the city gave me a drive I never knew was possible. I’m thankful for all the highs and lows in my life because they fuelled me to strive for a better life; a life people said was never possible for an immigrant girl like myself, but anything is possible if you work hard enough.

Floriye: As a child I grew up within an Albanian/Muslim cultural background living in Melbourne. Everything was about family and faith. I loved art, playing outdoors freely and attending Islamic Sunday school, learning cooking skills off my grandmother who was a big inspiration to me. Being the oldest child of three, I was responsible of taking care of my brother and sister while my parents worked hard to try and set up a foundation for our family. I always tried to do well in school and make my parents proud. I really wanted to go to university someday, as no one in my family had a higher education. I was accepted into Deakin university and was so proud. I met a man and got married at 18 where I decided to start a new chapter in my life. Little did I know that all hell broke lose. My grandmother passed away 6 weeks before my wedding. My marriage was a roller coaster of hidden secrets. I suffered mental abuse from the person I thought was my true love. I became a victim of a partner who had a drug addiction. Whilst still aiming to finish university I fell pregnant. My baby was my hope. Little did I know, my 10 years of marriage caused so much pain and trauma within me. 2020 was the time for me to heal my past and start to live my life purpose. I turned to God, became spiritual and learnt to face my fears. To do this, I realised I was the one who had to change my own life and happiness. I wanted to be that little happy, driven girl that I once was. Although my past was a struggle, it has given me the strength to make a true difference in my world. Sharing my story, I hope it empowers other women to support each other through change and know that anything is possible if we truly look within ourselves and take care of our own garden.

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

Rina: I think it’s important to not spend time ruminating on the past or what could have been and instead focus on the future. CS Lewis once said, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” and that’s been my favorite quote to date. I apply it to everything in my life. Instead of feeling sorry for myself for all the things that went wrong in my life and turning to a path I’d later regret, I focused on taking better steps to ensure I’d have a better future. I lost my father, I grieved, and it took a long time to heal, but I moved forward. I had a lot of bad things happen to me and amongst the worst, was being stabbed and nearly losing my life, but instead of letting fear consume me I focused on being stronger. I learnt from past mistakes on projects and instead of feeling down and discouraged I got up and found ways to fix things; to get yes for an answer. Dwelling on what could have been has killed more dreams than failure ever has. Life is inherently risky itself, but the biggest risk of all is to dwell, sit back and do nothing.

Floriye: My favorite life lesson is by Malala Yousafzai, a powerful young girl who fought for women’s rights. Malala was shot on the left side of her head by the Taliban. Her story inspires me, not only because of her bravery and determination, but I believe she survived because her true purpose in life was to help and empower women. Similarly, I believe I survived a different traumatic experience, that many women can relate to just like Malala did. A quote that I live by is, “I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is the story of many girls”. I feel strongly towards this quote because in many cultural background women are raised to believe that they don’t have the right to speak up and that they should keep quiet no matter the circumstances. In addition to this, Malala grew the strength to speak up for what she believes in and fought against her cultural barriers. I, myself, have learnt to speak about my past, rather than hide from it. Although this current article is showing my vulnerability publicly. My future purpose is to create a supportive community of sisters to inspire one another. As Malala once said, “let us make our future now and let us make our dreams tomorrows reality”. I believe fear and hardship can eventually lead to a sense of healing and light. Which helps to let go of the fear of speaking up, therefore, leading to peace and freedom within oneself.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Rina: It’s hard to choose just one, but I’d say “Focus” by Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen. I love this book because a lot of people struggle with being able to focus. I’d say this is a great book for someone who wants to create life-changing habits. I used to struggle with focusing on one project and would often do too many things at once, inundating my schedule and exhausting myself. One of the greatest takeaways would have to be that “Life doesn’t just happen to you. It’s all about choices and how you respond to every situation.” After my father passed away, I quickly felt depressed and lost. Life felt like it no longer had any meaning. My father never missed a basketball game, a softball game, shopping trips, or simple day at the park with his kids. He was more proactive than Mom when it came to taking us out so losing him was a huge shock. I realized as I got older that the way I felt wasn’t because I lost my father, it was how I reacted to the situation. We can choose to grieve, hold on to beautiful memories and move on the right way or grieve and be stuck in a moment that won’t bring him back or take me forward. I chose to grieve for a long time, but when I was ready to move forward, I accepted the situation and grew the strength to not dwell on what could’ve been or could’ve happened. Instead, I remembered the beautiful memories.

