What comes easy to me, doesn’t come easy to everyone. For a long time I had a really high goals and standards for my employees. I wanted them to do things as fast as I did and the way I did them. I didn’t understand why they weren’t able to or didn’t want to. To them the goals were unattainable, and I was perceived as detached. I thought I was pushing them towards greatness and challenging their abilities to make them better, but it turned out I was making them feel like they weren’t good enough. Not what you want as a leader. I’ve learned to be more conscientious.
I had the pleasure to interview Deb Monti. Milvali Extensions & Academy was established in San Francisco by expert Extensionist & award-winning salon owner Deb Monti. Voted “best hair extensions” four years in a row by the San Francisco Chronicle’s A-List and named one of the top 10 hair extensions experts by Allure Magazine, Monti knew it was time to share her method and passion with the world and launched Milvali Extensions Academy in 2016. Today, Monti teaches aspiring extension experts in her San Francisco-based salon, Milvali Salon, as well as travels all over the world teaching her method with the next generation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I can tell you the exact moment that brought me to my passion for hair extensions and lead me to this career path. It started way back in 1997 while I was working as a manager for a popular cosmetic company on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. We were hiring, and I was interviewing. If you are familiar with SF, you know it’s hills. I was driving to work that morning and saw the back of a tall blonde walking down the steep street with her hair down to her waist, full of perfectly waved curls that were bouncing in unison with each graceful step she took down that hill. I was mesmerized by how her hair was moving, and of course how long and thick it was…and blonde. I could not stop thinking about it! I settled into work and welcomed my first interviewee that morning. It was her! The tall blonde was in front of me. To make a long story short, I hired her, became best friends with her and she told and taught me her secret, extensions. We did extensions together for years- for friends, co-workers, clients, in our kitchen. I was good at it and passionate about giving women amazing hair. The one extraordinary thing that stood out to me was, after doing a set of hair extensions on someone, the feeling that overcame both of us was undeniable. It was happiness, confidence, strut your stuff, I can handle anything kind of self-assurance. I was determined to make extensions my career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
A few years into opening Milvali, the SF Chronicle came out with a category in their Bay-List for Best Hair Extensions. People voted and Milvali won. We won 4 years in a row for Best Extensions and then there was a small feature in Allure magazine that named me as one of the top 10 extension stylists in the country. I was elated, surprised and flattered. I was getting booked solid for months out and getting so busy that I was doing 3 extension clients per day. I started teaching the stylists in my salon how to do extensions so we didn’t turn away clients. My stylists were good and they were getting booked solid. I taught some more, and then again. I found a love for teaching. And then extensions exploded in the industry. Everyone was doing them but the education wasn’t keeping up with the demand. I realized that I needed to teach stylists the proper way to install extensions so they wouldn’t ruin their clients hair, which in turn could ruin the whole extension industry. I came up with a comprehensive 2-day extension course that teaches stylists everything they need to know to be a successful extensionist. I found a new passion- teaching.
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?
I made a few of mistakes along the way and, there is one that sticks out that makes me laugh with embarrassment when I think about it. I decided to put my salon logo on my back windshield. At the time I had an SUV with a nice big area for it. It read MILVALI in bold letters and below the name and logo I thought it would be a good idea to advertise hair extensions. The printing company that I was using, already had our logo, so I placed the order over the phone and arranged for them to apply it for me while I was at work. Well, I missed a big, embarrassing mistake. They misspelled extensions, so it read hair extentions. I drove my car around for about a week, proud of my fancy back window advertising and didn’t catch the typo. My sister-in-law, who is a 4th grade teacher very casually said “I think extensions is spelled with an s”
The lesson of course, is I double check all advertising for spelling.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes my salon company stand out is teamwork. I know, that may sound like a cliché term, but the teamwork that we instill in our company goes deep- it is strong and we are like family. It is not uncommon for me to help employees on personal level and they do the same for me and each other. I’ve picked up medicine from a pharmacy for a sick co-worker and drove it to their home for them, my employees have picked me up from the airport, babysat my children and house-sat my home. Knowing that you have a team of people that are going to be there for each other outside of work translates into being there for each other at work that much more effective. Clients feel it and love being in an atmosphere where everyone is being taken care of.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I am always working on an exciting project. My mind is constantly thinking of the next best thing. I am currently working on a tool that will make installing hair extensions faster and a system that will make re-using hair extensions easier. I work really fast (I install a full head of micro-link hair extensions in 2 hours flat) and I want to teach people how to work more efficiently. Time is so valuable, and I want to teach people how to manage it a little bit better.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
There is a fine line between what makes us women sensitive beings and push-overs. I think it is in our DNA to take care of people and have a mothering nature, but women are sometimes criticized for that in the workplace by appearing weak. My advice is don’t try to go so far from that to be a hard-ass corporate boss lady. In my experience from the last 16 years of owning hair salons, and managing people is, I have found that you get what you give. Sometimes people need a little more love and support to do their best. Sometimes they need advice and often times they just need to be understood. I can crack a whip and give a pat on the back at the same time, and I think that is the key on being a successful female.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Have systems in place, stay consistent and have a good manager that thinks like you do (or at least has your back). Having a set of systems keeps the team flowing and moving in a direction that helps your company’s culture. Staying consistent is always a challenge, but the more consistency you have, the better your systems will work. Managers are the heroes. They keep the systems and consistency in check.
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?
