Maria Hatzistefanis, 47
Founder and CEO of Rodial
After facing countless rejections from investors, Maria Hatzistefanis stormed the beauty industry in 1999 with her cosmetics line, Rodial, now worth over $100 millions. Utilizing a radical approach to marketing and cutting-edge ingredients previously unseen (i.e. “dragon’s blood” and snake venom), the Greek-born beauty famously collaborated with Kylie Jenner on one of the first “influencer” campaigns, which put her brand on the map. Since then, she’s launched millennial-focused sister brand Nip+Fab, had two kids and has authored a how-to bestseller. Talk about an underachiever!
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
I decided to start my own business with Rodial as I saw a gap in the beauty market for a seriously active, fast acting and hardworking brand that would provide solutions for specific skincare concerns.
Working in the beauty industry wasn’t always the plan, but I had complete belief in Rodial and I knew that I could make it work. My greatest achievement is really seeing all of my hard work come together and seeing Rodial become one of the biggest brands in the industry. We have now expanded into makeup which is such an achievement as the competition nowadays is fierce, but the range is continuing to grow and sell out all over the world which is amazing to watch.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
When you start your own brand you will have people slam the door in your face because you are not a corporate machine. People told me that I would never get my products into the biggest department stores, or that sending them to celebrities would result in nothing. I think I can openly say that that kind of negative noise has been proven to be completely wrong! I explore this in my new book, How To Be An Overnight Success, chronicles how I started Rodial and all of the obstacles I encountered along the way, along with valuable advice on how to start your own brand.
"People told me that I would never get my products into the biggest department stores, or that sending them to celebrities would result in nothing."
3. What was the hardest part of overcoming this negativity? Do you have an anecdote you can share?
Being an independent brand not owned by a big beauty conglomerate and not having massive advertising budgets is always a challenge as the big retailers give priority, space and benefits to the corporates more easily than to a smaller brand.
I have to prove that my brands can make it happen and can achieve the sales, innovation and exciting launches. Harvey Nichols in London believed in Rodial and gave us the opportunity to launch a flagship counter. To date, we are consistently on the Top 5 best performing brands ahead of a lot of the well-known beauty brands out there.
4. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
First, I removed the negative energy. You need to surround yourself with people that believe in your quest, that believe in your goals as crazy as they may seem! You need to be around people that motivate you, not people that put you in a box and tell you to stay there. I think that for me, my journey has been all about willpower. When people say no to me I just won’t take it, I will strive to make it work whatever it takes.
"When people say no to me I just won’t take it, I will strive to make it work."
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
Believe in yourself, your ideas, your hopes and your dreams. It’s not meant to be easy; there is going to be something waiting for you at every corner to try and bring you down, along with negative people,and the dreaded ‘no’ that you are going to encounter. You have to persevere, drown out the noise and prove that you cannot be stopped!
It seemed like everything happened overnight because, well… it did.
One moment, my team and I were business as usual, running a multi-million-dollar edible cookie dough company I built from scratch in my at-home kitchen five years ago and the next we were sitting in an emergency management team meeting asking ourselves, "What do we do now?" Things had escalated in New York, and we were all called to do our part in "flattening the curve" and "slowing the spread."
The governor had declared that all restaurants immediately close to the public. All non-essential businesses were also closed, and 8.7 million New Yorkers were quarantined to their tiny apartments for the foreseeable future. Things like "social distancing" and "quarantine" were our new 2020 vernacular — and reality.
What did that mean for us? Our main revenue source was the retail part of the business. Sure, we offered delivery and take-out, but that was such a small portion of our sales. I had built a retail experience where people from near and far came to eat edible cookie dough exactly how they craved it. We had two stores, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, which employed over 55 people. We have two production facilities; an online business shipping cookie dough nationwide; a wholesale arm that supplies stores, restaurants, and other retail establishments with treats; and a catering vertical for customizable treats for celebrations of all sizes. And while business and sales were nearly at a complete halt, we still had bills. We had payroll to pay, vendors we owed, services we were contractually obligated to continue, rent, utilities, insurance, and none of that was stopping.
How were we going to do this? And for how long will this go on? No one knew.
As an entrepreneur, this certainly wasn't my first-time facing challenges. But this was unprecedented. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. Certainly unplanned. This control-freak type-A gal was unraveling. I had to make decisions quickly. What was best for my team? For my business? For the safety of my staff? For the city? For my family and unborn baby (oh, yeah, throw being 28 weeks pregnant and all those fun hormones in there, it's real interesting!). Everything was spiraling out of control.
I decided to take the advice I had given to many people over the years — focus on the things you can control. There's no point worrying about all the things you have no control over. If you focus there, you'll just continue spiraling into a deeper, darker hole. Let it go. Once you shift your perspective, you can move forward. It's not going to be easy; the challenges still exist. But you can control certain things, so focus your energy and attention on those.
So that's what I did. I chose, for the safety of staff and customers, to close the retail portion completely — it wasn't worth the take-out and delivery volume to staff the store, open ourselves up to more germs and human contact than absolutely necessary.
I went back to our mission and the reason I started the business in the first place — to spread joy. How could we continue to bring happiness to people during this uncertain time? That's our purpose. With millions of people across the globe stuck inside, working from home, quarantined with their families, how can we reach them since they can't come to us? So I thought back to how and why we got started.
Baking, for me, has always been a type of therapy. I could get lost in the mixing bowl and forget about everything else for a moment in time. Sure, I have a huge sweet tooth, but it's about the process. It's about taking all of these different ingredients and mixing them together to create something magically sweet and special. It's about creating and being creative with the simple things. It's about allowing people to indulge in something that brings them joy — a lick from the spatula or a big batch of cookies.
It's about joy in the moment and sharing that joy with others. So my focus is back on that, and it feels good.
We could still ship nationwide, straight to people's doorstep. So we are making it easier and less expensive to send the ultimate comfort food (edible cookie dough) by introducing a reduced shipping rate, and deals on some of our best-selling packages.
In a way for us, it feels like we are going back in time… back to our roots. When I first started the business, we were only shipping nationwide. There were no stores, no big team, no wholesale. It was just me, a small crew juggling it all, and we made it work then. And we'll make it work again. We have to leverage our online business and hope it floats us through this time.
We are focusing our digital content strategy on sharing recipes, activities, and at-home treats with our engaged, amazing social following so they bake with their families and stay busy at-home. We started live baking tutorials where our fans can bake-along with me and I can share all the tips and tricks I've learned over the years with them.
I've leveraged the cookbook I published last year, Hello, Cookie Dough: 110 Doughlicious Confections to Eat, Bake & Share, to come up with fun content and additional things to do at home. We started shipping it and our at-home baking mixes for free to encourage people to get busy in their kitchens!
And as a business, we will continue to connect with our community to bring them joy and focus on what we can control, including our attitude and outlook first.
During times of uncertainty, which this certainly is, you should do the same. Identify the things you can control and focus your time and energy on those things. Distract yourself with the positive. Force yourself to stop asking and worrying about all the what-ifs. Do what you can for the moment and then the next moment. Make a list, and take it day-by-day.
It's going to be okay. You will be okay. We will all be okay.