Floriye: A book that is really close to me is called “Reclaim Your Heart” by Yasmine Mogahad. Her book conveys how our heart becomes entrapped and freed from life’s repetitive patterns of love, loss, happiness, and pain. This book has opened my mind and heart to heal and become more conscious to my physical and spiritual reconciliation through love and peace.

Yasmine mentions “If you seek Him, God can raise you up, and replace the darkness of the ocean, with the light of His Sun.” always in life, my main source of light is God’s light. That is reflected in everything that exists. So, this is what is my core belief for myself which enables me to work on my personal character, life lessons and spiritual growth. This is how I find most peace in my true purpose; to do things for God’s sake alone. What is meant to be will always be.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

Rina: I was a co-owner of a recruitment business based in Melbourne, Victoria. I’ve been in the recruitment industry for 15 years hiring for companies globally within various industries such as beauty, fashion, construction, security investigations, tech, banking, civil infrastructure, real estate and demolition. I’ve worked with companies like Schiavello, CBRE, Brookfield, Mann Group and Microsoft to name a few, assisting them with search and selection of high-end executive and recruitment services.

Floriye: I have an immense passion for all things beauty and enjoy the entrepreneurial world with all the challenges it brings, as it has shaped me to be an all-rounder when it comes to business and my career. I have had to wear multiple hats from working in various roles within the accounts department, admin work and information system roles. I also previously worked as makeup-artist for 10 years as a side job to fulfil my creative needs. I really enjoyed making women of all backgrounds, skin tones, and age feel beautiful inside and out. Whilst juggling an office environment and my creative makeup side, I decided to shift and take a risk in creating my own beauty laser clinic. After 2 years into the business, I felt the need for a higher vibration. I did enjoy the small daily impact I played in people’s lives by making them feel rejuvenated. However, my vision was to someday impact the world. I wasn’t content with small change because my heart and soul felt that I must have a higher purpose to create a community of women (sisters) to come together and have a voice.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

Rina: During the pandemic I started working on creating a haircare brand called SISTERWOULD. I made a complete career switch and I have the pandemic to thank for that. We were and still are at an early stage in SISTERWOULD. Prior to starting this new venture with SISTERWOULD I had taken 2 months off after having just left the recruitment industry. I was a co-owner of a recruitment business at the time and we decided to sell the business right before the pandemic began. The business was struggling to keep its doors open and clients were no longer hiring or wanting to use recruitment agencies, so the business was spending more than it was making; therefore, it was hard to survive.

I saw the recruitment industry take a huge hit. Many companies stopped using third party agencies and instead started to do in-house recruiting themselves. It was then that I realized the recruitment agency was dying. Why would a company want to pay an agency a 20 to 30% fee when they can do it themselves in house? I decided to take some time off from going back to work and really focus on my future career goals and the next step I wanted to take. I was also pregnant at the time and it was great to be able to focus on my growing family. After two months off, I was approached with an opportunity in a field I was considering entering so I took it, and it was the best decision I made.

