Falling in love took Rosie O'Neill on the most unexpected twist — a completely new career path. The former PR and marketing executive for Mattel was ready for something new but it wasn't until a shared passion for candy with her boyfriend turned fiancé Josh Resnick transformed into a booming business, filling a niche for other adults who wanted a candy store/experience to call their own.
Enter Sugarfina, a luxury candy boutique and growing candy empire. Since launching in 2012, they've added 25 boutiques, 15 mini boutiques inside Nordstrom plus their huge online and wholesale business.
So, how did Rosie go from corporate executive to successful entrepreneur — all while her relationship thrived under the pressure? Read on as Rosie explains how she knew they were onto something big, why her relationship has been the best thing for growing the business and what she wants all aspiring entrepreneurs to know before turning their own worlds upside down!
Rosie O'Neill and fiancée Josh Resnik
1. How did you and your now fiancé and business partner Josh Resnick realize you shared a passion for candy?
On our third date, he took me to see Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, at an outdoor screening in LA. Afterwards, we started this brainstorm of why should kids have all the fun? Why has candy become kind of like, junky? You're shoveling scoops of candy into a plastic bag and it's all about getting the cheapest candy possible and the biggest quantity possible and kids are sneezing into all the bins and it's just gross. Where's the candy store for people like us who want something of higher quality, beautifully presented? and a little more expensive than gummy worms shoveled out of a bin.
2. So, how did that conversation turn into a business plan?
We had it as this back-burner idea that we worked on in our spare time. We travel a lot so whenever we would travel, particularly in Europe, we would discover these beautiful, high quality, amazingly made candies. And then we started tracking down the candy makers and visiting them. We discovered incredible stories behind these candies — these are candy makers that have been doing it for generations and most of these candy makers needed convincing to come to the US. They only sold it in their region. We had to show them the vision and how much respect we were going treat their candy with. We convinced a bunch of them to sell to us and we were just buying super small quantities in the beginning and sharing it with our friends and family. After two years of that exploration and discovery phase, we said, 'Hey, why don't we launch this?' Three months later we got the website live and very quickly — I mean within three weeks — it just started snowballing and all these huge things started happening.
3. When did you know you hit on something big?
The (former) site Daily Candy did a piece on us three weeks in to our launch. And then after that, Facebook asked us to be the exclusive candy supplier in a gift program they were running. It was us, Starbucks and Apple — which was crazy because we were running the business out of our basement then. It got us a ton of exposure and then from there, it kept compounding because we were very nimble and very flexible. We recognized that whatever we had in our mind for what the business was not what it was going to end up looking like. So, we needed to pivot and make changes along the way. And, we went from selling candy with interesting stories from different countries to becoming a gifting company. About 2/3 of our purchases are gifts and so that was a meaningful pivot. Ultimately, we wanted to go into retail — we just needed to prove the concept first.
4. What were some of your earliest challenges?
It's hard to focus and prioritize when you're in that new stage and you're getting these different things thrown at you. It is very tempting to say "yes" to everything, but you must be disciplined. If you do say "yes" to everything, you end up doing a bunch of things poorly. We went through a phase where we were jumping in, not really understanding what was going to happen, not being prepared and then having all these problems — missing orders, shipping late, shipping the wrong things. There were plenty of headaches and heartaches along the way. The thing that was easy, in a sense, was that customers really got it and wanted it but the operational side of growing and filling that demand was very hard.
5. What is it really like working with your significant other?
You must understand who you are as a person in your relationship. All our friends told us we were crazy, there was no way in hell they would work with their partner and what were we doing? I had no apprehension whatsoever. Josh was a little more cautious just because he felt like we really did have a good thing going and he didn't want to introduce anything that would put a lot of stress on the relationship. But, it's been easy to be totally honest. I think we're lucky in that sense. We just happen to have a chemistry that makes us work together very well. And, we have a clear separation of roles. Josh is the back of house and I'm the front of house. I do all the creative product development, marketing sales, all the retails channels and he handles all the operations, finances, legal — all the stuff that I cringe when I even think about it. We have a really healthy respect for each other and I just completely trust him to do those things and vice versa. This way, we're not stepping on each other's toes at all. We come together for all the big strategic business decisions and sometimes we have different opinions but I think we're good communicators and we debate in a healthy way that doesn't get personal.
6. How does your team feel about working for a couple?
I think our team sees that our dynamic is healthy and productive. If anything, we support each other in ways that we just couldn't if we weren't in a relationship. It's worked out to our advantage competitively. The fact that we're together all the time and pretty much work and strategize and brainstorm 24 hours a day — you usually can't have that much interaction with your business partner. I think that's enabled us to move quickly and take these projects on together.
