What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own.
When Jessica Herrin started selling jewelry out of her living room, everyone thought she was crazy. She was a Dell executive at the time and already a proven e-commerce entrepreneur. At 24, she had co-founded the site that eventually became WeddingChannel.com. "All of my friends and family were like, 'What on earth are you doing?'" she told the Huffington Post. "I [said], 'Trust me. This is going to be fantastic.'"
She has since built her living room trunk shows into Stella & Dot, a direct-sales jewelry company valued at $450 million. The business model resembles the commission-based social shopping and home entrepreneurship models of old -- think Tupperware parties and Mary Kay reps -- merged with ecommerce, marketed via social media. The jewelry is chic -- you can picture most of it being sold at boutiques in New York or L.A. -- but the most compelling aspect of Stella & Dot, especially for the women who become sales reps or "stylists," may be the way Herrin has positioned the company as an instrument for social good.
Herrin said her mission in founding and growing the company is to offer women the professional autonomy and flexible schedule that are for her the most rewarding and, especially since she became a mother, essential benefits of entrepreneurship. Now 40, Herrin, who lives in the Bay area with her husband of 14 years and their 7- and 9-year-old daughters, has proven her doubters wrong. Not that their opinions set her back, she said. "I realized that getting to the business and the life I wanted involved caring a lot less about what other people thought."
Why do you do what you do?
[When I was running WeddingChannel.com], we were fortunate enough to be featured on Oprah. [The episode] was all about pursuing your passion to find your fortune and develop a business. [Afterward] all these women reached out to me and said, "What advice do you have for starting a business?" At that time, I honestly felt like I didn't have a good answer. It may have looked good from the outside, but I worked every night and weekend. I had a created a business that ran me versus me running it.
With Stella & Dot, the idea was, "How could you have the amazing elements of being an entrepreneur without having the high cost of capital to start it?" I became obsessed with reinventing the idea of flexible entrepreneurship. The modern woman had changed since home-based entrepreneurship had been thought up a hundred years ago.
I think women deserve a better answer for, "How can I lead a life [at] the intersection of all the other roles that women play in their lives and being an independent accomplished professional?" We need careers that can ebb and flow around our life.
I do what I do because it's a complete passion project, and I'm utterly convinced that it needs to exist.
What work would you do if not this?
I would do this. With Stella & Dot I have found my calling. I've done other things that have been commercially successful, but it's not enough. It left me wanting more, and that feeling of wanting more led me down this path. What we do really matters. We empower women.
Is there still a glass ceiling? Have you hit it?
Glass ceilings still exist in corporate America. I started my own business and became my own boss, [so] nobody's holding me back but me. There is no ceiling.
I [also] believe [I haven't hit it] because I have never acknowledged that being a female would be a barrier for me. I've never thought to myself, I can do anything a man can do. I've just always thought I can do anything.
Do women have an obligation to help other women at work?
One hundred percent. Because women are still trying to navigate the dual responsibility of being the lynchpin of all matters in the home and achiev[ing] career[s] worthy of their brains and ambition, we need each other's help. I have a VP of strategy right now on a two month sabbatical in Uganda. That's not easy and convenient for the rest of the company, but we're going to make it work because that's [who] we want to be. Mentoring her isn't just about, "Here's how you can broaden your skills and broaden your career." It's about providing an environment that says, "I get it. If you don't have QT with your kids, you're going to drop out of this work force. So were gonna be a company where somehow that can work out."
Herrin with Stella & Dot stylists
How do you define success?
Living my one precious life in accordance with my values. It's not a monetary figure, it's the amount of impact and joy that I'm creating in my life. I want to see the world and travel and have adventures. I want to have a full and rich life as a mother, as an individual, and from a work perspective, I want to make an impact. I want to get up in the morning and know that what I do makes other people's lives a bit better.
Are you successful?
Absolutely. I always want to achieve more, but I think the beauty of being 40 is that you recognize that if you wake up and you're happy that day, you're successful.
What does an average day look like for you?
I wake up early in the morning and work from home, then I am usually in the office or in the field with stylists, and then I'm home for dinner with my family. I may log back on and do a few more things from home.
Do you exercise?
I feel like I don't have time not to exercise. I can spend 28 minutes on a three mile run and feel like I get back three hours of energy. Long ago I realized I'm never going to have enough time to get everything I want to do done, so I might as well exercise and still have all that other stuff to do. Some things are going to be left undone every single day, and exercise cannot be one of them.
Where do you do your best work?
Running. That's why I've committed to exercise. My morning run is when my head is most clear and when I synthesize all of the things that are going on in my head. When I'm running I'm always three to five years out in my mind. As a leader that's where I need to spend time.
Has a big meeting ever conflicted with the school play or some version of that scenario, and what did you do?
I control the meeting schedule, so I go to the school play, and I move [the meeting]. [When you're] running a business, there isn't [often] something that can't be moved up or back 30 minutes. My travel schedule [i]s my biggest challenge, but I plan very carefully a year in advance around my kids' school calendar. [My husband and I] have [also] evolved our careers over time to work together as a family. His used to involve a lot more travel, and he switched his role so that we weren't going in two different directions at the same time.
Herrin with her husband, Chad Herrin, and her daughters, Tatum, 7, and Charlie, 9, in 2012
Who does grocery shopping, bill paying, etc. at your house?
I outsource the laundry and grocery shopping. When I first had kids, I tried to be a superwife and a supermom and do everything, and I realized that was a formula for disaster. My kids don't need me to be the one making a five-course dinner. They need me to be on the floor playing with them. We can eat something somebody else made. We can get something delivered. I have a golden rule I live by which is if [the task involves being] eyeball to eyeball with my kid, I do it. If [it doesn't], I can get somebody else to do that so I can spend more time being eyeball to eyeball.
Do you have a work persona and non-work persona?
No. I think it would be exhausting to try to be somebody else at work [other than] who you really are.
Are you close friends with anyone you work with or worked with in the past?
Absolutely. I've had other executives tell me [not to], but I just don't understand that. If you spend all this time with people that you work with, to not feel like they're your friends is crazy.
A Stella & Dot trunk show
What has been the most stressful part of your career?
When I had a toddler and a newborn and [was] figuring how I was going to build a company and make sure that I was the one taking my daughter to swim class on Fridays. That was when I was most stressed, trying to reconcile these two people that I felt were within me, this very, very driven entrepreneur and this very old-school nurturing mother. I was raised Italian. [Part of me] wants to have ten kids and do everything with them all day.
Could you have the life you have if you worked for someone else?
No. I wouldn't be as happy. Being in charge of my own schedule [and] running my own business is critical for my life plan. I could be a Stella & Dot stylist and run my own business -- it doesn't have to be something that I created -- but I need to be in control of my own calendar.
What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
It's not about being right, it's about making it right and helping everyone around you be successful. I've always been a person who's go go go, so I think when I was 25, I didn't understand when other people didn't want to devote themselves to only work. I was a terrible, terrible people manager at 25.
Herrin with her daughters in 2013
What haven't you done that you want to do?
Stella & Dot is at the beginning of its potential as an entrepreneurial opportunity for women, so we'll continue to grow. Personally, I don't want for anything. I feel so lucky to have a wonderful husband and children. I'm sure there's other things that I want to accomplish, but off the top of my head, I just want to enjoy every day with my [kids]. We are in that parenting nirvana stage where life is easy, [and they] still like hanging out with us! Right now, I am just enjoying every minute.
Is there a woman you know of who is Making It Work? We’d love to include her in our series. Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview has been edited and condensed.