As part of our series about the “**Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Charis Jones.
Charis Jones, owner of Sassy Jones, is the prime example of a meteoric rise. After placing #75 on the Inc. 5000 list of companies ranked by revenue growth in 2020, Charis placed #24 this year. To put that into perspective, most of the top 30–40 companies on that list are in the technology, biology, and medical industries, but Charis made the top 25 selling accessories, cosmetics, and more recently, clothing. That means that Sassy Jones is the nation’s fastest growing retailer . . . in a pandemic. Charis was also named Ernst & Young LLP’s Entrepreneur of the Year 2021 for the mid-Atlantic region. As a black woman in business, she is leading a team of forty-three during unprecedented times, and she’s making it look easy.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I got started by doing home parties. I would set up my dining room table like a boutique and invite friends over to shop. Then they invited more friends, and those friends invited THEIR friends! I had a corporate job at the time, but I felt like I was really on to something.
When I did my very first trade show, I made more money in ONE DAY at that show than in two weeks at my 9–5 job. I felt like I had found my calling, my ministry. I was in my booth changing how women saw themselves. I would encourage them to style themselves up a bit, give them little tips, and watch how it changed their demeanor. I got addicted to that light and energy.
From there, I developed an exit strategy from the corporate world. I booked 30 trade shows across the U.S. and even sold my car to pay for those shows. And then I got pregnant. I was still determined to make it work and then . . . we found out we were having TWINS! I worried that I couldn’t leave the corporate world then, but deep down, I still believed there was more to this idea of mine. When the boys were two months old, we were driving to Florida for a show in a minivan. I always say that I was raising twins and having a third baby named Sassy Jones.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I guess it’s funny now! When I first started, I was doing what every retailer does: buying products wholesale, then selling them at a retail price. I used Facebook groups to show off and sell new products. One day, a member of the group sent me a message telling me that she had found my wholesaler. She threatened to tell everyone where they could buy my products for less. I told her, “Go ahead!” And she did.
She went on a sabotage spree. She sent messages to my customers with pictures and links of where they could get my jewelry cheaper, but she did NOT get the response she expected! You see, I had built a loyal, evangelistic community that she couldn’t tear down despite her best efforts! They told her, “Duh — this is Business 101!”
I did learn some big lessons from this, and it actually led to a huge pivot in my business. I realized that I didn’t want to be easily recognizable. I didn’t want anyone to be able to find our products anywhere else, so I started teaching myself to design. I had always had ideas in my mind of exactly what I wanted, but all too often, I couldn’t find that exact thing. So I found a factory, taught myself to sketch, and started designing. Now I’m able to articulate what’s in my mind, and we work with great factories who really understand me and my vision.
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?
My husband has been my rock. He has never discouraged me — he always said, “Go for it, but don’t leave your job just yet!” He’s more conservative than I am! When I wanted to steal him from his corporate job, he gave me three goals that I smashed in six months. Of course, he was still worried and wanted to play it a little safer, but once he saw the right numbers, he came aboard!
Since then, he has supported, encouraged, and stabilized Sassy Jones. He runs the day-to-day operations so I get to do the things I love: talk to customers, design, and lead.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The vision has always been to help women feel undeniably confident even through something as small as accessories. I want women to look in the mirror and feel like a badass! I also want to make sure that these women always feel a kinship with Sassy Jones. Whether they’re in our Facebook groups, watching our live shopping events, or shopping online, we want women to feel like they belong here with us.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Oh gosh, that was last year! We did all the right things to keep everyone safe, but I made the decision to keep the staff close-knit and motivated throughout 2020. We were in it TOGETHER. When our executive team was in the warehouse shipping orders with their sleeves rolled up, I was right there beside them. I kept morale high by leading by example. Anything I asked my team to do, I did right alongside them.
The truth is, as a business owner in a pandemic, you’re afraid and your team is afraid. They have mortgages and families, and you don’t want to let them down. By staying close and working hard, we came out of the worst of it and were named one the top 25 businesses who thrived during the pandemic by Forbes.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I decide to give up once a week! Who doesn’t?! I’m building a skyscraper with no blueprint. The way we’re doing retail has never been done before — we’re making history every day.
I really felt like giving up when I got pregnant with twins. I thought, “I’ll just go back to work.” But I had this burning desire to see if my dream was valid. When things are hard, a 9–5 definitely looks easier, but there’s nothing like being your own boss.
What keeps me going is knowing that what I’m doing has impact. When I interviewed for jobs in my 20s, they would always ask what I wanted. My answer was easy: I wanted to make a difference in someone’s life, whether that meant selling credit cards or selling insurance! I wanted to create IMPACT, and I know I’m doing that now for women all around the world.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Right now, I think it’s critical to make quick decisions. You have to live on what I call relevé — it’s when a dancer rises to the balls of their feet, and it implies upward movement. I live in that place. I make literal multi-million decisions multiple times an hour. You have to be able to handle anything AS IT COMES with grace because you’re being watched. Your staff and your community is watching, so you need to trust your gut and keep moving upward.
