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!
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.