7. What's your team dynamic like?
Our corporate office now is about 60 people. We have a lot of people in their early 20's and Sugarfina is their first job out of college. They have a really different set of motivations than people who have maybe been in the business world for 15 or 20 years. So, with that said, the team members who are early in their career value being part of something that they see is a bigger cause. Not just pushing paper, not just showing up but they're really doing something and contributing to something they're excited about and passionate about. We really communicate the vision of where we want to take the company and show them the big role they play in that. They also value the ability to cross-train. I think of Sugarfina as a second college where you might come in and have no idea what you want to do in your career — and we embrace that. We want to help you figure out what you like doing and we're totally open if you want to switch groups or functions. We've had a ton of people make pretty dramatic role shifts. We had a woman in her early 20's start out in our sales team. It just wasn't her favorite thing and she saw an opening in our operations team and is thriving there. I think that flexibility and really caring about people being happy in their careers is important. I would say for the people who are more experienced, autonomy and being able to truly have ownership is key.
8. So, what's your philosophy as a boss?
Josh and I are very much about, 'Hey, we hired you because you're smarter than us in this area. We're here for you, support you, will give guidance and direction and keep you apprised of the bigger picture — but, we want you to run your business!' As we get bigger and bigger, keeping people feeling connected and empowered is key. One of the things Josh and I recently introduced is an anonymous question box at our monthly staff meetings. You can ask us any question, no matter how difficult or how uncomfortable. We'll read the question out loud and answer it in front of the group. We've had some doozies! We try to be incredibly transparent but it's hard. You have managers not living up to our values of empowerment or maybe they're micromanaging their team. My office sometimes feels like a revolving door of people just wanting to talk about their situations and how they're 'feeling.' I think we live with a generation that's much more comfortable speaking up when they aren't happy. I have had to get used to that because in my career, I wasn't really exposed to that. I was exposed to, 'stay focused, stay positive, keep moving, things will be fine.'
9. What's the biggest business strategy you've learned since launching Sugarfina?
I'm not going to say I've become a tough negotiator because it doesn't come across that way — but I've been able to get a lot of things that most people are afraid to even ask for just by asking in the right way. I learned that by watching Josh. He's really a master at it and so I sat through a few negotiations with him and was so impressed that he asked bold questions without it feeling aggressive. I think if you're in a negotiation, you can help the partner see your side and see the challenges you're facing by saying, 'Hey, I recognize this is a big ask but here's the challenges we're facing as a business and here's why it will help us be a more successful partner for you.' Nine times out of ten they get it and we either get what we're asking for or very close to it. They don't feel bad, we don't feel bad and it just comes out in a win-win situation. People think you must be really tough and stand your ground when you're negotiating and I think it's the opposite. You must be very flexible, you must be very communicative, you must have things that you're willing to give up that get you what you really do need. If you can leave the negotiation and they think of you as a very thoughtful and sweet person — they're going to support you. It's that 'kill people with kindness' thing. We've had a lot of opportunities where people said, 'Hey, you're really nice people, you're good to us, you're a good partner. We want to help you.' I cannot oversay enough the value of being a nice person.
10. What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs looking to get things off the ground?
I would say first and foremost, make sure that you truly understand what it means to be an entrepreneur and that it's the right fit for you. Now that we're in these Shark Tank days, I think everyone has great ideas and everyone has an opportunity to become an entrepreneur but it's not right for everyone. You must have a tremendous amount of internal willpower to keep going and be successful. You will fail every day and you have to get up every day and say, "Okay, I failed yesterday. I'm going to learn from it, I'm going to overcome it, I'm going to do better today." It can be draining. You're taking a beating a lot of the time. So, know yourself and know if that's what you want to sign up for — because as wonderful as entrepreneurship can be, the path to getting there is hard. You'll likely have a good few years of your life where you're not going to be able to pay yourself or you might just have days where you just wake up and totally want to quit. Knowing that going in makes it a lot easier to deal with.
11. What have been some 'happy accidents' while growing Sugarfina?
We've launched a couple of April Fool's jokes, that in our mind were the most wacky, stupid ideas. But, last year, we introduced “cold pressed juice gummy bears" ˘as a joke. But, we got so much response and people were freaking out over the email! They were like, 'Where is this? I'm ready to buy it!' Because of the response, we decided that maybe there's something here and we should develop it. So, we partnered up with Pressed Juicery and created this green juice gummy bear that we're launching at the end of April. This year, our April Fool's joke was “Sugar Fido" — a luxury candy boutique for dogs. We got even more of a reaction than last year's juice gummy bears and people were sad when they found out it was a joke. I'm not saying we're going to do that too — but those are the kinds of things where now we're saying, 'Well, what if we did that?' and bringing that playful exploration to the company.
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.