Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Hood.
Mary Hood is the Founder and CEO of Hollywood Sensation, an online jewelry store that offers beautiful, responsibly-sourced jewelry that creates a red carpet sensation without the red carpet price, so every woman can feel confident, inspired, and empowered. Mary Hood began her business with $500 in the kitchen of the home she shared with her husband — with a baby on the way! Now Hollywood Sensation is a nationally recognized brand featured on television shows like The Talk, The Real, and Hollywood Live Today, and on QVC.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Iwas raised, educated, and introduced to the business world in Iran, where I became a manager at a large oil company. Working in a male-dominated culture gave me thick skin and a strong backbone. Still, I always dreamed of going to the United States. Often I watched videos of different cultures around the world. Glamorous red carpet events captivated me. I noticed how these powerful, confident women were able to take certain classic pieces of jewelry and make an incredible statement. I immigrated to the United States wanting to be a part of that industry.
In the early days, though, I didn’t have the resources to spend money on gold or diamonds. I did the research until I found beautiful, quality jewelry at an affordable price for myself. The piece was a hit when I wore it, and everyone wanted to know where to get one. I snapped up the chance, realizing that I could sell these items, and even design my own.
Soon afterward, I was pregnant, and due to health issues was assigned to bedrest. If we’re speaking of turbulent times, that was certainly one for me. But with time on my hands, I watched some episodes of Shark Tank, and felt inspired by those business entrepreneurs, particularly Lori Greiner. I had plenty of time to take online classes in jewelry making, and to research crafting and promotion. With $500 seed money, I literally started Hollywood Sensation in our kitchen. I purchased earrings and had great success selling them on forums like Groupon and LivingSocial. I was in business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I came into e-commerce knowing almost nothing about how to really make it work. However, I had read that I needed to stuff my search engine titles and descriptions with “key words.” Key words were supposed to be the magic formula to make customers come flocking to my product! So, I gave it my best shot and really loaded up those key words. My search engine titles and descriptions were about two miles long, using every possible permutation of the words “bracelet for woman.” The only results I got were tired fingers from all the typing. Eventually, I had to admit that content writing was just not one of my strengths. I hired a professional SEO writer to help and the difference was quite clear. Now it’s really funny to see one of those old links.
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?
My constant source of strength has been my husband. At my side through every win and every loss, he’s always there to pick up my spirits and celebrate my successes. Things would have been much harder without his support through the years.
Just one example of how he has contributed is in the area of customer reviews — or rather, my reaction to them. In e-commerce, customer reviews are a vital component of success. I take them quite seriously and even now, with my jewelry sold through so many distributors on different sites, I try to read them all.
In the early days of my business, I took negative reviews quite personally, and I’d fret over them, feeling guilty and helpless. My husband was able to talk me off the ledge, so to speak. He help me realize that a negative review is not a personal attack but an invitation to improve, Instead of worrying, I could hear what the customer was saying and find a way to adjust and evolve. He helped me reframe my whole way of thinking. Level-headed, productive advice like that is priceless.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The purpose of Hollywood Sensation has always been the empowerment of women. I believe that a beautiful piece of jewelry can add that extra sparkling layer of confidence to any woman, but that privilege shouldn’t be only for the rich. Affordable, quality jewelry makes empowerment accessible to all women. Every move that Hollywood Sensation makes and every product I sell is in line with that purpose.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When COVID-19 struck, it impacted businesses everywhere. Yet I saw that some companies were having success with realigning their products. Liquor companies began making hand-sanitizer. Clothing companies began making masks. I run a jewelry company — not exactly a situation where we could retool and start making face masks. What could I do?
My mother was in Iran, and I was in the U.S. We were unable to visit each other due to the travel ban. I took my own grief and designed a teardrop bracelet for my mother, because I was truly shedding tears over missing her. Inside, the bracelet was engraved with the words, “The love between mother and daughter knows no distance.” Then I remembered that there were a lot of mothers and daughters out there feeling the same way. I sent the design to my manufacturer. It came out beautifully. My employees — mostly women — loved it, and I made sure they each got one. When we launched the bracelet, it sold out at once.