Floriye: Just as the entire world shut, mine felt as though it had really just begun. The silence of the world due to COVID- 19 enabled me to really reflect on my goals and what my aspirations were in life. I deeply reflected on all my experiences from studying accounting at university, to working in various office roles, getting into the beauty industry, and overall life challenges. I found that no matter how many changes I went through, it all leads me to where I am supposed to be; it helped me develop a strong mindset. The pandemic was a time of reflection. I would go for walks in nature to really breath in and appreciate the calm all around me. Although the pandemic brought along fear and severely impacted people’s mental health and wellbeing. For me, it gave me a sense of aspiration to work harder in achieving my goals through SISTERWOULD. This assisted me in developing a whole new vision and life path. Don’t get me wrong, the risks felt even higher and the uncertain times are daunting, however, I was positive that pivoting my career in creating a brand with a voice was part of my purpose. This a clear representation of how with hardship comes ease.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

Rina: My co-founder and I were in a meeting with our lab when we were discussing what we wanted to do. I was set on doing a hair care line and my co-founder, Flo, wanted a skincare line. The lab told us to meet halfway and figure out what we wanted to. That’s when we realized we were going to combine both, bridging the gap between skin and hair. However, we wanted to expand our brand and create a space that maximises accessibility, inclusivity and diversity. In order for us to be happy, we needed our products to be accessible.

Floriye: While having blonde hair the products I used lacked hydration and restoration. They often lead to a build-up of product which resulted in irritation to my scalp. I felt as though my roots were congested, lifeless and were unable to breathe. I realised it was constantly leading to an overproduction of oil within my hair. It was then I sought quality, healthy ingredients in different hair products. After hours of research and my own personal background knowledge in beauty therapy, I was left disappointed as all the products I researched lacked ingredients that improved scalp health. This brings me back to my ‘aha moment’ when I knew my hair and scalp health was just as important as the rest of our skin on our body. This was when the idea of SISTERWOULD was born.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Rina: So far things are going great! Product development is finalized, we haven’t even launched yet and we have close to 6,000 organic email subscribers who have all shown interest in our brand and purchasing our products. We do teasers of our products on our Instagram account to see who would be interested in purchasing from us. SISTERWOULD is going to launch with a shampoo and conditioner line with innovative ingredients and accessible packaging design. We’ve had potential investors shown interest in the brand so we’re hoping to get back to them once we finalize our pitch deck.

Floriye: Rina and I are working towards launching SISTERWOULD in 2021. We are still at the start up stage however we are progressing well. Our vision is coming to life and we cannot wait to show the world what is in store for SISTERWOULD.

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?

Rina: Not one particular person but rather a few people who we’re grateful for that have helped out tremendously. Our parents who have both invested in the business, our mentors, Tara Simich, Founder of Mermade Hair, mentor and potential investor Kash Charan, owner of Charan Foundation, Eft Tours and Tourism Fiji. Without their support and guidance this journey would’ve taken much longer.

Floriye: It would be impossible to choose a specific person with all the love and support Rina and I have received throughout this whole journey. However, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the constant love and encouragement my parents, family and friends have shown me. I’m also extremely grateful towards all the new people that I’ve met along the way, such as our business advisor, suppliers, manufactures and mentors. I’m also forever grateful for my sisters Emily (our intern) and Rina. Without them SISTERWOULD wouldn’t have been brought to life and I wouldn’t have experienced the sister bond the three of us share. My biggest blessings, however, are my two beautiful boys who always light up my world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

Rina: Our brand and products are focused on accessibility, sustainability and inclusivity. I want to ensure that our business leads with purpose and focuses on giving back. Doing the start-up stage is a bit difficult when you’re bootstrapped and low on funds, and I remember there was a moment where I was feeling somewhat discouraged and rethinking our business plan and design packaging. I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to launch with our accessible packaging design so I asked God for a sign that we could do it. I was walking with my three-year-old son and one day, he steps on a wet piece of paper. It was bothering him, and he asked me to take it off, when I removed it from his foot and read the paper it was a little card that read “You can do this, it’s what you were meant to do and don’t be afraid of change” Love, D. It must have been a card on a flower that someone had gotten for a loved one or a friend. I took it as a sign that I asked for and the “D” to me stood for “Dad” I know he’s watching over me and always giving me signs.

