Women In Business Q&A: Maja Svensson, Founder and CEO, ELSA AND ME

Maja Svensson/Björn Ceder.

Maja Svensson is the founder and CEO of ELSA AND ME. Born in Sweden, she now lives and runs her business in Brooklyn. ELSA AND ME just a launched a Kickstarter campaign.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm not sure I can claim that I have life experience at 33, but let's assume I do J I have become the leader I am today partly because of the family I have, who are basically all teachers, and who have always promoted teaching instead of preaching, meaning you learn by doing and others learn by your doing, independent of what you're saying. Or at least, this is the leader I am hoping that I am or the leader I am trying to become. What the greatest leaders I have met in my life all have in common is that they've been really great listeners. I remember distinctly this general manager at a local branch of a bank that I worked for in Sweden. The office had quite a lot of employees and I was just there for a couple of months during the summer in one of the departments, but one day she came to see me casually and asked me how I liked it there and also asked me for my input on a few things. She is still an inspiration to me to this day of what I think being a great leader means.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at ELSA AND ME?
The employment I had prior to starting ELSA AND ME was at Invest Sweden, a government agency that facilitated for foreign direct investments into Sweden. I was in a position to meet with a lot of start-ups and businesses in general at this time and realized for the first time that I had entrepreneurial traits and really connected with the idea of starting a business. Having come from an economics degree and thinking I would do more of an analytical career this new field together with that my boss at this time encouraged me to dive into entrepreneurship really was the starting point for ELSA AND ME.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ELSA AND ME?
The highlights have been that I am the boss of my own time and that I get to hear from women who say the dress made it easier for them to get dressed in the morning or that they couldn't find any clothing that fit them earlier, but now have access to our made-to-measure dresses - those are the true motivators for continuing doing what I'm doing.

The biggest challenge have been to keep on moving although times have been tough financially. When there are bills piled up and at that very moment you hear from a client who's unhappy, it has for me been emotionally trying to not let disappointments or failures get to me, but to see everything as a learning experience instead and to focus on finding solutions to any problems arising.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Specifically for becoming an entrepreneur or a business owner my advice would be in the start-up phase, independent of industry to come up with a solutions-driven product or service, put as little money as possible into a prototype, and then start selling to your immediate network. Once you've got sales you'll know if people like it, how to tweak and improve things further, and a receipt on that you're on a good path. If not on a good path, you'll just have to change direction, either slightly or totally, but the feedback will be in the sales and clients.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
To work with the resources that you have and to be patient. Meaning for example as an entrepreneur or anyone else really, that it is easy to get swept away in your vision of how you'd like for things to be, where you would've like to be with your business or career by now and that you grow impatient. I have learnt that the most fulfilling way of living is to put time into your craft (whatever chosen craft, skill, or field that is), to not get caught up in what or how someone else is choosing to do their thing and that you should have done it like that too, and to enjoy the moment.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Do you need to have a balance? Can't it all just be one life? With that said, I don't have any kids yet, so I think that work/life balance for me isn't That difficult and more about retaining my relationships with family and friends, and make sure to take time off every week, which I do.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the biggest issue is that traditionally women have had to adhere to men's way of doing things in business, their way of communicating, and competing. With that I don't mean that all women are the same or that all men are the same, but that in general the traditional workplace is crafted around the needs of a certain type of man and I think that the prospect of trying to fit into that has been the biggest challenge for both women and minority, and is why there's a disparity in wage and access to power. I would've liked to see more of a debate on how a workplace can become more inclusive rather than how women or minority should change to fit in.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
All the difference. I see mentorship as giving you different benchmarks on things that you might not have known otherwise, benchmarks that you can compare things to. It doesn't always mean that you agree with everything but that you're expanding your mind in regards to what's possible to do, and that's what mentors have helped me with. I have great mentors in my parents for my personal life and I've had the privilege of meeting a lot of different people who have asked me difficult questions in regards to my professional life that have challenged but also encouraged me to move forward.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Without getting too political, I would have to say Hillary Clinton. The perseverance, the strength, the way she's moved forward through time and crafted her experience and skillsets are to me one of the most impressive acts of leadership I've ever seen.

What do you want ELSA AND ME to accomplish in the next year?
Within the next year ELSA AND ME has become a known made-to-measure dress brand in New York City and we'll be starting the expansion to other US major cities.