Women in Business Q&A: Ellen Diamant, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Skip Hop

Karen Haberberg

Ellen Diamant is the Founder & Chief Creative Officer at Skip Hop--one of the fastest-growing global lifestyle brands for parents, babies and toddlers. Prior to launching Skip Hop in 2003, Ellen worked as a Creative Director, executing campaigns for Cigar Aficionado, Modern Bride, Wine Spectator, Remy Cointreau and Chef Daniel Boulud.

Ellen has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business, CNN Money and a number of other outlets. Along with her husband Michael, she was named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in both 2010 and 2011.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm a creative person who worked in the corporate world early in my career, and that experience helped me realize that I wanted to create a very different kind of atmosphere for my team at Skip Hop. In a corporate environment, there's a lot of hierarchy, and it's all about who has more experience, it's all very methodical. But when you're leading a creative team, there's a whole different set of rules-- the spark for something new can come from anywhere. Some of our best products have come from designers right out of school who may not have a lot of years of experience, but they have really fresh, creative ideas.

People want to come work at our company because we have fewer layers and can move a lot faster. The discussions that take place are more heated, because everyone feels really passionate about what they're doing and saying. And it's given me the opportunity to listen. I always say, No ideas are bad, because they might spark something amazing.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Skip Hop?
The highlight is whenever we create a new product that really works, and parents say to me, "Oh my gosh, where has this been all my life? You heard me and made me something I needed!" I love being able to impact their life with products that make their lives easier.

The biggest challenge was definitely in the early days, when we were teaching ourselves about manufacturing. Half the battle of designing is not only getting the product made, but getting it made safely and quickly, and of the best possible quality. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if it's not manufactured properly, then it's not going to work. We have a great team on the ground now in China, but we didn't always, and it's a bit harder to control if you don't have feet on the ground.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
A lot of women tell me they have a great idea for a new product. But even if it's an amazing idea, there might not be a need in the market for it, or someone might already be doing the same thing. It's a very, very competitive business, and it's really important to vet your idea first with others, and you can't be insulted if it doesn't have legs. Use your friends and family as a sounding board to test your ideas, and put it in front of a local moms group--they will definitely tell you what they think! Explore the trade shows to see what other people are doing and to get an idea of how the industry works.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I've learned that if you want to build something on your own, you have to keep plowing through and have an open mind. If something doesn't work, you have to be able to pivot, and say, Okay, what can we do to make it better? We've entered some product categories that we haven't done very well in, but instead of giving up, we analyze them and say, How can we improve it?

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's difficult, because I work with my husband! In the beginning, especially, when you're a start-up and you're each doing the work of at least three people, you can get into a really bad habit of bringing your work home and letting it seep into your private life--it can be very easy to burn out quickly. But now we have an amazing team of 80 people in New York and 20 people in China, who we know we can count on. So I really try hard not to do work after work now. I spend that time doing personal things with my husband and 15-year-old son, traveling together, exploring great New York restaurants, or spending time out East on Long Island.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Our company is 70 percent female, and a good percentage of them are moms, so I really see how they struggle with wanting to do well at their career, but still sometimes worry they're missing out on things at home. We're a parenting company, so are very open to helping our employees find balance. We're open to flex-time if people need it, and we offer a good amount of personal days. If there's a school holiday and you need to bring your child to work for the day, that's fine, too.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The best mentors for me have actually been my peers--other women who own companies in the parenting business. In the beginning, when we were all getting our companies off the ground, we would meet and discuss different issues and really support each other. Now, a lot of women who are trying to start businesses come to me for advice. If somebody comes to me through a personal connection, and they feel genuine, and they have good ideas, I'll definitely find time to give them some advice on how to break into the industry.

What do you want Skip Hop to accomplish in the next year?
We will continue to build and grow toward our goal of becoming the next classic juvenile company that parents can count on, the answer for modern parents. We're working on a lot of new products, like small activity furniture and bouncy seats, items that are needed in every home. We want to make the more modern, attractive version that so many parents are looking for.