Floriye: Early on, when the business journey started, I had to invest everything that I had in order to create the perfect brand and product. To do this, I had to sell my brand-new Mercedes car, which I had previously worked extremely hard for. Although I was excited for what was to come, the thought of taking such a big risk made me nervous. I put my car up for sale and the next morning I had an offer. I walked outside to a rainy day with a grey sky which led to me rethinking my decision. I walked back outside to look at my car one last time and wondered if I was making the right decision. All of a sudden, I looked up and a small section of the clouds had cleared. With the sun shining through, while hitting my body with warmth, I felt as though the sun was a sign from Allah (god) and a type of comfort that I was making the right decision.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Rina: Good suppliers are difficult to find and even more difficult to communicate with. I wish I knew how long the process actually took. I was under the impression that we’d see our bottles in 6 weeks’ time when in reality that’s just the timeframe for samples and sometimes it can take longer. The biggest challenge for me has been dealing with our supplier.

Entrepreneurship is not glamorous, even in the beauty industry. You need a different style of schedule tracking when you run your own business. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know just how hard. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but sometimes it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself into, although not knowing equips you and prepares you to be a good leader.

Tech stack! I wish someone told me that you needed endless amounts of programs and apps to run a beauty business. From project management tools, logistics tracking, inventory, customer service to the creative ones. There is just so much to know and use.

I wish someone told me that you always needed a rainy-day fund, just in case. We’ve been fortunate enough to make minor mistakes that we can afford.

Lastly, you can’t do it all by yourself. While I appreciate the fact that all founders wear multiple hats, you also need to make sure you get help where it’s really needed. Sometimes doing too much can set you up for failure. I remember at the very early stages of our SISTERWOULD start-up journey when we set up the business, we were trying to do some of the accounting ourselves and it was a really bad idea. We had to find an accountant and it three tries to finally find a good one. That’s when we realized some work really does need to be outsourced or delegated elsewhere.

Floriye: Prior to starting a business, I wish I knew the amount of time and knowledge that would go in to market research for creating a product, such as getting to know what the end user (customer experience would be like). The pandemic was a good time to reach out to people through social media and finding what was trending and what people were using for selfcare. Due to hairdressers being closed during the pandemic a lot of people were concerned with their hair and were talking more online about it.

The costs involved in starting a business correctly: Everything became more expensive when we realised the number of processes and systems that are involved during the product launch phase. We had to boot strap the business and work out ways to make it through a pandemic with little financial aid.

Being ready to face failures; not knowing what challenges might be ahead. We had to remove ourselves from an unhelpful mentor, change packaging suppliers’ numerous times, and had to continuously reanalyse our business plan and reach out to people for advice and recommendations. Therefore, realising every step of the way is a learning curve.

Working during a pandemic and how much environmental impact can contribute to how one manages their emotions and risk. Without having the support of my business partner and vice versa I don’t think we would have been able to do it alone.

Having the right people to support the development of the business. People play a big role in fulfilling tasks throughout the process. We were lucky enough to find the right manufacture, helpful business advisor, accountant and PR intern to fill in the gaps of knowledge where Rina and I couldn’t fulfil alone.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

Rina: The biggest thing for me has been routine, keeping close virtual contact with family, friends and mentors, managing my expectations, taking time out to meditate and enjoy some fresh air and most importantly finding some good bonding time with my husband and my son. As a suicide prevention advocate, I believe that mental health is extremely important for people of all ages. I’d wake up every day and the first thing I’d do is check on the kids, then check my emails, text messages and social media messages and then go downstairs, put on a good motivational video on YouTube to get me pumped for the day and make breakfast and a cup of coffee. I’d call my mother and speak to her while eating breakfast. I can’t go on with my day unless I speak to her. One thing I incorporated into my routine that I never used to do before is watching TV. I was never someone who sits down and watches TV. I was constantly on the go and never had time for it really, but COVID-19 showed me that making family time and watching movies is actually really fun and good for everyone. After we put the kids to sleep, we’d sit down and watch a movie or start a new show and have something to look forward to each night. Sometimes I skip movie night to get work done. I like to think I have a good work/life balance. Another great thing has been using the “calm” app to focus, relax and meditate. It’s truly been life changing for me at night.