It took time to learn to trust my own voice. It’s not an overnight thing — it wasn’t until last year that I normalized making my own voice my priority. Before then, I was paying coaches, consultants, and therapists to help me figure out what I thought, but something flipped, and I’m listening to me now.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It’s togetherness. At the end of the day, teams are like families. Your people want a sense of belonging — we all do. It’s part of our hierarchy of needs to BELONG.
At Sassy Jones, we try to create this feeling of family every single day. We have monthly employee appreciation parties with food trucks and ice cream. We sit together and play funny games. We’ve done creative skit contests where different departments come up with skits and everyone votes on the best. It’s craziness like that that makes this a good place to work!
We work incredibly hard, and to keep that high production, we have to have high vibes at all times. We’re always giving shout outs, high fives, kudos, and opportunities to brag on yourself. All of this fosters a sense of belonging. Personally, I feel like I’m around family when I’m at work, and I’m proud to have created that culture.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Face to face! I don’t dig the digital, Zoom vibe. There’s so much to be said about about spontaneous, in-person communication. I always say that everyone will be ok if you deliver it ok!
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You just make them! Because I have a strong relationship with God, I don’t worry about the how. I worry about the what. I will jump and wait for the parachute to come — I’m crazy like that!
I say control what you can control, the rest is up to God. Remember that you’re responsible for the work, and He’s responsible for the outcome.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Get uncomfortable. There are a lot of CEOs who have gotten stagnant because they’re afraid of change and uncertain times. Someone once said, “Never waste a good crisis.” A crisis is when you show off with your new strategies and creative problem-solving. Try something new, and do the things that once sounded “too crazy.”
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first mistake I see is doing what everyone else does. You have to stand out, and you have to be different!
The second mistake is thinking you know it all. As a leader, you need to invest in coaching or mentorship. You can’t do it all on your own. You need to surround yourself with people who understand your language and can speak it back to you.
The last mistake I see a lot are business owners who don’t take themselves seriously. If you have a business, show up every day! Take your business practices, policies, SOPs, and products seriously. This is not your hobby!
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
For me, it was getting out from behind the brand and getting in FRONT of it. As an example, when we came up with Sparkle Party®, that was my pivot from trade shows to e-commerce. These are weekly Facebook Live shopping events that we have hosted for the past five years. Think HSN with some twerking and a DJ! I call it edutainment — it’s hilarious, entertaining, and gives you immense knowledge about our brand and our story, and it boosts your own confidence. We sprinkle in a little motivation everywhere in this 45-minute show. We now have an average of 2,000 people watching every week and it’s our main revenue generator.
A big part of its success are the specific time-bound offers and scarcity. We always have a free item that goes away and our products sell out. We have taught our customers to be on relevé, too!
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be well read. Leaders are readers! You should be reading a self-improvement, finance, business, or leadership book every month. Right now, I’m reading Sarah Jakes Roberts’s Woman Evolve: Break Up with Your Fears. It’s all about the importance of being in the right environment for the seed within you to thrive, and I’m loving it. My favorite book of all time though? Mike Michalowicz’s Profit First: Transform Your Business from a Cash-Eating Monster to a Money-Making Machine. This book taught me how to allocate the money I was making (before my husband helped!), and we still use the same principles today.
- You need a mastermind. You have to have other people in your space — other CEO friends, leaders, and people who GET your language. Of course, I used to pay for masterminds and coaching before I learned to listen to my voice and trust my instincts. Now I have my group of girlfriends who get it. We text each other and meet up around the country whenever we can!
- Have a relationship with a higher power. I don’t know how people could survive this pandemic without prayer! I have to be connected to a higher source.
- Maintain a routine. There is no way you can serve at such a high output if you don’t have a routine. Every day, I’m up at 5AM, I meditate, I talk to God, and I’m in the gym with a personal trainer. I do all these things to increase dopamine and keep my endorphins high so I can deliver what I deliver.
- Be a good listener. There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth! You have to be a good receiver and a good feeler to intuitively understand your team members. You need boundaries and appointments and can’t let it take over your day, of course, but it’s important to create those pockets of opportunities to listen to those around you.
Here’s an example. When we were launching the clothing line recently, the logistics had been a NIGHTMARE. The launch was three days out and we didn’t have any product here. Our supply chain manager is our “figure it out” girl, but I could tell something was off. I brought her into my office and she almost cried telling me that we might have to move the launch back. She had been ferocious in finding a solution, so when we listened to her and understood all she had been through and tried, I was able to develop a solution. I told her, “If they’re saying our stuff is in Richmond, you go to the airport, you take them lunch, and you sit there until you get an answer.” And she did. The next day, we had all of our clothing in hand by 11AM. When you listen and build trust, you can understand so much more and find the best solutions to anything standing in your way.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was growing up, my motto was “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” Now it’s “If it’s going to be, it’s up to WE.” True success requires a team, a village, and 1,000 other geniuses pushing to a common goal.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can shop at www.shopsassyjones.com any time and follow us on Instagram at @shopsassyjones! Of course, you can join our Sparkle Parties® every Thursday at www.facebook.com/ShopSassyJones or search for Sassy Jones on Facebook!