Quick: take a moment and think about what you were doing at 19 years old. Maybe finishing up college, applying for internships, or perhaps, you were backpacking through Europe, trying to find your passion. For one serial entrepreneur, age has never been a factor, and defying the odds, breaking new ground and overcoming predisposed barriers are all talking points on her resume.
Lauren Maillian started her own award-winning wine brand at age 19 called Sugarleaf Vineyards in Monticello, Virginia. But by 25, she completely switched gears, leaving the grapes in her dust, to create a marketing firm called Luxury Market Branding. A year later, at age 26, she started to advise early-stage companies and entrepreneurs via a company she co-founded, Gen Y Capital. A year later, Sugarleaf was acquired and just last year, she began hosting a TV show on Oxygen, ‘Quit Your Day Job.’ Now? She just published her first book, The Path Redefined: Getting to the Top On Your Own Terms. Though she’s had enough careers and experiences to last a lifetime, one thing is for sure - this mom of two is just getting started.
“At the time [Monticello] was just beginning. I thought to myself: 'Vineyards?That sounds awesome and they're beautiful to look at. Great, I’ll grow grapes.'"
A vineyard before she could drink.
“Everyone is always so fascinated by this fact, that I started a wine brand at 19! In any event, it was a real estate purchase: a 126-acre farm. I was looking for ways to conserve the land the land and having those agricultural incentives,” Maillian explained. As she did her research, she realized she could do a slew of things - from a tree or nut farm to orchards to raising cattle or geese. But for Maillian? Livestock was just out of the question. But even though she technically couldn’t purchase a bottle of wine, she realized that given her location - the Monticello region in Charlottesville, Virginia - she could grow grapes to sell."[I thought] great. I'll just grow grapes."
She decided to grow grapes for two years, and then sell those grapes to the vineyards around. But at the end of her second harvest, it’s 2006, she’s 21 and she realized that she could make her own wine and sell it. By 22, she broke ground on her own vineyard and shop, and of course, had a bottle ready to hit shelves. “It was fun, I never imagined myself in that particular career or industry. It wasn’t something I had my sights set on but sometimes life happens to you and in this case, it was a real estate purchase that became a hobby and a hobby that became a business. I used to say ‘hobby gone wild,’” she shared.
How she learned about grapes, with no experience
Ironically enough (and something she talks about in her book) Maillian didn’t have any mentors growing up, but she did find the grape-growing community to be a welcoming and supportive experience. In fact, the other vineyard owners were excited to see her branch out, creating more of a tourism attraction for everyone. “The idea being that hospitality isn’t just going to thrive on just one. No one is coming to Napa Valley, Sonoma County or the Monticello region of Charlottesville to see one winery or even two wineries, they’re coming to have an overall experience of an ecosystem that exists in that area,” she said.
“Before I opened there were 25 miles between me and one winery and the next. So it was good for everyone’s business. For sure there were people who doubted if I could actually pull this off. Truth be told, I doubted if I could pull it off, but it was a really fun challenge.”
How she navigated a male-dominated industry, at a young age
Maillian grew up in New York City as an only child in an African American family, attending high-stakes private schools which she gives credit to developing her thick skin. In fact, she says that being a fierce, confident female in a male-dominated world and many male-dominated industries has defined her life. “Any badass woman is going to have that, right? They’re going to be up against that. They’re going to be working in spaces and being in rooms where men have a voice, where men have more seats at the table than you do,” she shared.
But does she let it get to her? Nah, she says. “Where many people see those sorts of situations as a threat to their career or future opportunities, I always look at it as ‘God, you’re going to shine!’ If you’re in a room full of men, how can they miss when the black woman walks in?”
Her greatest challenge in business
Apart from learning the ropes of winemaking and figuring out how to run a company before she could legally drink, Maillian said the hardest part about her vineyard career was learning how to manage people who were significantly older than she was. “I was hiring people who were 34 to 42,” she said. “By the time I opened the Tasting Room, I needed operational roles, marketing roles and needed to hire all these different people, some of my employees were in their 60s.” While they had decades on her, Maillian called the employees in their 60s and 70s some of her most magical employees - they were super successful and retired, but were interested in meeting new people and learning something new.
While she didn’t struggle to attract the talent, it was more so being a boss and navigating those employer/employee dynamics, even with a great age different. “The times when they didn’t like what I said, they got reprimanded or there was a consequence, I think you always expect that as a leader, no one is ever going to love all the things you do,” she explained. “But it’s very different to have someone who thought ‘you could be my child.’”
On how she exited her business
For Maillian, leaving the vineyard came unexpected, but she says that most of her greatest experiences are like that: out of the woodwork and surprising. “I think the most important, amazing and sometimes the most lucrative opportunities, come at a time when you are forced to make decisions you weren’t prepared to make,” she explained. When the time to let go came, a friend encouraged her to release the dreams she had of her children getting married on the property and really look at the drawing board, to understand the offer that was on the table.
Because she was able to sell the vineyard, she was able to open her marketing company, Luxury Marketing Branding, attracting clients in various sectors, from food and beverage to fashion and skincare. “It’s been an incredible ride, and incredible is an understatement. Without having that experience, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today.”
Because she was able to get her entrepreneurial roots in Charlottesville, a more laid back, Southern town that isn’t as cut-throat as San Francisco or New York, Maillian said it helped her start steady and be bold, allowing her to run a business for seven years in a sleepier town, before moving on up. “It set me up to be the woman that I am today,” she said.
On the fast and furious transition
After she sold the vineyard, Maillian thought she’d spend more time with her kids at home and take it easy, but like she said, the unexpected happened, paving the way for a new whirlwind that she called ‘fast and furious.’ Quickly, colleagues starting reaching out to her, seeking the advice of brand marketing and positioning for their products. “I went from consulting, just me, and very quickly, onboarded other people to create a team and launching the company,” she explained. That whole process though? She said it took all of 45 days to go from a sole proprietor to a second-time founder. Luxury Brand Marketing was born. “There was no time in between, there was no break,” she said. “I’m jealous of my friends who go to Machu Picchu or Mount Kilimanjaro or India - I’ve never had that opportunity.”
Though she says she’ll take a breather after 40 (maybe), as a believer in signs, Maillian says that keeping occupied and allowing opportunities to fall into her lap has made her a better leader and given her a crash course in running a business. “For me, in the last seven and a half years, always having the next thing waiting for me has been very good. Staying busy and highly engaged at all times, has given me a renewed sense of drive, this ability to multi-task,” she said.
On her advice for branding and marketing for new companies
Though it might seem simple and like a no-brainer, Maillian says choosing the right logo and developing a strong brand identify is essential for success for an early-stage company. “What we often see with start-ups, somebody makes their own logo in some photoshop program, they go out and raise funds, they do some marketing and then, they do a big departure to 12 to 36 months later… and have to do that all over again,” she said. Though it might not seem like that big of a deal, since you’ve already invested the time, Maillian says taking a hot second when you’re first getting started will serve you better in the long run. “People often think, ‘we’ll figure out the name later or the logo later, what’s important is the product,’” she says. “Especially with product or services that are tangible to the consumer, it’s more than that. It’s how they identify with it or recognize it on the homescreen.”
So instead of launching right away, Maillian says it’s important to get really comfortable with your creative vision from the start. “You see that look, that name, that feel, you can envision it with the company 10, 30, 40 years from now,” she says. “If you started your company, SWAAY, if that was your billion-dollar media company, would you stick with those assets? It’s the right question to ask.”
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.