I am a mother of 4 and a wife and a business owner. It leaves very little time for other things. I’ve had to really take a step back and realize that I need social time with my friends and my family that lives outside of the home, and I need “me” time as well. You don’t want to burn out so you need to find ways to make time for other pieces in life, even if you have a hard time getting your mind off of work. You can’t forget about the other people in your life.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Blair. She is the Co-Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at Deka Lash. In Jennifer’s role, she leads Deka Lash’s overall customer experience strategy to deliver differentiated experiences that build customer loyalty and brand advocacy. Jennifer started Deka Lash with the dream of empowering women through beauty with a focus on superior and affordable eyelash extensions, and has since led the brand through industry game-changing eyelash product launches and has driven Deka Lash to more than 100 retail locations in the US and Canada.
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?
You could say beauty was kind of built into my DNA. When I was younger, I used to get dropped off after school at the salon where my mom worked so I would get to watch the ins and outs of the industry in that sense. I also was really involved in beauty pageants and modeling. I am now a mom of four, and I was a stay-at-home mom for many years. When it was time for me to start working again, I knew I wanted to do something in the beauty space and I also wanted work that was fulfilling. I didn’t want to go back just to earn a paycheck. Lashes were something that weren’t very mainstream at the time. They have always considered an add-on service and the service itself was really limited and expensive. It was hard to find the time or the justification to get them done — my schedule was tight and the price point wasn’t realistic for a parent to keep up with on top of all of the other normal expenses that come along with raising kids.
I decided to take a class and learn how to apply them. I started offering lash services part-time and quickly found that there was an entire market of women just like myself — they wanted lash services but didn’t feel the current lash market was accessible to them. My small single bed studio in Pittsburgh quickly grew to four locations around the city, and today we are operating internationally with over 100 studios open and many more on their way to opening.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When we decided to start franchising I was a nervous wreck. We were pitching our idea to a broker network, which is a group of brokers who help match your brand with potential franchise owners. We were speaking to a male-dominated room trying to explain what eyelash extensions were. This was before they were a mainstream thing so you can imagine what we were up against. My voice was shaking and I was sweating profusely. I remember everyone was just staring at me and didn’t really comprehend that eyelash extensions could be a business. It was clear that they didn’t really know what I was talking about and didn’t share the vision for the impact we knew we could create when they asked, “what else do you do?” I had to really be assertive around what lash extensions are and why women want them. Wildly enough, they decided to give us a chance and a year and a half later we were in the top five brands being sold by their network; we started getting invited on stage and winning awards with them. It took some time, but eventually they ended up believing in us and it really paid off for us both.
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?
This is a little embarrassing but I used to be really horrible at responding to emails, hitting reply all when I shouldn’t hit reply all, responding to and creating calendar invites, and all of the other similar tasks that go along with these things. I was a beauty professional, sitting at a desk in front of a computer wasn’t something that felt natural for me. Anyways, I was supposed to set up a meeting with a group of people and send out the calendar invite. I thought I did — but it turned out I didn’t include anyone but myself in the meeting. I joined the meeting and started panicking wondering why no one else joined the meeting and wondered if they just didn’t care about the topic of the meeting when in reality, no one had any idea they were supposed to even be in the meeting.
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?
My family in general has supported me a lot along the way. My kids have understood why I’ve had to miss games or come late to pick them up. As a running joke, they now tell me I need to be there 30 minutes earlier than I actually do and thankfully we are at a point now where we don’t have to miss games anymore. But it was definitely a hard balance when things were first taking off.
My husband Mike has been the one to always push me to keep getting better. He gave me the confidence that I didn’t always need to be the smartest person in the room — I had the passion and I had a good idea that started turning into something. That was what really mattered. Sometimes when I was in a room with really smart people, it would feel a little bit intimidating but he always reminded me that being the smartest wasn’t what was important, what was important was my passion and staying true to my idea and who I am.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Women are primarily looked at as caregivers for the family. Even today we are faced with this stigma oftentimes. It can often feel like we are being forced to make a decision between our career and our familie s– we aren’t often seen as capable of both. It takes a lot of confidence to be able to say YES I can do both and it IS possible. Most of the time you’re walking into a male dominated arena and going against the grain of what society thinks women should do. Especially if the kids are in daycare, there is kind of this unspoken question of, “should you be home instead of here?” It is important to have the confidence to say YES I belong here, yes I CAN have a career and a family at the same time.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
More female representatives in the government would be a huge step. They are the ones who fully understand what it takes to be a working woman, oftentimes with families at home. More funding for female founded businesses would also be a huge step and driver. On a similar note, more training for female business owners and entrepreneurs. There is so much support out there for finding a job, but there are far fewer resources for the basics of starting a business.