Crises create new needs, some of them physical, some emotional. If you can find a gap your business can serve in the midst of a difficult, turbulent time, you can fulfill a need, lift spirits, and hopefully also stay profitable.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ve never considered giving up. I came such a long way, there was no chance I would ever turn back. When I considered what I had accomplished so far, my work and sacrifices, and then imagined myself on the path of achieving everything I want, I see that giving up is absolutely not an option. Life is full of unexpected curves in the road; this is part of the adventure. I stay educated about my business and my competitors. I reach out for support when I need it. I remember my purpose.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
This is a burden of leadership: all eyes are on you. You don’t want your own fears to spread, so whether or not you’re feeling it, you must be positive. Fear is contagious, but confidence is as well.
Then, I believe leaders have to make the decision not to fail, and do whatever it takes. Go to the bank, put your life savings into it, start knocking on doors, and do what you must to keep your employees safe.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Keep communication with your team open and honest. You cannot help each other if people don’t have the complete picture. Honesty allows you to ask for their advice as well. You’ve hired good people, now listen to what they have to say. They may have some brilliant ideas or strategies for keeping the business running, and they’ll appreciate being heard.
In the middle of a crisis, short-term goals can be helpful to keep morale high and keep the business moving forward. What can we do in the next week, day, or hour? Having done so, we’ve got a measurable accomplishment. It’s kind of like the rule of making your bed every morning — having accomplished that, you’ve set yourself up for getting things done the rest of the day. One day I simply announced, “Okay, everyone, we’re going out for a walk.” We walked around the block together for ten minutes, and I gave out gift cards. Just finishing that ten-minute walk relieved stress and anxiety, and it felt like we accomplished something together.
Have empathy for your employees and your customers. Make a real effort to see how they are impacted by the uncertainty. Let them know that you’re aware of the impact and help if them if any way you can. Stress and fear can overwhelm people and they may not know where to turn for assistance. If I couldn’t directly help my employees during the pandemic, I tried to provide them information about who could.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Above all, take responsibility for the news you are presenting. Be caring and respectful to your audience. I recommend rehearsing ahead of time. Then, follow through, and deliver the bad news without sugar-coating. People can tell when they’re being strung along, and they don’t appreciate it.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Flexibility is vital. If you’re too rigid in your planning, any disruption can cause problems. Listen to the ideas of those around you and don’t assume that your way is the only way.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Remember your “why.” On the toughest days, this will keep you going.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- They overestimate the difficulty. There’s no need to assume it’s the end of the world. Try instead to think through and then beyond the crisis.
- They give up too quickly. I see them backing away from the challenge. Instead, listen to advisors for new ideas and explore every avenue.
- They lack empathy for their employees. They simply let people go, or refuse to accommodate for special requirements. This is absolutely not the time to treat your employees like so much ballast to be dumped over the side. Employees are your greatest resource and should be treated as such.
- They stop communicating. You’ve got to keep the lines open with your employees and your customers. It’s best to be open about plans and what’s going to happen next. When everyone is scared, a leader must speak up and lead.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
It truly helps to pivot to a new outlet, finding a need to fulfill during the hard times. The COVID-19 crisis actually created an entirely new culture for my brand — people separated from each other and feeling a real need to connect. My mother-daughter inspirational bracelet was a huge success, and it spawned an entire line of products to express the bonds between all the women in our lives, like our sisters, grandmothers, mentors, and friends.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Keep a wide-open mind. Keep learning. Read, study, take classes, attend lectures, or watch videos. Always be aware of chances to learn. During uncertain times, you have an incredible chance to shake off the old ways and find new solutions.
- Show persistence. Few people make it to leadership roles without considerable persistence, so now is the time to truly pull that trait out of your pocket. Refuse to give up. Refuse to believe there is not a way to make this work.
- Prepare yourself, before and during turbulence. This means having a back-up plan ahead of time, and if a crisis hits, enlist your team to make sure you understand what the outcomes might be so you’re less likely to be blindsided.
- Have a strong support system. You’re likely burning the candle at both ends in a crisis situation and providing support for a lot of other people. Therefore, it’s important to remember to make time to talk to someone you love and trust. Accept any help that is offered. You don’t have to do this alone.
- Find the value in any setback. If a leader can convey that she is looking for the value in a setback, her team will follow. Adopt the mentality that turbulence is an opportunity. You’ll be amazed at how this will inspire those who work for you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is from Napoleon Hill: “The ladder of success is never crowded at the top.”
I’m in a busy, crowded industry. I’m always hearing that “the market is saturated.” Well, that’s why I want to be on the top! There’s a clear view up there, and I intend to be able to enjoy it someday.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I welcome your readers to visit the Hollywood Sensation website. This is a great place to keep up to date with all of our charity events, television and other media appearances, and specials.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!