Floriye: Some of the strategies that I’ve used to optimise my mental wellness include living in the present, focusing on what is in front of me now. To accept and let go of the past because it cannot be changed. To take actions towards making my future easier, rather than stressing about it. Another strategy is to understand and let myself feel my emotions, rather than bury them. This way, I am able to heal through letting myself feel the emotions which also assist in overcoming challenges. In good and bad times, I think it’s extremely important to stay connected to your beliefs, for me it is staying connected to God (Allah) through prayer, meditation and mindful activities; to have gratitude and count all the blessings I have been given. My last strategy is to always find a balance through action and selfcare. To know that too many actions turn into burn out and too much selfcare turns into avoidance.

You are both people of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Rina: Altruism! To give back. To help where you can, when you can. To lead with social impact and be able to make a difference in people’s lives. If we can leave someone better than we found them, that’s what life is about. Supporting my local community through volunteering- financially, personally and mentally has been something I’ve always done. Whether it’s helping a friend raise money for someone in need, raising funds myself, or volunteering at the local hospital and helping the underprivileged in my local community. If there is an opportunity to help and give back, I’m all for it and I think we should all be. We all have the ability to give back somehow, no matter how small. It might be something as little as giving mentoring advice or any advice.

Floriye: If I were to inspire a movement it would be one about creating a community of women who are empowered by their voices. This doesn’t have to mean speaking to tell the world, although it can be, my main intention is to inspire women to speak to each other or someone they know about their feelings. This can be a community platform or simply encouraging people to feel comfortable speaking with a best friend, a sister, mother, health worker, therapist, psychologist and so forth. I’d love to create an online community for #ladiescomeback where a variety of supportive tools are offered in order to help women come back to being who they always wanted to be. It can be as simple as offering free courses in developing resumes, or how to start a business. SISTERWOULD is not only a brand for beauty products, which helps individuals feel good on the outside, but also a space where we aim to give back and help others feel good on the inside too. I aspire to make SISTERWOULD a beauty tech company for the new era of growth.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Rina: There are quite a few people I’d absolutely love to meet, but since I must pick one it would have to be Alexis Ohanian. Not only is he a great entrepreneur, but his journey while founding Reddit truly inspired me. To know that he had the strength and drive to carry on and grow reddit after finding out his mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer is truly inspiring. It goes to show that some people don’t use anything as an excuse and don’t give up. That’s the type of person I’d love to meet. Losing my father triggered some of the darkest moments in my life and I can’t imagine having to run a start-up while coping with that, but I think I’d do the same thing as Alexis. Besides, my father is the very reason why I pushed myself so hard to even kick start my journey as a start-up founder.

Floriye: I would absolutely love to have lunch with Emma Isaacs, the co-founder and CEO of Business Chicks. Her success in turning a group of 250 people into Australia’s largest community for women with a global network of 45,000 members is truly inspiring, and I hope that one day SISTERWOULD is able to grow the same way. I also love that she’s created a supportive environment targeted for women. SISTERWOULD is working towards creating an environment where women can seek support and knowledge from one another and feel empowered individually and as a community. Her book ‘Winging It’ encourages people to do the thing that scares you. Selling everything to invest in SISTERWOULD was truly terrifying, but it is a risk that Rina and I are glad we took. Her book also mentions the importance of getting what you want by helping other people get what they want. I strongly believe in this as one day Rina and I hope to give back to our supporters and those in need. Similarly, Emma also had a recruitment company before moving onto Business Chicks. Just like Rina and myself she continues to follow her gut and keep hustling. One day I would love to meet her.

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