I also believe we need more peer groups for women. Community and networking are specifically critical among women going through the same things as you are and facing the same challenges as you are. For me as a mother of four, it would have been so beneficial for me to meet other mothers taking the path of starting their own businesses. I know there is also the opposite side of the spectrum as well with women who choose not to have children who face criticism for not “settling down with a partner and children” because they make the choice to focus entirely on themselves and their careers. As women, we face different challenges in the entrepreneurial world than men and having this community would provide an opportunity for all women in the entrepreneurial space to empathize with and empower one another.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Women have a natural compassion for people. That’s so important and generally, we have a strong desire to help people. There needs to be a balance in business– it can’t be an all-male run business because of the skill sets that women have that are needed in order to help a business reach its potential. The world is made up of both men and women so we need that equal representation in the business space as well.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
– Having a good idea doesn’t mean instant success. Sometimes the hardest part is proving that the idea is sustainable and appealing to the market you are targeting. It can also take some trial and error in marketing yourself in order to connect the dots for your consumer that your product or service provides a solution for their needs.
– It’s not easy. There is a lot of pressure and difficult decisions that need to be made that impact a lot of people.
– It can be a little bit lonely. There aren’t a lot of people who can relate to your job. You can’t call and complain about your boss because usually you are the boss. Even to call your friends, it can be hard for them to relate or fully understand what goes on in the head of a founder.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
No, not everyone is cut out to be a founder. You have to be able to accept failure and pick yourself back up. It requires so much self motivation and self discipline. Especially in the beginning, you don’t have a boss or a team who can give you a pep talk when times get tough. You also need tough skin, you’ll be questioned about your decisions and need to be able to stand behind your decisions even when others don’t understand.
It’s not an instant success, there are a lot of failures that come along with it and roadblocks you need to find ways around. It’s easy for a lot of people to throw their hands up and quit rather than continuing to keep going even while you’re questioning yourself at the same time.
It also feels so much different when you mess up on your own dime rather than on someone else’s budget. When you work for a company, they eat the cost of your mistakes and never usually see what it equates to. When you work for yourself, you physically see the financial effect of your mistakes and you need to be able to remind yourself that a mistake is just a lesson, and then move on and make better decisions.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
– I didn’t realize what an impact you make on people’s lives when you have your own company. Through careers and providing the services that instill confidence in clients. It feels even better than I imagined, and is even more fulfilling than I ever thought possible.
– You imagine you don’t need to work as much since you get to “choose your schedule” when in reality you work 7 days a week plus holidays because your mind doesn’t stop. There’s no downtime because you’re always thinking of new ideas and just doing “one more thing”.
– Balance and time for yourself — I am a mother of 4 and a wife and a business owner. It leaves very little time for other things. I’ve had to really take a step back and realize that I need social time with my friends and my family that lives outside of the home, and I need “me” time as well. You don’t want to burn out so you need to find ways to make time for other pieces in life, even if you have a hard time getting your mind off of work. You can’t forget about the other people in your life.
– It takes a lot more time and money than I ever expected — you will make mistakes and learn from them. We were completely self-funded at startup so we really had to consider the full impact of every decision we made so that we didn’t repeat any mistakes that cost us financially.
– Working with my partner means we have to create boundaries. It can be really hard not to let work dominate our conversations! Vacations help a lot and we can usually leave work talk behind, but it is always a work in progress leaving work at work so I can focus on being a wife instead of a business partner at home.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We employ close to 600–700 women at Deka Lash and have given them a clear career path where they are able to work a flexible schedule doing something they love that earns them a comfortable income. It is fulfilling to know that our lash artists are truly passionate about beauty and that we are providing them an opportunity for it to be their full time career.
We also partner with a foundation called One Love which focuses on educating people around healthy and unhealthy relationships, how to love better and how to identify and avoid abuse. We require interactive workshops with One Love through the Deka Lash system. Our lash artists are sounding boards for our clients, and One Love helps them to identify issues that their clients may be experiencing as well as looking within themselves and their own relationships.
I had a client at my studio, and on the outside you would’ve thought everything was going great for her. Unfortunately, she ended up falling victim to a murder-suicide from the abusive relationship that she was in. She was a regular at our studio, so it really hit home with me having gotten to know her throughout her visits. One of my coworkers had brought up One Love, and right away I wanted to get behind it and share the message and movement on teaching people to love better. I believe educating people while they are younger is key to helping them avoid abusive relationships from the beginning, because it becomes so much harder to get out later down the road.
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 believe that Deka Lash supports my vision of empowering as many women as possible to feel as confident as possible. We impact our customers through our services, with a belief that when you look and feel your best, you do your best. We also create career opportunities for women who are passionate about the beauty industry, giving them opportunity to not only excel at their craft, but also to move up and progress through their careers if they choose. Then there is the franchising aspect where we can offer the opportunity of business ownership to those who are looking to make a switch in their careers and their lives and start leading something they feel passionate about. It is all really fulfilling to see all of the different ways we’ve been able to touch and change the lives of others.
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 have to say Alli Webb, the founder of Drybar. We both have really similar beginnings– a new concept in the beauty industry that wasn’t really a mainstream thing when we were starting out, we both started out operating just a single location and took our concept to a national level, and we both experienced fast growth while raising small children. I think we would have so many stories that we would be able to share and it would be really refreshing to have someone who understands and relates so well to my own personal journey.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.