As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Ali Hynek.
Ali Hynek, mother of triplets plus one, is the founder of one of the go-to eco-conscious fashion brands, Nena & Co. Starting her business in 2013, Ali helped create a brand that not only delivers luxury, hand-crafted, and sustainable bags across the nation, but also supports Latin communities across the globe in places like Guatemala, Morocco, and Mexico. Part of her and Nena & Co’s mission is to design and create products that are majestic in design, hold high-quality standards, and celebrate the individuality of the Nena Society and the artistry of cultures around the world with ethical business practices by creating sustainable income opportunities for Nena & Co artisans.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up with entrepreneurial parents and in a mixed home with a Guatemalan mother and my father who was born and raised in Utah. They had always encouraged me to start something of my own by I wasn’t sure how I could mix such personal passions as family and travel into an actual business but once I took a chance, I was surprised to see that it worked!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Wow this is a hard question to answer. Starting my company pushed me to dig deeper into Guatemalan culture and allowed me into many homes of Maya weavers that have dirt floors in their homes and holes in the ground for toilets. It’s humbled me that they have shared what they have with me when I come to visit but also encouraged me to work creatively to find ways to help provide continual and an ethical income that has allowed me to SEE the changes they have been able to make in their live such as building new homes, buying land and sending their kids to school because they are able to save and plan for their future. That’s been really interesting to witness.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We have a limited edition and small-run business model so usually we sell out of those items in minutes. I was told by a PR firm that it’s better to have something on the website than nothing at all since when an item would sell out it would automatically get removed from the website. So, I put up images of puppies as place holders that were $200 each and they all sold out! I think my customers thought it was a mystery item or something like that!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
People think that I am THE founder of Nena & Co. and although it was my idea and initiative to start it, this company really is a family business that includes other founders and owners like my mom, dad, husband, and my brother who came along a little later. We started Nena & Co. by adventuring around Guatemala and falling deeper in love with the people and country. We connected with family we had lost touch with and really learned so much together that it brought us closer together.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
One of the things I like to do is buy a new outfit that I think is incredible and it brings me a little more confidence. I know my story better than anyone else but it’s still important to practice over and over what it is I want to say in a smooth and concise way.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
There is no way a company can create a diverse and inclusive work environment and in addition to that, produce inclusive and diverse content and product if the Executive team does not reflect that themselves. In my opinion, it is near impossible.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As a leader in my business, I think it’s important for your staff to know your stance on some current affairs, so they have the courage to take a stance as well. Last year I subscribed to several newsletters on Anti-racism and provided opportunities for employees to take courses on equity and inclusivity, so they felt like they had resources to learn more. We also met weekly to have thoughtful meetings on how we could do better as a team to better serve our customers, artisans, and artists we work with. Thoughtfully leading this way also makes your staff feels safe like they can speak up and contribute in more meaningful ways. As a brand we have always focused on diversity and inclusion because we are working with minority groups that we respect and want to present to our customers with high regard. That means, fair and living wages, listening, and learning rather than assuming what is best.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
CEO and founder can be thought of like a string that holds all the pearls on a necklace and then clasps together at the ends. They create clarity and direction for their team members who can then bring that vision to life. Vision is a good word, the Founder/CEO should be able to look forward to where they want the brand to be and have a general idea of how to get there.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I would say that being the CEO may seem like a glorified position but many times I daydream of finding someone to replace myself and tell ME what to do and how to do it. We don’t always know what we are doing so finding mentors and people in similar positions to bounce ideas off of is helpful!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
A big challenge I see is that women are too honest. For example, they are asked to do something they have never done before and their response might be too honest like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” “I’ve never done that before.” or “I’m not sure but I can try’’ while a male counterpart may be in the same position but responds more confidently in general. I wish women would have more confidence in themselves and present himself and their abilities that way. I really think more men get ahead because of confidence.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Everyone who dreams of starting a business of their own dreams of more freedom since you are working for yourself but turns out you never clock out.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I do not think everyone is cut out to be an executive! To lead it takes a thoughtful, organized, creative thinker. You also need good social skills to lead a team that wants to stick with you and respects you. You also must be able to make decisions and own them but also be able to pivot when needed. Not all people have those skills, some can be learned, and some come more naturally to different people.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Have confidence in yourself and your team. Give clear instructions and enable your team to do their job as best they can.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One of our missions is to increase the quality of life to anyone who touches our bags from the makers to the owners of the product. If we are not making individuals lives better by working for us or feeling good about their purchase than we are not doing a good job. That starts with healthy and safe workplaces and living wages to great customer service.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
You are the right person for the job
Trust yourself, no one knows your business better than you
Make sure you are checking in with your employees regularly
Fire fast and hire slow. That is a hard one but such good advice.
Sometimes things will be great and you feel on top of the world and sometimes things just suck and you feel like your world is crumbling. Those are all normal ebbs and flows so just remember what the facts are and keep your head up!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I always try and put myself in someone else’s shoes that has a difference of opinion, experience, life, religion etc. If we could strive to listen more than try to be heard I think the world would be a better place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This changes depending on what I’m experiencing but I like “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” — Will Rodgers
Nothing works forever. It’s like the saying “when you stop moving, you die” and that’s true of a business. We have to keep evolving even with things seem great. What’s the next thing is always the question.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet Stella McCartney! She is evolutionary and is forging her own path and so many have followed in her path of producing ethical and sustainable fashion albeit more difficult!