Yes, there are 2. Jessika Adams de Vazquez, my business partner and Cheryl Edison. Jess has been my business partner for the last 16 years. She is like my sister. We worked together for years before we created Milvali. People often ask us what the secret to our successful partnership is and it’s an easy question to answer, but not an easy partnership to find. We are a rarity and I consider myself very fortunate to have cultivated our early years of working together into a friendship and then a partnership. Here it is in a nutshell. Jess handles the business portion of our company, and I am the creative side. Where I have a weakness, she has a strength and vice versa. Where I am hard, she is soft, so we really balance the business successfully. We think alike and were trained as managers together, so we often have the same business ideas and rarely disagree. It’s really something I am grateful for and appreciate, especially since we just celebrated our 16 year anniversary.
Cheryl is a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur and global business development expert with a track record of successfully launching companies, products and services into new markets across 47 industries and she is my friend. I met Cheryl in the salon and we became fast friends. I have so much respect for her as a fierce women on top of her game, but she is also compassionate and giving. She has given me her expert advice and suggestions to help me launch my extension courses and think outside the box.
I am a hair stylist. I thrive behind the chair, in the moment with clients and co-workers. I am a free spirit and make people feel good. I self-admittedly can’t negotiate well and sure as hell don’t feel comfortable in a corporate office surrounded by businessmen in shirts and ties. But, that is Cheryl’s wheelhouse. She has gone to bat for me in many corporate discussions and I know I could not have done it without her. Our business conversations are filled with what I call “golden nuggets” -pieces of key information that you need to hear and act on. She always has the right answers and just makes things sound easy. We all need a Cheryl in our lives.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I would love to be able to answer this question something like “I have raised millions of dollars for under-privileged people to get a proper education, enough food and shelter and feel safe in their environment”. Maybe someday, but for now, my answer is this; Being successful, I see and touch a lot of people. I bring goodness to the world one person at a time. When you look good on the outside, you feel good on the inside, and when you feel good, you have confidence. Confidence leads to all sorts of things. Especially the ability to positively influence others, and that is empowering. It’s a collective feeling that just starts with one and grows. It’s contagious. I listen, I show up, I operate from a place of integrity, I’m appreciative, I’m authentic, I often pay it forward, I give my attention to detail, I appreciate, and I dream big. I give this to my clients, and I teach this to my students. I believe in the saying “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Don’t take things so personally- I struggled on this one for a while. I pride myself on creating a tight team environment where employees feel like family. So, when an employee quit, I would get upset and feel bad. In the salon industry it wasn’t uncommon for stylists to build a clientele, then leave and take those clients with them. I used to get so upset and play the victim thinking “how could they do this to me, I thought we were family”. Now, I’ve learned to accept that it happens and just trust the process. There is enough for everyone, and holding a grudge and being a victim is so counter-productive. I’ve learned to let things go.
2. What comes easy to me, doesn’t come easy to everyone.- For a long time I had a really high goals and standards for my employees. I wanted them to do things as fast as I did and the way I did them. I didn’t understand why they weren’t able to or didn’t want to. To them the goals were unattainable, and I was perceived as detached. I thought I was pushing them towards greatness and challenging their abilities to make them better, but it turned out I was making them feel like they weren’t good enough. Not what you want as a leader. I’ve learned to be more conscientious.
3. You can’t please everyone all of the time, and it’s ok- Some employees will find something to complain about, no matter how small. One time I overheard an employee complaining about the cheap silverware in the breakroom. I started obsessing on how to make things perfect for employees and feeling like I wasn’t providing enough. After spending too much time talking about it at a monthly meeting and realizing that it was never that big of a deal to them anyways, I’ve learned that sometimes some people just need to complain a little bit and when they do, I don’t need to fix every little thing.
4. I need to be approachable- I’m busy. I do things quickly, I talk fast and I’m sometimes direct. If I have down time, I’m finding a project to work on. I still struggle with this and know it’s a big leadership mistake to look too busy for employees to talk to you. Having a moment of down-time where I can sit with co-workers and just listen is so valuable. I’ve learned to make more time for my employees.
5. Be more appreciative. I was on a hike with a friend when she received a text from her boss. She read it and her mood changed. She shared with how her boss only sends her a text message when there is something wrong and hardly ever gives her positive feedback. It made me wonder if my employees think the same thing! I stopped right then and there and sent a group text to my team (yes, out of guilt but also out of honest appreciation) telling them what a fantastic day we had yesterday, and how much I value the team etc. The responses I got back were overwhelmingly appreciative- they were hungry for it. As a leader, I’ve learned to give more praise and recognition to my team.
6. Don’t get so busy that you can’t grow. — In the beginning of my career as an extensionist I was busy and I loved the feeling of being really booked. Then, I started feeling like I wanted to do more with the business, take in other directions, but all of my ideas couldn’t (and didn’t) happen because I was so busy being busy. Looking back, I wish I had more time to focus on growing my extension courses years ago. I now have to embrace the saying “better late than never”, but I have learned “there’s no better time than now.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is by Henry Ford “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
Our beliefs about our ability on what we can achieve in life is all in our mindset. I am fortunate to have been raised by an amazingly supportive mom who is my biggest fan. I grew up hearing “Deb, you can do anything, you’re good at everything”. And even to this day she still tells me that. When you’re encouraged, you believe in yourself, and when you believe you can do something, then you just do it.
I’m the youngest of 4 and my mom raised my brother and sisters alone. I saw her work really hard but she was always there for me. She instilled a strong work ethic in me that I believe made me more driven and motivated. It also made me supportive to my team and sometimes even motherly, but that goes back to question #6.
Some of the biggest 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 🙂
Bethenny Frankel. She is a badass business woman, mother, entrepreneur and philanthropist. If there is a real life Wonder Woman, it’s her. She has managed to build a successful empire and start Be Strong while being a single mom. She works hard, loves hard, fights for what she believes in and somehow balances business, family, entertainment and has an amazing sense of humor. I would love to have lunch with her and talk about the power women have on the future. Actually, I would just like her to show me her super hero cape.