Women in Business Q&A: Shirine Coburn DiSanto, CEO, Coburn Communication

Shirine Coburn DiSanto got her start as assistant publicist for Live with Regis & Kathie Lee. From there, she worked for Calvin Klein cosmetics for four years, and then for a boutique agency, where she represented Elizabeth Taylor and Donald Trump. She started Coburn in 1999 and has since brought on clients, including: QVC Beauty, Elizabeth Arden, and AARP, to name a few.

Shirine is married to Tony DiSanto former President of Programming at MTV and current founding partner and co-owner of DiGa a studio and production company hybrid.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I had to change schools a few times growing up, and it made me very adaptable and unafraid of having new and different experiences. I'm never hesitant in new situations or afraid to take chances, because I was able to develop that inner calm and confidence. I also think you have to have to relax, and trust in yourself and your decisions. I always listen to everyone around me, but ultimately will always make my own choices.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Coburn Communication?
You can take every experience--good and bad, major and minor--and add it to your bank of wisdom for the future. I had a paper route and also worked at McDonald's--and I learned that the better and more solid your set-up is, the easier your work will continue to be. No short-cuts! I would say I learned the most from Calvin Klein, though--it was like a mini-business school. I absorbed absolutely everything I could--and there was so much to learn. I also had my very best boss ever there-- and the worst, as well. I learned the kind of manager I wanted to be, and what I absolutely wanted to avoid! I also discovered what kind of culture I wanted to create, and that has been ultimately been really satisfying and successful.

The last position I had before starting an agency was with a smaller PR firm, with Elizabeth Taylor as its major client. The owner tragically passed away after I had been at the agency for only about a year. Elizabeth said, to another Account Executive and me, "If you start your own agency, I will be your first client." And so we did, right away. Elizabeth was the best, most incredible client! We really loved her. A few years after that, I started my own firm, alone, and it turned out to be the perfect career choice for me.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Coburn Communication?
There is nothing like growing a company from the ground up. Every single milestone is so exciting and satisfying. I love the mentoring aspect as well--I'm so proud of the incredible talent we have here. Also, while it's never a happy experience to see wonderful employees move on, it's been so gratifying to see what so many of them have gone on to achieve. That would be a highlight and a challenge rolled into one.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Don't be afraid or intimidated by anything. If you've done your homework, there's really never any reason to be scared. Build your foundation very carefully. Hire people you can trust, who excel at what you don't. Constantly keep learning and innovating, every single day. Make yourself the gold standard, and then if you are constantly improving, no one can catch up.

What is the most important lesson you've learned by starting your own business?
That there will always be ups and downs--just be sure to keep an overall forward momentum. It's true in business - and it's true in life.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'm pretty good at switching focus. I can turn off work in my head very easily, and that's a gift. Many entrepreneurs will say that it is hard to ever stop thinking about his or her own company, no matter where they are or what they're doing. I don't have that problem!

Also, I have a six-year-old son, and I'm trying to show him more of my work life. I will very occasionally bring him to events, and I'll talk to him at home about minor dilemmas I'm facing at work and ask his opinion. He really enjoys it!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Being seen as strong, but not as a bitch. It's very tricky! I'm very calm, always, and I think that really helps. I notice that people take women more personally. Not less seriously, but more personally. You have to be more careful how you phrase things, especially with other women.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
With the exception of my wonderful former supervisor at Calvin Klein, Diana Waldron, I haven't really had any mentors. I've observed and read a lot. I really enjoy mentoring the people who work for me. I give them a lot of advice--personal and professional--even when they don't ask!

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I really admire Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the IMF. She has reframed the purpose of that organization, from resolving crises at the start of her tenure to having a broader, more holistic focus, which now includes income inequality and climate change.

And I've always been completely fascinated by Diane Von Furstenberg. It's everything--her attitude toward life and business, her style, her approach. I've read both of her books, and she has always been an inspiration to me.

What do you want Coburn Communication to accomplish in the next year?
We have been evolving our business model for the last few years, to consistently include newer, more technologically advanced forms of communication. This business is changing so rapidly now--it's unbelievably exciting. I can't wait to get to work every morning.